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GVO - Settling In

By thaths in Technology
Sat Nov 16, 2002 at 01:19:23 PM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

The third part in the series titled 'Geek Volunteer Overseas'. In this part I describe the process of settling into a new lifestyle in rural Kenya, my first term at teaching and lessons learnt.

Previous articles:

Exam Time
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.

Student Feedback
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.

Lessons Learnt
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 Campus
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
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.


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Would you consider buying a book about the experiences of a geek volunteer?
o Yes 33%
o No 35%
o Maybe 30%

Votes: 56
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Part One - Prologue
o Part Two - Arrival
o Tim O'Reilly
o O'Reilly Associates
o Also by thaths

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GVO - Settling In | 24 comments (22 topical, 2 editorial, 0 hidden)
internet bookmobile (3.66 / 3) (#3)
by turmeric on Sat Nov 16, 2002 at 08:41:13 AM EST

there is a project where a guy goes around with a portable book binder, a printer, and a computer, and a bunch of books in printable format, often from gutenburgish type projects.

he prints them out on the spot and gives them to people.

of course the problem is finding digital copies of books that are in a printable format, because as you may know, gutenburg books are gigantic monolothic ascii files with no sense of pages, breaks, formatting, etc. but if you try to tell people books should be stored as images encapsulated in pdf files, they start screaming at you about LaTeX.

as for the publishing industry giving a crap about poor people: why dont you visit an american high school in a ghetto and see how many books they have? then mosey on over to a community college and look at all the 70-120 dollar books on the bookshelf, many of which change editions every 2 years so all students must repurchase (and where do the milions of old ones go? the publishers want them gone so as not to compete with themselves)

PDF (4.00 / 1) (#5)
by Dolohov on Sat Nov 16, 2002 at 03:17:32 PM EST

The reason they start "screaming" to you about LaTeX is the same reason they insist on plain text to begin with -- it's free, and nobody owns it. When you say, "Let's store these books in a way that keeps pagination and formatting" then someone who insists on a free format would naturally want LaTeX or XML or something similar.

[ Parent ]
nobody owns pdf (none / 0) (#14)
by dalinian on Mon Nov 18, 2002 at 07:28:38 AM EST

I think PDF is a free format. The technical info and specs are freely available, and there are free viewers as well.

[ Parent ]
an idea (or two)... (none / 0) (#6)
by kpaul on Sat Nov 16, 2002 at 03:34:47 PM EST

re: college textbooks -

At least in the U.S., I've come to see the whole system as a big scam. You pay out $300-$400 dollars per semester for books and when you go to sell them back you get maybe (if you're really lucky) 5%-10% of what you paid for them. I quickly began just keeping mine.

This post just popped an idea into my head, though. Why not setup a website or something where people could donate their old textbooks so that they could in turn be donated to inner city schools or others that can use them?

I, for one, am tired of "Well, they changed the color of the cover this year so you have to buy the new edition and the blue cover one you have is obsolete..."


Another thing that would be cool (while I'm ranting on the topic), is the ability to be able to get all your textbooks as electronic copies. Maybe download them all to one of those new tablet pc's once they drop in price. You could have all your books, all your notes - searchable - in one small unit. That would be cool.

The problem, though, is that the publishers wouldn't be able to charge outrageous prices for books that will soon change slightly (but enough to make them 'unusable' in your class...)

Anyway, just some Saturday thoughts...

2014 Halloween Costumes
[ Parent ]

Sell them to others (none / 0) (#7)
by TheOnlyCoolTim on Sat Nov 16, 2002 at 08:16:25 PM EST

I go to a private high school so we have to buy our books. The school sells books at the cost from the publisher, but you often get a used book. You can sell back books for maybe 25% of what you paid. So I just started selling all my books to kids in the class below me for 50%. I had friends from the class above me sell me their books for 50%. Good for the seller, good for the other kid as long as the class doesn't change books. Usually you could ask the teacher or department head if the book was going to change.

"We are trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and the machine is bleeding to death."
[ Parent ]

Book donations are a great idea (none / 0) (#24)
by thaths on Sat Nov 23, 2002 at 02:41:13 AM EST

The more I think about it, the more I want to set up something like a book donations clearinghouse.  It would be very useful.  Even books that are an edition old or from 2-3 years ago are still useful here in the bush.


[ Parent ]

PDF is no good for Gutenberg (none / 0) (#15)
by phliar on Mon Nov 18, 2002 at 09:31:15 PM EST

You use PDF if you want a decent representation on screen (or paper). The biggest advantage of machine-readable books is that I (or anyone else) can write programs that process these books. If we all have to deal with all that font stuff, page numbers, page headings, etc. etc. (not to mention the pain of writing programs that have to deal with non-human-readable input) it would just make people's lives harder. And for what gain? So a few people with fast machines and nice displays can get pretty pictures of each page?

