Virtual Kenyan Classroom

In August I traveled to Kenya with Teachers Without Borders – Canada. We delivered teacher professional development workshops to elementary and secondary teachers in a rural region, located about eighty kilometres outside of Nairobi. When I returned, I started looking for a creative outlet to reflect on my experiences. I wrote about my experiences on this blog, but merely writing about them didn’t seem sufficient. So, I started sifting through almost 3000 photographs that I took while in Kenya and it occurred to me that they tell a story that is much more powerful than anything I could ever hope to convey in a blog post. The next day, I started building a virtual exhibit in Second Life.

TWB-Canada Exhibit Poster for the 2008 jokaydia Unconference

But in the process of building this exhibit, I also realized that it could be so much more than just a virtual gallery – it could become a learning environment, a place that anyone interested in education in Kenya could visit and explore. So, the initial virtual gallery idea quickly morphed into “unfinished …” – a project to build a virtual Kenyan classroom, a typical classroom in a typical rural school in Kenya.

Virtual Kenya Exhibit - Second Life

Of course, some will say that I didn’t have to use Second Life, that a blog entry, a Flickr set, or a PowerPoint presentation (or maybe all of them combined) would have been just as effective. That’s why, before I began, I asked myself: What can I do in Second Life that I cannot do on the world wide web? Why do I need a multiuser virtual environment?

I wanted the visitors to be able to experience, even if only virtually, what it is like to stand in a typical rural Kenyan classroom. I can’t do that on my blog, but in Second Life I can create that classroom. I can try to re-create that environment. Of course, as a visitor to my classroom exhibit in Second Life, you won’t feel the fine Kenyan dust on the floor – the kind of dust that penetrates into everything in Kenya. You won’t be able to interact with Kenyan students or look through their notebooks. I cannot create tactile experiences in Second Life. What I can do, however, is create a visual experience that is very close to what I saw in Kenya. I can create a replica of a typical classroom and then use it as the setting for tours, presentations, or conversations about education in Kenya. I can create a virtual environment that provides a meaningful context for discussions about education in developing nations.

That environment wouldn’t be complete without photographs of children and school life that I took while in Kenya. You will find them scattered around the exhibit. You will see photographs of children and classrooms leaning against a virtual fence or the classroom wall.

Miti Mingi Primary School, Kenya

Again, an argument could be made that all those pictures could have been shared on Flickr. True. I did share them on flickr, but as soon as I uploaded them I realized that they didn’t fully represent my experiences, that individual photographs, when placed against the white backdrop of a flickr photo page, lose their richness and become just another snapshot. In Second Life, however, I can create an environment for them, a context that will help the visitor see them as part of a larger story.

When building this virtual space, I tried to make the environment as reminiscent of the actual schools in Kenya as possible. Many of the textures I used for walls or corrugated iron panels were extracted from my own photographs of Kenyan schools and imported into Second Life. Before I built the desks for the virtual classroom, I scrutinized the pictures I took of student desks in Kenyan classrooms. Before building the classroom itself, I carefully analyzed my pictures of rural schools in Kenya.

Why “unfinished …”?

I chose this title because when I first walked into a classroom in rural Kenya, everything around me seemed … unfinished – the bare walls and gaping holes instead of windows all contributed to that impression. It seemed that the classrooms were still under construction. Of course, the sad truth is that the classrooms I visited were all finished – there simply isn’t enough money at many of the schools in Kenya to put in windows or buy new desks. There simply isn’t enough money to put plaster on the walls, buy bulletin boards, or put up posters.

Not every classroom in Kenya looks like the one I created in Second Life. Some schools are better equipped than others. Some classrooms have windows and plaster on walls instead of bare bricks. Some have new desks. Many have electricity. The classroom I built in Second Life, however, is not atypical of rural classrooms in Kenya. It represents rural schools and the country itself quite well. In Kenya, many things, including roads, schools, buildings, and public services, seem … unfinished.

The work that Teachers Without Borders – Canada has begun in Kenya is also unfinished. We had initiated great projects, worked with many teachers, and established valuable contacts with ministry officials and other NGOs. We look at these accomplishments as work in progress and an opportunity to continue to move towards our goals. One of those goals – and my goal for this virtual exhibit – is to raise awareness of some of the challenges faced by teachers, students, and administrators in developing nations.

