I can't believe I've been in Kenya for over two months. I finished teaching my first term last week. The performance of my students in their final exams which was held last week would be a measure of how effective part of my work has been. The Holy Rosary College is accredited by the local Aggie University - Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT). The final exams, which counts for 60% of a students grade are set and marked by JKUAT. The remaining 40% is based on Continuous Assessment Tests (CATs) and assignments that are conducted throughout the semester. Preparing the students for a final exam conducted by an external body was pretty tricky. All I had to guide me when I began my classes was a syllabus that had vague phrases like "Popularising your website" and "Methods of Implementing E-Commerce Websites". There was no set text book and nothing to indicate what sort of questions might be asked by the examiners. About a month before the final exams the other teachers succeeded in obtaining past question papers which helped in giving me some idea of what sort of questions I was preparing my students for. Unfortunately, the exams this year had not one question that was a repeat from a previous year.
At the end of the term I asked my students to list what they had liked and disliked about the classes I had taught. I did not really expect them to say much as I had gathered from other volunteers that Kenyans do not give negative feedback. I expected to read things like how thoroughly the students had enjoyed each and every one of my lectures. I was surprised by the candor of some of the comments that I received. Perhaps the fact that I asked them to write down their comments anonymously had something to do with it. I had also emphasized that any comments they had would help make the course better for the next batch of students.
Among the things my students tell me they liked were:
- Breaks in the middle of lectures. The classes for the IT students are inordinately long at 2 hours per lecture. Very early I discovered the difficulties of feeding more and more information when I could clearly see that the students had reached saturation point. I got into the habit of giving 10-minute breaks mid-way through my lectures for the students to relax and chat.
- Group discussions. In my last article I complained about the hurdles I was facing in introducing interactivity in my classes. One of the tools that I employed in making the lectures interactive was splitting the class into groups of 3 and giving each group a problem to solve or an idea to discuss for 10-15 minutes. At the end of it I'd ask the groups to come forward and present their conclusions and solutions to the other groups. Then I would ask the rest of the class to critique the solution. Not only did this exercise help in making the students work with each other and be creative; it also helped in removing attention away from me.
- Lecture notes. The college library is woefully inadequate (more information further down this article). Most of my students cannot afford to buy computer books that are imported from the West or India and expensive by Kenyan standards. This meant that each lecturer has to dictate the notes for the classes that they teach. The credit for this goes entirely to the two staff members from whom I inherited the class when I took over. The two had already done the groundwork and had painfully written down the lecture notes in long hand for me. My job was therefore reduced to just trying to make the topics interesting and fun.
- Practical lessons. All through the term I tried to provide practical real world examples of problems and their solutions. I would also do a bit of theory first and give the students an exercise to use the theoretical knowledge they had gained when they came to the lab.
More importantly, the things that the students disliked were:
- Not questioning all the students equally. During my lectures I tried not to ask any individual student a question. I would always direct my questions at the entire class. I was doing this because I did not want to force anyone to answer a question or make anyone feel awkward when they did not know an answer. My students felt that it was only a few of the more aggressive students who were answering most of the questions. They suggested that in the future I go around the entire class and giving everyone an opportunity to answer the questions.
- I went too fast towards the end of the term. Of this, I'm guilty. As the term was ending I realized that I was running out of time and had to hurry to finish the syllabus.
- Lectures immediately after a CAT. The students felt drained after a test and could not concentrate on a lecture immediately following a 1-hour test.
On the whole I feel that I have made some amount of progress with the students. I am a familiar figure in the college now and the students have started chatting with me about other non-academic things such as sports, music and politics. I have learnt a few things about the Kenyan educational system and social hierarchy. My students have had a crash course in Indian and American society, culture and language. I was a bit surprised that despite there being a sizable and prominent Indian minority in Kenya, the average Kenyan knows very little about the Indians. The Kenyans claim that this is because the expatriate Indians in Kenya are a closed group who don't socialize much with the majority. Hopefully, I would have the opportunity to explore this schism further in the coming months.
Training the Teachers
Another aspect of my job is training the teachers. I, unfortunately, haven't been able to make as much progress on this front. I am trying to teach the teachers Linux usage and administration. These training sessions are held on Friday and Saturday afternoons, as these are the only time when all the teachers are free. Nevertheless, attendance has been spotty. Reasons for missing classes have been ranging from "There was no electricity at home. So I thought there would be no class today" to "I am a Seventh Day Adventist and Saturday is the real Sabbath day." My aim is to ignite the spark of interest in at least 2 among the 6 teachers.
