I got to take my first field trip, visiting a teachers college in Kampala that has one of the Digital Drums distributed by the UNICEF office here. As in any job, it is always nice to be able to get out of the office and see how things are in the real world. The trip started with the ride in the official UN/UNICEF vehicle. Fortunately, there was no convoy involved; that would have felt just a bit weird, particularly for a trip across town that took only about 15 minutes. The trip back took longer, but that’s because we came upon a parade or a demonstration or something that blocked the road for a time. It was very near the electoral commission, which is often accused of corruption and manipulating elections, so perhaps that was the delay. There are several political posters up with candidates’ pictures, so it is also possible that this was a political rally of some kind. We weren’t close enough to read the signs and banners or to understand the chants so who knows what it was really all about.
The look of the city definitely changed in getting out of the central business district, which also seems to house a lot of the ex-pats (it has been referred to also as the luxury part of town). I noticed in particular the way the shops were arranged. In the districts I’ve been in, there have been mostly shopping centers with the streets of businesses being mostly just in a couple of areas. In these other neighborhoods, rows of shops line the streets. I didn’t really see a residential district, so it’s hard to know how they might differ.
Like every other complex I’ve entered here other than shopping centers, the teachers college had a gate. This gate wasn’t manned, though, which did surprise me a bit. We were greeted when we entered the school and then made our way to the location of the Digital Drum. We got a chance to talk with a student who had used the drum and one of the staff members about their experience with it. The student in particular had clearly enjoyed using the machine, although it wasn’t currently working. We’re ensuring someone gets out to figure out what’s wrong and fixes it.
This particular student hadn’t started with any computer skills but had learned to use the machine by watching a friend of his use it. For the things he’s already found, he’s confident he can find them again, but he still was unsure if he had browsed the extent of the content available. He was particularly interested in history (primarily regional history, including stories of different countries’ paths to development), mathematics, and science. My high school chemistry teacher would have been pleased with how interested this individual was in the periodic table of the elements. I can only assume he is training to be a science teacher.
The current deployments of these devices do not have Internet access continually and some don’t at all. When asked, the student said that Internet connectivity was important, although when pressed his major request was for current sports scores. The staff member seemed less convinced of the need for the device to always be online.
I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to talk to someone actually using and interested in the content for these systems. It is all too easy to sit in our offices and ascribe to people a set of requirements and features that don’t actually correspond well to their current circumstances. There’s a particular risk to this when introducing technology that isn’t yet commonly used. Many of the teachers, students, and the future teachers in this country are currently unfamiliar with computers, browsers, and the reality of the web. We must tread carefully in introducing this technology to them to not bias our content presentation and interfaces based on our perceptions of their skills and needs rather than their articulation and the reality of their skills and needs.