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A Day at the Open Learning Exchange (OLE)

December 18th, 2014 By: Bibhusha Karki · No Comments

“ Disparity in the world is growing resulting to lack of opportunity. A single donation of money and food without a targeted solution is not the answer to reducing disparity. Give people a real chance! A basis to climb the ladder!  Basic education is the answer to do well in school and in life. If we do not act now, the disparity will increase causing resentful society. Give an opportunity to succeed.”- Rabi Karmachyara

Working at OLE has given me the experience of launching various ideas in form of pilot projects that are related to access to education. In this process I am amongst amazing people that are passionate about making a difference in the world. Recently, OLE team in Boston has an opportunity to meet with OLE Nepal’s Executive Director Mr. Rabi Karmacharya who has pioneered technology-integrated education in Nepal’s public schools through a comprehensive program in partnership with the Government of Nepal. Believe it or not, OLE Nepal started as a small conversation amongst friends interested in using technology for education and evolved into an organization. These conversations led to a conclusion that educators are a priority and technology is a tool for quality education.

In 2008, OLE Nepal was launched in two schools with a very small budget and a signed memorandum with the Ministry of Education of Nepal. Currently, OLE Nepal is successfully integrated into 100 schools in Nepal, spread across the entire country; making it clear that right ideas and sincere efforts can definitely lead to success.

What makes this organization unique is that it uses technology to enhance the learning process in schools by integrating technology, teacher training and free educational content that is accessible even without the Internet.

These interactive education materials in form of games and other media resources that enhance learning in an engaging process that has increased class participation, creativity and problem solving skills among the children. Additionally, teachers, parents and community members are equally engaged to understand the learning process so that there is no fear of technology. It made me happy because through this process quality education materials become accessible even across different geographic areas and socio-economic strata. When asked about the practicality of this idea Rabi said, “Many millennium generation middle class children across the globe are growing up by using tablets and computers. Why have not give a similar opportunity of a technology integrated learning to kids in rural areas?”

I was a little surprised when we discovered that the growth process of OLE Nepal was not linear. Instead, it was like navigating through maize. One had to go through successes, experiments, and drawbacks. I was inspired after I found out that OLE Nepal has succeeded in creating awareness among policy makers, education institutions and government that technology can have a positive impact in schools if it is integrated in the learning process.

Our conversation went on about the future of Open Education Resources (OER), which concluded that it is bringing a revolution. Tertiary education has already changed as it has made people around the world get access to their desired classes through Internet. It is also certain that as Internet reaches out more people so will the use of OER. I was also among those independent learners that are taking classes online free of cost. I discovered that the initial goal of MIT to share its education resources openly was to provide teachers access to quality materials for their class globally. But the evaluations showed that 42% of the people using MIT’s OER were actually independent learners! Because the content was learner focused. Even teachers teaching these classes had an incentive to reach out to million of students globally. Our conversation confirmed my belief that using open education resources in schools is the next revolution. I am a rebel, so it made me delighted to be an agent of this next revolution.

In the end, when I asked Rabi about his most memorable incident, with a very infectious smile he said, “ If you let kids be kids and learn, the positive energy and the interaction is contagious. This is my source of motivation and inspiration.”

For more information about OLE NEPAL

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Exploring faraway land in far west

September 29th, 2014 By: Bibek Maharjan · No Comments

This was my second visit to Bajhang. The first one was about three months ago where we went to train the teachers from 10 different schools on using laptops and implementing the ICT based education. This visit was intended for the further enhancement of the teachers’ skill towards integrated teaching via in-school training. In addition to that, we also conducted a Baseline Survey on the students of 10 schools in Bajhang. This was my very first experience of conducting an official survey. So besides the technical help, I also assisted with that.

I had never been to Terai during summer. This was the first time I encountered so much heat. It was 40 degrees in Dhangadhi when we stepped out. We decided not to stay any longer there because of the heat. We set off for Dadeldhura pretty soon. This time of the year was perfect for Kafal (a wild fruit called Bayberry). We were accompanied by delicious Kafal on our way. The next day, before setting out to Bajhang, we paid our visit to one of the popular temples of Dadeldhura. We reached Jhota Bazar at around four in the evening and it was pretty much astounding, for we had thought the place would be too hot. Rather, it was a cool place to hang out which changed our minds as we decided to extend our stay there.

Starting our first day of work, into the wildness of the forest, we walked along the trails by the beautiful Seti river which was burbling its way out.  We left for the school at around six in the morning when I felt the freshness of the purest touch of nature, leaving behind all kinds of pollution of Kathmandu. Half an hour walk of about 3.5 kms would certainly be tiresome but not in the freshness of such place. I started the technical stuffs as soon as I reached the school. While Tika sir was engaged in class observation, I was busy with the kids of class three in the school. I made them draw something on their own. They were busy on making their art for a while and after a bit later, I took a laptop and played a children’s song. They enjoyed the song and started singing along. So, I paused the song and called a boy from higher class to play Madal (a nepali musical instrument) for them to sing. I enjoyed listening to such innocent voices. This was my very first interaction with the children in schools. By the time I finished my work, it was already noon. We were unable to hold the SMC meeting so we returned to the nearest pickup point which was the same as the morning. We returned to Jhota Bazar where we were staying and had our lunch. Later we went roaming around and eventually reached a mini-beach on the bank of Seti where we created various sand art for fun. We tried catching fishes and skipped stones on river. We didn’t stop until it grew darker. At the end of the day, before and after dinner we took a short walk along the empty roads.

