Changing the spiral of violence into a spiral of hope

stack of monitors Camara is a wonderful program, which could be described in simple terms as a way to stop filling landfill sites with the hazardous waste of old computers, and instead, send those computers to schools and colleges in Africa. But it’s really much more than that.

I was fortunate to get a tour of the new Camara facilities now located in the Digital Hub near the Guinness Warehouse in the Liberties area of Dublin. I’ve now also had a chance to meet with various Camara staff and volunteers. I learned that Camara delivers computers to schools throughout Africa; sends volunteers to teach technology in Africa, and creates computer training materials and educational multimedia for schools in Africa.

refurbishingThere are many distinctive features of the Camara operation. One is that computers are loaded with Camarabuntu. This is a complete operating system (Linux), plus an office suite, web browser, many educational applications, and a condensed Wikipedia. It’s designed for a teacher to be able to setup a complete computer-based classroom quickly and easily.

There is also much attention to the volunteer experience, including providing opportunities for people with a wide range of skills and available time. Post-prinary and third-level students participate, as do retired people, and many others. Camara finds ways to involve everyone. Even those who donate computers are asked to help with the initial sorting of parts. They also help with culture shock for those who make the four-week trip to Africa.

girl at site

One derivation of the name, Camara, is from a West African word meaning, “one who teaches from experience.” Another is from Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, who had an uncompromising commitment to the poor. Câmara’s “Spiral of Violence” calls upon the youth of the world to break the spiral that their ancestors and parents have perpetuated. The Camara computer to Africa program brings together these aspects of learning and social justice in a refreshingly practical and successful way.

Photos courtesy of the Camara Flickr site.

Scholarship of Teaching & Learning at NCI

NCIAn important emphasis for the School of Computing at the National College of Ireland is research that makes a difference for student learning. This is realized in the development of automated systems to enhance learning: Orla Lahart is developing a system to provide online mentoring for teachers; Dietmar Janetzko is developing dialogue systems to respond to learners or instructors producing course materials; Stephan Weibelzahl’s group (including Sabine Moebs, Teresa Hurley, Diana Chihaia) has a variety of efforts to build adaptive learning spaces; Keith Maycock is working on automatic generation of instructional content to suit the cognitive ability and pedagogic preference of learners.

There is also innovative research on learning styles (Elaine Maher, Paul Stynes, Pramod Pathak); students’ perceptions of software development concepts (Frances Sheridan); the use of mobile devices to support learning (Paul Hayes); elearning (Eugene O’Loughlin); new approaches to enhance student engagement (Pramod Pathak); workplace learning (Leo Casey, Abigail Reynolds, Michael Coleman); digital literacy (Leo Casey, Abigail Reynolds); and many other examples. The recent inauguration of a new elearning usability lab (Leo Casey, Stefan Weibelzahl) further supports this research.

A distinctive feature of most of this research is that it is applied to the teaching within the School itself. Thus researchers do not simply study how those in other settings learn or teach; they apply it to their own setting. This means that the School is automatically aligned with the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning movement. I hope to see its research appear soon in journals such as the International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning (IJ-SoTL) and at SoTL conferences.

Children First

Children FirstI attended a very interesting session yesterday at the National College of Ireland on child protection policies. This related to the about-to-appear Children First: National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children, and the fact that the College has a significant number of under-18-year-old students, as well as programs for area children.

There were disturbing stories in the session about recent abuse cases, and also complex accounts of how Ireland is advancing its child protection policies. The latter included issues such as reconciling the constitution’s protection of family rights with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention asserts that every child has basic rights, including the rights to live, to express opinions, to be protected from abuse, and to privacy. There were practical tips offered on what to do when observing a situation in which children’s rights were violated as when they are forced to beg on the streets.

Participating in the session reminded me that 193 nations have ratified the UN Convention, while only two have not–Somalia and the United States. The turmoil in Somalia makes it a special case, which might be excused. But the US should have been the leader, not the wayward one. It’s sad to imagine John Lennon, standing on the other side saying, “We hope someday you’ll join us” and not being able to do so.

Fulbright Chair at National College of Ireland, 2007-08

NCI Iris

My Fulbright Distinguished Chair position is hosted by the National College of Ireland, a third-level institution in Dublin. The College is very different from my own University of Illinois in terms of size, history, student population, local community, and emphasis on postgraduate education. And yet, I sensed from the position description and confirmed through subsequent interactions that there was an excellent fit with my own interests, experiences, and values.

The College was established in Ranelagh by Jesuits. Initially known as the Catholic Workers College, it was designed to serve workers and to fulfill the social justice mission of the Jesuits. It was also a response to the threats of totalitarianism revealed by the leadup to and aftermath of the Second World War, seeing education as the means to preserve a democratic society.

