Barney has been working hard on the school’s computer systems but has taken time out to write some of his impressions. He writes:

We were told there was very little fresh milk in India. I love the way you learn little things unexpectedly – like when the Indian teacher who lives onsite was walking up the school drive from the main gate as we were taking our constitutional (why is a walk a constitutional?). He was carrying a 3-litre stainless steel milk churn. ‘From the village’, he said, pointing vaguely in the distance.

So they CAN get milk… Wow, that means that the over-sweet, cardamom-infused chai, we can’t wait for every morning, is made from real milk. No wonder it tastes so good! We’ve always assumed it was made with sweetened condensed milk. It does explain why its sweetness varies. This is typical of the serendipitous nature of so much learning here.

Serendipity even applies to learning about what you might think is a simple feature – like ‘Internet access for students’. When we first came in 2010 there was a lab of old computers and no Internet. That’s pretty important when you are miles from the nearest town. That year, craving communication, we travelled an hour by bus to pick up our email, only to find there was no power that Sunday so the Internet café was closed.

Senior computer lab. Dust covers are required as there is no hermetically sealed, air conditioned room here.

Senior computer lab. Dust covers are required as there is no hermetically sealed, air conditioned room here.

 

But then, in 2011, I noticed a huge 30m steel tower and it transpired that it was a wireless link 5km to an ISP in a nearby town. This gave  full, high-speed Internet access to volunteers (Yeah!) and also the few students rostered to bring the news of the world to assembly each day. Remember there is no television.

In 2013, there is much broader use of Internet. The ISP owner charges thousands and thousands of rupees a month for Internet access. This is probably not bad when you consider the family unit here is 250 students: they download movies for movie night each Saturday; research for news each morning at assembly; and volunteers regularly Skype friends and family all over the world. In fact we are servicing a small community – hence a keen interest in reducing power usage wherever possible. Sadly the local power company is unable to provide reliable power, and when it’s on it is expensive. So add more complexity. All this technology is supported by 3 systems of solar panels and huge truck batteries to provide power… 24-hour power for the Internet, daytime power for the computer labs, and lights for students who are studying or doing prep in the early mornings and evenings – until it runs out. Fifth Grade students finish prep at around 6.30pm, but the rest go until 7.30pm, and return after dinner for several more hours depending on age.

Laptops use less power than desktop PCs, so local (i.e. Bangalore) IT expert and volunteer, Yadap, when he can spare the time from work, is adding another wireless access point to the school network so students can access Google, the Khan Academy (free online training and curricular materials for schools and university students), iTunes University, etc., with some recently donated laptops. All well and good but the student Internet access has to be filtered (Indian sensitivities extend to the Internet) and the staff/volunteers’ wireless facility is unfettered, of course, hence the need for two services.

Girls take advantage of the new (old) laptops.

Girls take advantage of the new (old) laptops.

 

A new shelf is built outside the computer room for the new, more energy friendly laptops.

A new shelf is built outside the computer room for the new, more energy friendly laptops.

The complexity continues: individual passwords; a teacher to look up passwords when students forget them; a server to manage the white lists and black lists of approved and disallowed websites; dual access to the Internet stream to be recovered when the power goes out; and so it goes on.

There is always the ‘gotcha’. With new equipment all this wouldn’t be so hard to accomplish; schools do this everywhere. But… when you are trying to do it with borrowed, second-hand and repaired equipment, donated time and volunteers, it gets harder. Suddenly the reliability of activities that should simply happen in the background so that teaching can proceed, come to the foreground. This is part of the fun challenge that is Shanti Bhavan’s technology. Heath Robinson would be proud of us!

I have taught the senior students to pull RAM or memory chips out of old or dead computers and reallocate them, to speed up working machines – which these days are memory-hungry devices. We have found that 256Mb of RAM is no longer enough to run the latest Operating Systems on old computers. Luckily 1Gb RAM is getting cheaper than ever, and can even be found second-hand around Bangalore.

No ergonomic chairs here. The desks are donated and the chairs are multifunctional.

No ergonomic chairs here. The desks are donated and the chairs are multifunctional.

SO even though the machinery isn’t new, it can be made to work. Ten-year-old hard drives (I saw Made in China, 2002 on one this morning) are getting pretty long in the tooth for computer technology. Although we had 10 of the 12 computers in the Primary School lab going this morning, on a bad day three won’t get going without 2 or 3 re-starts. On the other hand Dr George wondered if the ones we were planning to discard could be donated to the local government primary school in Baliganapalli. There is always someone worse off…

2nd Graders enjoy a computer class.

2nd Graders enjoy a computer class.

Miss Asha helps a 2nd Grader in the primary lab.

Miss Asha helps a 2nd Grader in the primary lab.

Next episode, Kandy relates Barney’s encounter with some unfriendly wild bees.

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