January 8th, 2009

Teaching the Burmese Python

I'm now in MaeSot, Thailand. Monday Jan 5th was the first day of school 2009 at Hsa Thoo Lei. I spend most of my time in a computer lab at the small end of the L shaped building located here. This is my 3rd trip here in 4 years, and given my increasingly nomadic life, I think I can now call this a home. By April I'll return to the USA, but which city remains undecided.

I would like to have spent more time with the XOs in Cambodia, and I feel recommitted to the olpc vision. I firmly believe that machine can improve the world, but the needs and potential for me to have an impact are greatest here.

I'm formally teaching from 3p until 9:30p. There are 10 machines in the computer lab. Most of the computer classes here pile as many kids as necessary onto each machine, and some of my early classes work the same way. But my focus is on the oldest students and on ensuring only one student per machine. Learning doesn't work as well unless you control the mouse and keyboard. School finishes by 4, so most of my teaching is to students who stick around for an optional afterschool program. This minimizes the impact on their traditional classes, and allows me to work late with the students who live here fulltime. For the general classes we've begun with google maps. It requires minimal english, and takes on special significance for these refugees. We begin by finding the school based on satellite photos, and then explore the town they know. Next they explore the whole world. For some this means using street view to see the eiffel tower, or visit san francisco. For some it means seeing the house of a friend who has since been relocated to Minnesota or Norway. In many cases it means a search for the home they've left behind, and revisiting the often painful circumstances of their departure. If only virtually, it means they are allowed to leave this narrow strip of land, between a host country that does not want them and a home country that wants them dead.

Today I taught our first class on wikipedia. Earlier in the day the 12th grade students had been studying the history of Burma during World War 2. We started at the front page, explained its multilingual nature, and then we began to read about World_War_II. Following the link to the Japanese capture of Burma we picked up where their earlier class had left off. Students were encouraged to click on any of the blue links and begin to appreciate the depth and Special:Random to grok its breadth. High School Musical 2, Ronaldinho, Church of England ... . I introduced them to the relevant languages and began to explain who writes wikipedia, and how it works. We'll do more in the coming days, and before I leave there will be some efforts at improving at least the simple.wikipedia coverage of their own cultures.

From 7:30 till 9:30 (and it seems occasionally into the wee hours) I've begun the experiment that I've long hoped for. I want to teach the Burmese Python. Not just because the name is amusing but because I think this could matter more than anything else I do.

These refugees cannot leave a very small area without a pass. Even if they could get there, Thailand prevents foreigners from holding many jobs. They are inelligible for any Thai university, even if they somehow manage to acquire the necessary skills. There needs to be a light at the end of this tunnel to make education worthwhile.

They may not be citizens of any country, but they can be citizens of the internet. There they can find better jobs than the sweat shop garment factory just outside the school. In fairness, around here, that is a pretty good job. But if the parents can live on a dollar a day, rentacoder.com is 6 figure salary in comparison. Even if this first group doesn't make it to that level, they teach their younger peers, and can do so in native language. This plants the seed.

So far a few of my old students have been doing the best. Wahlershee and Deetway are notable standouts. This isn't yet a fair test, since we're still at a stage of copying simple programs into the intrepretter. This favors those who read english well and type more quickly. As I remind them, soon it will be more about how fast you think, not how fast you type. I confess, a few students have failed to show for tonight's class, but new ones have shown up to take their spots. Since this is largely self directed, and students move at different speeds that is fine. They have other classes with grades, and I know few people find this enjoyable. They will do it for love, or because they see the value, not for credit or any near term reward. If anyone is in the class a month from now this has been worthwhile. If anyone still studies a month after I've left, it has been a success. But I may not be able to measure real success for many years. You do not become a programmer in a year.

ps. clowns without borders.org the most worthwhile organization you've never heard of.