Kids exploring their creative side.

On the second day, I revisited the same school for Baseline survey with our trainer Miss Deepa. It was pretty much difficult because of the communication gap between us and the children. We came across such brilliant students who could change the face of Bajhang in the coming years but the English language became major source of dissatisfaction. Interacting with the children and helping them with their questions was very much fun yet tiring.  I went on with the survey with other classes as well. By the end of the working hour, I had a sore throat because this was the very first time I had to control the whole class by reaching out to each and every kid. As we didn’t had our breakfast, we were invited to the headteacher’s house. We agreed on going and I believe it was the right decision. We found out that the community was self sustaining with bio-gas for cooking purpose from the by-products of the cattles they rear. The chilling gust of wind under scorching heat of sun was refreshing. We decided to explore the bank of the Seti river again while waiting up on the road for our pickup to arrive. We returned to our stay and took some rest. Two of our colleagues went fishing instead.

temporary bridge.JPG

The shaky bridge to the school.

The next day our driver had to drop us to four different schools at the same time. So he dropped four of us to Bagthala, our splitting point. Miss Deepa and I took a local transportation where I suffered throughout the journey. It was an off-road and the driver was playing annoying music really loud. We reached the school about an hour later after crossing a ‘temporary’ bridge. It was very adventurous to even think about the thrill of falling off it. The river flowing down the bridge would certainly give a lot of trouble as we were carrying some electronic stuffs with us. After reaching the school, I continued with the updates and survey. We were received by our vehicle at around midday. We had our lunch at Head Sir’s house where I met a boy who was physically challenged but a brilliant mind. He was always cheerful and didn’t regret his state. I was very inspired by his spirit. After we left the place, we headed to Deulekh for our stay. We received others on the way. I personally didn’t like the place. It was boring. The place lacked electricity and proper drinking water.

The next day we set out for other schools. We had to reach Bhumiraj school in Chir Udi. It was exactly on top of the hill, opposite to where the vehicle left us. It was a good time and place for hiking that morning, until we took a  diverged path that ended us to the foot of the hill. It almost took us an hour to reach the school. I was very much delighted when the students greeted me with ’ Good Morning’ rather than ‘Namaste’. This was the best school for me. The students were very much forward in terms of communication which made my survey much easier. I was so much relieved to find such kids. I only had to stand there and watch them give the responses and nothing much. They found the survey so much easy that they took half the time they were given to finish it. What I didn’t like about the school was its location. It was on the edge of the cliff which was very dangerous. However, the teachers were very much concerned about the equipments. They inquired about the precautions that should be taken for long life of the equipments such as the solar panels, inverters, etc. Then we left the school and reached to the pick-up point. On our way back, we also stopped by the Bhumiraj school in Suwakot. The teachers welcomed us with Kafal and we stayed there for sometime, while Ganesh Sir went to Bagthala for he had to complete some work. Later, we returned to our stay and got some rest.

The very next day was refreshing as we walked to the nearby schools and didn’t require vehicular transport. We went to Kalika Bhagwati school. However,  as the school was on top of the hill, we only had to ascend to reach the school, which was tiring. I started my work with the updates and later joined the survey. I was disappointed with them for they were not as good as the students of the previous school. Apparently, It was the Ganatantra Diwas (Republic Day), so not many students showed up. There were a lot of students in this school as compared to other schools. There wasn’t anything different than what we did in other schools. However, we found a writing enthusiast. As I recall from the training few months back, she was very much into taking charge, representing a group, and now interested in writing. She had maintained a series of reports of school activities. After going through her writings and enjoying our day at the school, we returned back. Later in the evening, everyone of us agreed to hike to Shiv Bhawani school. There was a beautiful meadow from where we had an exquisite view of the hills.

Baseline survey in action.

It was Friday and we only had a school left with two groups. We reached the Manakamana  school after a stiff climb. This was one of the places I liked the most because it was a beautiful place with ever-flowing water resource. This was the very place where I had my first snow experience during previous visit. We didn’t have much trouble that day because the school was only upto class three. So we had only two grades to survey. I started the update as soon as we reached the school. We waited to start our survey as we were planning to conduct some recreational activities with the kids, such as playing games, singing and dancing. The students enjoyed their start of the day. After some time we began our survey and finished it shortly.  We decided to leave for Dadeldhura on the same day which was technically scheduled for next day. We left Bajhang bidding Good-Byes to the friendly folks at around three in the afternoon.

Children bidding us good-byes

After we left Bajhang, it started hailstorming. There wasn’t any place to take shelter so we continued with the journey. It was such a thrill to view the lightnings as we gained altitude. There was very strong wind that made the biggest trees to sway and eventually break off. The wind had blown away many roofs in Dadeldhura. We didn’t find any place to take shelter, so we continued further to Doti where we found a place to stay. It had almost been a week that we found such good food and cozy rooms.

