When Things Don’t Work

Every time I tell people about the project I’m doing, I say that we’re looking at the advantages and disadvantages of technology for both teachers and students. I always forget that it’s also important to consider how technology changes your mindset when you go to the place to conduct the training and do the installation.

When things go wrong, in the back of my head I tell myself that normally a project wouldn’t look like this. There would be planning and testing months in advance to confirm everything is working long before it gets to the ground. There would be multiple back-ups for every single device, just in case something goes wrong. There would be several team members, or maybe a whole team, specifically dedicated to making the technology work: that’s their only job.

The following is a list of all the problems I have had with technology since we started. It is very long and painful. I was going to just tell some of my readers to skip to the bottom to hear my general thoughts, but you should probably just read the whole thing if you really want to understand what I’m talking about. After all, if you think it’s long and painful just to read, think about what it was like to live through it. And remember that this is just a list of the big problems. Most of them are composed of dozens of smaller ones that it would take too long to mention here.

As far as planning and testing went, we had a very short window after we got the grant to plan an application, hire Gonzalo, and get him to write it. To make matters worse, I decided to head to Haiti early to do class observations and build relationships with the locals instead of waiting a few weeks and testing the software in the States like we originally planned. I called my teammate Lydia up and tried to walk her through the steps of connecting our devices to the Internet so Gonzalo could do the work directly, but she didn’t have the right equipment. Connecting one of our devices to the Internet requires a USB keyboard, a USB mouse, an Ethernet connection, a monitor, and a cable. I’m sure people who do this kind of work regularly have all those things on hand, but as college students we depend on our laptops for all our computing needs. Luckily, we could find almost everything we needed available on campus…but in different places, so it had to be lugged back and forth. Plus, it turns out our school’s Ethernet only works if your device is registered with the network, which wouldn’t have been a big problem except we couldn’t get the registration page to come up for our system. What we ended up doing was buying an Ethernet dongle to fool the system into thinking that the dongle is making the connection instead of our device, after registering the dongle by connecting it to one of our laptops. But, I forgot to leave Lydia a dongle to do that, so my mom had to go out and buy one for $25 (normally you can get them for $11 online). Luckily for us, my mom agreed to do that, and a Catholic mission team traveling to Lascahobas agreed to take down the finished devices.

As far as testing, I had a general idea of which equipment to buy because this isn’t the first time I’ve done a server or a solar installation, but we decided to save money by buying a computer model that we hadn’t tried out before. Unfortunately, it didn’t work with our solar system as a power source. So, I had to call up a few schools that we know in Port-au-Prince and arrange a swap: they have a box that works off solar, but they aren’t using solar; we have a box that doesn’t work off solar and we need one that works off solar, so…Fortunately, my friend Jackson went to pick up the boxes and drop them off at the station. The Lascahobas drivers run a free delivery service between the two destinations, as long as whatever you’re giving them is small.

One of the new computers from Port-au-Prince worked the moment we tried it, but the other was giving issues. I had brought a cable with me just in case, but the cable was intended for the boxes we originally bought. They take HDMI. These new boxes take mini-HDMI.

My friend had a motorcycle, so I hopped on the back and we drove around to literally every computer shop in town asking whether they had one that would fit. I felt like Cinderella’s prince looking for his bride: “Does the shoe go onto the foot? Does the cable go into the slot?” No one had one. Most people would heartbreakingly announce that they had it, and then pull out a normal HDMI cable. One guy started negotiating what price he would lend it to us for, and then I was finally like, “Before we start arguing about money, let’s check if it works.” Of course, it didn’t. Cybercafes, print shops, radio stations, “cable shops” (yes, there is such a thing as a cable shop. It is a person who has amassed a collection of cables. You can go there and normally you can find a charger that works with your device. But, you will not find a mini-HDMI cable. I learned that the hard way). People told us that it’s really only something you would use if you had a flat-screen TV. Not many people have one of those. We’d have to go to Port-au-Prince, or maybe we could find it across the border in the Dominican.

