This blog post continues chronicling a trip of site surveys out to Lagoon Island schools in Chuuk, FSM, to determine the feasibility (both infrastructurally and concerning human-skills/readiness/interest) of connecting the schools to the Internet through long-distance WiFi and of installing computer labs. A map of the Lagoon is again below
We awoke to glorious sunshine this morning, boding well for our boat trip to the next three schools we would visit.. This time we would travel South from Weno, visiting primary schools at Fefen, Siis, and Tonowas Islands.
There were Peace Corps volunteers stationed at Fefen and Tonowas schools, so we were particularly eager to visit these schools to see whether a possibility existed to partner with them for future technology-in-the-schools projects, for the training they might be able to offer. The school at Siis was a last-minute addition: we knew we had time to visit a third school, but there were a few possibilities existing. Siis was recommended to us possibly because—we were told—the Dept of Education hadn’t heard from them at all in over a week. (That made us really not know what to expect!)
Fefen was the first Island we arrived at, and the team had an enjoyable walk inland to get to the UFO School (the school’s name is an acronym for the three surrounding communities it serves).
When we arrived, we found a beautiful, brand new, two-story school building—the ONLY two-story primary school I had seen thus far. The students crowded around in their yellow shirts (also a first—uniforms). We first met Elana, the Peace Corps volunteer, who introduced us to the Acting Principal and the teachers, and arranged for us to have a conversation about technology with a small group of both teachers and students. We got an eyeful as we contrasted the rusty old school with this gorgeous new building that they had just moved in to two weeks ago.
However, all the rooms in this brand new, immaculate building were absolutely empty. Each room had been decorated beautifully by the teachers with paper-flowers and colorful drawings from the students taped to the walls, but there was absolutely no furniture to be found. Imagine, two floors of lovely school rooms, where all the classes are led with teachers and students having no place to sit. At first, I thought that perhaps the paint just hadn’t dried sufficiently on this new building for the Dept of Education to send the furniture that would make the rooms reasonably usable….
…but then I recalled Melody (the first Peace Corps volunteer we had met) describing a Dept of Education warehouse on the main island that was full of equipment for the schools but that was not distributed and was nearly impossible to satisfy the paperwork requirements to obtain—books, desks, tables, chairs, etc. Melody had been to this warehouse with the other Peace Corps volunteers, so they had all witnessed this situation firsthand. And now I got to witness how each school we would visit experienced incredibly different situations from each other. Some schools had plenty of books while others had nearly none. Some schools had plenty of desks and chairs, while others had none, some schools struggled with teacher absenteeism while others clearly did not. In a similar way, some schools had teachers with plenty of technology experience while others had teachers with no such experience. These site visits were becoming more and more valuable, as we learned the unique circumstances facing each school (and possible challenges they would need to address)—not simply the unique siting of each school, regarding where a tower could be placed for potential Internet connectivity.
Excepting Elana, the teachers and students at UFO School at Fefen had little experience using ICT, but all had a great deal of interest and enthusiasm for it. UFO Primary School (1st-8th grades) has between 80-90 students and (I believe) four teachers.
Outside, the rest of the team was performing the site survey to assess feasibility of a long-distance WiFi link with the Telecom Tower on the main Island (Weno). This was the first school completely surrounded by foliage, presenting a bit of a conundrum. (The teachers’ good-natured opinion and enthusiasm for technology was evidenced when a number of them smilingly told us: “Just cut down the trees! We want the Internet!”) Some team members climbed up a nearby hill to take measurements to determine whether line-of-sight could be established from there, and I believe they determined it could. Meanwhile, we were offered some local fruits, which is a traditional way of welcoming guests making a visit to a village.
Back to the boat, and then on to Siis School. The only thing we had been told about this school in advance was that they hadn’t been heard from, at all, in over a week. I had the impression that the place was going to be the most remote, end-of-the-earth location, if no contact had been made for a week.
So imagine our surprise when the entire student body was out on the beach, screaming with excitement to see us as our boat pulled up to their shore. I cannot imagine a more idyllic setting for a school, which I hope the pictures reflect.
The school’s front yard is a beach. With a view that could qualify it for inclusion in a calendar of tropical paradise vistas, or a screen saver for those who like to daydream of the same…
And in stark contrast to all of the schools we had visited thus far, the students at this school were extremely outgoing, friendly, talkative, even bold. At every other school, the students had been very difficult to communicate with and painfully shy (except for mugging for the camera—which was universally popular).
