English Language Learned: A Celebration to be proud of

I couldn’t have been more proud of these kids if they were my own.

Today 40 students graduated from the English Access Microscholarship Program, the first cohort of students in Nepal. At great personal sacrifice, these students have spent 6 hours weekly for the past two years learning English after school and on weekends. In addition to English language instruction, they have explored U.S. culture, traditions, holidays, ideals, and democracy. As a result of their hard work and supportive teachers, they emerge with greater confidence, lasting friendships, and leadership skills. This program, for many of them, has changed their lives.

I could see it in their beaming faces today, as they stood supported by their teachers, NELTA and U.S. Embassy representatives, and their families. They were happy. They were proud. They have accomplished something difficult and against all odds. As the Deputy Chief of Mission Patricia Mahoney said during her remarks, whatever they can imagine – with education – is possible. They can overcome challenges, contribute to their great country, and make a difference. They are, in short, the future of Nepal.

I first met these students during their Teej celebration during August 2011. They had been part of the English Access Microscholarship Program since that March and were making steady progress. They welcomed me as Nepali youth always do: with respect and love. Since then, I have visited them several times, along with their cohorts in outlying areas.

My contribution has been small (I blog about it here and here) but has had a lasting impact on me, a journey I will ever be grateful for. I have attempted to instill some form of 21st Century skills in them, or at least a desire to learn. We’ve covered Netiquette and social media, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and search engines. I’ve shown them slideshows, multimedia presentations, and how technology can be used for learning English. They’ve explored my cameras, iPad, and video camera. Just last week we had a good discussion on how they can be contributors and innovators to make their world a better place. They wrote some personal pledges on how they will make a difference.

Today is a day of pride and success: for the students and for everyone who has played a part in their great journey. Tomorrow may bring new challenges and new mountains to climb.But today, for one hour, these students were honored and their efforts celebrated.

Greatness was in that room.

Digital Divide revisited

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This week I am revisiting the very complex and important issue of digital divide. I recall an early assignment in EdTech 501 in which we played the role of a pseudo-task force to determine how to use $50million to reduce statewide digital inequality. I realized through researching that assignment the distinct differences between digital divide (the have’s and the have-not’s of computer access) and digital inequality (the level to which a user can implement and utilize available tools). Both are critically important.

This week’s article “Bridging the Digital Divide” addresses mostly the digital divide and the importance of schools providing sufficient technologies to “close or at least narrow the digital divide.” It states that schools must “provide full access for special student populations – especially those with disabilities – to the Internet, distance learning, and multimedia materials.” I loved that it points out a need to have a technology specialist on staff to “stay informed and up-to-date on technologies” and help train teachers and facilitate student learning. That’s my current role and I feel like it critical to our school accomplishing our technology vision.

While I don’t question the importance of universal access, I do have a slightly different perspective since I currently live in a developing country. Few have computers at home. The Internet is costly and sporadic. Everyone fends for themselves in this regard by going to their local “cyber” to use the Internet when needed. It may not be easy nor convenient, but they make it work. They find a way. Sometimes I wonder in the U.S. if we mistakenly call it a digital divide if a student doesn’t have all the bells and whistles on all the latest gadgets at home with a high-speed Internet connection, when there are many other ways to get online (school being just one of them.)

The digital divide is certainly a complex problem and one that schools need to address – but schools are only one piece of a very large puzzle. Individuals (regardless of their circumstances), communities, and Internet Service Providers are key players as well.

An article called “Can E-learning Break the Digital Divide?” looks at whether the convenience and availability of global e-Learning narrows the digital divide with students from developing countries. The author, who is a virtual education professor from the University of Liverpool, believes that the Divide is only widening. The reasons for this are complicated, but they resonate with me because I live in a developing country and work with students similar to the ones he describes. I see these problems and know they are real.

He claims that while the potential is there, e-Learning doesn’t provide equal education to everyone because of four main reasons: 1) the language barrier, which includes cultural specifics; 2) the lack of prerequisites which leads many students to struggle; 3) technology hurdles such as slow Internet or old equipment; and 4) lack of course translation. E-Learning courses also require a certain level of maturity and self-motivation for students to contribute to discussion boards and assignments, and many students are not familiar with this type of intense learning. He cites statistics about how many students are studying from outside their developing home country due to lack of opportunity and sufficient Internet access.

Ultimately, the author makes a strong claim that “crossing the Digital Divide is equal to crossing an economic barrier.”

Disrupting Class: A Reflection on Transforming Learning

VoiceThreadThis is a collaborative VoiceThread created in response to this article:
Disrupting Class: Student-Centric Education Is the Future
[I made my comments directly in the VoiceThread but wanted to put them here as well.]

This article has some very persuasive arguments, if not downright discouraging, about the state of our current educational landscape. As someone in this class mentioned in a previous discussion, and like many other similar articles, it uses scare tactics to make its point. It calls for a complete reform of learning, of education, of technology integration. I can’t debunk its persuasive arguments, and even agree with many of them. Yet, I wonder if there is a better way, something a little more balanced, a little more realistic. Or is that what vision is? More of a dream than reality?

I agree here when it says that the key to transforming technology is how it’s implemented, and here — that simply investing in expensive technology devices or software isn’t enough to move student learning forward. So what is the answer? I believe that while it’s complicated, it’s also possible — and it’s an effort we must continually support and fight for.

We need to use technology in strategic, measured, planned ways that allows students to learn the way they need to learn. We need to reach them on their terms and speak their language, which almost always involves some sort of social media format. We need to not be afraid to take risks, to try something new, to fail miserably and to try again. We need teachers that are willing to think outside the box, but to also be there for their students, both in a traditional sense and a digital one.

Maybe a complete transformation is needed, maybe not. Why don’t we start by doing a better job at the things we’re doing and continually looking for ways to bring our students along with us in this great world of learning.