We left early next day. Four hours of ride from cool place to a hot one was difficult to adjust with. Eventually, we returned a day ahead beating our estimated plan. This 9 day visit to Bajhang was a good experience for me. I found this trip much more easy and enjoyable than the previous one.

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Comparing Deployment Data with XOvis

June 23rd, 2014 By: martasd · 1 Comment

It is hard to believe that six months have already passed since my arrival to Kathmandu. My volunteering time at OLE Nepal is up. At the end of May, I delivered a final presentation about XOvis, an XO usage visualization application our Data Quest Team has developed, and bid farewell to my Nepali colleagues.

From my previous posts on the blog, some of you might remember that contributing to XOvis project has been my primary focus during my engagement at OLE. While more than three million OLPC XO laptops have been deployed all over the world, the OLPC community has not done much analysis about how learners have been using these laptops beyond gathering anecdotal stories from students, teachers, parents, and school administrators. Identifying a need to learn more about the reality of XO use, a team of curious data scientists from the global community embarked on a project that goes beyond anecdotal evidence using quantitative analysis and data visualization. Before I dive into details, let me quickly summarize what XOvis is about.

On every XO laptop running Sugar, one can access the record of each activity a learner has ever launched in a so-called Journal. The idea behind the Journal is that the learner can view a running log of projects (activities) she worked on in the past and easily find and resume an existing one.

Sugar Journal

With every Journal entry, the system stores certain metadata such as the time the activity was started, whether the activity was shared with others, whether the learner created any files with the activity etc.. In OLPC deployments, all this data can be downloaded to a server (usually a schoolserver) to which an XO connects. In order to learn about patterns of use, our Data Quest Team has designed XOvis which can read the collected data, store it in a database, and then visualize it using various interactive charts.

You could see a few examples of these charts in my previous blog post from April. Since then XOvis has matured to include new charts and other features I would like to introduce here. Following first OLE’s XO-4 deployment in Bahjang earlier in the year, our team has added a capability for XOvis to understand the data format on newer versions of Sugar, namely Sugar 0.98, which is the version used on XO-4 laptops. Some of my colleagues from OLE have recently returned from teacher training and support visit in the Bahjang region, during which they are deploying XOvis directly on schoolservers at our program schools. This XOvis installation on local schoolservers provides an opportunity to teachers and school administrators to see those visualizations as well.

Another useful feature we have implemented recently is the possibility to compare data from multiple school deployments in a single chart. In the Use of each Activity by Month chart, for example, one can compare and contrast the usage of various activities during 2013 from two or three different schools.

usage_by_month_by_activity_compare.png

In the Use by Month chart, we have found that while the Koral deployment uses activities more in March, May, June, July, and August, Gyanodaya leads in January, February, April, September, October, November, and December. According to our expectations, the use of laptop activities decreases considerably during April, July, and November when children leave school for holidays.

use_by_month_compare.png

Furthermore, the most recent version of XOvis also displays some useful overall statistics from the selected deployment in the column on the right side of the chart. For each school deployment, those include the number of devices used, the number of activity instances recorded, the number of activities used, as well as the start date and end date of data collection. These statistics provide the audience some context for interpreting the chart data.

activity_freq_with_dbstats.png

 Finally, the Data Quest Team has added Activity Average Frequency spider chart, which displays the average number of activities used per device. Especially when comparing usage data from multiple deployments, we have found it more meaningful to show the average number of instances rather than the total since the number of laptops can vary from one deployment to another.

spider_graph_mauwa.png

What are some the things we have learned from the charts you might ask? One of the most insightful charts is the already mentioned Use of Each Activity by Month. While we see from the Activity Frequency chart that E-Paath is by far the most frequently accessed activity at all OLE program schools, in the chart below we observe that its usage varies significantly throughout the year.

epaath_usage_by_months.png

Somewhat surprisingly, we have seen that while E-Pustakalaya, digital library which comes preinstalled on OLE’s schoolservers, is the second most popular activity in some deployments such as Koral, it is superseded by some Sugar activities in others. In Kumdi, for example, both Record and TamTamMini turn out to be more popular than the library activity. In Gyanodaya, it is Typing Turtle that enjoys more screentime.

As our support visit teams keep bringing more data from additional schools, the analysis becomes progressively more comprehensive and we are going to see more usage patterns emerge from the charts. The Data Quest Team behind XOvis has already connected with XO deployments in other countries, which have been using the application to analyze their data. We are very curious about what use patterns others will uncover in their programs and how those compare with those we have seen in Nepal. To learn more about how XOvis integrates with other software projects, take a look at a recent post XOvis: The quest continues by Sameer Verma about the “Quest for Data” project.

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XO Data Visualization in the Field

April 16th, 2014 By: martasd · 3 Comments

After spending three months volunteering at OLE Nepal in Kathmandu, I got an opportunity to participate in a field trip to visit  program schools participating in OLE Nepal’s laptop program. Long-awaited time has come! Even though I missed an earlier trip to Baglung as I was bedridden with bronchitis, I recovered in time to join the technical support team headed to Banke, a region in southwestern Nepal, where OLE Nepal has introduced E-Paath and E-Pustakalaya in four public schools in the vicinity of Nepalgunj.

