Monday, March 19, 2012

Loss of a Heroine

I first met Lyn Lusi when I was teaching at TASOK in Kinshasa, Congo. During a brief time when the local airlines made that region accessible, a friend arranged for me and Lauren to stay with Lyn at her home in Goma while we had an adventure tour to eastern Congo. Lyn was a most accommodating and gracious host, feeding us, housing us, arranging expeditions, and driving us around the region, and I did some repairs on her satellite dish and household internet network in exchange. She introduced us to the region (as well as to fried locusts and how to pay bribes to police) and gave us our first glimpse into how the Rwandan Genocide and its aftermath affected the people of eastern Congo, especially the women.

At the time, I was not really aware of how terrible the magnitude of the crimes committed in that area were, but I was impressed that this somewhat dainty-looking and pleasant British woman had dug in her roots in a place called "the most dangerous city in the world", and was spearheading the building of a local hospital that ran entirely on donations; a facility known as HEAL Africa. She told us fascinating tales of how, only a few months earlier, a volcanic eruption had engulfed the town, destroyed their new building and forced them to relocate into tents as they began rebuilding on the still-warm lava.  

A few years later, when Lauren and I had relocated to Hong Kong, I adopted a service club at the school that supported Médecins Sans Frontières, but after a year we realized that our funds would be better utilized for a more grass-roots effort, so I remembered Lyn and her hospital, and the students and I formed the HEAL Africa Club.

To help generate local support for the hospital, we invited Lyn and her husband Jo to come to Hong Kong, all expenses paid. The HKIS Alumni Association (under the leadership of Ken Koo) pitched in and paid for their airfare, and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel comped us their deluxe suite. Unfortunately, as is too common in the DRC, Jo Lusi's high profile status as an ex-Representative in the government, and other political frictions between DRC and HK led to the perpetual postponement of his HK visa. Lyn was immune, holding a British passport, so she came alone. During the week she spent at HKIS, she spoke to classes, student leadership groups, parents and teachers about the issues facing women and the efforts of her hospital in Goma. She even introduced the first Asian showing of LUMO, a documentary about a patient at her hospital. The HEAL Africa club raised about $30,000 for the hospital that year, and was a highly visible club among students and the community, mostly because of Lyn's charisma. Lyn also nurtured a genuine relationship with Elvira, the student leader of the HEAL Africa club.

The following year, Tash, one of our PE teachers, decided to take a year off and do some travelling. High on her bucket list was a trip to Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas. I convinced her to make a side trip to Goma to see Lyn and the hospital, and the result of that was the birth of another genuine relationship and friendship between Lyn and someone from HKIS. And during that summer, two seniors who were members of the HEAL Africa club decided to make the journey to DRC as a graduation gift to themselves, and worked at the hospital for a week. Lyn's effect on our student body was generating long-lasting effects.

About this time, Lyn's efforts at bringing the work of HEAL Africa and the plight of the Congolese women to the public eye resulted in her winning The Opus Prize, a $1M cash award that she used to establish a trust fund to generate monies for the hospital. Her acceptance speech is fascinating and worth watching.

I have stayed in loose contact with Lyn over the past two years, reporting on the efforts of the HEAL Africa club, and hearing about her work with the hospital. My students and ex-colleague have also stayed in loose contact, and we were all surprised to slowly discover how high-profile she really was (with inteviews on BBC, PBS, connections with global celebrities and many other accolades); she had that ability to make you feel like you were important and that you and her were peers and at the same level. 

This was obviously not so: Lyn was one of the most amazing and giving people in the world, and in a class of people far above ordinary people like me. Her work at HEAL Africa created an institution that benefits thousands and thousands of people who otherwise would be abandoned, she motivated and enlisted the support of people worldwide, she rubbed shoulders with Heads of State, CEOs of multinational corporations, well-known actors, teachers, students, rape victims and orphans. And throughout it all, she was still that 'somewhat dainty-looking and pleasant British woman' I first met in Goma, who never lost her humility or single-minded dedication to helping the victims of the marauding militants in eastern Congo.

She will be missed, but the work she has started will go on.

Her passing and her life was commemorated in several high-profile places, such as The EconomistPBS Newshour and on the Floor of the US Senate.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

StuCon has left the building

Its 5am Sunday, I'm lying in bed with my thoughts churning after the 24-hour tech event, thinking about how it went. Lots to process, and I have that feeling that it will take a few weeks, lots of random conversations and some time before I can process everything, but I want to get it down in writing while its still fresh in my mind in its unprocessed state.

