Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Today I do believe I might have made history

Well, actually we each make history every day, don't we? No two people have ever been identical, and no two days are alike. So our entire lives are unique, and therefore we make some kind of history every day, if not every moment of every day. But you know what I mean. Today I did something that I think was very special in the history of Sri Padmavati Mahila Visvavidyalayam.

I pulled down the internet and projected it onto the wall in front of the class. And I'd be obliged if you'd please suppress that yawn, if you don't mind!

I don't think this has ever been done before at SPMVV. I’ll ask around, of course, and I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, much to my delight, my boss happened to slip into the classroom unannounced just in time to witness the historic event. Talk about making my day!

I was a lot more excited than the students. Some of them at least are accustomed to using the internet for research and email. They go to small internet access booths which, because they don’t supply coffee and such, can hardly be called “cafes.” The cost is R10 (10 Rupees) an hour—that’s about 20 cents. I used to frequent these booths before I got myself set up with internet access on my own account. The booths are cheaper, but the access speed is barely tolerable and, more significantly, there’s no escaping the mosquitoes. So I decided to shell out about R1000 a month ($22)—which is why I’m now able to download the internet while in class.

Before I worked my magic on this historic day, I asked my students to fill out a brief questionnaire. I wanted to know, once and for all, in writing, just how much experience they had using computers before I came on the scene. I should have done this on day one, of course, when I first started working with them. But, silly me, it never occurred to me that maybe some of them had more or less never used a computer before. This I have discovered, through observation, as time has gone along.

Let me explain.

I arrived in India on December 6, but I didn’t start teaching this particular class until December 11. I’d been told that they all had taken an Intro to Computer Applications class as part of their undergraduate studies—every college student in India does. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered that the course does not involve the actual use of computers!

I took my students to a computer lab for the first time on December 13, but it was really just an introductory visit where I handed out CD-Rs, showed them a couple of things on my laptop for them to do on their computers, and didn’t do much besides. I had them in the lab a few more times before it began to dawn on me that at least some of the students had never, ever touched a computer before. They didn’t know how to hold the mouse, for example, let alone use it, and they’d take forever to find the correct key on the keyboard.

But just as I was coming to this awareness, I got carried off, on December 20, to Bhuvaneswar for the gerontology conference. I didn’t get back till after Christmas Day. Meanwhile, quite a few of the students had taken off for an extended holiday, which took in New Years as well as a harvest festival called Sankranthi, which meant I didn’t see them again till January 17.

The questionnaire I gave them this morning had two purposes. The first was to find out if my suspicions were correct about the extent of the students’ lack of computing experience, and the second was to give me some data that I could use in a paper I’m writing for an upcoming conference.

What I discovered was that 80% of my students, before taking my class, had never used a computer for anything other than occasional internet access. Only one student (out of 50) has a computer at home. One in six students uses the computer off campus once a week (presumably at one of the internet booths). One in three students does this once a month. The remaining 50% of the class never uses the computer off campus; and bear in mind that the only time they use it on campus is during the classes I hold in a computer lab.

In other words, to all intents and purposes, I started out with a class of complete beginners. This is not a problem. It’s just a bit more of a challenge than I expected. There are three or four students who do have solid computing experience and their assistance is invaluable in the lab, where I have the students working on my Microsoft Office tutorials. We’re still wrapping up Lesson 1.

In the few short months that remain of my tour, I’m determined to leave behind a cadre of Education graduates who will, for the first time in most of their lives, be comfortable using the computer and capable of taking a leadership role with regard to promoting computer use in schools. Since, as I suspect, the large majority of the teachers in the schools have had next to no opportunity to learn about computers, achieving my goal should not be hard.

Meanwhile, we did make history today at Sri Padmavati Women’s University and that’s something for me to write home about.

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