From Small Things…

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Independent newspaper.]

A number of Port Vila schools have recently begun to take the Internet seriously. Assisted by veteran and novice IT volunteers, they’ve invested their meagre computing resources in an undertaking designed to help teachers create a richer and more open learning environment.

As with all things, it started small. Circumstance threw a few IT professionals together and led them to collaborate to improve their own children’s education. One thing led to another, and now we’re beginning to see the first fruits of integration of technology with teaching in Vanuatu.

The story begins five months ago when four parents, all of them seasoned IT professionals, began to chat about how to improve conditions at Central School, where their children were enrolled. Before very long they were at the core of a group of over 30 parents and teachers, all devoted to taking advantage of computers and the Internet in order to improve the quality of education.

This may sound familiar. It’s not the first time in Vanuatu that parents have moved mountains one pebble at a time to supplement their school’s limited resources. Nor is it the first time that teachers have been able to indulge their personal and professional enthusiasm for their vocation by working with the community at large.

But there are a few unique aspects to this story.

First and foremost, it’s an exercise whose benefits run two ways. One of the key components in any IT-related project is to ensure that it’s supported. Especially in the early going, nothing kills an IT project more quickly than lack of support. It only takes a few moments of frustration to turn enthusiasm into ire.

George Tasso, one of Vanuatu’s more talented programmers, realised this early on. Recognising that his time and that of his colleagues was limited, he began casting around for others to assist.

He found his support in an unusual place: a young security guard working the night shift at his workplace. Keith Gordon had gone to VIT and trained as a carpenter, but like so many others in Vanuatu, had trouble finding steady work. He took the security job to pay the bills and began exploring a new passion: computers.

His excitement with technology led him to chat with Tasso, who immediately saw an opportunity to expand on the progress he and others had made at Central School. Following a conversation with the principal of a school located right next door, Tasso was able to provide an outlet for Gordon’s enthusiasm.

Today, the soft-spoken young man works nights, studies part time at USP and still finds time to provide IT support to the staff of Ecole Centre Ville. He’s already installed new software on the school’s computers, cabled them together and established wireless Internet access in the senior teachers’ lounge. Now he’s taking his first steps onto the web as he designs the school’s website, kindly donated by TVL.

Tasso’s approached is comprehensive. He knows from experience that the only way to learn computers is by getting your hands dirty. Linking young volunteers with schools is a perfect chance to support both at once. Each volunteer gets paired with a mentor, in order to ensure that every problem gets solved quickly.

To Tasso, computers are not an end in themselves. He’s not particularly interested in teaching word processing and spreadsheet skills. That’s useful, but he knows from experience that if one can grasp the basics, the particulars of a given software package take care of themselves.

Far more important that teachers learn to leverage the wealth of information and presentation formats that the Internet makes available. Tasso strongly advocates for the use of Free and Open Source Software. These tools, he explains, are part of an open environment that is far more conducive to learning than standard business applications. They reward curiousity and expose their inner workings to anyone who cares to look.

The result, he feels, represents a ‘fresh start’ for those who use it. They’re not limited by preconceptions, and it’s far easier for them to adapt the software to their particular needs. Best of all, the software is generally available free of charge, and it’s not burdened by viruses and other shortcomings to which too many of us have become accustomed.

Tasso and his colleagues are now actively supporting IT volunteers at four Port Vila schools, with another in the works. While there are no lack of young volunteers ready to assist the schools – one colleague has organised no less than twenty of them in the Freswota neighbourhood alone – Tasso is beginning to worry that he might be reaching the limit of his own ability to provide a supportive mentoring role to them all.

The question now is how to continue. What has to date been an entirely organic venture, expanding and changing to fit the needs of individual schools and their staff, is soon going to have to transform itself into something more organised.

But not too organised. The hallmark of his work’s success has to date been its ability to speak to the immediate needs of the teachers. (Tasso jokes that once-reluctant teachers are now assigning his daughter Internet research as homework, which cuts into his own computer time at home.) If the process becomes too formalised, it runs the risk of become making teachers feel straitjacketed, bound into approaches and processes that might not fit well with their own inclinations and abilities.

It’s too early to say just yet how things will play out. But the effect of this infectious enthusiasm for learning among volunteers and teachers alike is indisputable. When I spoke with the principal of Ecole Centre Ville, he spoke in glowing terms of the entire experience.

From small things big things grow. This just one example of how access to the tools of learning enrich everyone who touches them.