The format: 
-Student-run: I think this component was a huge success and is fundamentally essential. We had some discussions about having the Gurus run sessions, as they would provide an 'outside' perspective, would be well run, and would be substantive, but in general I think the kids felt that they 'owned' the conference more because they ran it. A lot of the discussions and comments in Twitter and in videos was about it being student-run. That was part of the branding.

This is the part that is hardest to analyze. On one hand, it is what distinguishes it from any other conference, and defines StuCon. It also made it into a type of endurance event, which gave the kids a definition of 'success' that was less about technology and more about participation ("I survived StuCon"). Lots of the conversations were about this; kids challenging each other to stay up all night and congratulating each other if they did. I'm not sure how this component directly effects the quality of tech learning, as kids being overtired and saturated certainly has an effect, but I think it adds a component to the conference that was good. It certainly provided opportunities for the kids to bond in ways that were meaningful and not under our control.

-4-hour blocks:
We all felt that some of these were too long, especially in the second block, where the presenters were so tired that the energy level was down. I think the original intent was for the 4-hour block to pose a bit of a challenge itself so the presenters had to push themselves, but when combined with the lack of sleep it was just too much of a challenge for most. By the end of the second and third block, kids were spending an hour off task, playing games and napping. The second and third block, at least, could have been shorter.

The idea of having gurus was to have some 'nurturing adults' who were a resource for the kids. The organizers, with their heads full of logistical issues, ended up with a sort of professional distance, so the gurus's role was to fill this gap; to be an expert resource to answer questions, provide motivation and help refine their thoughts. I think they did this, but it was more complex than that. Kids are used to there being an adult in the room, and simultaneously having their own culture that excludes that adult; the Gurus were young and hip enough to be part of the youth culture, so they became de-facto model leaders rather than advisors, which was a good thing. They also provided some structure so that the kids' products had a chance to be more professionally done (I'm thinking particularly about the Game proposals). However, too many Guru-run 4-hour workshops could taint the purity of the 'student run' component; I think those should be kept to a very minimum. The Power Sessions were a good compromise, and the kids responded very well about those.

The coaches were great; most of them did not participate much at all, but slept or wandered around or watched their kids present. This allowed the kids to have control and for StuCon to evolve in a direction dictated by the kids' energy. They also did absolutely no second-guessing, no undermining or grumbling, which was wonderful and supportive. I wish I had had more time to chat and network with them, but my own exhaustion and focus on logistics kept me from being able to socialize much. But I think their sense of 'hands off and go for the ride' made it very easy to let StuCon run its course and we could all see where it would lead. As the night unfolded, I deeply appreciated the coaches' tacit support of this experiment. 

-Adjusting our agenda
At two points of time, we were faced with changing horses midstream. At the end of the two hour movie time, when the lights were low and the room was silent and it was 3am, there was an idea to extend this time period to 'let the kids sleep', but three of the four organizers pushed back to awaken the kids and get the next round of workshops on track. There was no surprise that the kids were overtired: this was a designed component, but creating a physical environment so conducive to sleeping at that moment made it hard to stick to our game plan. But in fairness, it was challenging not to seem hard-hearted with all these innocent little kids sleeping around you, by turning on the lights and waking everyone up. 

The second time we were faced with adjusting the agenda was for the last session. The tired kids had not been using their scheduled time fully, so there was a lot of 'down time' where they were gaming or napping, and we were concerned that they might feel bored or under-challenged. We decided to cut the last sessions down from 4 hours to just under 2 hours so the material would be compressed, and so they kids and coaches could get out early, but it wasn't an easy decision. Some of the teams felt let down, as they had prepared four hour sessions, however others had no one attend, so they were unaffected. The kids were in such a daze by then that I think they were only looking forward to getting home and to bed, so I don't know if any of them actively revamped their lessons. It was no surprise that the sessions were laggy by then, as the kids were exhausted, however we never gave that 'bounce back' of energy in the second day a chance to revitalize things. Like I said, I'm unsure whether we made the right call or not. I know that, as a team, we were unresolved about this, but went with it after good internal discussions. Compromise is key.