A few days after that, I had to go to the capital, Port-au-Prince, to drop off Aidan and meet with Library for All. Library for All’s office is in Petionville, the wealthy suburb outside of Port-au-Prince. They had a computer shop right down the street from them. We walked in and found what we were looking for in 30 seconds. It cost $33, and we had actually already resolve our problem a different way by then, but I bought it anyway, because I’m sure something will go wrong in the future.

After all that, we still had a quantity of 200 or so computers to check, triage, and update if possible. The Randolph-Macon student group helped out a lot with that, of course, but we had two more schools to do after theirs. And even with the computers they updated, we had to do things like making sure the batteries (both internal and external) hold a charge after being abandoned for so long and confirming the mouse, WiFi, and keyboard work. Inventory gets pretty crazy when you find yourself surrounded by stacks and stacks of machines, and you’re constantly moving them to plug some in or check some with your flash drive. Luckily, I had Aidan and Zhane with me to keep things sane.

Also, as we tested our app out with the teachers, we noticed things that needed to be changed. Initially, the app would not let you send a copy of a book you were working on to your friend for editing, which we considered a pretty essential feature. Then, we had trouble uploading the books to the digital library, because it didn’t want to accept books that had accents, but accents are common in Haitian Creole, so that was a problem. Then, all the book files that the publisher sent us were huge, so we had to reduce their size so that kids could download them to their computers quickly. Storage space on the computers was also an issue. We installed a system that was chock full of interesting activities, and we kept getting a “Your journal is full” error. I know from prior experience that it doesn’t always meaning the journal is actually full. Sometimes, it means you have too much stuff stored on the computer in general. Gonzalo prepared a script to delete everything except the activities we would need for the summer camp. The teachers preferred having a screen with less things to click on, but I felt bad about it. Computers are supposed to give you a large variety of options. Even if no one ever uses them, sometimes I just like knowing they’re there.

Anyway, after that, we had some small bugs to resolve with the statistics server. If that thing messes up and I’m not there to fix it, there goes a lot of useful data about the classes and the kids. We weren’t able to get everything working perfectly, so we had to set up a way to manually update things in order to get it functioning smoothly.

I totally didn’t finish all of that before I left Lascahobas on Wednesday afternoon. Instead, I spent Wednesday morning training Fernand, one of the teachers who started working last summer at Bernadette’s school in the after-school computer classes. We visited each school and I explained what remained to be done. I told him that in exchange, I’d give him my old laptop, and when I went to Port-au-Prince that night I typed up a detailed set of directions for him, and I bought a fancier cell phone to make sure that when he called to ask for help I’d be able to hear him clearly and send text messages quickly (more on why I don’t have the phone I came here with later).

I hate leaving with unfinished business. You leave tasks until a more convenient time, and then you end up running out of time. I know that because I didn’t get everything done when I was there, I’ll end up spending twice as long on the phone making sure everything happens. Maybe it will end up being a good thing because Fernand will be invested in what we’re doing. I just hope nothing else goes terribly wrong.

Speaking of things going terribly wrong…you’d think my problems would be over once I got into the van out of Lascahobas, but now I’m in the new location, Lagonav, and Day 1 wasn’t easy. I’m using a server called Haiti Internet-in-a-Box here. Denny Baumann and other volunteers made it, building off the work Unleash Kids did with Internet-in-a-Box to provide schools with access to resources like Wikipedia even if they don’t have an Internet connection. You download Wikipedia (yep, the whole thing) and you save it onto a big drive on the computer, and then when the kids want to connect to the “Internet” to do research they’re actually connecting to your computer and the copy of Wikipedia stored on its big drive. It’s pretty cool, and completely necessary here in Lagonav where it takes several minutes to load some web pages. We’re on an island, which means it’s not impossible for Digicel to send us some high-speed signals, but they’re not going to do it unless they think there’s money to be made, and according to them there’s not.

