Not So Similar

We started our experience in South Africa with a township tour. The townships are an uncomfortable place to visit. Created during apartheid, they are now home to hundreds of thousands of people in Cape Town. Most live in very simple dwellings — either basic government provided housing or tiny shacks they’ve built themselves out of whatever materials they had on hand. There’s a lot of corrugated steel, a lot of scraps of lumber, and even some plastic tarps in some places.

township1Of the homes we saw, the largest was about 400 square feet. This was space for a family with four children, and they were very fortunate to have such spacious accommodations. They were also lucky to have indoor plumbing (cold water only), and electricity (they use a pre-paid card system for electricity). The majority of the townships have much worse living conditions.

It took a while for it to sink in. The people living in these townships are the same people coming to our workshops. We’re trying to teach them to use Google Docs, and to collaborate online with Nings. And they don’t have hot water in their homes. We’re talking about how important it is for every teacher to have a laptop, and many of the people in our workshops have to share their kitchens with 3-4 other families.

The odd part, though, is that they were thrilled to have us there. They see education as the way to a better life. They understand that technology and, to some extent, 21st century skills, are needed to make their children competitive in a global job market. These teachers are embracing technology far more than any I’ve worked with. It’s not that they’re doing more with technology, or that they’ve made better connections between technology and the other curricular areas. But they are more willing to accept the promise of educational technology.

The progress comes in small steps. Some of them don’t have any technology skills at all. It was a struggle to get them signed up for Gmail accounts, and we later learned that many of them have gone through email training before. But they forget their passwords, and just sign up for new accounts when they need them. But we’re making progress. We got them saving documents to flash drives, and interacting with one another on a Ning. We showed them how a Wordle can be used to summarize the opinions of a large group. They were amazed when Zac showed them Wikipedia, and even more amazed that there are resources available in Afrikaans and Xhosa. They still have a long way to go.

liwaI’m most happy about making some real progress in the areas of integration and planning for technology use. Our team, as a whole, is good at that stuff, and I’ve learned a lot from them. We can teach the tools. It’s easy to show people what’s out there and how to use it. We can even make suggestions for how the tools can be used to improve instruction. But the real challenge lies in starting with the curricular standards, and knowing when to use technology, which technology to use, and how to successfully complete those projects given the limitations of time and resources that are always present. While these sessions tend to be much dryer than the flashy tool-based ones, they’re probably more important. These teachers understood that (though they still liked playing with the computers).

So, after a week of workshops, where does that lead us? I’m optimistic that we’re able to make a difference. It may not be a big difference — they have some enormous challenges. But we’ve ignited some sparks, channeled some thinking, and nudged some teachers in the right direction. The next step is to work with the people who support the teachers — the principals, the technology support people, and the government agencies overseeing technology use in the schools. That’s the job for this week.