Project Pi Diary | Malawi 2015

Day 1 | Monday 24th August 2015

Today we went to Chigonere village and participated in an impromptu meeting with a number of key local authorities including the DC (District Councellor, one of 27 in Malawi), who then speaks directly to the government, and the MP. This was the DC’s first visit to the new Kasupe Primary School complex and his timing was perfect as it meant that he also got a chance to see the new Raspberry Pi suite being set up.

After the meeting had finished, those present moved through to the newly built library where we unpacked and set up some of the Pi-s for them to see. Gift, who runs an Internet Cafe in Monkey Bay, the nearest access to computers which is 15km away, was also able to help us unbox and set up the Raspberry Pi.

As Tyson introduced people to the Raspberry Pi technology, some showed signs of being mesmerized. Tyson was doing a great job as front man while those present waited for the inverter to be setup to provide AC power from the DC solar panels. Without the solar panel, inverter and batteries to supply the juice, the Pi were not that interesting.

Tyson then invited anyone to ask questions. The Village Group Headman (VGH), a level above the Village Headman, (VH) (we soon recognized how many people had official roles around here), naturally responded, ‘How can we have questions when weve never seen a computer before?’

The power supply was promptly sorted. Tyson then presented a whirlwind tour of the OS (the Raspberry Pi we had brought were set up to use an operating system called Raspian) and various applications useful for the school’s curriculum. Again, many of those present seemed fascinated by the complete novelty of what Tyson was demonstrating. The room was strangely quiet and people grouped closely together listening and watching. When it came to the Minecraft demo (a free piece of software that ships with Raspian made by Mojang), it was time for the expert… Toby, Tim’s 9 year old son. People there were unfamiliar with seeing a child so confident on a computer and they’d certainly not previously even seen a Minecraft game. It was great that Solomon, one of Kasupe’s project managers in Malawi asked for a round of applause for Toby’s help. Perhaps it opened their eyes to the fact that you didn’t need to be UK computer expert (potentially how Tyson had been introduced at that point) to be good with computers?

Day 2 | Tuesday 25th August 2015

Day 2 was all about the teachers. We led 2x three hour sessions with them, which someone commented is longer than their school day. We focused on some of the basics of how to logon and logoff, reboot if the Raspberry Pi freeze up, and shutdown at the end of the day.  We showed them how to hold the mouse and where to find applications to run once they’ve logged on.

A basic question among the teachers was how to create documents, we showed them how to open LibreOffice Writer and type their name and their head teacher’s name. This went down well, with a lot of focused effort and participation; it was as if somehow seeing their name as a creation on the computer screen was significant; they had created something and this really got many of them visibly excited! (we noticed smiles, pointing at the screen, bringing others over to see and teaching/supporting others to be able to achieve the same results)

Tyson reflected that for those who have grown up with computers these may seem extremely basic tasks that would take anyone at UKFast only a few moments to complete: logging on, using the mouse to control the graphical user interface and so on. This process took us the whole of the first three hour session. We recognized how we had forgotten that learning these fundamental IT skills really is like learning a new language.

Many of the Teachers were fast learners. While at the start, many did not know how to find particular right keyboard keys, by the end of the session, many had become very accomplished. It was amazing to think many of those present were multilingual and learning and typing in a second language. Tim recognized how some teachers spontaneously began teaching others the skills they had mastered and commented ‘it’s amazing how you just forget what it was like before you learnt to interact with computer GUIs, like just knowing that to make a window bigger you drag the bottom corner, or to scroll down a list of font sizes, you hold and click the bar at the left and drag it down. It all just becomes second nature. None of it is that complicated, but if you don’t know, you don’t know. It’s exciting and humbling that these teachers could see the potential for the Pi in their classrooms and so wanted to learn how to become ICT literate themselves, going back to basics, and being open to new things!’  

Having about 20 teachers and only 5x Raspberry Pi computers, it took more time than we might have expected to swap around and let everyone take their turn.  Another time factor was that although the computers were being donated tothe Kasupe Primary School Center, the session was open to all teachers in the three village area overseen by the GVH. This meant that we had teachers from the local ‘community day secondary school’ and another primary school. This turn out was considered extraordinary for development projects, especially as it was an unpaid event. We were encouraged that the teachers were motivated to give up their entire day. This raised an interesting question about intrinsic andextrinsic motivators. Clearly, the opportunity to use the computers and learning the basic IT skills was reward enough at this point. The recognition dawned on us that the teachers were  imagining how the computers could fit in with their teaching methods.