Besides providing me with more insights into how young Nepali kids learn with the XOs, this trip also presented me the first chance to deploy XOvis, a data visualization application which I’ve been developing since my arrival to Nepal. What does XOvis do? It shows teachers and administrators graph visualization of data gathered on the schoolserver from XO laptops used in their school. The data shown is retrieved from Sugar Journals, which serve as a log of activities students use on their laptops.

Why should teachers and school administrators pay attention to those graphs? First and foremost, they get to see how often students use various activities. Based on data gathered since the initial deployment, which in the case of Banke happened roughly two years ago, they can see which activities are most popular. Since the students use laptops for a few hours every day, the schoolservers in Banke have collected considerable amount data since the XO program began (901 MB in Gyanodaya and 504 MB in Kumdi). With this much data, one gets to see a very comprehensive picture of activity use. This data can inform the choices teachers make in class to better relate to students’ interests and better engage them in the learning process. For example, if teachers see that many students often use Offline Wikipedia activty, they can design projects where students get to use Wikipedia as a tool for research. Here is a capture of the ‘Activity Frequency’ graph from Gyanodaya:

Gyanodaya Activity Frequency

So that’s an obvious statistic to visualize. What else does the visualization show? It also gives an idea about which activities kids use in creative ways by examining the number of files created by different activities:

Gyanodaya Files

From this graph we observe that Typing Turtle, a typing tutoring environment, is the most actively used activity.

In schools which deployment organizations like OLE Nepal get to visit very sporadically interesting questions arise about when and how often students use activities. For answering these questions, XOvis implements a graph displaying the time of day when students use activities, color-coded based on the frequency:

Gyanodaya Time of Day

Finally, in the ‘Use by Month’ and ‘Use by Year’ visualizations the user can also specify the time range from which data is displayed. One can, for example, examine data from the current school year and compare it with data from the previous year:

Gyanodaya Restrict Range

In this visualization, we have intentionally turned off the display of E-Paath and E-Pustakalaya graphs, which are the two most frequently used activities. Without those two graphs, one can more accurately compare the usage of all other activities.

This visualization tool is not only useful for teachers and school administrators, but also to organizations like OLE Nepal as it can visualize data from different deployments brought from the field. In this way, our data analysts at OLE Nepal can compare and contrast the use of activities in various schools. Based on those, OLE Nepal can then formulate recommendations to those schools about how to make the laptop program more effective in engaging students in the learning process as well as make improvements to the teacher training program.

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The Wise Man in the Training

February 25th, 2014 By: Sunil Pokhrel · No Comments

The narrow training hall in the KP Plaza Hotel, crammed with 24 teachers, one school supervisor and four OLE Nepal staff, resembled the crowded fish market in the heart of Kathmandu. Actually, it was not exactly a hall, but a balcony turned into a hall by hanging curtains along the three open sides. The cold breeze from the Seti river streamed continuously through the gaps between the curtains, but that did not bother the participants gathered there for the seven-day long training on using laptops and digital learning tools in classrooms. Neither did they complain about the foul smell and the continuous noise from the generator. At 10 AM on January 22, 2014 Bajhang district headquarter, Chainpur, was slowly coming to life, and the participants braved the cold and and the inconvenience to get started with enthusiasm.

Curious faces filled the hall. Among them was a man who looked wiser than the rest. As the trainer were about to welcome the participants, Gauri Lal Joshi, a seemingly wise 58 year old teacher from Bhumiraj Primary School stood up and said, “I have attended countless trainings that claimed to make me a better teacher, but I honestly cannot tell if those trainings really helped me be one.” He continued in a rather whimsical fashion, “If this training program has no practical use, then you are wasting our time.” Mr. Joshi’s body language suggested that he had already disapproved of the training that was meant to enable teachers to integrate technology in teaching. That led to some uneasiness amongst other participants, but it did not seem to bother him what others thought of his rather crude remark. He sat down unconvinced when the trainer asked him hold his judgement till the latter part of the training in the coming days.

During lunch, Mr. Joshi told us that he had been a teacher for the last 34 years. He seemed to be an accomplished teacher, but had a lot of misgivings about the many trainings and the trainers organized by the District Education Office. He claimed that they were useless, tedious and unrealistic. On the first day of the training which included familiarizing participants with computers and the digital learning materials, Mr. Joshi took part in the activities with a lot of interest and motivation. When the laptops were distributed amongst the participants, it would be fair to say that Mr. Joshi was not any less excited than his younger colleague, Dambar Bhatta. By the end of day one he had started to show a friendlier disposition in contrast to his attitude in the morning.

The homework for the second day of the training was to prepare a lesson plan for a grade and subject that the participant taught. Mr. Joshi and four of his colleagues were the first to arrive at the training hall, and all of them had completed their work. Contrary to my experience with trainees in other districts, all five of them had written SMART objectives. Mr. Joshi was quick to attribute the acquired skills of writing SMART objectives to the training they received recently on Child Friendly Classroom Teaching which contradicted what he said about trainings he had attended in the past.