-Background Tasks
In addition to the workshops, we had discussed the existence of some activities that ran nonstop; such as 'make a video about StuCon', or 'take pictures of familiar objects and make them unfamilar', etc. I think the presence of a flurry of these things could have served as a much more binding element; the 'make a movie' one turned out to be the only one and did not generate very many products, but that was probably because it was not pushed very hard throughout the night, as we wanted to see if it would develop legs of its own. If we had given them a checklist of activities or posted a running log of achievements for a flurry of activities, it might have been a more motivating aspect. But, of course, it would have added an 'adult run' component, too. Maybe in the future, we can give design and running of these 'background tasks' to a student group to run, or something.

-Lack of sleep
The 24-hour component was directly related to the 'lack of sleep' aspect. We could build in some nap time, or break the conference into two parts, but we specifically wanted to create an overtired aspect to enhance creativity or push the kids into an 'altered state'. I think we achieved this but I am not so sure we capitalized on it, as we revamped the end of the conference so the during last few hours the focus was on getting wrapped up (and home to bed). Doubtlessly, at the time the lack of sleep felt mostly like a distraction, but I look forward to hearing how the kids feel about it in a week or two. It might turn out to be a signature component, or it might turn out to be a disposable element. 

Those are my first thoughts as I lie here in bed, at 6 am, recovering from StuCon. It was a challenging event to design, develop, organize and run, but it was fun and rewarding. I was the only coach or organizer to stay awake all 24 hours (well, 22 hours), so I feel quite weary, but I feel like I might have some unique contributions on some components of the design. After reading the hashtagged posts on Twitter from kids and coaches, and looking through some of the archived products, I realize that we did create an energy and an event with its own presence and life; I think there is tremendous potential for StuCon to become an established event with its own identity. What will be important is that we carefully analyze what are the best components, then make a conscious decision to more closely follow a traditional conference model, or to hold on to the very nontraditional structure.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

After the rush

Deep felt thanks to the excellent kids, coaches, gurus and support folks who helped make StuCon2012 a success. And a special thanks to all the coffee growers of Central and South America...without you, it just would not have been possible. :-)

Friday, March 16, 2012

StuCon has arrived

Our long awaited student tech conference is in session! There was a very cool suspended silence in the meeting room for about an hour, then 45 kids arrived at once on a bus, followed closely by 25 more via taxi, on foot and being dropped off. Registration went well, we fed them full of pizza and coke, and sent them off to their first session: programming in Java, MineCraft, Starcraft, writing a movie script (to be made into a move later tonight), and a tour of the CNN offices in town.

My first impressions were that it was a type of controlled chaos. I wanted to avoid too much 'sage on the stage' addressing the crowd, but of course there was a lot of logistics to share. As we spoke, I saw kids on their computers, gaming, texting, posting on looked a lot like they were doing anything but paying attention. But it soon became obvious that this is how they work. Once the boundaries of adult control ("I'm the mom and I said so") were released and they realized that this was THEIR conference, to be run the way THEY want, they soon slipped into the learning mode they were most comfortable with. When it came time to sign up for sessions (a not-so-simple task), they quickly learned what they needed to from each other, and got the job done. It's obvious that they were motivated to figure out how to do it, so they learned. I'm looking forward to seeing if the rest of the night works out the same way. I feel optimistic.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

New Things

I just got glasses for the first time. Not surprising...everyone else in my family wears them, but despite having enjoyed remarkably good eyesight for all my life, for the past 6-8 years or so I have noticed a steady deterioration. At first, I could not see things in the distance as clearly as before; everything was getting a little 'haze' around it like I was looking through a very light fog. Then it started to get so that I could not even read documents right in front of me; signing things became a game of 'pin the tail on the donkey' as I stabbed my signature at what I hoped was the correct line.

You might be wondering what this has to do with my tech blog. Hang in there.

So anyway, I finally dropped by LensCrafters to see about getting an eye exam. They did one right away, and there was a strange sense of jubilation in me: I felt like I was getting my youth back or something; that I was going to receive a rejuvenation in something that I used to be very good at, but that has slipped away from me. During the whole eye exam, I was as honest and careful about my responses as possible (no trying to guess what letter was on the chart; if I couldn't make it out, I told them so). After the lengthy exam, the optometrist gave me a pair of 'steampunk' glasses with MY prescription in them and told me to look around.

It was like HEAVEN!

