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‘My passion is to help them have that chance’ – Mike Cariaso on education

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The following post comes to us from Mike Cariaso, man behind SNPedia (amongst many other day jobs and side projects). Here he tells us about his passion for education – our January and February topics – and his work with One Laptop Per Child.

It’s not too late to send in your passions. Check back for more. And with that, take it away, Mike …

“9 years ago I decided to take a 4 month vacation between a change of jobs. At the advice of a well traveled irish couple I picked Thailand to start the journey. I soon learned another coworker had similar plans to see SE Asia, but she was a bit nervous about visiting Burma (Myanmar) as a woman alone and invited me to join her. I accepted and planned to stay for a week. But the isolation of this place had left the citizens hungry for contact with outsiders and I enjoyed the opportunities that this presented to really meet locals. I ended up staying the whole month that my visa allowed.

2 years later I returned to Thailand, in hopes of exploring more of the region. During a month in Laos I found a Library/Education Center run by a western woman. She had a roomful of recently donated but broken computers. Many were suffering only from a tiny watch battery which had run dry. I cannibalized parts from the rest and tracked down suitable batteries for less than a $1 each leaving them with perhaps 10 usable machines.

Emboldened by this I decided to visit Mae Sot, a town on the Thai-Burma border which had several camps for refugees from Burma. It was said to offer opportunities for volunteering, and I figured I might be able to use my computer skills to help. I was invited to teach a class at a school, and at the end of class asked to return the next day to do it again. This grew into 2 classes a day, then more and more until I was invited to stay in a small room at the back of the student dorm, and to teach full time for as long as I could stay.

My classes were about how to use the 3 computers available. We began with how to turn it on, then used Windows Paint to learn mouse control, save, cut, copy paste, quit and other basics. We moved to Word, Powerpoint, and Excel. Most students could not speak english and I spoke none of their Karen language. But computers are very hands-on, and the students who understood would translate what they could for those who spoke even less.

In time one of the teachers, Kyaw Lwin, would serve as my assistant and translate among the 4 languages spoken in the classroom. During the evenings I would serve as a network administrator, preparing system images which they could use to restore the machines to a clean state, when the inevitable viruses crept in. By the end of my stay we had a simple network and used a modem to introduce them to the internet, search and chat. Before I left most had an email address and some idea of how to use it.

When I returned to the USA, these email addresses allowed me to maintain communication with my old students. I learned that many who were unable to speak english, were able to write well enough at the speed that email permitted. Not only was this useful to continue to teach remotely, but it allowed me to continue to provide needed tech support. Donors had seen our successes and dramatically upgraded the facilities. Where we once could handle 80 students and needed plastic tarps to protect the computers from the rain, we now had 700 students, concrete walls, and 12 identical machines in an upstairs classroom.

A student I’d largely overlooked from that first class still had almost no english, but had developed into the resident computer expert. Despite the language barrier, Chitlay could fix broken printers and diagnose the usual Windows headaches far better than most Americans. On this trip I had him shadow all of the hardware work I did. We’d cannibalize memory and hard drives from dead machines to resurrect the ones which were merely dying.

I’ve returned several times, and will surely continue to do so. Over the years I’ve been able to focus on higher level work, as the low level stuff has seeped into a wide base and can now be taught by the native speakers. On my last visit they were using google earth to see the world, reading wikipedia in 3 languages to help with their History assignments, doing video editing and creating blogs to tell their stories. The most pleasant insight was that they could use youtube to find tutorials about photoshop, how to play musical instruments, and whatever else they wanted to learn. This extends their reach beyond any single teacher and can be repeated as often as needed to suit the skill level of the student.

My frustration is that all of this education may still yield very little. As refugees they are barred from higher education in Thai universities. Most are forbidden from traveling deeper into Thailand, and must live in a tiny border zone. There are few jobs, and my heart breaks for the former top student who’s english enables him to work as a hotel bellhop, since no better job can be found. Many more will end up sewing garments at the nearby sweatshop which pays slightly more than the ~$1/day for farm work done by their parents.

I’ve seen what the internet has already done. It has brought the world to them. They can now use Wikipedia and MIT Open Courseware to learn absolutely anything. They can listen to a lecture at Berkeley, and even repeat or fast forward it (luxuries I would have been grateful for just a few years ago). I’ve tried, but not yet succeeded in my next mission — I want to teach them to program. We’ve tried Python and Scratch, but it this seed has not yet taken root. With programming they will be able to bid on rent-a-coder jobs, and work in a global market. I’m particularly eager to see them create the software to help their own community. Many times I’ve seen them be as capable and clever as any student anywhere, and I know they can compete. My passion is to help them have that chance.”

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Written by kaythaney

March 9, 2011 at 4:13 pm

Posted in passion, Uncategorized

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