Anyway, so I decided to spend Wednesday night at Mario Calixte’s house. He’s this great Haitian guy who studied computer science in the States and travels sometimes on his weekends to do Linux and server trainings at the remote schools where Denny is sending these computers. I knew that he would be able to help me resolve any issues quickly. I didn’t have time to test Denny’s server what with all the problems we were having with our servers, and I knew he hadn’t had very much time to test it himself before sending it down. I was really worried, because since Lagonav has no Internet I couldn’t rely on finding a helpful webpage if I ran into a problem.

So, Mario and I set the thing up to test out, and it worked the first time we tried it. I was skeptical, so I turned it off and turned it on, and we tried it again. It still worked. We were able to load all the pages. I did a lot of poking around in the stomach of the thing, digging through files and trying to understand where things were located, but finally I had to call it a night. We had accomplished what we set out to do, and there wasn’t really anything left to do. We had no other devices to test it on, so as long as it was working on my personal laptop, we assumed it was fine.

We arrived at the school around 4 PM, after almost a full day of traveling (I left the house at 7 AM, went to another house, got on the phone with my bank, and then left that house at 9:30 AM). Instead of going to the school to install the server and try it out, I decided to leave it for tomorrow. What could possibly go wrong? Junior and I went on a walk to buy soap (it was an hour away).

Bad life choice. When we tried it out the next morning, just before the training was supposed to start, I noticed that even though my own laptop was connecting fine, the MacBooks and the tablets that the school uses were both having problems. “Maybe it’s just that the software isn’t compatible,” the tech guy who works for the school suggested, trying to be helpful. “Is there an app you can download?” “This is supposed to work – it’s a browser,” I said irritably. I messed around with it for an hour, while teachers waited. Finally, I admitted defeat and I connected the server to itself. That way, we were able to use the server and my personal computer, so two teachers were sharing a computer, which was fine.

After class ended, the tech guy asked me, “Do you think you’ll have it working before you leave?” I replied, “It’s got to be a simple, silly thing that’s wrong. As soon as I find it, I’ll be able to fix it. It should be working by tomorrow.” He seemed doubtful. I tried to hide how doubtful I was.

I sat around the entire afternoon, burning up in the sun that was coming through the window directly in front of me (no, I did not have the presence of mind to move to another space in the room that wasn’t as hot). I poked around in the belly of the server and the router, trying to figure out what settings were making my computer work but not the other computers. I didn’t get very far. There were simply too many things to try, and I was afraid of breaking something for good. I discovered that the computer had “127.0.1.1” as the address for the digital library. My computer was able to ping that address, but the MacBook wasn’t. I decided one solution might be to sign up for an online service that provides you with a static IP address for your server. Some of the words in that description sounded helpful and related to my problem, after all. But, the Internet was so painfully slow that I didn’t get very far in the sign-up process, and I still had no idea if I was moving in the right direction anyway. So, I sent out an email plea for help, and then Junior and I went on a walk.

Later that night, around eight, we got back to work. No one was responding to my emails or phone calls, so I plunged into things alone. I managed to break the connection that my computer had to the digital library, so I no longer had any idea what had been working and what hadn’t or what changed. Then I managed to somehow get rid of the networking icon in the taskbar for the server, so I wasn’t able to make changes there and I had to go somewhere else, and I wasn’t sure whether the somewhere else was the same place I’d been going. As you can probably tell, at this point I was getting pretty frustrated.

The tech guy arrived and asked how things were going. I was in the midst of trying to check my email for the umpteenth time. He suggested we go down to his studio hut (yes, that is not an oxymoron) and try it there, because it works better. The pages did load faster, but not fast enough. I still felt really limited in my ability to search for a solution. Normally I like to quickly scan through a few pages that seem relevant, but when each page is taking a little bit that method doesn’t work anymore.

At this point it was getting close to midnight. The tech guy was playing music for us that he had recorded himself, which was cool. Junior asked him whether he’s used to staying up until midnight working. The guy said sometimes he actually sleeps in the hut. I was glad to have a fellow companion in the job of solving problems on computers.

