A Remarkable Summer Experience at the iLab

Hi everyone! I’m Zane Cochran, the visiting instructor at the iLab for summer 2013. While I have been here I have had the opportunity to teach a variety of courses including Physical Computing, Beginner and Intermediate Python Programming, and Photography. It has been a remarkable experience being in Liberia and getting to work so closely with the other talented members of the iLab team!

 

As an introduction, I am a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and studied computer science at Berry College. This fall I will begin graduate studies in Human Computer Interaction at Georgia Tech University. I first heard about the great work that was being done in the iLab from Dr. Ellen Zegura, a professor at Georgia Tech who works closely with the Carter Center and frequently partners with the iLab’s efforts. I arrived in mid-May and will sadly be heading home at the end of June, though my time here has been wonderful.

 

One of the most exciting opportunities I have had in the iLab is getting to share my passion for physical computing with a very select group of students. Physical Computing is a course where students are encouraged to learn the concepts of programming and circuit design through building fun and interactive objects. Through overwhelming support from many friends and colleagues in the U.S., I was able to raise the necessary funds through a crowdfunding campaign I created called “Makers in Monrovia” to purchase all the equipment, tools, and components necessary to allow physical computing to have a permanent presence in the iLab as more and more students discover it.

 

The course was met with equal excitement by the students who were accepted into the program. Throughout six rigorous weeks of training, they learned principles of interactivity, prototyping, hardware design, and programming using the Arduino platform. Arduino is an inexpensive microcontroller and a programming environment that, while popular in North America and Europe, is just now beginning to emerge in Africa. The students completing this course will be among the first few here to have used it extensively. Their greatest accomplishment, however, will be demonstrating their final creative projects at the end of the course. These final projects are all targeted toward an interactive object that improves life in the kitchen, though each is very unique and the result of students using their imaginations to innovate. The will have a great opportunity to present their prototypes during a public event where they will get to explain their creative process and the outcomes of what they learned during the course. I was also privileged to have given a public talk during the evening on the subject of Physical Computing and the impact it is having both in the world of computer science and in Africa. The talk was well attended and generated interest for future courses and opportunities to learn more about this exciting new field of learning.

 

Teaching Python courses is quickly becoming a summer tradition at the iLab. I was happy to teach three Python courses during my stay in Liberia. In addition to a Beginner and an Intermediate Python course, I enjoyed teaching the newly created Python for Girls course. This course consisted of 15 specially selected young women who showed a particular interest in learning programming. Through the few short weeks of this class, it has quickly become one of my favorite courses to teach. The young women in this class have dedicated themselves to becoming amazing programmers and through their hard word and willingness to help each other, they are succeeding! My other students who will be completing the Intermediate Python course have also done remarkably well and are excited to take the fundamentals of programming that they have learned and apply it toward a variety of interests including database management, web development, software and mobile application design, and learning additional programming languages.

 

Finally, it was a real treat for me to be able to share my second passion, photography, during the Introduction to Photography course that I taught. I was quite shocked to see how quickly students improved their style and technique in capturing the unique life and landscape of Liberia in the few short weeks that we were able to meet. One particularly interesting aspect of this class was the students’ willingness to meet with me outside of class on Saturdays for a “Photography Outing” where we would travel together as a group to various places around Monrovia to gain practical experience using the DSLR cameras and implement the techniques I taught during our class lectures. This led to a number of unique experiences and the collection of student photography can be seen at the course’s Flickr page here. Though the course has concluded, the students will continue to use the iLab’s DSLR cameras and meet as a regular group to capture photos of this beautiful city and country.

 

In every course, the intelligence, dedication and passion that I have seen in my students is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. Whether it’s students staying well past the end of class time to share what they’ve learned during class on their blogs or coming in on Saturdays to meet during an unofficial programming group I created to learn Processing (a visually-intensive language based on Java), the self-motivation I have seen in these students is unparalleled and speaks well to continued growth and future of Liberia. I’m just thankful to have been a very small part of it!

 

 

Awesome Ladies in Python class!

The Python Programming class begins on the 5th June 2013 with 14 participants (instead of 15). The class kicked off with an introduction from the instructor Zane Cochran, an intern from New Georgia Tech University, the staff of iLab was introduced as well. I introduced myself as the training assistant, I act as a point of contact with the Ladies on any issue(s) they have in class or after class. The participants introduced themselves finally using various adjectives like; eloquent, jovial, classy, et al to describe themselves…indeed they were!

