Highlands Christian Grammar School is not a participant in the OLPC program, and was not on my planned itinerary of schools to visit in PNG. I had the good fortune—serendipity—of being able to visit it because I met the principal of the school (Joy Pryor) while staying at the Baptist Transit Flat in Mt Hagen, PNG. Joy had left her native New Zealand to come and start a primary/grammar school, basically from scratch, in Mt. Hagen. The founding of this school was intended to address the dissatisfaction with the quality of schooling available in Hagen on the part of a number of Baptists and/or community leaders in the Hagen area—in other words, she had a mandate to create a grammar school of superior quality to anything that had existed previously in the area.
When I told her about my own research, focused on OLPC deployments, but really looking at technology in the schools in developing regions, Joy invited me to come and visit her school, while sharing with me that the technology at her school consisted of donations (cast-offs, really) mainly from Australia. This is an issue that is quite separate from those I had been thinking of, or would likely be encountering in the OLPC projects, but is one that takes place all too often in the poorer regions of the world: Good intentions by those in wealthy parts of the world, who have plenty of technology and are upgrading and now have something to get rid of, leading to a donation of often obsolete, power-hungry, and frequently ill-matched technology being “dumped” in the developing world, where it is supposed to lead to great things. I have read about this happening, I have critiqued the practice in writing, but I had never seen it before in person. And in fact, I wasn’t going to see the worst of it: Joy had already gone through and taken the best of what was donated to the school. I neglected to ask what she had done with the rest…
This school certainly had a different feel and appearance from the other schools I visited. Instead of it being in a rural area, it was an oasis in the middle of a bustling city. To be sure, it was walled in, with concertina wire around the top of the walls, and had multiple guards keeping it safe 24-hours per day. Unfortunately, this is perfectly NORMAL in Mt Hagen, and in Port Moresby, for that matter. For schools, residences, hotels, restaurants…basically only the retail stores and markets are NOT fenced in and guarded. It’s disconcerting. And for me, it raised all kinds of chicken-or-egg type questions: are the cities in PNG unsafe because everyone believes they are and takes extreme measures to protect their property, or does everyone think things are unsafe because most of the buildings are gated, fenced, and guarded? In any case, I was told over and over again how unsafe it was in both Mt Hagen (PNG’s third-largest city) and in Port Moresby, the capital and largest city. I was also warned against ever venturing past the gates on my own—but I did venture past them on a couple of occasions. I didn’t actually feel unsafe at any point, but then I found myself wondering if I was foolish, and it was a false sense of security…
Anyway, back to the school. The classes at this school were very small: 8-12 students per class, which allowed for quite a bit of individual teacher attention for the students, and the teachers that I met all appeared to be extremely well-trained and comfortable using technology—although this wasn’t always of the computer-variety. The teachers at this school actually had access to—and I watched all of them use—the peripherals that nearly all of the OLPC-project teachers express the desire to have, in order to complement their computer usage: Whiteboards, and printers, in particular. This school also had a projector, and a beautiful library full of (donated) books.
There were two (old! donated) computers in each classroom, and a computer lab as well, full of (again, quite old, energy-hungry, donated) bulky desktop computers. The computers in the classrooms were used occasionally, for watching videos, playing games when students had finished an assignment early, etc. The computer lab was used for the older students learning how to type, and how to do research. (And yes, when I asked, these computers’ power requirements were a large expense for the school.) This school had the luxury of having access to things that the OLPC schools didn’t necessarily have—like paper for the students to draw, paint, and make artwork with, etc. Thus, they weren’t generally using the computers for these purposes. This was a night-and-day difference from a school I was to visit later, which had no paper nor printers, so the OLPC XOs were serving as the medium for the students to practice and display (if not keep forever) their art skills and artwork.
In the end, this school faced a number of different challenges from the schools with the OLPC laptops that I visited. It was privileged and wealthier in a number of ways. However, this did not mean that there were not challenges! I remain beyond impressed by how Joy was able to come in (as a foreigner), and set up a school from scratch, establishing relationships with all kinds of people, from local teachers to men willing to guard the building—in just 18 months! She had to sort through the cast-off technology and all manner of other well-intentioned donations, in order to set up the school with the right kind of learning tools for the students. She had vision—in abundance—for how she wanted the school to be operating, both now and in the future, from the grounds of the school (to include multiple athletic and game-playing areas,) to curriculum development, which she was working on developing in collaboration with a local educator, James Suki, who was also my contact in Mt Hagen, and who had brought me to the Jim Taylor school the day before. As we spoke about this curriculum development, they let me know that it was possible that their efforts would have a much wider reach than just to the Highlands Christian Grammar School—James had been speaking with the Minister of Education, who had recently been charged with developing new curriculum for all the schools in PNG, and since James and Joy were already working on this curriculum, and would basically be presenting a finished product to the Minister….there’s a good chance it could be adopted—in part or in whole—on a much broader basis. And that’s where the politics enters the picture, once again!!!
Next post: On to Kiunga!