I suddenly could see everything, clear as a bell. The fog was gone, I could see my fingerprints in clear focus, and the whole world looked clean and new. I could not WAIT to get my own pair! I eagerly paid the rather large amount of money for lenses and frames and went home to blab to everyone I knew about how excited I was to get my new glasses.

So after about 3 weeks, I got the phone call that my glasses were ready. I had to wait a day until I could get downtown to pick them up, but as soon as I got there, I popped them on and looked around.

Uh oh.

Something was wrong. My right eye was happy, but my left eye felt like I was cross-eyed or something. Things just would not focus correctly, and my left eye almost felt like it was straining so much it hurt. The optometrist said 'it takes a few days to get used to them...give it the weekend and see." So I wore them home and waited for the magic to happen.

Unfortunately, after about 4 days, it still didn't seem quite right. I was a bit disillusioned. What happened to the promise? What happened to the clear vision I had when I was there? How come my eyes felt WORSE than they did before? How long did it take to get used to these glasses??

I talked about it regularly (maybe too regularly) with anyone who was around, and even got accused of never being satisfied with anything. I sort of took that to heart, and decided to just accept that this is how they are supposed to be. Not ever having worn glasses before, I knew I needed to adjust my expectations, so maybe this is what it's like. Unfortunately, it wasn't at all what I had hoped for, but by now I had invested a ton of money in them, and my eyes had adjusted enough that NOT wearing them was just as uncomfortable, so I was sort of stuck in the middle. So I decided to just stop taking about it and just put up with it.

But that only lasted so long. Pretty soon, I decided that, instead of asking friends for their input, I should go back to LensCrafters, get some education and get my expectations managed better.

When the optometrist checked my prescription card against her database, she let out a gasp. Turns out that someone had misread a '+' sign as a '-' sign, and the left lens was entirely wrong. She apologized profusely, made a brief mention about how it was surprising I could see out of that eye at all, and wondered why I had waited so long to come back in. She told me to come back in a week and she'd have the new lens installed and I could get my glasses again.

A week later, after the call, I went in and put on my NEW new glasses. It was a world of difference! I could see things in the distance clearly and crisply, and could see close items perfectly. However, things in the middle distance were still similar to without the glasses, but the optometrist assured me that this was normal: the glasses were ground to improve long distance vision, but near distance vision should be somewhat unaffected, which was what I was experiencing.

So I wore them home, off on my merry way, and have been enjoying my new, clearer vision ever since. I don't wear them all the time because there are times when I prefer to be without (like when I'm watching TV), but in general, I can really feel the improvement in my life because I can see better and have the right lenses in my glasses. I sort of hate that I have to clean them ALL the time (I can't stand streaks), and I also have to keep track of them. And sometimes I don't like how they make my face look, but I try not to be so vain. I realize now that they are something new that I need to take care of, if I want to gain the benefit of having them. I sure wish they were completely easy to own, but that's the reality of it.

"So" you ask, "what does this have to do with technology?"

Everything. My experience with new glasses is very very similar to teacher's experience with technology. Let me draw the parallels.

  • Have reasonable expectations but don't dig in too much. Be honest and accept that your expectations might not be very mature when you start. Glasses don't give you new eyes; technology doesn't give you a totally rebuilt curriculum. You need to be prepared for things to be different than you expect.
  • Don't be afraid of a few false starts. Even failures are learning experiences, and lead you further successes.
  • You may not recognize success when you see it, because you were expecting something else. Revisit the first bullet.
  • Tech is a tool. One definition of a tool is "a purposeful design that connects a problem with a solution'. Tech is a tool in that way. It doesn't SOLVE anything, but it connects the problem and the solution. My glasses are a tool that connect my deteriorating eyesight with better vision (although not exactly how I expected it to). Technology is a tool that connects the changing world and students' changing motivations with better, more multidimensional learning (although probably not exactly how you expect it to). 
  • If you feel like something isn't working right, don't wait too long before you consult the experts. You might be entirely correct that you are doing something wrong, or you might be doing things just right and that's how it works. But you probably lack the experience to know it. That's why facilitators are help with the benefit of THEIR expertise.
  • There is no 'there' there. Just as I have discovered that new glasses does not equate to totally new vision, infused technology does not mean we've arrived at the perfect learning environment. We've just changed one set of challenges (that were not yielding the most benefits) for a new set (with much greater potential). But we still have to manage it.
Anyway, the similarities seemed so much stronger before I wrote this post, lol. I'll try to be more eloquent in future posts.