Thursday, January 25, 2007

Things I’d do differently a second time around

Yesterday I pondered in my blog upon my woeful lack of understanding of the state of technology-readiness of my students here in Tirupati, India. My awareness has slowly increased over the weeks since I arrived. Finally, I see the light.

Oh, that I could start over! Next time I would do a much better job.

Certainly, if I were here for the duration as a full-time employee of the university, and not here for a mere five to six months, I would relish the opportunity to begin a new year with a new slate of students.

I now know that I should have spent at least a couple of weeks, in the computer lab, going over the basics—how to use the mouse, where the various keys are on the keyboard, how to use the shift key for uppercase characters, how to save files, where to save files, and so forth. Absolutely basic computer literacy.

That my students need this kind of help has nothing to do with intelligence, of course. They are all at the Masters level, and many will go on to do their PhD.

Learning to use computers is a bit like learning to ride a bike: it’s all skills based. Do it and you learn it. If you’ve never done it before, it’s tricky and it can take a while before you get the hang of it. The only way to learn is to climb on board. The more you practice, the more skilled you become; but it helps if you’ve been shown the right way from the start.

I noticed one student today using the Caps Lock key every time to type an uppercase character. I’d shown her a few minutes before how to use the Shift key, but she’d already gotten used to using the Caps Lock key, so she kept doing it the way she’d figured out for herself.
Habits, once formed, are hard to change.

Day One I should have shown everyone this basic stuff, but that’s all water under the bridge now. I should mention that there are a few students—maybe 5 out of 50—who have had lots of experience using computers. So they have become my teaching assistants. They’re not learning much about computers, but they are learning how to teach, and that’s as it should be.

Unfortunately, I’m not going to get another go at it here in India, so I’ll never know if I’d have done a better job with prior understanding of what I was getting into. Not that the problems are all of my own making. The way the computer lab is set up leaves much to be desired. The computers are not networked. Nor are they locked down in any way. Students can do whatever they please with the system. They can even delete programs and, of course, install programs of their own. The latter is unlikely to happen, but it could.

I’m not worried about my own students messing around; I’m always with them in the lab. But we have Masters of Computer Applications students and Electrical Engineering students who use the same lab outside of class time. They are programmers who surely know a thing or two about computers. In fact, I know they do because they’re constantly tweaking the interface—the Windows OS theme—changing the cursor, the screen resolution, the color scheme, and so forth.


To make matters worse, quite a few of the 50 computers in the lab don’t have the same software on them. It’s a bit of a lottery when you sit at a machine. Like, “Hmmmm…. I wonder what I’ll find on here today.”

I checked out each computer and noted which ones didn’t have Adobe Acrobat Reader installed, which ones are missing Microsoft Office, which ones are behaving weirdly for reasons unknown. Those missing Acrobat Reader I’ve fixed by installing it myself. Microsoft Office is a whole different matter, so I’ve pasted a postit note on each of these machines so my students don’t waste time booting up, only to find that they can’t do their work.

The fact is that I’ve been spoiled, coming as I do from a university in the United States where the computer systems I use with the students are set up and maintained by a team of experts who take care of everything for me. My U.S. students, too, have all been using computers for years in most cases. Even non-traditional, older students, have at least used computers at home or on the job before deciding to return to school to get their degree.

I feel bad for my students here in Tirupati because I know I could have done a better job. But we’re managing and we’re getting along. One of the first phrases I shared with them way back when is “No problems, only solutions!” I even had them teach me how to say it in Telugu, the local language of Andhra Pradesh state. So here it is, for the record: “Samassyalú levú, paríshkaralú matramáy.”

No problems, only solutions! I haven’t given up by any means.

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