Interactive digital learning materials, E-Paath was in the focus for the second day of the training. The plan was to help teachers to see the interrelationship between the curriculum, textbooks and E-Paath. They learnt how to prepare a lesson plan integrating E-Paath for in the concept they were preparing to teach. Mr. Joshi seemed mesmerized by the Nepali E-Paath activities, especially the recitation of the poems. He would play one particular poem about the watch (घडी ) over and over to the point that he started disrupting the training session. But when asked to close it, he would acquiesce, and often pass witty comments drawing loud laughter from other participants. By the end of day two, Mr. Joshi had a newer lesson plan written in which he had the following objective: able to recite the poem “Watch” (घडी कविता वाचन गर्न।)

On the third day, Mr. Joshi looked more confident. He agreed to chair the entertainment committee for the day and entertained the participants with his dances and songs. Third day was dedicated for helping teachers understand about the digital library, the E-Pustakalaya – how to connect to it, and how to navigate through various sections and to search for specific items. Mr. Joshi had no problem finding the router and connecting to it, and accessing the E-Pustakalaya home page. The E-Pustakalaya resources seemed to captivate him. As the participants were being taught to navigate through the sections of the library and then to children literature section of the library, Mr. Joshi was overheard saying, “BP’s Sumnima is also here. I wanted to read it for a long time.”

Third and fourth days too went by with Mr. Joshi being punctual, submitting all his assignments in time and participating actively in discussions. He had many pertinent questions which ranged from class management to computer-enabled teaching strategies. He never missed any opportunity to either recite a poem, or to tell a joke or two or even to perform dances for other participants, most of whom were less than half his age. He never failed to brightened the hall with his lovely gestures and brilliance in poetry recitation. He definitely had a keen interest in Nepali poems. He seemed overjoyed finding Siddhicharan, Devkota, Poudel, Ghimire and other popular writers in the E-Pustakalaya’s literary collection.

On the sixth day, there were few visitors in the training hall. They included Chief District Education Officer, Local Development Officer and Chief District Officer (CDO). The CDO asked someone from the participants to give his/her views about the training. Everyone expected Mr. Joshi to stand up, and he did not disappoint them. “I liked the training because I am immersed in it” he said. And he continued, “I can see that children will be happy to have the computers in front of them.” To the CDO’s question if he would implement the acquired skills for the benefit of children, he promptly replied, “Yes.”

Mr. Joshi repeatedly said that he could not believe the seven day long taining passed quickly without his noticing it. Before everyone departed for their homes, Mr. Joshi wanted to say a few things to his colleagues and to the OLE Nepal team. He stated that he learned not just the computer basics, but also the skills to conduct computer-enabled classes. He said that he particularly liked the E-Paath and E-Pustakalaya as the resources would be useful for students. And he pointed out that knowing digital materials was the easy part, but teaching children using the same will be much more challenging. He wished everyone success in ICT enabled teaching. He further said, “I am going to retire in a few months, so I do not have much teaching time left for me.” He paused for a moment and ended his statement saying, “Contrary to what I had in mind on the first day of the training, I liked the training. But my love were E-Paath and E-Pustakalaya.” He further continued, “I, however, think that the technology arrived late for me and for many of my students.”

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Chandi Devi: Voluntourist Ventures into the Field

February 20th, 2014 By: martasd · 1 Comment

The day I had been eagerly awaiting has finally arrived. My first visit to a school with our laptop program, Chandi Devi Primary School. I met with Roshan, my fellow software developer and friend from OLE Nepal, at Lagankhel bus stop at 8 am on a sunny Sunday morning to set off for Dukuchaap, one of the nearest deployments just south of Kathmandu. As I had expected, our journey soon turned into a bumpy ride on an unpaved road. Traveling through Nakhkhu, Sainbu, and Bungamati, we arrived to Dukuchaap shortly after 10:00 am. At the bus stop, we met with an English teacher from Chandi Devi, who guided us through a steep winding path to the top of a hill, where children were just about to start the first school day of the week. Yes, you read that correctly. Here in Nepal, a week has six working days with Saturday being the only holiday of the week.

Chandi Devi is a modest school, but what it lacks in resources it compensates with teacher dedication. But more about that later. The school has been using laptops with E-Paath and E-Pustakalaya since November 2012, so it is already a well-established deployment by now. I exchanged a few English words with the head teacher Sitaram Khadka, who we proceeded to follow to the “laptop classroom”, a room specifically designated for classes using laptops. It was time for the first class of the day for grade 3, Math. 22 curious faces were peeking at me as I entered the classroom along with Roshan and the teacher. With the help of one of the students, the teacher distributed the laptops to each kid. Then, in unison, the class pressed their laptops’ power buttons to start the systems and familiar Sugar kid icon appeared in the middle of the screens. The topic of the lesson was: odd and even numbers.

