At around 7 AM the plane landed in Cúcuta, a small city, a capital actually, in the border with Venezuela. It's hard to call it a city, but it is. I have problems even calling Medellín a city, so Cúcuta doesn't just cut it. It felt hot, but not very humid.
I got a cab, a very expensive one by the way, and about one and a half hours later I was standing in front of the City Hall in Sardinata, the small town where I was to meet Miguel, the director of education for the area (a district supervisor I guess they would him call in the U.S.). We were to meet in the central park, but
he was not there waiting for me as I expected. I went into the Town Hall and asked for him. They said he was vaguely around, so I went back and sat on a bench in the park to wait for him. People were helpful, and a girl who went out on a scooter to run some errand said she'd tell him I was here if she saw him. He arrived soon enough, somebody pointed him out to me, and we met. He is a man in his mid-fifties, tanned, talkative and loud, very Santandereano (from Santander). We went to his house, where I left my luggage, guessed I would sleep there, and got ready to go visit the first rural school. We went to the mayor's office to ask for some transportation in his behalf. He had a huge kitch emblem of "Millonarios" my own football team, so I used that to break the ice. "We started well this year!" Miguel sat with me, introduced me, and I used the opportunity to ask the mayor, a doctor, by the way, about his plans for educational technology. He looked baffled and evaded the question. Miguel answered for him in a long negative, mentioning Law 550 (bankrupt), needing to build classrooms and other urgent needs. The mayor, whose name I can't remember, took a few calls while I was sitting in his office, and authorized his driver to take us where we needed to go and pay for the gas.
César, his driver, would take us to "San Roque" rural school. Close to 10:30 we left in a green Willy’s Renegade. I asked questions about the region and security. There are very big coal mines in the area, and many people there work in the mines. You can see the coal down to the road, and people black with coal walking around and working. Miguel said there were both "paras" and guerrillas in the area, but I shouldn't worry because I was with him. He laughed and added, "many of those guys were my students, they leave me alone". I saw army soldiers on the road, and that made me feel even safer (I hate saying that!). He also mentioned things having changed after "Bloque something" of the "autodefensas" turned in.
We were soon driving on a dirt road that César new very well, and stopped for a beer. The weather was nice. Not too hot. Just warm. We kept talking and I heard stories about César having been Miguel's student (he was a teacher for some 30 years) and how he had learned to operate heavy machinery and worked both as a driver for the mayor and driving bulldozers where needed. At around noon we were in "San Roque", "Escuela Rural San Roque, Sede 1".
It was a small school, in the middle of a small group of houses where mostly coal miners live. Some houses were made of brick, some of wood and some of "bahareque" (stomped dirt). There was a big antenna from a time when Telecom was there. "'They' came and made calls and didnt' pay. They closed it down with great loss," a lady said to me. Miguel instantly thought he could buy the business and provide phone service to that community, since the antenna was there and they only needed the solar panels and an agreement with Telecom.
The principal was counting votes for student council president, so we to get a drink. I looked around taking pictures, while the other two headed down to a "tienda". I walked around saying hi to a few teachers, introducing myself and waiting for the principal to be ready. I checked out their computer lab (which is also a classroom for the eighth grade) and talked to him, a few, students, a couple teachers and a couple parents, while sitting in it.
They all complained about their computers not working and being old and problematic: they received them through “Computadores para Educar”, the program that the Ministry of Communications started a few years ago to refurbish machines donated by companies that didn’t need them any more and send them out to public schools. The community helped build the room where they are kept, since they required minimum conditions (a good roof, bars on the windows, outlets, etc.).
All seven of them were very old computers (X486) in bad conditions. Only three worked and they seemed to not have had much use, even though they said there was a "computers" teacher who brought students to teach them how to use Word and Excel. I guess that is part of the problem: there is a teacher in charge of that and nobody really integrates technology into anything… computers and software are a class on their own and learning how to use them is an isolated goal. The community, however, was very enthusiastic and parents underscored the importance of their children learning how to use computers and "communicate with the rest of the world." One mother asked me what I thought they should do now. I didn't really know what to do, so I recommended they talked to Computadores para Educar to inform them of the condition of their machines and the fact that none of the teachers had received training in computer use technology integration in the classroom. I left her my card. I bet she'll call.