Plain text is best. You are free to typeset each Project Gutenberg book and release the PDF; I am free to write analysis programs.

Faster, faster, until the thrill of...
[ Parent ]

you dont understand (none / 0) (#17)
by turmeric on Wed Nov 20, 2002 at 09:02:26 PM EST

just preserve the pages. do your analysis later. ascii doesnt do that. there are tens (hundreds) of millions of books that either are full of important pictures, have odd formatting, or are not written in languages that are encoded in unicode.

scan the pages in as image files. store those in some bundling format. obviously people are too dumb to understand that pdf can be a bundle of images with no text. so forget pdf because peoplare too stupid for it. maybe .zip files would be good enough.

from these scanned pages you can do your precious OCR and analysis. but scanning a book into ASCII is just a sad waste, you lose so much important information.

the other point is that you are basically reinventing something that has already been done when you go to print these things out a la the internet bookmobile. you basically do this OCR ascii stuff , destroy all page formatting information, and then whammo, you have to redo it all if you want to actually print one of these books. its completely nuts. why are people so unable to understand this stuff? its not rokcet science.

go look at jstor.org

[ Parent ]

I concur fully (none / 0) (#18)
by Skid on Thu Nov 21, 2002 at 01:38:15 AM EST

While I understand the point of Project Gutenberg sticking to ASCII text - keeping it readable on as many systems as possible - and I believe that it's a valid concern, I agree that scanning to PDF - which is now a open-to-anyone format - and THEN converting to ASCII is wise, not to mention very important for many kinds of books.

I imagine this hasn't been a concern of Gutenberg as most of the books they deal with are older texts that do not have any weird typesetting that cannot be represented in ASCII, nor do most of them have essential pictures or diagrams.

Oddly, it's the small-press publishers that are embracing PDF the most. F'instance, even the biggest roleplaying game publisher - Wizards of the Coast - is offering old AD&D books through PDF. RPGs being a smaller market, WotC is on par with a mainstream small press house.  

PDF is a requirement for these books; they could not be accurately reproduced in any way or form in ASCII, and some would be completely useless as plain text thanks to a lack of maps and diagrams.

"The problem is, there's no shit... people shit, animal shit. You ought to spray everyone with shit as they walk in." - Hob Gadling, The Sandman
[ Parent ]

Grow the demon horns (4.50 / 2) (#4)
by X3nocide on Sat Nov 16, 2002 at 01:48:45 PM EST

Remember, your job as a teacher is to teach, which can be completely different than being liked. Sometimes you just have to learn to take pleasure in torturing your students. For explanitory measures, I'll use my Operating Systems Professor,Dan Andresen.

All the lectures for this class are recorded. They're made available to the students using some arcane online system known as Tegrity. I don't expect that this would be very useful for you, but its actually quite valuable for us to be able to watch the lectures on demand and repeatedly. However, once a week we have a lab class. Lab goes like this

  • 3 question (of a possible 10) quiz that doubles as attendence
  • He then grills students about the answers. He worrys not about whether you know the answer before he asks you, some would say he chooses deliberately the worst prepared. "I don't know" rarely gets you out of the hotseat, but an incorrect answer usually does. If you didn't answer it correctly, he then asks the guy sitting next to you. Now you can see the worst part, being the guy two seats away from the questioner.  
  • After getting correct answers from students (or giving them) then we break into groups to either answer questions or do some rudimentary task, like "learn how scary-easy RPC is to implement by downloading this protocol file and running rpcgen on it." And its true, its freaking easy.
You might see if it would be possible to reserve the lab for a day a week for implementation labs. I really don't know what you're teaching, so your milage may vary with lab work. Hopefully now you know more of what is expected of the class for accrediation. Good luck with your library deal, sounds promising. Just hope the students don't steal or pawn them off.

How on earth? (5.00 / 1) (#8)
by X3nocide on Sat Nov 16, 2002 at 08:55:08 PM EST

How did this make the front page without attracting any tangible amount of commentary yet? Its a well written piece in a series of well written pieces; has everyone run out of anecdotes?

Number of comments (none / 0) (#16)
by DodgyGeezer on Tue Nov 19, 2002 at 01:44:48 AM EST

I've read all the parts. Each one hasn't had many comments, but that doesn't mean it wasn't well read! To be honest I have nothing to say, other than to add my thanks for a great set of stories.

[ Parent ]
I've been wondering the same (none / 0) (#23)
by thaths on Sat Nov 23, 2002 at 02:31:22 AM EST

I have also been wondering why this series has been receiving so few comments.  I think part of it has to do with the fact that I'm not asking any provocative questions in this series.  I do have a list of issues I plan to bring up in future articles.


[ Parent ]

Degrading rock? (none / 0) (#9)
by SEWilco on Sun Nov 17, 2002 at 12:11:13 AM EST

"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."