They all created their blogs so as to write about their progress in the python class. You can click on this link to check them out: http://ilab.zanecochran.com/?page_id=140

Wow! Our ladies are awesome… ‘Never say you can’t till you’ve given it a try’.

 

 

Developer Training in Liberia

At the heart of all the technological advances in Africa is the hope that African people will use these technologies to their gain. Fiber-optic cables surround Africa’s coasts; mobile operators are investing in wireless technologies like WiMax in preparation for a flood of data that could break existing networks. Mobile devices and computer manufacturers are selling low-cost superphones, tablets, and netbooks, hoping that these devices will integrate well with the African lifestyle whilst platform developers scout the continent in search of developers to build apps for Africans on their systems and networks.

 

At this point it is quite obvious that the focus of these market players is the people—because it is the people who will spend their money on these technologies. A huge “side-opportunity” is created as a result of this new focus—the demand for developers of these Africa-relevant applications. At the moment, a few African countries have woken up to this new reality and are striving to meet this huge demand.

Liberia is not one of those countries awake to this new reality. For public and private sectors alike, the primary focus is on rebuilding systems and infrastructure destroyed by the two civil wars, as well as dealing with international debt accumulated over the years. Instead of technology being the means by which these reconstruction efforts are undertaken, it has become a project of the future. With our education system still weaker than its pre-war status, technical training has still not matured for even the best institutions.

 

At the moment, there are no Computer Science (CS) programs in any of our universities. The closest and only program we have is an e-Learning program for BSc. Information Technology from Amity University in Uttar Pradesh, India, offered through the Pan African e-Network with the University of Liberia[1]. This program primarily focuses on infrastructure setup and management, with little programming. This stands opposed to the programming-rich B.Tech program in Computer Science and Engineering offered in India by the same university[2].

 

Other institutions that offer courses in programming include the Starz Institute of Technology[3] and Silicon Pro. These courses are mainly introductory courses to languages like Visual Basic and PHP/MySQL. Furthermore, training in web development is more concentrated around tools like Dreamweaver than on the underlying programming/markup/scripting languages. These institutions are relatively new and the programming courses are not as popular with students as courses like networking and hardware. Courses in popular languages like Java, C++, and Python which are relevant to mobile application development are non-existent in these training institutions. Furthermore the high cost of these trainings makes them inaccessible to most would-be programmers.

 

Liberia’s small developer community is comprised mainly of people who studied outside Liberia, self-taught, and those who learned on the job. As a result, programmers are in short supply which causes programming jobs to go to foreign firms. There are a handful of tech firms in Liberia that are involved in software development that often have to train their recruited staff to program on the job. This is on a very small scale and benefits very few people.

 

Due to the limited number of programming languages taught in Liberia, developers are often not prepared to build applications on platforms that are language-biased like iOS. Since this is the case mainly for mobile devices, Liberian developers are cut off from harnessing the potentials of mobile applications. To date, it is still difficult to find mobile applications for Android, Apple or Symbian that have been built by Liberians.

This situation leaves us woefully unprepared to tap into the vast opportunities the mobile and Internet revolutions bring to the continent. Without mobile and web developers, Liberia will be left voiceless on these emerging platforms. Mobile and web applications relevant to Liberia need to be built by Liberians but, without effective training in modern languages, this will be impossible to accomplish. It is hard to imagine Liberia playing a pivotal role in the tech industry without a growing developer community. As important as computer networking and hardware are to Liberia’s technological advancement, these skills are inadequate to spur maximum Liberian participation in the global tech arena. They also do not promote innovation as programming skills do.

 

Until our tertiary institutions start offering relevant CS programs, Liberia will remain a consumer of information technology and may never grow to be a provider. Until Liberian students get early exposure to programming, they will be unable to compete with their regional and global counterparts in the technology race. And until we get a shift in our thinking about science and technology education, we will never get free from foreign technological domination.

 

Kpetermeni Siakor

IT Director

*iLab_ Liberia
 

Sources:
[1] Pan African e-Network - http://www.panafricanenetwork.com