Happy Birthday Madiba!

A Student at Vulkari PrimaryOur final few days in Cape Town were a whirlwind of school visits and meetings with teachers and facilitators. We were invited to Vulkani Primary School on Thursday and Friday to get down and dirty setting up two computer labs. Their two labs of computers had been stolen a few months ago, breaking the heart of the principal. Before the installation of the replacement computers, Edunova and the school community realized they needed to make some improvements to the building structure in order to prevent thefts in the future. Gates, new doors, and other renovations were made to the building before the equipment arrived.

On several occasions we were invited to drop by for visits to schools without understanding clearly the purpose for the visit. On one such occasion, we arrived at an elementary school so that we could be their guests for the assembly to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday. What a celebration! Local politicians and passionate young learners made speeches, songs were sung, and two of the older learners dressed up as Mandela and Winnie to pay us a visit! We felt somewhat conspicuous as the visiting foreigners snapping photos, but were very warmly welcomed later in the teachers’ staff room where we had some great conversations with other teachers. Again, I was struck by the friendliness and senses of humour the teachers shared.

On Friday, after setting up another computer lab, we headed out to Somerset College – an independent boarding school set in vineyards and horse pastures – where an “ICT Bootcamp” for 20 township principals was being hosted. The headmaster graciously agreed to host the principals for the weekend while the students were on break. John Thole, of Edunova, was the facilitator for the event. We were invited to share our ideas and experiences on ICT implementation in schools. During one breakout session, I joined a group of principals who were discussing the challenges of implementing ICT in their schools. In many of their school situations, computer labs were set up or mostly set up, but the schools had been waiting months for the promised Internet connections to be established. Many of the schools lacked an educator who understood how to use computers effectively. Much of their attention was focused on the logistics of a timetable for access to the lab and maintenance of the computer lab, as well as the constant issue of maintaining security from theft. When I suggested that use of computer software and Internet applications required a shift in pedagogical approaches as well, I was told that they had never thought of that or considered that as a factor in ICT implementation. I could see that this issue made an impact on them as we spoke.

The bootcamp approach seemed to resonate well with the principals; these are typically the people who find it very difficult to find time to meet together, but who are such critical stakeholders in the overall implementation of any new system. A few days earlier, we had demonstrated to John Thole and his team how a ning environment might be an appropriate online space where the principals could build an online community. We helped them set up a ning, showed off some of the features, and then let the team continue from there. The Edunova team later showed the ning to the principals and hopefully it will continue to be a place where they can share ideas, concerns, and approaches.

My colleagues initially had been alarmed when I had loaned out the four XOs and two video cameras to some of the learners at Fezeka High School over the week before we moved on to Kenya. They were concerned that the equipment might be stolen or not returned. To my delight, each item was returned to me with video and audio footage of the lives of Gugulethu learners and teachers. The learners pleaded with me to leave behind the XOs, saying they had really fallen in love with the machines and that they were using the “Pippy” application to help with their understanding of Python programming (which is quite similar to java – a language they are learning in their computer courses). In the end, I left two of the XOs for the use of Fezeka HS learners.

On Saturday, we said goodbye to two of our teammates who were on their way home to Canada, packed our bags, bought our few last souvenirs, did a bit more photocopying for Kenya, and held our breaths as they weighed our luggage at the airport. After 12 hours of flights and making connections, Noble, Konrad and I arrived in Nairobi early Sunday morning.

Overall, I consider the TWB South Africa experience to be very successful for all who were involved. This was a ground-breaking initiative for TWB Canada and it was important for the future of such initiatives that some positive relationships were established. Noble’s vision for TWB Canada is that these visits not be one-off experiences, but that the connections be sustained to build capacity. Each of our team members has indicated interest in returning for next year’s team or sets of teams. It is my hope to return to South Africa with TWB in the not-so-distant future and to maintain the relationships that I have established. We have a particularly strong connection to Fezeka high school where the principal so warmly welcomed us and stated his desire to make certain the computer labs were fully utilized by all the staff. I have already received emails from a few of the learners with whom I interacted as well as a couple of the teachers. We also spent a good deal of time with the folks at Edunova and we both agree that we make a good partnership. The ministry organization Khanya has also shown gratitude for what we were able to share. We also spent some time with Education Without Borders volunteers who were happy to share their knowledge about the culture and system with us.