In 2000, the name was changed to National College of Ireland, and in 2003 the College moved to the International Financial Services Centre in the Dublin Docklands area. Over its history the nature of work had changed from manufacturing to service, digital technologies had become ubiquitous, and Ireland had grown into a wealthy nation. But not everyone participated fully in the Celtic Tiger; in the Docklands itself, one sees high-rise buildings for multinational banks and insurance companies next to housing for families who see little chance for success in schooling or in the economy. In this context, the College has maintained its social justice commitment, but renewed that in the context of a changing economy and demographics.

It was clear from my initial meetings in the College that there was a strong desire among both the leadership and the staff to bring social action together with academic excellence. There was a commitment to foster social responsibility along with new economy skills. There was an openness to seeing social commitment as an integral part of the learning experience and of scholarship in the College. Because of this, I saw a real opportunity to connect my work on community inquiry. My work came to focus on widening participation, enriching the learning environment, and promoting an active research culture, which were also key aspects of the College strategic plan.

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School visit stories

One school Principal here told me they weren’t thinking about computers much because they had other priorities. I said, “oh, like basic reading and arithmetic?” He said, “no, I have 100 boys in this school and there’s no one to fix the damn toilets!”

We met with a class of 3rd graders. He told them I was from Texas and asked what they knew about it. Long pause, then one said, “they have squirrels.” I agreed. After another pause, a second added, “they have cowboys.” The Principal then asked, “Anything else? Do you know any famous people from Texas?”

One boy then said “Stone Cold Steve Austin.” Others quickly jumped in with other names I didn’t recognize. I thought the problem was my hearing or the accents, but the Principal didn’t know the names either. So, the boys had to explain that they were all wrestlers from Texas, whom they’d had seen on TV. There’s always more to learn.

Bridge to College

While living in Dublin, I often walk past the Suas Foundation’s Bridge to College (B2C) space on Fenian Road. But I find it hard not to pause to see what’s happening inside. There’s always activity there.

Brendan TangneyI first became aware of B2C when Brendan Tangney of Trinity College took me there to see the construction last fall. Even then, I could see it was special. It might be characterized as a computer access centre, but most of those that I’ve seen have computers in utilitarian rows, plain tables, and some bland color on bare walls. In contrast, I saw here the beginning of pods for small groups to work together on projects. There were low curved walls defining the pods, which promised just the right balance of privacy for the groups and the possibility of communication across groups. When Maxine Greene talks about transformation of public spaces to promote democratic engagement, I know she means far more than furniture, but I nevertheless felt that this was a tangible expression of making spaces work for people and for more inclusive learning.

treeSoon, I saw a primeval forest emerging. A thick, green carpet suggesting grass, or maybe pond vegetatio, grew on the floor, while a Lord of the Rings forest appeared on the walls, with ancient trees and mist rising from the swamp. That was just the room in the front. Through a doorway and a time-warp window I could see a nightclub or cafe in the second room. It had black walls with a cityscape, and rising above that, surrealistic images. The whole thing made me want to explore and to be a part of whatever was going to happen there. It’s an attractive space with computers organized into pods, projectors, digital cameras, printers, and other tools, as well as a physical space with meeting areas, movable furniture, room to move about, and a small stage.

cityscapeOn later visits, I met with developers Claire Conneely and John Lawlor. I learned that this wasn’t just a pretty space. I saw Transition Year students engaged in serious, challenging, collaborative, multimedia projects. For example, they would take a video camera in to the neighboring community (between Trinity and the Liffey River). They’d film objects, the neighborhood, and themselves, then edit the video. The next day, they would take on a social action multimedia campaign–visit your elderly relatives over the holidays, stop using drugs, give aid to Africa, and so on. The project involved web-based research, then the creation of a poster, with text, images, and graphics. Later they would produce a radio spot for the same campaign. At the end of the week, they would make a web page integrating all of their work.

Claire ConneelyOver three and a half days, students, some of whom might have been on the verge of quitting school, would demonstrate facility with digital video, video and audio editing, web search, graphics, design, web page construction, all in the service of and as an aid to learning about living responsibly in the world. In so doing, they also learned about working together and completing complex tasks. Rather than being monitored or guided every step of the way, they relied on just a mentor, who was just a few years older. The mentor was also a student, but at third level, and was typically learning along with the younger students. There are plans now for a second tier of mentoring, in which the Transition Year students would mentor 11-year-olds.

John LawlorI could point about many good things about the space and the programme. There is a good mix of using diverse technologies effectively, collaboration within and across groups, project-based work, inquiry, reflection, and problem-solving. I’ve seen the value of those aspects in some other projects. But three other things stand out for me with B2C:

studentFirst, although the technologies are used in intensive and complex ways, their use is not the end. All of the activities fit together into a unified whole, which extends beyond the technological fluency. In the cases I’ve seen there, students are addressing questions that go beyond B2C or their normal schooling to seek positive transformation of their social lives. Of course, I’d love to hear that the radio spots are actually aired and the poster distributed and read, or that the campaigns extend beyond the week. But even so, there’s a clear realization here of John Dewey’s idea of connecting school and society.

more studentsSecond, as I said above, there is a remarkable approach to seeing space and physical facilities as something to be constructed to serve human ends, rather than as a given that constrains what we can do. Many community technology centres or computer labs in schools do a good of managing the digital technologies effectively, but they rarely have the resources, or perhaps the vision, to see that the physical space can be something that is inviting, reinforcing, and conducive to productive social interaction. Here, the physical space is treated as seriously as the choice of software or projectors.

mentors, Chloe, JonellaThird, B2C is a useful facility, but far more than that, it is an artistic creation, and here, I speak of the totality–the painted walls, the furniture, the window to see from city to forest or forest to city. It reminds us of Jane Addams’s call that the first furniture for Hull House should be art on the walls, or the view prevalent in Chinese schools that the aesthetic side of learning is as important as the cognitive.

