This post has been sitting as a draft since the start of our last week in the school. I have completed it today, and I will be posting a follow-up with some of my thoughts about the project in the coming days.
Since getting the computer room up and running, we’ve been trying to make as much use of it as possible. We’ve had all of the classes between grades 3 and 7 in at least once, and most of them have been in twice or more. I realise now that I was over-shooting a little when I brought along binaries for three different programming languages, along with a bunch of teaching resources; in fact, I’ve had to seriously revise my expectations.
The first thing we did was teach each learner to log in with their own username and password. The kids loved this, but getting them to understand that their username is not the same as their name was, for some of the younger kids, more difficult than I expected it to be. That may be because of the way I explained it to them – it would have been useful to do a classroom session with each group prior to bringing them into the computer room – but there were a few kids who couldn’t spell their own name. I also hadn’t expected that.
Secondly, in a fit of enthusiasm for IT security, I had set the password for most accounts to be ‘p@ssw0rd’, and this caused mass consternation. The shift key was mystery to most of the kids; when they want to type a capital letter, they were turning on Caps Lock, typing the letter, and then turning Caps Lock off. And the distinction between O (capital ‘o’) and 0 (zero) wasn’t clear in the font that I used. For later groups, the password was set simply to ‘password’, and they had to change their password the first time they logged in.
For the younger kids, we introduced them to the wonders of MSPaint. Paint has come a long way in the years since Windows 3.1 when it could do a single 256*256 image with only 256 colours. The younger kids drew pictures, and in doing so improved their mouse skills. Some of them put their name and their best friends name in hearts, some wrote poems, and those moments when they were starting to get the hang of it were oases of quiet in days of bedlam.
For the older kids we set them quick research projects – “Who wrote the national anthem of South Africa?”, “What is the capital city of Denmark?”, “What money do they use in Japan, and how much is R100 worth in that money?”, and set them loose on the intertubes. These kids had more experience with the computers because their teachers were themselves more comfortable with the computers, but they were still committing dad-level mistakes like typing “Who wrote the national anthem of South Africa?” into Google.
With all of the groups, we’d try to do something like 45 minutes of lesson, and then let them have 15 minutes to research whatever they like – this was often illuminating. For example, I now know that while Justin Bieber is no longer the favourite of young teen girls – apparently Austin Mahone is the new kid on the block – WWE is still enormously popular, and apparently something called “Swag Notes” is a thing. I also learned that Slungo.com is a repository for games beyond the wildest dreams of kids, and that a 360k connection shared between 20 workstations works out to about 18k per workstation, and even the most basic Flash game won’t load in less than 30 minutes. Fortunately, we had a secret weapon.
There is an open source project called GCompris. It’s an awful name, I know, but the project is pretty sweet. It’s a suite of educational games – simple things like “match the card that has 8 butterflies with the number 8”, and puzzles and mazes. The software is free to use, and because it has games that do not need to load, the kids loved it. And because all of the games are in some way educational, it’s easy to let them self-direct. The only thing you really need to watch out for is when kids choose a game that is perhaps too difficult for them. Finally getting the kids to do something that is both worthwhile and enjoyable in the computer room was a huge win, and it felt pretty great to watch them work away in blessed silence.