It becomes immediately obvious to me that Sitaram is an experienced teacher. Before turning to technology he first explains the concepts using everyday objects from the classroom- windows, tables, chairs. Everyone is paying attention (except the girl closest to me who is wondering what this strange foreigner is doing in her class). Objects around the room don’t scale, however, so after a few minutes it’s time for the laptops to join the show. Students click on E-Paath’s logo on the home screen and open the corresponding Math activity. The activity starts off by showing various one-digit numbers, which the students need to identify as either odd or even. Most of them are getting it by now. I notice that the ingenious designers of the activity randomized the numbers that show up, so that the children cannot copy from one another. Subtle, but quite important for effective learning I would say. At the end, the teacher asks the first three students who finish the activity to come to the front of the classroom to receive a small price such as a pencil or eraser. Each also gets an applause.

Before the lunch break, Roshan and I got an opportunity for comparison when we were invited to sit in a English non-laptop class. This time it is grade 4 with total of 17 students in attendance. We squeeze into a cold and gloomy room with barely enough space for everyone. Today, we were all learning the phrase “it looks like a … .” As the teacher is not particularly artistically gifted, the objects he draws on the whiteboard require a good deal of imagination. He goes on to recite the phrase of the day and the students repeat in parallel: “it looks like a shoe.” After a few examples, students are assigned to work on exercises from their textbook, all of which involve writing down the by now very familiar phrase, again varying the object according to the picture portrayed in the book. As each student finishes her exercise, the teacher individually checks each sentence she wrote down. Needless to say, this is a very time-consuming part of the class leaving students who finished early bored with nothing to do, but stare into empty space giggling at me occasionally. I must admit that even I am getting bored as the class drags on. Before the end, a few minutes are left for the teacher to introduce a few more vocabulary terms. Again, students practice by reciting them back at the teacher. I leave the class with very mixed feelings- I see very clearly the difference laptops can make in the classroom, but, unfortunately, each grade gets to use them only for one hour per day.

After lunch, Roshan and I sit down with Sitaram to hear his perspective on the program. Sitaram makes an impression of a teacher unusually dedicated to the school and his students. He explains that with little support from the government, he and his colleagues have recently decided to take a cut from their salary in order to hire an additional teacher the school had desperately needed. Roshan and I are moved as he details the lack of support their school is coping with.

Naturally, I am very curious to ask Sitaram what thinks about the laptop program at Chandi Devi. He says that OLE Nepal laptops with E-Paath make it easier for him to teach students and that he sees the students benefiting from the program. This is not only his subjective opinion or a polite answer to the folks from OLE Nepal- also the numbers show an improvement in student’s learning. He mentions that students’ exam scores have increased and the school dropout rate went down since the laptop program was introduced in the school. Later on, another teacher voices the same opinion and confirming Sitaram’s words about students’ performance. On the flip side, I am somewhat disappointed to learn that students do not have any opportunities to play and experiment with the laptops outside of regular laptop classes due to schedule constraints of both students and teachers. They could be using them to learn more in areas they are most interested in by playing with activities they choose themselves. Instead, laptops sit idle in the charging rack during the rest of the time- an unfortunate consequence of life reality in Nepalese villages.

On the brighter side, this visit has really reassured me that laptops can truly improve the effectiveness of learning when accompanied by a well-trained educator. One teacher in a class of 22 simply cannot create the kind of personalized learning environment for every student the way a laptop can. With the right activities, each student can work at her own pace. In this way, the teacher does not need to decide between slowing down the brighter students by catering to those work more slowly, or advancing too quickly through the material for everyone to understand. In the English class without laptops, I observed the teacher spend a considerable amount of time checking each students’ answers to the exercises he assigned. With a laptop, all this time can be reduced to a few milliseconds it takes the processor to decide whether the answer the student provided was correct. In such an environment, the teacher can then focus her attention to those who need more guidance, while others keep advancing to following exercises.

Besides a more personalized learning, I also spotted that students who already finished their exercise were occasionally helping those behind. It was the manifestation of the one of the core ideas of the One Laptop Per Child project: there is not only one teacher in a classroom- anyone can be a teacher. As the teacher does not scale, the students themselves take an initiative to teach one another. Such collaborative atmosphere is much easier to accomplish when a student can clearly see the progress of those next to her on the screen than when trying to identify scribbles in another’s exercise book in a dark room with windows shut.

In a nutshell, witnessing the impact laptops at Chandi Devi reinforced my conviction that OLE Nepal project is making a real difference in Nepalese schools where both material and human resources are scarce. I am very much looking forward to visiting other schools in more remote areas of the country learning more lessons about OLE Nepal program’s influence on day-to-day learning as it unfolds in “a laptop classroom.”

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The Road to Phaplu

August 28th, 2013 By: Kayomars Bilimoria Puri · 1 Comment

The harrowing journey along a precarious mountain highway taken by OLE Nepal’s team of trainers and technical staff to reach program schools in Solukhumbu.

“Phaplu airport is closed for upgradation. All flights are now landing on a makeshift landing strip in Kangel, a couple of hours from Phaplu”. The news welcomed me. After having flown twice to Phaplu within the last year, the adrenaline- or rather the thrill- associated with landing on a strip consisting of loose gravel has notably decreased. A makeshift airport. Landing there should be quite an experience.

