IT and Computing education in Guyana

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Guyana is a small country (size of UK) in the north of South America bordering Venezuela, Brazil and Suriname. However in many ways it associates itself with the Caribbean – for example, students take Caribbean GCSEs – called the CSEC.  In terms of computing in school, students can take the CSEC in IT and this is similar to the GCSE ICT we used to have except that it includes Pascal programming. I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Guyana this month for a week and spend some time with colleagues in the Department of Computer Science during their Advancing Computing Education week, set up and organised by Len Singh, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science (who many may know on Twitter as @lenandlar).  This involved running some teacher workshops and introducing students in two schools to the micro:bit. It also involved some more public presentations and discussions around wider issues of digital skills in developing countries, and ICT and computing education in Guyana.

It was a hectic week – a very packed schedule – with a fantastic range of activities crammed into a week. When I arrived, I was first introduced to the department, faculty and wider university with a series of presentations. The afternoon was spent working out the logistics of the first teacher workshop – how to set up all the micro:bits and computers so that we could do Use-Modify-Create (this involves giving the students a pre-programmed micro:bit to work out what it does and then enabling them to modify the code), whether we could get plastic cups, scissors and stacks of colour printing by 6am the next morning etc. The teacher workshops consisted of three sessions: teaching unplugged; programming with the micro:bit; and strategies for teaching programming.  There was a lot to prepare! But with great team work, it all came together and we had two full days of teacher workshops which seemed to go down well. I used activities such as Cup Robotics that I might use in UK but had to be aware of the very different situation that Guyananese IT teachers are in. However I think most teachers graduated from feeling slightly perplexed at the beginning to very enthusiastic about the idea of active learning by the end. The micro:bits went down a storm and I am grateful to my UK colleagues for the activities that we used.

After a quick appearance on live TV talking about the Advancing Computing Education initiative we then ran two student workshops focusing on the micro:bit – the first with some fourth formers at Bishops High School (14-15 years) and the second with some first formers at Queens College (11-12 years). These workshops focused on programming the micro:bit and we used a carousel approach to allow students to work through four different activities. This was a good approach as we had many student volunteers attending and they were able to lead on each of the four activities. The team work was amazing as the volunteers got very good at flashing the micro:bits in record time when we negotiated different working environments for each of the workshops we delivered.

The public presentations were interesting in different ways. The first was a public lecture in the town theatre, with the keynote to be delivered by me after some presentations from key stakeholders in the field.  When the power went out after 10 minutes, there was a short pause (little outages are common), but when it turned out that the whole of Georgetown was in blackout the show went on – in complete darkness save for some mobile phone torchlights. I realised how dependent I am on my slides when giving a 40 minute presentation and also on making some eye contact with the audience – but the event proceeded, everybody did their best, and the power can back on after an hour! Overall I had the sense that there is a lot of enthusiasm across industry and academia for developing IT and computing skills and supporting teachers.

On Friday a forum on gender in computing was held at which I also spoke as a panel member but my contribution was possibly the least important. The panel consisted of high profile speakers from Guyana and Caricom (the Caribbean equivalent of the EU) and important issues were debated around the provision of ICT in developing countries such as Guyana, in particular relating to the issue of gender, but also around the many challenges facing a country where even electricity and internet access cannot be guaranteed. I learned such a lot and all the speakers spoke passionately and positively about both the difficulties and opportunities.

My visit was made possible with the support of the King’s Worldwide Fund. Micro:bits for Guyana were donated by Premier Farnell and more were loaned from the Microbit Foundation. At the Guyanese end sponsors came forward from the Ministry of Public Telecommunications and telecommunications companies for all refreshments. The feeling of the team was that this week of events, spanning students, teachers and policy makers, was very successful in highlighting the importance of this topic. I am sure that the team will continue the work that has been started in this exciting week and I hope to keep in touch with developments.

This was a really rewarding experience for me, and I know the collaboration between King’s College London and the University of Guyana will continue. I learned such a lot about the issues facing countries like Guyana when it comes to trying to equip young people with digital skills. Despite obvious challenges, everybody I met was hugely enthusiastic about the Advancing Computing Education Week and following this up with more support for IT teachers and students.

I originally met Len Singh (@lenandlar) on Twitter. He is very well informed around computing education at K-12 and curates the most comprehensive list of papers on computational thinking at his website at http://csedresearch.wordpress.com . He watches developments in the field from afar and converses with many researchers in the field using Twitter. Len is supported by an energetic and dedicated staff team, with a great head of department, Penny De Freitas. Many of the CS department at University of Guyana (UG) were heavily involved in the week’s activities and the student volunteers were amazing.

If you are a Twitter user, say hello to @lenandlar when you’ve read this and do follow developments in computing education in Guyana over the next few years!

Sue Sentance

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