After my talk with the people in the school, Miguel, César and I went nearby to have a couple of beers (three each, I think) and drove back to Sardinata. Two teachers came with us, and they were friendly and talkative, asking about my work and about ministry policies I have no idea about, like requiring schools to have at least 22 students to open, which they thought was outrageous. In some areas there simply are no more students and they can’t walk the several miles that separate them from the next school.
We finally got back to Sardinata, where, as I had foreseen, there were no hotels. I stayed the night in Miguel’s house, where he lives with his wife, two daughters, one son, one son-in-law, and two grandchildren. I was tired from the trip and a little light-headed from the beer, so I took quick extra cold shower (not extra cold by choice) and lied down in the double bed they generously offered. The house was big, though, with a respectable inner yard that the grandchildren used to ride bike in. I planned to get up and have dinner with the family, but I didn’t wake up till the next morning, when my alarm clock rang one hour early (my cell phone’s clock somehow got reset to one hour earlier) and I ran to the shower to get ready for the day. It was 5:00AM! I had a lot of time to read “Tipping Point” before everyone else was up. I had breakfast with Miguel: soup ("Changua"!), steak, “arepa”, avocado, and coffee… huge breakfast! I watched “Sesame Street” with the grandchildren for a while and then César arrived to take us to “San Roque” the school I visited today.
It was farther away than the other and quite different. It felt more rural, just because the community didn’t live around it, but was also extremely poor, with zinc roofs and even an unlit classroom. However, they had two working computers (one was taken to get fixed last week when they heard I was coming) and the other was new, left there by “Compartel” the government program that provides free 24-hour Internet for schools (for four months… then only 4 hours a day… then, they have to pay). Teachers nor students used the computer much, other than for some administrative tasks and for their “computer” classes, where they learned the usual Word and Excel with the addition of e-mail use: not that they used e-mail for school things, but they taught students how to open a Hotmail account. Before I left I took a picture of a teacher helping (really doing it for her) a student create an account, maybe inspired by my presence? After talking to a few teachers, the principal and a few students we were ready to leave, but Miguel was hungry, so we waited for them to fix us some lunch, which they did very quickly. It's lent and friday, so we had fish, salad and “papa chorriada”. For some reason I don’t really understand, we didn’t stop for beer even once today. I suggested it, but it just didn't happen. We went straight back to Sardinata, where I got a cheap communal cab to Cúcuta.
Now, I am sitting at the airport, killing time before I can go home... in about three hours. There is really nothing to do here; I bet Jasmine would love this airport with no wireless, and nothing to see or do, except the weather getting warmer and more humid. I just hope I don’t have her luck and my plane is on time.
The trip was very interesting, people were great and I had some fun. Most importantly I had the chance of observing, first hand the schools and their computer labs. I had already talked to teachers in Caldas, but that's a different story. I know my sample is minimal, but all the comments I’ve got point to the same thing: “Computadores para Arreglar” (Computers to Fix) has problems with their tech. support and training. Teachers don’t know how to use computers, when they do, they don’t know how to integrate their use in their curricula, and many of them say they haven’t received any training whatsoever. This last point may be due to the fact that every year many of the teachers either leave their schools get transferred (by choice) to urban ones, or schools in other areas; others quit or even lose their jobs due to lack of competence (they don’t pass their tests). In short, whatever we try to do to incorporate technology in schools has to start by giving them good computers with decent connections to the Internet, and continually training and supporting teachers, not assuming that if they were trained in year one, they will be trained in year two, because they will probably not be the same group. Tough job I got inventing how to incorporate technology in rural Colombia… and I just have three more weeks to finish my recommendations! Wish me luck, and throw at me any brilliant, tipping ideas you might have.
**wow I hadn't written this much in English for a while**