Five Years Later

It was five years ago today that I bid farewell to my family at a hotel in New York and boarded a shuttle to JFK airport to begin the adventure of a lifetime. In the 42 days that followed, I met some of the most amazing people I’ve ever encountered. I participated in a culture that was entirely foreign to me. I saw the real effects of poverty and corruption and oppression. I beheld wonders of the natural world that cannot be captured in photographs and video. And I saw hope and optimism in the most unexpected places.

3849791407_6b77e340be_zI wrote quite a bit during and after my trip, and looking back on those posts, I’m amazed at the things I chose to write about and how poorly I articulated my thoughts while still engaged in the experience. My subsequent presentations (like this one) were better, but even they left out a lot of the details and glossed over some of the real challenges we faced. Re-reading the posts, I get the sense that I was trying too hard to be positive and not enough to be realistic. I wondered in words why we were trying to do technology integration workshops for teachers who didn’t have electricity, and I regularly referenced Mother Theresa’s quote about our efforts being but a drop in the ocean, but without the drop, the ocean would be less. But I never really delved into the circumstances that put us in that position, or the fact that years 2-4 of that particular four-year project never happened.

Ultimately, I think I was so worried about justifying the trip that I ignored the negative aspects of our mission and focused only on the positive impact we must surely have had. Along the way, I threw in a healthy dose of incredulity, because everything we saw was so exhaustingly foreign to our North American sense of what the world is.

Five years on, I cannot claim to have made a real difference in the lives of African learners, teachers, or schools. It’s possible that their work with Education Beyond Borders had a positive impact on them, and it’s theoretically conceivable that my team may have played a small part in that development. But having lost touch with most of the people we worked with, it would be presumptuous and arrogant for me to claim any credit for any kind of lasting effect. As I said at the time, I certainly took more from the experience than I contributed.

Looking back, it’s sometimes difficult to untangle the web of my own professional growth to determine the tangible, lasting effects of a summer in Africa. Perhaps not unlike the South African tradition of ubuntu, I am who I am because of my experiences, and those experiences were what they were because of my involvement. Without my participation, my life would be different, and the team would have functioned differently as well. We are connected: part of the same whole. But there are a few things that have changed in my attitude, and some of this comes from the Africa experience:

The world is a small place.

Teachers everywhere feel overworked and under-appreciated. They want the best for their students. They feel that schools could be doing a better job, but a lack of resources, priority, and understanding of the problems keeps us from doing great things for kids. Educators around the world believe that education is a way out of poverty and that a good education can help (but cannot ensure) the next generation to be better off than their parents.

While we face similar challenges with educators from all over the world, we’re also really good at isolating ourselves. You see this at any kind of professional gathering that attracts teachers from various locales. “Oh, yeah. Of course you can say that. You don’t have 2/3 of your kids on free or reduced price lunches.” “But your kids don’t spend 90 minutes a day on the school bus.” “Well, most of your kids live in two-parent homes.” All of your kids have clean water. All of your kids have real floors in their homes instead of the packed earth that much of the world has in the shacks they call houses. We are One. We get to carry each other.

We must be flexible and receptive to change.

I don’t know how much time we spent planning before the trip. I want to say that it was a couple hours per week starting in April and lasting through June, but I may be over-estimating by quite a lot. Maybe it was 20-25 hours total. Most of that time was spent trying to figure out what the needs were, and how we could best meet them. There were seven of us, and we were planning for 15 full days of workshops. So the number of person-hours spent planning before we left was pretty close to the number of hours of workshops we were planning for.

On the plane to Africa, we spent a few hours working through the first day. We had a pretty good plan for what we wanted to do. But when we arrived in Cape Town, we ended up starting from scratch. There were things we didn’t know about the workshop participants, the physical environment, and the resources available that had to be taken into account. By Tuesday night of the first week, we had a pretty good map (finally!) for how things would proceed for the rest of the week. We were getting to the point where we might not have to spend 4-5 hours every night planning for the next day. Then, on Wednesday at lunch, we asked the participants how things were going from their perspective. They needed a change in direction, with less pedagogy and more technology. Turning on a dime, we scrapped the rest of the week with five minutes’ notice, and dove into a completely new direction.3872264702_4c4291cb90_z

The second week, working with a different group of people, there were political tensions between the two organizations we were working with, and we were caught in the middle. A battle over the content of the workshops took place during lunch on the first day, and we ended up scrapping the rest of the week and starting over. Again, these plans changed with only a few minutes’ notice.

