Dukuchaap: Voluntourist Ventures into the Field2014-02-18
The day I had been eagerly awaiting has finally arrived. My first visit to a school with our laptop program, Chandi Devi Primary School. I met with Roshan, my fellow software developer and friend from OLE, at Lagankhel bus stop at 8 am on a sunny Sunday morning to set off for Dukuchaap, one of the nearest deployments just south of Kathmandu. As I had expected, our journey soon turned into a bumpy ride on an unpaved road. Traveling through Nakhkhu, Sainbu, and Bungamati, we arrived to Dukuchaap shortly after 10:00 am. At the bus stop, we met with an English teacher from Chandi Devi, who guided us through a steep winding path to the top of a hill, where children were just about to start the first school day of the week. Yes, you read that correctly. Here in Nepal, a week has six working days with Saturday being the only holiday of the week.
Chandi Devi is a modest school, but what it lacks in resources it compensates with teacher dedication. But more about that later. The school has been using laptops with E-Paath and E-Pustakalaya since November 2012, so it is already a well-established deployment by now. I exchanged a few English words with the head teacher Sitaram Khadka, who we proceeded to follow to the “laptop classroom”, a room specifically designated for classes using laptops. It was time for the first class of the day for grade 3, Math. 22 curious faces were peeking at me as I entered the classroom along with Roshan and the teacher. With the help of one of the students, the teacher distributed the laptops to each kid. Then, in unison, the class pressed their laptops' power buttons to start the systems and familiar Sugar kid icon appeared in the middle of the screens. The topic of the lesson was: odd and even numbers.
It becomes immediately obvious to me that Sitaram is an experienced teacher. Before turning to technology he first explains the concepts using everyday objects from the classroom- windows, tables, chairs. Everyone is paying attention (except the girl closest to me who is wondering what this strange foreigner is doing in her class). Objects around the room don't scale, however, so after a few minutes it's time for the laptops to join the show. Students click on E-Paath's logo on the home screen and open the corresponding Math activity. The activity starts off by showing various one-digit numbers, which the students need to identify as either odd or even. Most of them are getting it by now. I notice that the ingenious designers of the activity randomized the numbers that show up, so that the children cannot copy from one another. Subtle, but quite important for effective learning I would say. At the end, the teacher asks the first three students who finish the activity to come to the front of the classroom to receive a small price such as a pencil or eraser. Each also gets an applause.
Before the lunch break, Roshan and I got an opportunity for comparison when we were invited to sit in a English non-laptop class. This time it is grade 4 with total of 17 students in attendance. We squeeze into a cold and gloomy room with barely enough space for everyone. Today, we were all learning the phrase “it looks like a … .” As the teacher is not particularly artistically gifted, the objects he draws on the whiteboard require a good deal of imagination. He goes on to recite the phrase of the day and the students repeat in parallel: “it looks like a shoe.” After a few examples, students are assigned to work on exercises from their textbook, all of which involve writing down the by now very familiar phrase, again varying the object according to the picture portrayed in the book. As each student finishes her exercise, the teacher individually checks each sentence she wrote down. Needless to say, this is a very time-consuming part of the class leaving students who finished early bored with nothing to do, but stare into empty space giggling at me occasionally. I must admit that even I am getting bored as the class drags on. Before the end, a few minutes are left for the teacher to introduce a few more vocabulary terms. Again, students practice by reciting them back at the teacher. I leave the class with very mixed feelings- I see very clearly the difference laptops can make in the classroom, but, unfortunately, each grade gets to use them only for one hour per day.
After lunch, Roshan and I sit down with Sitaram to hear his perspective on the program. Sitaram makes an impression of a teacher unusually dedicated to the school and his students. He explains that with little support from the government, he and his colleagues have recently decided to take a cut from their salary in order to hire an additional teacher the school had desperately needed. Roshan and I are moved as he details the lack of support their school is coping with.
Naturally, I am very curious to ask Sitaram what thinks about the laptop program at Chandi Devi. He says that OLE laptops with E-Paath make it easier for him to teach students and that he sees the students benefiting from the program. This is not only his subjective opinion or a polite answer to the folks from OLE- also the numbers show an improvement in student's learning. He mentions that students' exam scores have increased and the school dropout rate went down since the laptop program was introduced in the school. Later on, another teacher voices the same opinion and confirming Sitaram's words about students' performance. On the flip side, I am somewhat disappointed to learn that students do not have any opportunities to play and experiment with the laptops outside of regular laptop classes due to schedule constraints of both students and teachers. They could be using them to learn more in areas they are most interested in by playing with activities they choose themselves. Instead, laptops sit idle in the charging rack during the rest of the time- an unfortunate consequence of life reality in Nepalese villages.
On the brighter side, this visit has really reassured me that laptops can truly improve the effectiveness of learning when accompanied by a well-trained educator. One teacher in a class of 22 simply cannot create the kind of personalized learning environment for every student the way a laptop can. With the right activities, each student can work at her own pace. In this way, the teacher does not need to decide between slowing down the brighter students by catering to those work more slowly, or advancing too quickly through the material for everyone to understand. In the English class without laptops, I observed the teacher spend a considerable amount of time checking each students' answers to the exercises he assigned. With a laptop, all this time can be reduced to a few milliseconds it takes the processor to decide whether the answer the student provided was correct. In such an environment, the teacher can then focus her attention to those who need more guidance, while others keep advancing to following exercises.
Besides a more personalized learning, I also spotted that students who already finished their exercise were occasionally helping those behind. It was the manifestation of the one of the core ideas of the One Laptop Per Child project: there is not only one teacher in a classroom- anyone can be a teacher. As the teacher does not scale, the students themselves take an initiative to teach one another. Such collaborative atmosphere is much easier to accomplish when a student can clearly see the progress of those next to her on the screen than when trying to identify scribbles in another's exercise book in a dark room with windows shut.
In a nutshell, witnessing the impact laptops at Chandi Devi reinforced my conviction that OLE project is making a real difference in Nepalese schools where both material and human resources are scarce. I am very much looking forward to visiting other schools in more remote areas of the country learning more lessons about OLE program's influence on day-to-day learning as it unfolds in “a laptop classroom.”