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Computer collaborations in Haiti: A graduate student's story

Erin Hughes
May 07, 2012

Erin Hughes, a master's student from Mentor, Ohio, traveled to Haiti during spring break 2012 with Associate Professor Terri Bucci, teaching and learning, Ohio State Mansfield, and a team of 18 other faculty, alumni and students. Bucci, who directs the Haiti Empowerment Project, goes to the Caribbean country an average of three times yearly to collaborate with Haitian educators on improving educational opportunities for children. Hughes, who is earning her master's degree in middle childhood education with specializations in math and science, benefitted from a Choose Ohio First Scholarship provided by the state of Ohio to boost the number of STEM graduates. She plans to graduate in May 2013.

From the time I first heard about the Haiti Empowerment Project from Dr. Terri Bucci, one of my professors at Ohio State Mansfield, I wanted to be involved. I had never traveled outside the United States other than to Canada, so I eagerly volunteered for one of Dr. Bucci's work trips.

Our team, led by Dr. Bucci, flew to the Caribbean island on Sunday, March 18, my birthday. As my fellow Buckeyes and I stepped off the plane at the Port-au-Prince airport, sweltering heat greeted us. The chaotic experience at the airport was unlike anything from my past and one I will never forget. We had to scramble to find our belongings.

Before our group was even out the door of the airport, a crowd of people surged around us, shouting in Haitian Creole to help with our bags. Dr. Bucci customarily uses the same person on each trip, so we were instructed to resist the offers of the others, but they are hard to refuse. Some are very aggressive in taking your bags from you and you must firmly instruct them to stop. I found them intimidating. However, I learned that the shouting people must compete for the most bags in order to make money.

Once outside the airport, we loaded our belongings into the back of a caged truck. As we took our places on benches inside the truck bed, the truck's cage doors were locked, and we were on our 45-minute drive to the guesthouse in the town of Croix-des-Bouquets.

The roads were unpaved dirt and full of potholes, making the ride very bumpy. However, the condition of the roads did bring a positive. The drivers never traveled more than 35 mph. This was refreshing after the intense speed of U.S. freeways. It also allowed us to see more of Haiti as we drove.

I was also interested to see how courteous the Haitian drivers are. Since there are no stop lights to manage traffic, the drivers allow people to join the flow of traffic and pass when needed. Then, too, there were no road signs that I noticed. The Haitian people just seemed to know how to get to their destinations. Most interesting of all, the drivers in Haiti seemed to use their horns as signals to each other, like a friendly gesture indicating that they saw them, or a form of hello.

We saw evidence of poverty. In particular, we passed several tent communities. In the U.S., we hear that Haiti is not yet recovered from the earthquake of 2010. Still, I was shocked and saddened to see how huge these communities are, full of people lacking permanent homes.

Once in Croix-des-Bouquets, our guesthouse looked like a palace compared to the conditions we had just witnessed along the sides of the roads. We each had a bed to sleep in, electricity and three meals prepared for us daily. I felt guilty spending my stay in Haiti in such comfortable accommodations, knowing full well I was surrounded by families sleeping and raising their families in tent communities.

I struggled with this issue throughout my trip abroad, and I struggle with it still. It helped put my personal and family challenges in perspective. Even though I lost my father three years ago, I do not struggle with a lack of necessities for daily survival, such as water and shelter, as many Haitian people do.

Assessing the use of XO computers in Haiti

On my first day, I visited Noailles School, a tent school with at least 100 students. Ruben Magloire, the school's assistant principal who has a background in computer science, was helping students in the sixth-grade classroom begin typing lessons. These lessons are similar to what we might find in an introductory keyboarding class in the United States.

While Ruben showed some students how to set up folders and open their files, I had the opportunity to interact with those who were ready to type. I wrote some common phrases on the board for them to type on their computers. I found the children to be very welcoming and enthusiastic about the opportunity to use the computers. The tent school was just down the street from our guesthouse, so I visited the children on most days during the trip.

My main assignment was to work with Dr. Doug Kranch, a professor of computer information systems at North Central State College, whom Dr. Bucci invited to contribute to the Haiti Empowerment Project. It was our goal to see how teachers were using the XO computers, provided by One Laptop Per Child. Dr. Bucci and Dr. Kranch would like to develop standards-based math learning modules for these computers. Our job was to gather the preliminary information needed to make effective use of the computers possible.

With Dr. Kranch, I also took part in interviews with teachers or school directors at three schools about their computer use: L'Ecole Shalom des Freres, the Noailles tent school, and the Faith Academy. To my astonishment, some of the teachers did not know the capabilities of a computer. Most of them did not know the parts of a computer, let alone how to integrate it into their classrooms. At each school, a computer expert rather than a teacher was teaching the students to use the computers.

It soon became clear to me that for math modules to be effective, the teachers were going to need training so they could use the computers in their classrooms. Dr. Kranch spent some time giving some of the teachers basic computer lessons so they could send e-mail to us.

Now that I am home, I am interested in keeping in touch with Ruben and his endeavors. He keeps me posted through Facebook about life in Haiti and his work teaching his teachers and students how to use computers.

I would definitely like to return to Haiti again. From my point of view, even though the people have suffered so much due to the earthquake, they still manage to function as a community, to get along and accomplish goals. I believe the people of Haiti are not letting their troubles stop them from moving forward. Witnessing their courage has empowered me to never give up on my future endeavors.

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