In Kenya a few weeks later, we had a different challenge. Working with 50 teachers and 11 computers is pretty tough when you’re trying to do technology workshops, but we found out on Tuesday that we would likely not have electricity on Thursday or Friday. While it was nice to have more notice this time, it was a bit daunting to try to come up with some worthwhile workshops using technology without having any technology to work with. It was, perhaps, a bit TOO realistic as we emulated the conditions in which our participants actually teach every day.

But this constant re-planning has given me much more of a hakuna matata attitude. There are no worries. There are no problems we cannot overcome. I plan less meticulously now. I have more faith in my ability to improvise and to handle challenges as they arise. These are probably not good qualities to have as an educational tech person. Really, I should be anticipating problems and solving them before they occur. And I do try to do that. But having the attitude that things are going to go wrong, and we’re going to deal with them when they do, and we’re all going to be fine in the end has served me well in the last few years. I think that’s why I don’t freak out when things like PARCC testing and 3,000 new laptops and last-minute staff resignations occur. I’ve been to Africa. I can handle anything you can throw at me.

Technology holds tremendous promise to improve the world.

I am still amazed that people came to the workshops we offered. If I were a teacher in one of the schools we worked with, I probably would not have come. Even in South Africa, which is on a completely different level from Kenya in terms of infrastructure and living conditions, the schools are spartan. They have actual buildings with floors and desks and chalkboards and electricity. But the housing conditions are deplorable by our standards. Resources are scarce. Money is tight. As a teacher, I would probably be focusing on getting books and pencils and paper and things that are cheap and proven.

But the teachers came. Even in Kenya, where we didn’t see a single school with electricity, they came. They can see the digital age better than we can. Think of it this way: have you ever had your car break down on the highway? You pull off onto the shoulder. Maybe you get out and take a look under the hood, or pull out the spare tire, or just call the auto service to come help. Meanwhile, as you’re sitting, you get a MUCH better idea of what the highway is all about. When the cars and trucks are speeding past at 70 miles an hour, you sense the miracle of the highway system more than when you’re actually traveling on it. If you only had a bicycle, or a horse, you would feel that travel is utterly hopeless. You have to find a way to move on that highway, and not be left hopelessly behind. That’s the way Africans feel about the Internet.

Technology is a way out of poverty. It’s a great equalizer. It can make information available to everyone. It can allow everyone to have a voice. The real promise is in the mobile technologies. Cell phones are amazing, and the location-based services that they support can be transformative. Tools like Ushahidi and the dozes of others like it are changing the way the world interacts, and are flattening the social hierarchies that allow us to oppress one another. We just have to get off Facebook long enough to see it.

Technology rarely lives up to expectations.

In America, the constant stream of gadgets has made us jaded. I’ve lamented many times that there are places in my schools where I’ve purchased, configured, installed, maintained, removed, and recycled computers over and over again in the same location without any real change in how learning happens in that space. We buy a lot of stuff because it’s shiny and new, and then try to figure out what to do with it later. When there’s no purpose to the technology, it loses its luster very quickly.

The developing world doesn’t have the resources for this constant trend-surfing. They want technologies that work, technologies that actually have a useful, measurable effect on student learning. They need things that work all the time, in less-than-ideal conditions, with little or no support. They can’t search for and install updates every time they launch a program. They can’t lose data every time the power goes out. They can’t replace a computer just because it’s a few years old. And unless you can prove that the technology really does something useful that we’re trying to do, and that it’s worth the enormous sacrifice needed to adopt it, we’re not interested.

We could do with a lot more skepticism in our own country. We have to stop believing the salespeople and valuing actual evidence from real researchers on the positive impacts of these extremely expensive technology initiatives that we’re pushing. And we have to listen to the recommendations for successful implementations, and actually follow them. It’s time to ignore the shiny stuff in favor of the working stuff.