I gave up and called Adam, my boss in Unleash Kids. This isn’t his server, but he tried to help me out anyway. He said 127.0.1.1 isn’t normally the kind of address you could use, but he did a little research and this isn’t the only time someone’s used it for this. He counseled me to call the people who actually set up the server, and passed on Denny’s phone number, which I didn’t have.

I called him, intending to leave a voice message for the morning, but he picked up. I couldn’t tell from his voice whether he’d been sleeping or not. I explained my problem. He said he’d gotten my email and forwarded it to the people with the know-how, and we’d just have to wait. I thanked him. He asked whether there were any other Windows devices available at the school. I told him there aren’t. He asked when I was leaving, and I admitted Wednesday. He said that if things aren’t fixed by then, I should find another school to install the server, to make sure it would get used. I said that might be possible (after all, I already pulled one server switcheroo). I didn’t tell him I’d been hoping to get it fixed that night so it would be ready for training the next morning. I congratulated myself for bringing an Unleash Kids server with me that had already been tested. The only problem was, it didn’t have the French videos and the Creole books I was looking for, because it wasn’t really customized for Haiti.

I set my alarm for 6 the next morning, and woke up at 6:45 instead (my alarm is actually pretty quiet). I headed straight to the school. “What’s your goal?” Junior asked me as I was getting ready. “I just need to get those two computers working for today’s workshop,” I told him. “You mean, the same place where we were yesterday?” he said, in a voice that was either amused or alarmed.

At the school I tweaked a few things I must’ve forgotten to tweak the other day, and found that I was able to load the pages again, which was a relief. Then I tried something new: writing “127.0.1.1:8008” in the address bar on my computer instead of “hiiab:8008.” It gave me a “Connection Refused” error. I was thinking that was just because the server didn’t want people going inside it, but then I remembered that I’d run into the same problem the other day with the server we had to buy the cable for. Back then, I had Internet and I was able to do some research, and it apparently had something to do with both the server and the computer connecting to it fighting over the same IP address or something. I had a vague concept that if I just reserved an address for the server (instead of signing up for one with that online service) I would be okay. The router had an option for that, so I went ahead and tried it.

At first, it didn’t work, but I checked it again and I realized that it was doing the Ethernet port instead of the WLAN port. I changed it, and then I tried getting a tablet to load a page from my new address, 192.168.0.160.

And…

It worked.

I was all by myself, or I might have shouted and gotten up to hug someone. Or maybe not. I’m generally pretty contained about feelings.

Later, talking to Junior about it, I tried to figure out why I felt so happy to make this breakthrough, and why the problem had caused so much stress in the first place.

First of all, there was this sense that it wasn’t my problem. I wasn’t the one who prepared the server, and I went out of my way to test it that night with Mario, so if it didn’t work it wasn’t because I did something wrong and it wasn’t my job to fix it. The only thing I had to feel guilty about was not testing it the second I arrived. It’s not like I had a tablet or a MacBook handy to try it out before then.

Then, there was this idea that I’d been abandoned. Of course, Mario helped me out, and Denny arranged for the laptop to be delivered, for free, in the first place. But I guess it just fit into my larger sense that this is the first project I’ve done on my own, where I’m the one responsible for all the pieces. The other projects, I had a very specific role: interpretation (a bigger job than translation), training, and coordination. Okay, maybe that’s multiple roles. But I’m comfortable in all of those roles, and in my mind I’m very capable.

Now, I’m capable of doing things like installing solar panels and servers when the situation calls for it, sure. Or at least, that’s what I told myself before embarking on this project. But it’s not ideal to have me do it. I’m not always the most organized person, and you’ve got to be patient and careful when you’re troubleshooting or just trying to keep track of equipment. It gets doubly hard to do that when you have other stuff on your mind: how can you update laptops and negotiate a salary with the security guard at the same time?