One of the highlights of the day for us was after the second session. Tyson got to talking with Majawa, who teaches maths. He wanted to know how the Raspberry Pi could help him in the classroom. Firstly, Majawa had found logging on to the Pi fairly challenging. He said that when youre typing the password, you only see dots appearing, not the letters you’re typing. This means if you make a typing error (which youre likely to do when first learning to type) you don’t find out until you’ve finished typing and hit enter. Secondly, if you hold down a key for more than a second or so, the letter starts to repeeeeeaaaattttt itself. Again, this seems second nature to a person who has clocked 100s of hours on a computer but can really throw you when you’re new. But we observed how Majawa is a very patient and persistent teacher and not easily defeated.

At the end of the session, Majawa was delighted when Tyson told him about Mathmatica (a hugely powerful maths application that costs lots of money for university students, but is free on the Pi). Tyson offered to show Majawa a few basic uses of the application. In a short space of time Majawa, his teaching assistant, and two of his colleagues were looking over Tyson’s shoulder, eager to see how they might grasp how to teach Math[?s] with the benefit of the computer.

Tyson commented ‘After stumbling around we started building algebra equations. And the next thing I know they were working out the equations on paper behind me as they wanted to double check the computer was correct. It was of course, but they were well impressed with that setup and we started talking about how they could use it in their classes. That led us to the end of afternoon session and Majawa and I both left with silly smile stuck on our faces.’

It was significant that the Head Teacher of the local secondary school became enthusiastic and got involved. He quickly appreciated the potential of the Raspberry Pi for increasing educational opportunities in his school and the area.

Day 3 | Wednesday 26th August 2015

Today we worked with primary aged students. It was great to show them around the OS, how to use the keyboard and the mouse, how to open applications, and all sorts.

We focused on showing them LibreOffice Writer and Sheets for document / office skills, Scratch for programming (which they really struggled with because it requires a high level of computer navigation skills around the user interface), and Minecraft for mouse and keyboard skills (they loved it but didn’t really get it as it was so foreign to them). It was a very short opportunity but we enjoyed working on the primary target of the project.

And today was very rewarding as the district council official connected with what we are doing. He has announced that he is to bring the national TV station crew out to the village to film what is going on here. So tune in to TV Malawi later. (We’ll do our best to to get a copy of the recording)

Day 4 | Thursday 27th August 2015

Thursday was again very stimulating. We participated in a huge meeting to discuss how to connect the school as it is currently, the Raspberry Pi computers, their use in the community, and expanding the school to include additional years (so start teaching secondary students).

It was headed by the Territorial Authority (TA), seated in the red chair in the picture, who is the highest tribal authority in Malawi. The TA oversees dozens of villages and over 200,000 people.  The man speaking in the picture is one of their MPs. He was making pledges to expand the school and was enthusiastic about how much of a gift the Raspberry Pi computers are to the students and the whole community.

That meeting took all morning and into the afternoon. Beforehand we showed more students the basic use of the computers and afterwards opened it up for training the teachers on anything in which they were interested: LibreOffice Writer training, LibreOffice Sheet training, typing, and Mathematica or Python.

Day 5 | Friday 28th August 2015

Friday was our last day at the village.

We held another teacher training period from 1pm to 3pm, open to all teachers from the three villages in this area.  In the morning we held a more intensive training session for Witness, Richard and Rebecca, the three individuals we selected to be leaders of the project after we had returned to the UK. (See attached picture, from the right to left; Tyson, Witness, Richard, Rebecca, and Tim).

Our plan is that Project Pi will communicate with theses three via email and WhatsApp to assist and offer further training remotely, while these three will take the project and the training further with the teachers and then the students.

In the morning session we showed them how to use the 3G wifi device we brought, and how to top up the Malawian SIM with credit for Internet access. We also showed them how to troubleshoot the Raspberry Pi computers if they break and how to fix them (i.e. if the SD card gets corrupted or the eCloud USB stick fails).

Tyson commented ‘It was really cool to be able to hand this over and see the sense of pride the three had about taking ownership in the project. Now, it’s time to see what happens next, where the village and the Kasupe project will take this! Now the real adventure begins!’

Tim Greenwood

Tim currently works for Living Systems. His background is in psychology, and he has been working as a psychologist within education and the community for the last ten years. He recently gained a Masters of Arts in Management, Learning, and Leadership from Lancaster Business school focusing on the use of Action Research to promote curious and evolving ways of working with individuals, groups and organisations.

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Tim Greenwood

Tim currently works for Living Systems. His background is in psychology, and he has been working as a psychologist within education and the community for the last ten years. He recently gained a Masters of Arts in Management, Learning, and Leadership from Lancaster Business school focusing on the use of Action Research to promote curious and evolving ways of working with individuals, groups and organisations.

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