Professional development must model the learning it advocates.

tablemtn2I can’t say that I’ve ever felt that lecturing at teachers to show they how to make learning more interactive in their classrooms was a good idea. I’ve also questioned the idea that “professional development days” are effective ways of improving anything that happens in classrooms. But since the trip to Africa, I have been much more of a participatory professional development advocate. Most of this came from the team with whom I worked. Concepts like understanding by design and approaches to collaboration like jigsaw activities and think-pair-share are ideas that I had previously seen but not ever used. With this team, it was just a standard way of doing business. There were a few questions right at the beginning about how activities or concepts were defined, and once those were ironed out, the whole team operated from a pedagogical foundation that was on a whole different plane from anything I had ever done in the classroom. Part of this was because I hadn’t actually been in a classroom in a decade.  But a bigger part was that these teachers are rock stars who understand how learning happens, and who can combine elements of educational theory and instructional approaches into practice on the fly. It was amazing to watch, and I struggled to keep up.

Back at home, I followed up the Africa trip with my first attendance at Educon, which ruined all other conferences for me. In the 90-minute sessions at this conference, participation is expected. We build understanding together. A couple years later, I jumped on the EdCamp bandwagon, organizing a conference in Cleveland that brings teachers, administrators, and others together to discuss topics important to them. I followed that up with OETCx, a similar unconference activity that became part of the Ohio Educational Technology Conference. At the same time, I jumped on the MOOC bandwagon, and spent the better part of a year trying to define how we could create a system to validate informal learning, so teachers could participate in Professional Learning Networks and MOOCs and still get LPDC or graduate workshop credit to keep their teaching licenses current.

Learning requires participation. We have to have conversations. We have to discuss and debate. We have to build things together. We have to take disparate ideas and put them together in new ways to meet new challenges. We have to apply new information to our own worlds to deepen our understanding. And we have to reflect on our learning. Those are all things I picked up from my team, and they’re part of the fabric that forms my understanding of what learning is.

The struggle, of course, is to apply this approach to a system that can sometimes find itself paralyzed by tradition. That begins with professional development. We have to model the instructional practices we wish to see.

Would I do it again?

That’s the question everyone asks. Five years on, I don’t talk about Africa nearly as much as I used to. And when I get started, my eyes glaze over and I launch into stories or anecdotes that, by now, are well practiced. The question everyone asks, if we talk about this trip for more than a few minutes, is this: would you do it again?

mbita8That’s actually two questions. If I had it to do over again, knowing what I know now, would I still go? Absolutely. There’s no question. When I look back on the original goals of the trip, I can’t consider it to be anything but an outstanding success. I expanded my horizons. I had experiences with people and places I could not have had in any other way. I have seen things that will stay with me forever. And by participating on the EBB team, I had opportunities that I could not have had if I had simply gone on a vacation. I got to meet and interact with and collaborate with real people well beyond the well-trodden tourist circuit. I have never regretted — not for a single moment — going to Africa.

But the other question is this: would I go back? I haven’t, which probably answers that question most succinctly. The truth is that I never really felt that I belonged there. I’m not a teacher anymore, and that was pretty clear from the beginning. Even in the workshop sessions, I was largely a fish out of water. When I think of all of the people who could do fantastic things on these projects, I think it would be much better to let someone else have my spot. At the same time, the trip was quite a burden, especially on my family. They had to live without the awesomeness of my presence for most of the summer, which was pretty tough on the kids especially. Financially, it was a bit of a stretch as well, but we’re into excuse-making at this point.

Mostly, I would be worried about the team. As I’ve mentioned, the one factor that made this an overwhelmingly positive experience for me was the group of people I had the good fortune to work with. We bonded in a way that’s pretty rare, and we were all very good friends and respected colleagues long before we met face-to-face. I would like to think that all of the teams are like that, but I know better. I’ve seen some of the tension and the competing egos and the in-fighting that can occur. Having already been on the best team I can imagine, there’s no reason for me to settle for second best on a return trip.

I went to Africa with the understanding that this was a one-time adventure. While I won’t say I will never go back, I think it’s best to leave it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, at least for now.