What programming course would you teach someone in Liberia with little or no previous computer knowledge? That was the question that lay before us as we thought through possible trainings to offer at the *iLab_. Our interest was in a course that would be both relevant and practical to the unique Liberian situation, and one that will prepare them to take advantage of the possibilities the Internet brings—looking forward to the landing of the Africa Coast Europe (ACE) cable in Q2 2012.
As mentioned in our previous blog post titled, Developer Training in Liberia, there are no Computer Science degree programs in any Liberian university, thereby hindering would-be developers from acquiring the requisite skills to compete in the digital age. Also, in an earlier post, Tech Centers in Liberia, we made clear our desire to make the *iLab_ a space for innovation and training.
After some deliberation, we agreed that providing training in the fundamentals of web development using HyperText Markup Language (HTML) and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) would be an excellent introduction for select first-time computer users without scaring them away.
Just about when this question was laid to rest, the second one arose: Who do we provide these trainings for? As you might imagine, being the only center providing this free training in the country, we could not just open the “flood gates” of interested techies without compromising on the quality of the training, so we had to be selective. Finally, we settled on providing this training for select high school students from across Monrovia, Paynesville, and Virginia to enable them to build websites for their schools.
We selected four schools namely, Calvary Baptist Church School System, College of West Africa, Ricks Institute, and the Bethesda Christian Mission School represented by three students from each school. During our initial visits to these schools, we had to explain to school administrators what web development meant and convince them that the training would be free of charge—which was a harder message to get across, giving that it sounded too good to be true.
At 10a.m. that Monday morning, we had a total of twelve enthusiastic students filling the *iLab_ in preparation for the launch of the *iLab_ Web Challenge on June 13, 2011. To ease the natural tension in the air, we played a naming game to acquaint ourselves with all names in the room. Afterwards, we delved into the training aspect of the *iLab_ Web Challenge.
The structure of the *iLab_ Web Challenge is comprised of three weeks (3hrs, 5 days a week, for a total of 45hrs) of intensive training in web development and 3, 5 hour days, of the actual web development competition. After the first week of HTML training, the participating students produced their first project work—developing a seven-page website for their school using only a text editor. It was an impressive display of talent that had College of West Africa taking the first position.A website made by the College of West Africa team is on the right.
The second week of the training centered on styling HTML files using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). Whilst HTML proved popular with the error-prone starters due to its forgiving nature (Modern browsers often correct for errors in HTML files and display them properly), CSS was not as forgiving and therefore not as popular. But despite the frustrating effect of errors on the parsed web pages, these students persevered into the mastery of CSS. By the end of the third week, many of them had befriended CSS and some even asked if they could forget HTML and only learn CSS.
During the final week of training (June 27 – July 1), we covered more advanced CSS topics as well as web hosting, domain registration, WYSIWYG editors, updating websites, and browser issues. Students also used this time to fine tune their code structures to make them easily readable by humans. It was also during this week that students presented their first CSS project. Once again, College of West Africa came victorious.
Then came July 11-13—the time set aside for the actual challenge. It was an intensive but beautiful display of teamwork and creativity. Going through code line by line, students perfected their final projects and submitted them for evaluation.
The evaluation process was difficult for us to conclude, considering the enormous amount of creativity and uniqueness of each submitted project. After a rigorous inspection of functionality and style, we concluded on the winner of the first *iLab_ Web Challenge.
So the winning project came from the Ricks Institute (On left), followed by College of West Africa tightly in second place, and Bethesda Christian Mission School in third place and Calvary Baptist Church School System in fourth place.
Representing the winning team were Mohammed Musahson, Samukai Sarnor, and Moselyn H-Mai Johnson from Ricks Institute. For College of West Africa we had Samily Panton, Pete Wiah, and Kaizerline Johnson in second place, and Michari Tomah, Juliawo Cyrus, and Richmond Roberts from the Bethesda Christian Mission School in third place. As at the end of the challenge, the team from the Calvary Baptist Church School System was left with only one representative, Terrence Mandeh, in fourth place.
Looking back on the *iLab_ Web Challenge, we are convinced that it was, and still is, an endeavor worth pursuing. The show of talent by previously computer-illiterate students in such a short period to time confirms to us the potential Liberians have to compete in the global technology arena if given the proper training.
We are aware that although training in HTML/CSS alone does not necessarily make one a career web developer, it forms the basis for more advanced web programming and scripting languages. And as we look forward to another exciting round the *iLab_ Challenge, we are considering teaching these advanced web programming and scripting languages for past participants of the *iLab_ Web Challenge.