The most heart-warming thing that I noticed during my lectures was how the entire class was transformed when I taught them how to write and talk to each other. These simple tools of communication suddenly made this Unix beast more interesting to them. The lecture degenerated into a frenzy of messages flying between users. Last week I taught them how they could email each other inside the lab and suddenly all these weeks of ls and cd and other arcane commands seem worthwhile. The teachers are staying behind for an extra week after the students leave to finish the Linux training. I think that the fact that they are sacrificing a week of their vacation time is a sign that interest is picking up.
The college is some 300 meters down a dirt road that branches away from the main tarmac-ed road. The campus consists of two dormitories, a dining hall, a library, a computer lab (22 working Windows 98 computers, 2 Linux servers, two printers, one scanner - all networked together), a typing pool for the secretarial course students, the administrative offices, a staff room and 3 class rooms. The classrooms are spacious with individual chairs and tables for each student. The staff room is cramped with filing cabinets and small desks and chairs for each of the teachers.
The older of the two dorms is something out of Dickens. It is a narrow long granite building with a tin roof. There are bunk beds on both sides along the entire length of the dorm. There is absolutely no privacy. I can't imagine how students can show up to class cheery faced when they have to live under these conditions. The newer dormitory built with the help of donations from German and Irish patrons of the college is much more modern and humane. It too is a granite building with a tin roof. But the students live two-per-room. Each room has two twin beds, a table and chair and a small locker to stow away personal belongings.
Almost all building in this region are built with granite, as it is easily available from quarries around here. Sale of granite and sand from the dry riverbeds is the main source of income in this dry semi-arid region of Kenya. It is sad to see truckloads of sand and granite being shipped away from the region everyday. People tell me that not only does this slow degradation of the natural resources worsen the underlying reason for drought in this region, but also that the real beneficiaries of this trade are the middlemen in the cities. Red bricks and concrete or tiled roofs are more expensive than granite blocks and tin roofs. In the beginning it was eerie to hear the scratch of the claws of the birds that landed on the tin roofs. But over time I have gotten used to the various scratches and weird noises. All volunteers agree that one of the things they'd miss when they go back home is listening to the pitter-patter of droplets raining down on a tin roof.
The library of the college is in the most sorry state. Along one wall are locked cabinets that contain the textbooks and reference books for the secretarial students. These cabinets also have a wealth of books published no later than the 80's. Along with numerous copies of Little Women and Things fall apart are a tattered babel of Alastair MacLean, Ernest Hemmingway, R.L.Stevenson and Christian inspirational works. Along another wall are metal bookshelves with books on IT. Over 95% of the books are outdated manuals for software three generations old or for hardware that one can only find in museums. Anyone looking to build an Ashton Tate Memorial Library should make a trip to my college. There are about 20 books that are worth mentioning. Most of these books are imported from the West or Eastern Economy Editions from India. Unfortunately, only about 5-6 of them are good books. The rest are of the '... for Dummies (tm)' ilk or worse.
One of the first things I decided to do was to write to Tim O'Reilly asking him if O'Reilly Associates would consider donating a set of their books or CD Bookshelf. Tim promptly emailed back saying that he receives such requests often and that he would be glad to help our college. I emailed him a copy of our syllabus and he agreed to send us books that we would need. Even though I did not ask him, he was kind enough to forward my email to his colleagues in the publishing industry to find out if they would send us books on the topics that ORA does not cover. The lack of good quality IT books in Kenya is sad. There are some computer books on the bookshelves. But being imported, they are beyond the reach of many students. Just yesterday I got a phone call from DHL in the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport saying that there was a package waiting for me from O'Reilly Associates. I intend to go early next week to the airport and hope that they don't charge us some ridiculous amount of import duty even though these are educational material that are being brought in not to be resold.
Corresponding with Tim I realized that many publishers are willing to donate books to educational institutions. Even an old book that is an edition old is of quite a bit of use. Even a tattered quality book from a couple of years ago is better than some of books of poor quality that are available here. Frequently, the problem is the exorbitant postage fees of mailing out bulky books. I have been trying to find out whether there was some kind of clearing house which would collect books from publishers and using contributions from other companies would mail it out to schools and colleges in the developing world. I have been hearing rumors of an organization called BookAid based out of the UK. Could not find any in the US. Maybe when I come back I will start such a clearinghouse.
Coming Up Next...
Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner - An interview with a famous marathon runner from Tala and his trials and tribulations, the elections in December and its aftermath, my social life in rural Kenya, ramblings on how secularism is such a foreign idea here in Kenya.