Most importantly, I have learned that the “on-the-ground” support from other NGOs (i.e. Edunova, Education Without Borders, and to some extent, Khanya), is ABSOLUTELY CRITICAL to the success of an initiative such as TWB. These groups, though cautious of us at first, were the groups who did so much of the ground work before we arrived to clear the decks for the workshops and visits. We are so thankful for their hard work and support. More than that, I must say that I was very very much touched by their vision, sacrifice and dedication to support the much-needed changes to the education system of the townships schools of South Africa. I have been humbled and awed with what I have seen.

Tectonic Shift in Thinking

It has been a difficult day as I learned of the tragic death of one of the two leaders of my daughter’s experience trip here in South Africa. After many hours of waiting, I was finally able to contact her and share her grief for a young man whose life had held so much promise. The teenagers in the experience group have decided to continue on with the trip. My daughter told me she loves the country and people of South Africa and Sephira would only want the group to move forward with the trip.

Meg was awarded a bursary by her school to join in on the trip and, of the choices offered to her, South Africa was her top choice. I was able to meet with her a couple of times when she was in Cape Town almost two weeks ago. How special for two of us to enjoy this beautiful country together.

A few of you have asked for Konrad and I to post a podcast, and we would have done it, except for the throat infection I have acquired which has left me without a voice (not a bad thing, some of you would think!).

Our workshops ended last Thursday. I think I could say that they exceeded everyone’s expectations – the participants, the people from the NGOs who have assisted us, and ourselves. John Thole, the head of Edunova, one of the NGOs, said that he had never seen a set of workshops where there were more participants at the end than at the beginning! When one considers that the educator participants gave up a week of their holiday in order to attend – in the worst of the winter weather, without incentives, it is truly amazing. They gave us very positive feedback as well.

We were at Fezeka High School in Gugulethu Township last week for these workshops. At first, the educators, most of whom were from a Xhosa background, were very subdued and seemed shy. By the end of the week, I knew a different group of men and women. Many of the 25 or so participants did not have an email address and knew very little about computers. The school has a fully functional computer lab with Internet access at their disposal – however, with 25 computers serving a school with 1700 students, one is staggered at how little REAL access the educators and students have to computer technology. A home personal computer is unthinkable for most of the students.

The principal at Fezeka, Mr. Bobi, has only been at Fezeka since April. He attended the workshops faithfully every day – what a model for his staff! One of the first outcomes of the workshops was that he asked that a new timetable be assigned for computer access for all of the teachers and students. Before that, only certain classes had had access to the lab.

While we have been afforded some terrific opportunities to sight-see in Cape Town and nearby places, it has been the conversations with people at the schools and in the NGOs (Education Without Borders, Edunova and Khanya) that has struck me most. The South Africans are very self-conscious about their young democratic state and the need to further their educational system. They are very self-conscious about their “lack” of skills (particularly ICT skills in our situation). And so I have found them to be very open about change – I have stated on more than one occasion that if only those of us in North America could be so aware of our own “lack” and of our need to change!

We covered a lot of ground in four days of workshops both weeks – moving the educators from signing up for an email account to file management to collaborative sharing through wikis and blogs. Every morning we began with a short keynote, then teachers went into break-out groups to discuss amongst themselves how change could be negotiated in their own contexts. I was amazed at their passion and creativity as they discussed how to move forward to integrate ICT into their own school situations. This gave them an opportunity to take ownership of their school’s progress. It was during the breakout sessions that I witnessed the educators articulate a vision for where technology could augment the teaching and learning at their schools. Teachers were empowered. Light bulbs went off….