Our team was to conduct a refresher training, and provide technical support to five schools located in the eastern district of Solukhumbu. Anxious to finish our work there before the monsoons hit, we were all mentally prepared to fly to Kangel.

But our resolve alone, wasn’t enough. Our flight was to be on Sunday, and two days before the flight, that is, on Friday, we got word that throughout the week all flights to Kangel had been cancelled due to impassable crosswinds.

Now, I am not entirely new to the difficulties associated with traveling via air to such locations. My previous two endeavours to Phaplu have taught me that even waiting at Kathmandu’s domestic airport for hours on end does not guarantee take-off. So, in order to be ‘on top of the situation’ and to not let uncertainty dictate our training’s fixture, we decided to take the longer and more taxing land route.

A quick search on Google didn’t bring up much information about the route. Seldom have bloggers travelled that route. One site I managed to find, tried to give me an extremely far fetched idea that at a decent speed, one could reach Salleri within 4 hours. Unconvinced I googled on, and finally came upon something more credible. 18 hours.

I was looking for the thrill of landing at a makeshift airport. It sure would’ve given me a lot of bragging rights whenever conversations turned to air travel. Sure, this 18 hour trip would be something worth mentioning, but it packed more of a thrill than I was looking for. Nonetheless, I was up for it. It was, but a small hurdle.

The very next day, at around 7.30 in the morning, we set off. The Tata Sumo we were bundled within was a sturdy 4 wheel drive capable machine. Soon, we were cruising along black topped roads, exiting Kathmandu valley. About 15 minutes into the ride, the driver stopped the vehicle around Suryabinayak with the intention of buying a few kilos of plastic sheets. He conferred that apart from just driving passengers up to Salleri, he sometimes takes whatever little he can, to sell, to supplement his income. Shortly after loading on the freshly purchased plastic sheets, we were back on our way.

The Tata Sumo
The Jeep

Within two hours, we had reached Nepalthok. The journey till there was surprisingly smooth. And besides, with all of us discussing enthusiastically about our soon to launch program in Bajhang, we had totally lost track of time. Our driver slowed the jeep to a stop in front of an eatery, and we stepped out to have an early lunch as we had a long way to go, and weren’t entirely sure about the frequency of upcoming establishments that offered food. Besides, if we had waited any longer, my stomach’s rumbling would’ve surely surpassed that of the jeep’s engine.

It didn’t take long for us to wolf down our portions of rice and daal. It didn’t take too long for second helpings to disappear either. And once they did, we were back on the road. Before long, we were out of the smoothness that blacktopped roads provided, and had entered the bumpiness of a roughly cut up road. It took a lot of strength just to keep myself from hitting the side of the jeep as it swayed. Along with the rocky-ness, the heat too had greatly increased. Perspiration had started to drip down the sides of my cheek, and I had to risk leaving the hold of the seat in front, to swipe a dab at drops of sweat every now and then. As we continued to travel on, it felt as though the heat too, was steadily increasing. The open windows provided little respite in terms of wind, as the jeep barely managed to pick up speed before it had to be slowed down again.

Early Lunch
Sitting down for lunch

Then, after a rather sharp turn, we started climbing steeply, on a road that appeared to be covered by a 2 foot deep layer of dust. Immediately, an enormous cloud of dust flew up around us, entering the jeep and threatening to choke us. Instinctively, the driver rolled up his window, and almost immediately, we followed suit by rolling up our respective windows. I turned to look back at the path we were climbing, but could see nothing but a dense cloud of dust following us. This path was of sorts that I had never seen before. It was narrow enough for only one vehicle to comfortably travel on, but had corners every now and then that were wide enough for two vehicles to squeeze by. It offered a sharp fall on one side, and that ever-present 2 foot layer of dust was everywhere. Five minutes into this path, it started to get unbearably hot in the jeep. With the windows rolled up, there was no way for all the stuffy air to ventilate properly.

Another five minutes, and we were all drenched in our own sweat. When the heat was finally reaching an unbearable degree, the driver suddenly made the jeep hug a corner tightly, and shut off his engine. As though he had seen through our puzzlement at stopping at a place where just stepping off the jeep would mean depressing into the thick layer of dust, he pointed into the distance. I looked towards where he was pointing, but could not understand what he had intended to convey. Then, quite a distance away, i saw a cloud of dust rising, and it dawned on me. There was another vehicle coming from the other direction, and this corner was probably one of the few places that allowed two vehicles to pass. The vehicle appeared to be quite a distance away, and whilst we waited, I noticed our stillness had caused the continual cloud of dust enveloping us to vanish. Quite enthusiastically, I rolled down the window and let the hot air flow out, and immediately felt more at ease.

A short stop

The dusty path continued for another half hour or so. We passed a rather gutsy biker, who despite all that the terrain was throwing his way, was ably wading through the thick dust. He hadn’t bothered to put on a helmet, and when we passed him, his yellow shirt got an entire shade darker, and his mustache, now covered by a thick layer of dust, heavier. Then, we entered more durable roads. Still not entirely void of dust, but more bearable.

