Computers in Chilanga

Teaching resources used to help teach the children how to turn on a computer.

By teaching ICT at two schools in Zambia, VMM volunteer Melissa Scott has learned an important lesson about international development – that people need education and skills to make proper use of their resources.

When I heard that the Zambian school where I was going to be working had an ICT lab, I was very excited. In my job at the time I was head of computing and very passionate about educating children in technology. However, I’d imagined that ICT was going to be something that was shelved for the year I taught abroad – yet in reality it became a major part of my job here.

My future boss in Zambia explained they’d had a donation that enabled them to buy refurbished computers from a well-known company that worked across developing countries in Africa. So as soon as the staff realised I knew a thing or two about computers, I had endless requests – from wanting to know how to make a table or type up a class register, to simply asking how to turn the machines on! Computers are still a novelty in Chilanga, the small town outside the capital city Lusaka where I work. In 2012 the Zambian government revised the curriculum and one of the major additions was that children should be taught to use computers through a subject called Technology Studies.

When you visit a Zambian school you realise this is something that is very much in principle rather than practice, and it could take years before computer literacy becomes a real part of the schooling. In my school the teachers were among the few who actually had access to computers – even a lot of government schools didn’t have computers and so Technology Studies was being taught like every other subject: through chalk and talk! In another school where I work, who didn’t have any computers at the time, I found flipcharts with carefully-drawn Microsoft Word, Recycle Bin and Paint icons – children were learning the theory of computers but most had never actually used one.

At my main school, though, I was incredibly impressed by the carefully set-out ICT lab with 12 machines. The software on them was relevant and extensive, including software for teachers to create interactive games to aid learning and a programme teaching children how to code. I was excited.

I spent the first few weeks checking textbooks and reading online about the curriculum – assessing where I thought the children would be in preparation for my first lesson. I decided to start with the oldest children, Grade 7, as their teacher seemed very interested in computers and I assumed they’d be the most skilled due to their age.

The first challenge hit me immediately: 85 children and 12 computers. We organised groups of seven, with the children huddled around their respective machines. There was quite a buzz and it was clear the children were already engaged in the lesson before we’d even started. Then I told them to turn on the computers – and was met by blank faces.

In the following days I got my reality check. Yes, this school had computers; yes, the curriculum said Technology Studies should be taught; but the reality was that the teachers could not teach this subject because they themselves did not know how to use a computer. You can’t teach something you don’t know. Although these computers had been donated two months beforehand, they had only been used when the volunteers had spent time on them with small groups of children during a two-week visit. This highlights one of the big issues I’m coming up against: many give resources but don’t impart the skills that allow people to use them.

Another example was when I found a projector three months into my stay – a wonderful resource but no one knew what to do with it

Teaching resource used to help the children use a mouse.

We started with the basics and initially were learning how to switch on the computer, handle the mouse and name the parts of the computer. More recently the teachers have used specialist software to create interactive games to help children learn their times tables. We have come a long way! We basically worked through the curriculum, with teachers completing a grade each fortnight.

Alongside Teaching ICT, I began weekly sessions for the children from Grades 2 to 7; and since their teachers were always present in these lessons, it was additional input for them and practice in what we were learning. In January I handed the teaching over the teachers, which is better as they can use local language to explain difficult concepts or instructions – and they now do so confidently! Some teachers are working completely independently, coming to me only for advice or a reminder, while others continue to meet me weekly in order to co-plan lessons.

An additional activity we are running is a ‘Computer Coding Club’, whereby we teach a small group of older children to code using Scratch. This is part of our new extra-curricular activities initiative. This term one of the teachers has been shadowing me teaching the club, and I’ve been making guides with screenshots each week. Next term we will change the children and the teacher will take over the running of the club.

In all this there have been some standout moments which make me realise the importance of not just giving ‘stuff’ but giving the skills to go with them. That’s how we empower people.

One Friday afternoon I noticed one of the teachers working in the ICT lab after hours. When I went to see what she was doing, she excitedly called me over to look at her screen. She showed me how she was typing up the agenda for a church meeting at the weekend, and she was so proud of her work, explaining that five months earlier she’d been afraid of computers and didn’t know how to switch one on.

As we move forward we still have challenges. While both my schools are now equipped with an ICT lab of 10–12 computers, and the children were evidently making progress over the term, assessment week highlighted an issue for us.

When we had the children work one by one on the computers during their assessment, we realised that because we’d had big groups of children manning each machine during the weekly lessons, one child per group had been dominating and become very skilled, while the others were not actively participating and not developing as we’d thought. This was despite us telling the children to swap places regularly.

We still haven’t worked out a solution to this problem, but when we see how far we’ve progressed since September, we are confident this is something we can overcome!

An image from the Computer Coding Club.

Melissa Scott
VMM volunteer

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