During all four days, three students, with whom I had earlier made contact over skype and email, showed up and acted as aids for some of the time of the hands-on workshops. Lwando, Tobago and Bomi would also videotape part of our sessions. Some of the time I let them experiment with the four XOs that I had brought with me. Over the weekend, they each had a video camera to take footage of their lives in Gugulethu Township – footage that I hope I can return to Canada with so that Canadian students can edit. I had some great conversations with the students – they have touched my heart.

On the final day, we were given an amazing performance by the award-winning Fezeka choir. Would you believe that over thirty of the student choir members showed up to sing for us during their vacation? Their performance was incredible – African gospel to local folk songs – even with a bit of dancing thrown in! We were moved beyond description. I hope to gain permission to podcast what I was able to record. It will send shivers down your spine.

One of the most touching moments for me personally was when were handing out certificates to the educators at the final ceremony.

She made her way through our line-up, shaking her hands with the five Canadian teachers from TWB, and stopped at me. In her wonderful Xhosa accent, she said, “I must give you a hug – you must be very strong to be a woman with all of these men!”

I laughed and gave her a big hug.

Like many other areas of the world, I observed that men made up the ranks of the management teams and leaders – particularly in the area of ICT. It was important for me, as the only woman on the TWB team, to be a model to the many educators who were women. Competency and confidence with ICT is not reliant upon gender.

I realized the other day that over the past two weeks I have undergone a tectonic shift in thinking – about educational equity in the face of great odds, about cultural differences, and about my own race and gender. I have a great deal yet to learn and to understand. Without a doubt, this has been the most profoundly gratifying initiative that I have experienced.

This week we will visit schools and classrooms with the students and teachers. I hope we can continue to have meaningful conversations that have only just begun.

Our wiki for the presentations

Fezeka Workshop Blog (please note all the blog comments contributed by the new edubloggers of South Africa!)

Update from Cape Town – Week 2

Kids at Langa

Originally uploaded by sharonpe

First of all, thanks to so many of you who have emailed, twittered or messaged me in the last two weeks – your support and kind wishes have been appreciated! I am also touched by the great interest that has been shown in this initiative by Teachers Without Borders in Cape Town and Kenya.

Although it has not always been easy, so far this has been one of the most immensely rewarding experiences that I have had.

For much better coverage of our experiences in Cape Town, check out Konrad Glogowski’s blog posts and flickr stream.

Here are some of the experiences and perhaps disconnected thoughts:

I have never been so conscious about bandwidth. It is very expensive here and coming from North America where it has been so relatively cheap for so long, it puts a certain amount of perspective on the use of web-based apps and environments.

Building relationships through conversation is the key to successful partnerships and collaboration. I have had a number of low key one-on-one conversations with teachers over the past two weeks which has really helped with openness and receptivity of new ideas. I have learned a great deal about the culture and history of Cape Town and South Africa through the conversations I have had. The people of this country have made great strides in so many areas in such a short time. Education is greatly valued and I have been very impressed with some of the initiatives and supports that have been put into place in order to further the educational opportunities.

Our first set of workshops was very well received. We were surprised that we could take them so far in such a short time – from file management to wikis, blogs and moodle! Many of the teachers were eager to learn how to create their own web sites.

Accessibility to computer equipment and the labs is very difficult. The teachers last week were so encouraged by the news that the cost of equipment is quickly dropping when I showed them the XOs and the Flip camera. Personal home computers are not the norm here in the townships.

Cell phones are used by just about everyone. We had a number of interesting discussions about how to use cell phones as educational tools. Often the best ideas came from the teachers themselves as they were already thinking outside the box about innovative educational practices.

The teachers who have attended the workshops are passionate and articulate about teaching, learning and education. I am in awe of the conditions in which they teach – unheated classrooms in the winter, class sizes of 40-50, students with peer pressure from gangsters, little access to technology tools. In spite of that, I have heard few complaints – except about accessibility to the technology.

My fellow team members are awesome – while we have had heated discussions at times late into the night about best approaches for the workshops the following day, we have shared good laughs and have supported each other. Our skill sets complement the others – we have a wide range of skills and we have tapped into all of them.

I will have to post more later as it is now time to get ready for our third day of workshops for the teachers.