A Lesson from Haiti: Despite the Lack of IT, Learning Happens

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education

Recently, my university – Purdue University Calumet in Hammond, Indiana – installed media technology stations in the last two classrooms on campus that lacked them. As it happens, these were the two classrooms in which I have taught most of my classes for the last few years. However, I was not without technology. I was able to place an order at the beginning of each semester for a cart to be delivered each class period. It came with a computer with Internet access, a DVD player, and a projector.

The cart served its purpose, although it did take up space in the middle of the classroom and was rather noisy. Therefore, I am happy to have a stationary setup in the classroom now. It contains the aforementioned equipment as well as a document camera, which I have found very handy. However, my classroom in the US is not what I want to talk about here. I mention it because I want to contrast this technology with what I experienced in Haiti recently.

During the week of Thanksgiving, I taught English to 125 students at a start-up college in a province of Haiti.  The Université de la Nouvelle Grand’Anse (UNOGA) is like a technical school or community college and has two programs, agriculture and administration/management. It does not have a permanent staff, and its facilities are meager. This year, with the assistance of volunteers recruited by the Haitian Connection, an NGO (non-governmental organization ) which supports grassroots development projects such as this one, students are taking part in a year long program of general studies. They are being offered a variety of short courses, ranging from English and Spanish to water management, from Atlantic history to basic physics.

While I was in Jeremie for the week, I thought a lot about how we take technology for granted. In my university classroom in the US, even when I did not have a media station, I was able to show YouTube videos and DVDs; use PowerPoints; and access the web because we have the equipment, but more importantly, because we have a steady supply of electricity. Haiti does not. Jeremie, a small town on the southern peninsula of Haiti, supplies electricity to its inhabitants most evenings from about 6:00pm-11:00pm. Otherwise, people use their own generators, candles, gas lamps, or flashlights.

Due to this lack of electrical service, technology was not really an option at UNOGA. In addition, the classroom is actually an outdoor assembly hall, more like a shelter with open sides. The acoustics and lighting leave a lot to be desired. However, I was assured that if I wanted to show a video or use my computer to show the students something, I could. They do have a generator at the university, but it was out of commission the week I was there.

Therefore, if I wanted to use any technology that week, the generator had to be transported from the house where we were staying, set up, then, at the end of the school day, taken back to the house. This seemed like too much trouble to me. I was also appalled to learn that gas cost about $5.00 a gallon in Haiti.

Under the circumstances, I opted for a technology-free week.

I had brought plenty of copies of everything the students needed, and I was able to use a blackboard of sorts that was there. We managed. The students worked in groups a lot, and I think they learned something. However, I wish we had had easy access to technology. I could have played audio and video clips for them, and I could have used PowerPoints that are much more clear than my handwriting.  I could have shown them all kinds of Internet resources for language learners. If we had had a document camera, they could have even shown their work to their fellow students more easily.

Would the students have learned more if we had had access to technology? I think so, because technology provides some great tools for the language leaner.

Did the lack of technology prevent them from learning? Absolutely not. After all, language instruction is about the process of interactions, and with or without technology, learning happens.

2 Responses

  1. Lynn, thank you for this inspiring personal account of teaching in a setting where even the most basic technology, electricity, isn’t a viable option, eliminating what most of us in the US consider essential to teaching and learning — instructional technology.

    We focus so much on high tech that we forget that learning can and does take place even when computers, the web, whiteboards, and CMSs aren’t available.

    The basic element, interaction among the individuals in the educational setting, is just as effective today as it was two thousand years ago. -Jim S

  2. Excellent points.

    Of course, we can teach as we did for thousands of years — without electronic technology. We’re still asking when electronics help learning.

    A bit off-topic — $5 per gallon truly is difficult in the poorest country (as I recall) in the Western Hemisphere. Although I pay about $3.30, many European countries pay much more than even the Haitian amount of $5.

    We really have to wean ourselves from cheap gasoline and do it soon.

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