Digital Literacy in Irish Primary Schools

National College of Ireland is starting a new project, Digital Literacy in Irish Primary Schools (DLIPS). The aim is to investigate digital literacy practices and to develop a conceptual framework for the needs of the Irish Primary Education system. Digital Literacy is regarded as incorporating a broad range of competencies; there is a need to investigate new approaches that facilitate greater student engagement and connection to everyday experiences.

The project involves the evaluation of how teachers integrate ICT into their classroom activities to promote teamwork, collaboration, creativity and co-operative learning using a project-based learning approach. This approach will be evaluated with regard to the student’s academic performance and engagement with learning, particularly in relation to their literacy proficiency. The framework will be developed by reviewing existing frameworks and adapting these according to the above research findings.

This is a collaborative project with the Education Research Centre, the Digital Hub Development Agency and the National Centre for Technology in Education. It is funded by the Department of Education and Science research and development council. Leo Casey and I are co-principal investigators.

Premier of “Round Here”

Round Here sceneWe attended a gala movie premier last night at the National College of Ireland (NCI). The film, Round Here, explores themes of community and identity in the rapidly changing Dublin Docklands area.



limoTwelve young people from the Docklands area not only star in the film, but devised it based on their own experiences there. Philip McMahon wrote the actual script following interviews with the young people; it was directed by Colin Thornton. I thought it was an excellent portrayal of the challenges facing many young people today.

NCI atriumThe event began with the young people arriving by limo and walking down a red carpet. They were announced by young escorts wearing top hats and tails. There was of course popcorn and soft drinks as for any cinema event. Kirsten Sheridan (My Left Foot, In America, August Rush) was a surprise guest who presented DVDs of the movie to the young stars. Afterwards, we were able to visit with the cast and crew over cocktails.

actorsThe project was a joint venture of NCI, Calipo Theatre and Picture Company, and the Sheriff Street After Schools Education and Support Programme (Celine Howard) and was funded by patrons of the NCI.

people-3Photos courtesy of the National College of Ireland.people-2

Community Informatics Research Network conference, Prato, 2007

lunch on the terraceLast week I went to the Community Informatics Research Network conference at the Monash University Centre in Prato, Italy. The theme was “prospects for communities and action.” Attendees came from over 22 countries including Finland, New Zealand, Peru, Puerto Rico, and Mozambique. There were days devoted to both community informatics and to development informatics.

The next conference will be held 27-30 October, 2008.

Villa RucellaiWe stayed at Villa Rucellai di Canneto, a lovely old villa situated on a hill above the Bisenzio river. The fortified tower was built in the Middle Ages, and it’s described as a villa in 1427.


Barsana Monastery church I’m attaching a couple of photos from Romania, where we went in September. One is a wooden church in the Maramureş style. It’s part of the Barsana Monastery. Another was one of many hitchhikers we picked up. Our old Dacia wasn’t much as a car, but it beats walking or horse-drawn cart when you’re tired. We had learned enough Romanian to figure out that the man is 82, has 9 children, and knows the woman who works in the post office and runs our B&B. We also saw what may be the oldest, and is certainly the longest-running Unitarian Church (in Cluj-Napoca). I spent an hour with the pastor, learning about their history and the church building and furnishings.

In Maramures, we saw Elie Wiesel’s home/museum. As you friend in Botizamay know, Maramureş was one of the worst holocaust sites, with over 20,000 Jews from Sighetu-Marmaţiei alone sent to Auschwitz. Later, Communists in Romania sent tens of thousands of “Saxons” (ethnic Germans) to work and die on the Danube canal construction. Roma people managed to be persecuted throughout, and still suffer from prejudices today (although projects such as Şanse Egale are working to improve opportunities).

We also saw the museum sometimes called the “Museum of Suppressed Thought”, which made me aware that my imagination is limited in conceiving all the ways people can oppress one another, and all the different ethnic prejudices that can be realized. Maramureş and Transylvania in general have seen more than their fair share. That’s especially disturbing to think about in a country which is otherwise so beautiful, friendly, and welcoming.

I gave a talk on Dewey, Hull House, and Paseo Boricua at the Philosophy of Pragmatism: Salient Inquiries conference at Babeş-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca. I’d certainly value any comments or suggestions on the draft.