Programming for Liberia: Excerpts from an iLab Intern
Allan Martell interned at iLab for several months and taught intro and intermediate programming and video production courses. He is a native of El-Savador and is passionate about digital media for rural communities.
A Salvadorian in Liberia
I've been running trainings on computer programming for iLab Liberia over the past two and a half months. In this brief period, not only did I instruct five courses on programming, but I also learned about the promising future of programming for this country, as well as some of the challenges that Liberians will have to face in order to become programmers. I had my own challenges as an expat; and being a native Spanish speaker, having to teach in English wasn't easy at times. My home country is El Salvador, and I learned most of my English while studying my masters at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States. Two years ago, I didn't even know where Liberia was on the map. I became interested in this country in the fall of 2010 when I took a class with professor Michael Best from Georgia Tech’s Computer Science department. Dr. Best led a project about post-conflict reconciliation in Liberia. By getting involved in his research I learned that Liberia and El Salvador share some key similarities, like extreme poverty and a recent civil war.
I came here with one mission: to teach classes on computer programming with Python. iLab Liberia decided to use Python because its syntax is fairly easy to learn. My first task was to find out about the context in which I would be teaching. I was astonished to learn Liberian universities have no Computer Science programs. My co-workers had also warned me that due to civil war, the educational system had been virtually paralyzed for too long. Therefore, many people here have trouble understanding abstract concepts, which is a key skill for any programmer. My first strategy was to draw lessons from my experience as a facilitator in El Salvador. Before leaving my country to study my masters, I had already gained two years of experience running trainings on video production for rural communities in El Salvador and Honduras. The background of rural communities in Central America resembles a lot what I'd heard about students in Liberia.
The main challenge in the trainings back home was to make sessions interactive. For that purpose, my co-facilitators and I conducted several activities that required the participants involvement, to the point of having them become the protagonists of each session. The overall goal for us as trainers was to move behind the scenes and let the participants do all the tasks. For any trainer, this methodology requires a lot of patience and time. I imagined this would be the two main skills I would need in Liberia, and I was proven right. Based on my video production days, I planned sessions that would combine theory and practice at all times. I divided the contents of the class into very small pieces of theory, and I assigned at least one exercise for every piece so that students wouldn't move forward without seeing their practical application of the current topic. This approach had its advantages and drawbacks. On the positive side, in-class exercises frequently allowed the students to see what the theory was about. On the downside, these exercises required more time than I originally expected.
I left Liberia convinced that patience is key for any trainer. After all, students will ask the same questions many times, and will require a bit-by-bit explanation of complex topics. Many times I found that my programming students were totally capable of accomplishing the required exercises, but their fear of failing would stop them. I also realized that the traditional classroom format doesn't work as well in this country. Precisely because many students have problems with self-confidence, the format of classes, and tests doesn't help to measure the skills acquired in class. The level of stress becomes too high often overwhelms the students. Then, the question that naturally arises is what are the alternatives to measure their learning if a traditional test does not capture their progress?
Instead of having a formal test every week, I think that reorienting classes around projects would better serve the goals of programming courses in Liberia. Students would be given a project description in the first session of each course. The document would outline a series of tasks that students can accomplish by using the contents of the training. While the tasks might make no sense during the first session, each new class should shed light about possible solutions to the stated problem. In this format, students would have to see each class as an exploratory experience where they have to actively questionthemselves how to use the newly acquired knowledge to solve a puzzle, rather than just sit and listen.