Siis Primary School (1st-8th grades) has 87 students and five teachers. We sat down with the principal/math teacher and the social studies teacher, and it became clear that neither of them had experience with technology (each had been teaching for over 20 years), and neither expressed much enthusiasm for technology in the school. Since this was the case, and the state of the aging school building itself was such that we couldn’t really imagine how they would make a computer lab safe and protected, we ended our interview rather quickly, and waited for the rest of the team to carry out their technical site survey.
We were bombarded with these kids wanting to talk with us—and it was their lunch break, so there were no teachers trying to drag them back in to school. One of them was so rambunctious that he actually broke one of the hinges on the main door to the school building, so that rickety wooden door, of questionable use in the first place, and whose lock was already clearly missing, now hung sideways.
Then something truly unexpected happened. Bruce Baikie, of Inveneo, who is taller than I am, looked in to one of the school rooms and told me “Laura, come here. You need to see this.” I found something to stand on, since the windows were so high up, looked in, and couldn’t believe what I saw: six boys crowding around an iPad, watching an American Super-hero movie.
I went back into the school and took some pictures, and meanwhile some more boys packed around the tablet to watch. They couldn’t tell me what movie it was, and I’m sure they didn’t understand it, but as the NYPD van pulled up on the small screen and the police officers with guns piled out, trying to shoot the scaly monster, I realized that language was not necessary for them to thoroughly enjoy the show.
What a shock! This was the school that hadn’t been heard from in a week (we learned that it was because they had turned off their radio—not that it was broken), with no electricity (although none of the island schools have electricity), in the most decrepit building we had seen so far, and here’s a group of boys watching an American shoot-em-up movie on an iPad during the lunch break! Here was proof that relatives located abroad send technology back home—in this case, a state-of-the-art iPad pre-loaded with movies!
We continued on to Tonowas Island, and made the trek inland to visit Sino Memorial Primary School (1st-8th grades) which had by far the largest enrollment and number of teachers of any school we had visited, with 375 students and 13 teachers (plus two retirees who come to help out). Not only that, theirs was the only school where student enrolment was growing, we were told, because the good reputation of the school had spread across the Island and more and more parents were sending their children there.
When we arrived at the school, we were met by quite a few surprises. The first surprise was that one of the two school buildings was completely new, and as had been the case at UFO School in Fefen, there were absolutely no desks, chairs, or furniture inside this brand-new building. The next surprise was that this school actually had a computer lab! We learned more about this once we gathered the teachers to have a group discussion with them.
This would be the third school where a Peace Corps volunteer (Ben) was stationed, and we met him right away and got a meeting with the teachers started.
The level of technology use among the teachers at this school was quite high: they were all able to give quite specific examples of what they’d like to be able to do with a computer lab and Internet connectivity vis-à-vis their classes and their teaching. This was not surprising, given that there was a computer lab on the premises. However, this lab hadn’t actually been functional for about a year.
The background they gave us on the lab was that it had been working up until the previous year, but the Internet bill wasn’t being paid (it wasn’t clear to me who was responsible for paying the bill, and I think that may also have been the reason the bill wasn’t paid…dispute over who was supposed to pay), so Telecom FSM consequently shut off the Internet connection. The bill subsequently was paid a year later, but now there are infrastructural issues that remain to re-connect the school. (A repeater tower on a neighboring island would be required in order to obtain line-of-sight connectivity from the main Island out to this school on Tonowas.)
In any case, during the two years that the lab had been up and running, it was a Peace Corps volunteer who had led computer lab workshops, which he offered to teachers, to the 8th grade class of students, and to the community members on the weekends, and it had been very popular. Ben, the current Peace Corps volunteer expressed that he’d be interested in doing the same, if there was the possibility of a functioning lab with Internet connectivity. At present, the computers in the lab have become so infected with viruses they’re impossible to use, and a flash drive stuck in to the usb drive erases it, from the viruses. We were given a quick tour of the (non-used) computer lab, and were further surprised to discover a solar powering system as well, designed to power the lab!
However, the solar system was also not working—not surprisingly, the inverter had broken. (The inverter is always the first piece of equipment to go in a solar system!) The connectivity tower at this school was also unique—it was made of fiberglass and no one on our team had ever seen anything like it before.
One final, and pleasant, surprise we observed at this school was that a good number of children stayed after the school day was over and played (at least somewhat) organized, co-ed sports in the schoolyard—the only time we witnessed this.
We enjoyed watching them play their sports a bit before heading back to the boat and eventually back to Weno.