In the past, I’ve had a lot of assistance from the dedicated Unleash Kids team when doing project. We’re talking six-hour phone calls sometimes, and constant email strings, and very fast responses. Not having them involved as heavily in my independent work here has been a big blow, because I’m used to reaching out to them for help instead of trying to solve my problems on my own. On one hand, they’ve prepared me plenty with all their training to be able to handle a lot of this myself. On the other hand, the solutions that seem obvious to them aren’t going to occur to me, and sometimes I feel like I spend a lot of time trying to figure things out the hard way, because I lack the basic foundational knowledge that I need to actually make them work, so I’m just kind of shooting in the dark.

But, I’m not actually in the dark. Amazingly, in the midst of everything, I’m picking up things as I go. I’m still extremely ignorant, but I’m developing a sense of some things, at least in a limited way. There are still a lot of ideas tangled together in my head, but some of them have been straightened out, and I’m able to use those little bits to figure out the other pieces sometimes.

When you don’t have Internet, and when people aren’t answering the phone, I guess you just surprise yourself with what you can do. Necessity is the mother of invention and all that jazz. It’s great that I’m learning how to stick with problems and grope cautiously towards an answer. It’s a useful life skill.

So yeah, this story has a happy ending, because I was just smart enough to have a hunch and follow it. It could just as easily have turned out not as well. I don’t know what I would have done then. Maybe install the back-up one from Adam that didn’t have the right stuff on it. Maybe take a boat back to the mainland and work with Mario to try to figure it out there. The scary thing is, sometimes you back yourself into a corner and there’s not much you can do.

So yeah, I’m proud of myself but I’m also angry that I had to go through this, because I feel like it could have been avoided or at least done differently. Someone (possibly me) should have gotten an Android tablet and tested this thing, in Port-au-Prince or in the States.

But here’s the thing: I’m not sure stuff will ever stop going wrong. I can give all these recommendations, like testing or having a person specifically assigned to the role of fixing tech, but at the end of the day maybe I also need to admit that this is just how technology is.

Instead of spending the morning talking to teachers about how to use Wikipedia, you waste an hour messing around trying to get Wikipedia to work. Instead of considering how to make your storywriting app better for writing stories, you’re getting your programmer to put together updates so you can load the books into the digital library. Instead of training teachers in what to do with their students, you’re talking with them about what to do when the Internet goes down or the batteries start charging.

I know there are ways to make my situation better, and I know the XOs have a lot of annoying quirks that other computers don’t. But, I also know that the larger principle remains the same. When you go to do a project that involves technology, the technology itself becomes a big distraction. You end up spending more time tinkering with it and talking about it than more important topics, like what a teacher is supposed to do when they’re standing up in front of a classroom.

I’m a big believer in the principle of picking your battles, and I guess what I’m saying is that if I could pick my battle in this situation, I would pick to work with the teachers instead of to work with the tech. Except, maybe that’s not actually true. I sort of have a love-hate relationship with tech. I hate having problems, but I love solving them. And focusing on tech gives me an excuse to focus less on addressing what the teachers are doing with the tech directly. Someone once told that tech is like a Trojan horse. You can get teachers to change their techniques by talking about what they’re doing with the tech instead of what they’re doing to teach. That may be true. But I can’t leave myself out of the equation. How is tech affecting me, as a project implementer?

I feel like I can’t pick my battles here. I have to get the tech working, or the kids won’t be able to write their stories and read their books. The computers have to turn on. They have to be able to connect to the network. The teachers have to know how to make all that happen.

Whereas other, more-important battles are easier to avoid. If I don’t convince a teacher to use a certain technique that I think might be helpful, no one’s going to notice. Whereas if the computers won’t charge with the solar system, I’ll definitely get a phone call about how that needs to be fixed.

I guess the conclusion of this rant is that I wish the education problems were as easy to detect and solve as the tech problems. Weird. That’s not where I thought this rant was going.

But maybe if I apply the same persistence I applied to the tech problems, the education problems will eventually get solved, too.

Right?

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