OK, the riverbeds are dry, so they're not affecting water at the moment. There's an awful lot of rock around and it's hard to use it all up and have a magma leak. I assume they're mining granite around rivers because they don't have to scrape off overlying soil. Are they only quarrying down, and not widening the river horizontally?

What is this "degradation"? Holes in the riverbed, which change into pools when water does come along? Quarries which become wells and fill with water? When there is rain, does all the water get trapped in the pools before it can run down the riverbed? This would be a problem to those downstream, but would provide more water to those near the pools.

Could you let us know what you need? (5.00 / 1) (#10)
by goonie on Sun Nov 17, 2002 at 06:28:52 PM EST

If you simply posted a more detailed list of the types of books you want, we might be able to get some to you.

Let me get a better idea of the situation (none / 0) (#22)
by thaths on Sat Nov 23, 2002 at 02:19:59 AM EST

Thanks for the offer.  Let me watch how things are going and get a better idea of what is needed.  I'll then include a list of books (even used books would be good) in one of my articles.  I do not want K5 readers to suffer from donor fatigue.


[ Parent ]

Thank you (4.50 / 2) (#11)
by epepke on Sun Nov 17, 2002 at 07:16:25 PM EST

These stories are fascinating. Please don't be put off by the paucity of comments, but keep them coming. I've wanted to volunteer for this kind of thing for a while and still might.

The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head.--Terry Pratchett

an idea to incite questions (4.00 / 1) (#12)
by Rainy on Mon Nov 18, 2002 at 01:03:54 AM EST

Don't tell them to ask questions - show. Show an inquisitive approach to problems. When you're describing some product or a technology, your knowledge is of course imperfect, so if you wonder aloud about some detail, and then make a few guesses, that could get them in the right mood. The idea you have to show (because you can't just say it plainly) is that it's not teacher -> students, it's students -> world, where you are merely a more advanced student who is helping students that are just starting out. It's perhaps useful to show that this stuff is not set in stone; this serves two purposes: 1. students will feel that there is some way they could join the ranks and improve state of the art soon enough and 2. if something seems illogical or overly complex to them it's not necessarily because they're dumb, but it could in fact be illogical or overly complex.

Part of being engaged is being free to criticize. Nothing leads people to apathy more surely than soviet-style elections with one choice.

I went to school in Russia where I think the style of teaching was very close to the drone-like one-directional transfer of information you described.. I think it naturally follows from teachers not being payed well, and so feeling they should at least try to make their jobs as easy as to match the inadequate wages, and students feeling that even the worst kind of teaching is a great gift they ought to be grateful for, since majority there do not have this luxury. Another reason is maybe that teaching interactively is harder and poorer countries simply do not have a long-standing, many generations tradition of high quality teaching that we can enjoy here in the west.

Hope this helps even if a little bit..
Rainy "Collect all zero" Day

Will keep it in mind (none / 0) (#21)
by thaths on Sat Nov 23, 2002 at 02:16:36 AM EST

Thanks!  Those are very good suggestions.  I'll keep them in my mind when I go back to my next semester.


[ Parent ]

Scratches, weird noises, and pitter-patter (4.00 / 1) (#13)
by TON on Mon Nov 18, 2002 at 02:12:07 AM EST

One of the best parts of going to visit my grandparents when I was a little kid was just that- scratches, weird noises, and pitter-patter of rain on a corrugated roof. Visits tended to overcrowd the house, so I got to sleep on the horsehair sofa on the enclosed back porch. I couldn't have been happier.

It was that wavy fiberglass stuff on the roof, not tin, but the effect was the same. As an added bonus, black walnut trees hung over the porch, so rampaging squirrels and the odd bombardment of walnuts added to the din.

Some travels have taken me to small hotels or bungalows with corrugated steel roofs. The sound even makes rainy season agreeable. Glad you found something positive in your granite housing situation. Takes me back.

"First, I am born. Then, the trouble begins." -- Schizopolis


you've essentially described... (none / 0) (#19)
by blisspix on Fri Nov 22, 2002 at 10:09:57 PM EST

methodologies of learning that have been around for years. You might want to make things easier for those to follow you by getting them a few books on educational theory. It's great that you've been able to work out what works and what doesn't, but you shouldn't have to reinvent the wheel every time a new volunteer comes along.

It seems very odd that there isn't any teacher training provided in your program before you arrive to teach. Surely that would be somewhat beneficial for all?

Thanks (none / 0) (#20)
by thaths on Sat Nov 23, 2002 at 02:05:55 AM EST

Thanks a lot for your comments.  I did undergo intensive teacher training for a week before I left.  The problem was that I was plopped right into the middle of a term having to pick up subjects that were already beig taught by other teachers.

At this stage I do not know if there would be another volunteer who would follow me at this place.  I will bring up your point during the next VSO Kenya Volunteers in Education workshop.


[ Parent ]

GVO - Settling In | 24 comments (22 topical, 2 editorial, 0 hidden)
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