I hope that you will take the time to walk through the exhibit and experience school life in a rural Kenyan classroom. The following link will take you into Second Life, to the island of jokaydia where the project is hosted: (SLurl to the Virtual Kenya Exhibit).


Virtual Kenya Project Machinima
(Link to the original file on blip.tv
)

Interested in a Tour?

If you like what you see and would like to bring your students or colleagues into this space, or learn more about education in Kenya or the work of Teachers Without Borders – Canada, please feel free to contact me. I’ve given a number of tours already and would be happy to chat about the space or help you build a lesson around this virtual exhibit.

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8 Responses to Virtual Kenyan Classroom

  1. mosh November 25, 2008 at 8:37 am #

    Good job, sir. Your dedication and passion is amazing. Keep up the good work.

    I know a few friends of mine who will be very interested to see how one of our classrooms really looks like – thank you!

    PS
    Sadly, the ‘unfinished’ label is spot-on in every way :(

  2. Heather November 25, 2008 at 11:17 am #

    Fantastic idea. I just visited and I really enjoyed looking at your photos in this way. I think Second Life adds another level of reality to the photos. (Which is ironic since it’s a virtual world.)

    I do have one question. I am hoping to go to Swaziland at some point next year to visit a friend who is a pediatrician working with children, many with AIDS. I would like to photograph and share my experience. Did you need to get permission from anyone to display the photos of the children publicly?

    Thank you!

  3. Jason Priem November 25, 2008 at 4:02 pm #

    Excellent, thoughtful post. I’ve not been a huge fan of SL in education so far, and I think it’s because I’ve to seldom heard your questions: “What can I do in Second Life that I cannot do on the world wide web? Why do I need a multiuser virtual environment?” I think that you’ve done a great job of outlining why and how Second Life can be something more than gee-whizzery here. If this becomes a trend, I may jump on the SL-bandwagon after all…

  4. Konrad Glogowski November 26, 2008 at 9:03 am #

    Mosh,

    Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you agree with my description. But let’s keep in mind that “unfinished” can also have positive connotations – it means we get to keep working to make it better :-)

    Heather,

    Good question – you certainly don’t want to take advantage of your access to children in clinics or hospitals without making sure that you have permission to take the photos. I’ll send you an email to explain what I did.

    Jason,

    I’m glad you zeroed in on the questions. Yes, I think they’re crucial and we don’t ask them often enough. I find that SL is often used as a mere 3D chatroom, which is disappointing because the platform can do so much more.

  5. Miss Lipsky December 3, 2008 at 9:44 pm #

    Looking at our Cluster Map and the maps of other blogs at our school today, one of my students asked, “Why don’t any of these Cluster Maps have dots in Africa?” This question lead to an interesting discussion amongst my fifth graders about the differences between schools in the USA and those in Africa. In doing research for a discussion I want to have with my students tomorrow I came across your blog. I can’t wait to show the students the pictures you brought back from the schools in Kenya as well as your virtual classroom. I think that was an awesome idea!

    Sincerely,
    Miss L
    http://lipskymatthews.blogspot.com

  6. leighblackall December 4, 2008 at 4:48 am #

    I think you should print the photos at the same scale as in the SL exhibition, return with them to Kenya, mount them on iron and set up a show outside one of those classrooms.

  7. Konrad Glogowski December 6, 2008 at 10:20 am #

    Miss Lipsky,

    I’m glad that you want to share these pictures with your students. Thank you. It looks like they started an important conversation and it’s great to see that you’re taking advantage of this teachable moment.

    Leigh,

    Yes! Great idea. Also, next time I’m there I will have cameras for the students so that they can document their school life – that would make a great exhibit, wouldn’t it?

  8. Emma December 16, 2008 at 1:05 pm #

    I thought I’d written a comment yesterday, but it doesn’t seem to be showing. I’ll try to re-write it, but firstly, I’ve just managed to find this post by Googling – the home page doesn’t seem to have it (though it’s more recent than the posts there)

    Having spent some time working in classrooms in Papua New Guinea, I think this is a great resource. While there are some things that can’t be reproduced in SL (like, say, the heat; the kids outnumbering the chairs; & the din created by tropical downpours on a tin roof) – it’s certainly a great way of presenting the material you have & trying to get it over. Just a shame that you can’t use it with your students – as from what I can remember from earlier posts, they’re in school, so can’t get into the main grid.

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