A couple of more hours passed on this road, with us rocking front and back, side to side. We stopped at a small town to buy a few bottles of water, and were back on our way. We shuffled our seating arrangement then. I was seated in the middle this time, and though I had tried devotedly earlier to not let the vehicle shake me too much, keeping in mind the comfort of the others, I couldn’t find the strength to do so any more. Mentally and physically exhausted, we rode on. Around 5, we reached Ghurmi, and stopped to get some tea. The quiet little town, owned almost entirely by a single person, provided much to see. But too exhausted, we just waited patiently for our tea, and wolfed down a few packs of biscuits.

The biscuits and tea vanished too quick, and before we had time to properly stretch our sore muscles, the journey continued. The plan was to stop at Ramailo Danda in Okhaldhunga for the night. Daylight was long gone, and a light drizzle had started, when we finally rolled into our destination.

Another short stop

By the time we had found a place to spend the night, and were seated to start our dinner, the rain was pouring down hard. Our driver was concerned as the roads we now had to travel were highly seasonal, and became almost impassable when wet. About 4 trucks that were also aiming for Salleri, had stopped in Ramailo danda for the night, so we drew up a plan to leave early next morning before the trucks set out, so that even if we did get stuck somewhere, the truckers would have to help us out to move ahead themselves. Also, since these heavy lifters molded the wet clay like soil of the roads ahead, and made it difficult for other vehicles to ply, it would be a smarter option to leave before them..

The rooms we got weren’t the most comfortable. The beds were basically planks of wood covered by thin cloths. But my exhaustion got the better of me, and I don’t know about the others, but I slept like a log.

At the end of a long day

Early the next morning we were up and ready to leave. Whether it was due to exhaustion, or because of the darkness when we arrived, I had failed to notice the views that Ramailo Danda had to offer. A short 5 minute walk around the village, helped me notice the greenery and landscape views offered. Then, we were back in the jeep, rumbling along.

For the next 2 hours, we climbed steadily through areas that amazingly still managed to offer thick clouds of dust despite the showers the previous night. But compared to the day before, the temperature had greatly dropped, owing to the fact that we had gained considerable altitude. We came across a jeep that was heading towards Kathmandu from Salleri, and the drivers stopped for a minute to talk about the condition of the roads that lay ahead on both sides. On the other jeep, I noticed a tourist sitting out on the bed, or -as i like to call it- the pick-upy area. Covered from head to toe by a thick layer of dust, he gave me a big smile, probably not realizing that it was his ignorance related to his appearance that had amazed me and brought on my stupefied expression. I smiled back. He’d probably have a fit whenever he managed to catch his reflection.

Another hour of climbing, and we had reached Patale. This was the highest point of our journey and offered amazing views of Mt Everest, and other famous peaks housed by Solukhumbu. Then, we started descending, and the dry dusty roads quickly gave away to slushy clay roads. The driver continually switched the jeep to 4 wheel drive and then back to 2. We were moving along slowly then. The jeep was dancing from side to side, but the driver was experienced when it comes to these roads. It was a tame dance. At one point though, being the young male that he is, he averted his eyes from the road to a couple of attractive highland lasses who were walking, and the jeep slipped and slided and did a 180. He slammed into the brakes, gave us a sheepish, apologetic smile, and slowly but carefully this time, turned the jeep and started moving again. This had happened just as we were discussing the driver’s focus and dexterity, so instead of being worried, we blew it off in a few guffaws.

Sunrise at Ramailo Danda, Okhaldhunga

An hour or so into descending, we stopped at Bel Danda for brunch. A quick cup of tea, followed by enormous platefuls of Solukhumbu’s famous potatoes, and we were back to slipping and sliding. After another hour or so, once we had crossed Kerung, we drew to a stop. In front of us, a jeep trying to make its way to Kathmandu was stuck and there was a whole convoy of jeeps behind it. All the drivers were out and about. Some were bringing in planks of wood from here and there to help that jeep and the others behind it cross the portion. Others were going at the soil with shovels and throwing rocks here and there. Within 15 minutes they deemed the path travel worthy and had got the originally stuck jeep out and on it’s way. Since our driver was pretty popular amongst the others, we got to use the planks next, and we sailed across safely.

Waiting while drivers look for planks

More slipping and sliding. When we finally reached Garma around 11, I knew we were close. My legs started yearning for the freedom it had been denied for 2 days. Within half an hour, we had reached Salleri, where we dropped off all our training related stationary so that it’d be easy for us to carry it up to the training center the next day.

Then for the final stretch! Phaplu! Shangri-La Hotel! From there, all it took was a 10 minute ride. After sharing a few jokes and handshakes, we parted with the driver, and entered Shangri-La. At last, after facing the brunt of various terrains, and sitting cooped up in that jeep for over a day and a half, we had reached our destination. But there was a still a lot to do that day. We needed to draw up a plan for the next day’s training, and shower off all the dust and grime that two days on the road had enveloped us with. However, it was straight to bed that we went as the result of a unanimous decision that we’d all feel better after a short nap.

Resting after reaching Phaplu

The road to Phaplu was an enthralling experience. Now, when I think back about it, I am glad I was a part of the trip. The road offered more thrill than I had originally looked for. And yet, like when you get two pieces of cake while expecting just one, it instilled great excitement within me.

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