We (my wife and I) have been teaching our neighbour, Sibongile (‘Bongi’) to use a computer over the last few months. We recently employed Bongi for a few evenings for the Gentle Introduction to GIS project we were contracted to do. The project involved creation of educational GIS materials for teachers and scholars and was based on QGIS. Bongi did some narration work on some of the screen casts we made. A domestic worker in her early 30’s, Bongi had never touched a computer before we started, had no idea what a keyboard is, a mouse is, clicking, dragging etc. It’s not an atypical scenario here in Africa where many people grow up on the wrong side of the digitial divide.
The one technology that has made it across the divide is the use of cellphones. Almost everyone has a cheap grayscale Nokia something or other – something like you were probably using 10 years ago. Cellphones are a good entry point into introducing the idea of a digital device as a communications tool.
Starting to train someone from scratch is a novel experience for the trainer as well as the trainee. For one thing it means that since the person has no idea of what software is to start with, they also have no idea what proprietary software is versus Free Software. Naturally that means we can make their first computing experience a FOSS one (I’m talking Ubuntu here!) rather than one based on Windows. Imagine the potential this brings, with so many people left on the other side of the digital divide, they could all be experiencing the digital world for the first time as a Free one.
The first thing Bongi learned to do is to type. I didn’t explain anything except how to log in, open Klavaro (an open source touch typing tutor) and start typing. A month or two later she has worked through all 42 or so lessons in Klavaro and in the interim, we have tought her to use the mouse, what drag and drop is, what windows are and how to resize, minimise, maximise and close them. I have been trying to teach her in a generic way – i.e. not how to use specific programs but how to learn to use any program. I teach her to look for familiar things if she encounters a new program – maybe some text formatting buttons on a toolbar will give her queues that she can format text. Save, open and close buttons indicate that she can manage her work. When she is not sure what to do, I have shown her to use the right click context menu to discover functionality, and the help menu to read up more. I told her that learning a computer should be like moving to a new city – you need to walk around and discover the place, find which areas you like. If you find places you like, you will revisit them more often and become more familiar with them. Learning by discovery is an important part of being flexible and able to adapt to a changing digital landscape.
Bongi still has a long way to go, but already she has come a long way. One of the interesting things has been trying to explain what a computer is actually useful for. I showed her some educational programmes that she can use to teach her 5 year old daughter new things. I showed her a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation package and drawing app (all OpenOffice tools). While the basic functionality is apparent I think it will take her a while to see how these tools can be applied to her own life. Near the beginning I gave her a computer that I wasn’t using and a friend donated her an old CRT screen. Yesterday I gave her an old digital camera and showed her how pictures can be copied into the computer and set as her wallpaper. Slowly I think she is starting to see how these things converge into an information repository. Yesterday I also created her first email account and explained how the internet can be used to send messages to people. In the near future I am going to set up a blog site for her and encourage her to start blogging about her (computing and general life) experiences. I’ll put some google ads on her blog and hopefully she will even start to generate a little income from her digital life. She doesnt have internet access so she will check her email and update her blog when she comes over to visit, writing her articles at home and bringing them across on an old memory stick I have given her. One other thing I haven’t mentioned is that Bongi’s first language is Zulu so she has to learn everything in a second language, making it that much more of a challenge for her.
The coolest part is that she is experiencing everything in her new found digital world as FOSS software. Ok, I know I said that already, but I still find it incredibly cool. I’ll probably post occasional updates on her progress and who knows maybe one day she may be using FOSS GIS software too! Speaking of FOSS GIS, QGIS recently got a Xhose translator (thanks Andiswa Silinga!) and I hope to get it translated into the rest of the 11 official South African languages to make it a little easier on folks when they do get to the point of wanting to learn GIS.
If you would like to write to Bongi to wish her well on her digital journey (she will be thrilled to receive her first emails too I am sure!), you can pop her a note on: speperembe at gmail dot com
I haven’t yet explained to her all the rather more unfathomable aspects of the internet so hopefully she doesnt get inundated with Nigerian get rich quick schemes or offers for viagra!
Oh and one more thing, some of Bongi’s neighbours have found out that she is learning computers and are keen to learn too. I’ve started teaching Thandi (pupil number #2!) but dont have a computer for her. If anyone has old laptops they dont need (they really don’t need to be anything fancy, just enough to run ubuntu or xubuntu etc.) and would like to have it put to good use rather than gathering dust in your cupboard, please contact me and I’ll see that they get put to good use! Laptops are particularly good as they have a built in UPS (power supply is extremely variable especially in the rainy season) and people typically live in single room dwellings without a lot of space.
Do you have similar experiences? I’d love to hear any tips and tricks!