Internet out of the Box

The last time I was here, in Matènwa, the Internet was so slow it was almost more frustrating to use it than to pretend that it didn’t exist. The cell phone towers were installed, but the cell phone company didn’t want to boost its signal, because not enough people here would use the Internet for them to turn a profit.

Last year, my mission as to make sure students at the school still had access to some information by installing Internet-in-a-Box. In this case, the “box” is a laptop, and “the Internet” is a collection of some of the most useful educational chunks: Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg, and Khan Academy.

The Haitian Creole Wikipedia only has 50,000 articles – that sounds like a lot, actually, but you have to realize that many of the “articles” are just the names of random towns on maps. They’ve got some pretty good stuff on Haiti’s presidents, and a little bit about nearby countries. Some vegetables and fruits are covered pretty well. But, a lot of articles, if they exist at all, are just one sentence: “A sheep is an animal”, for example.

So, when we did research activities with the kids, we told them to try to use French Wikipedia, even though that’s not a language they really speak or read, especially at this school, which established its reputation by focusing on Creole.

A year later, I’m back and the Internet’s suddenly great. No streaming Netflix, of course, but when I needed to make a call to check something with my bank last night, I was able to use Google Hangouts and avoid international fees.

The Internet-in-a-Box I installed last year is still relevant: even though the Internet works, getting a bunch of devices connected to it all at once is going to slow it down and eat up a bunch of data, which the school has to pay for. Internet-in-a-Box is still the faster and better solution.

But. Now that the Internet does work, I’m able to do something really cool. I can stand up in front of the room and say, “Remember how the Haitian Creole Wikipedia doesn’t have enough articles? Remember how I said the best part of Wikipedia is that anyone, anywhere can contribute an article? Well, today that’s what we’re going to do.”

I think it might have been more exciting for me than for them, but still. I love Wikipedia because it’s the kind of thing that sounds like a terrible idea in theory (an encyclopedia that anyone can edit?) but works great in practice. “Great” meaning that there’s still a lot of stuff missing. It turns out that the kind of person who feels the need to share their knowledge with the world is normally the kind of person who’s already pretty privileged – white, Western, male. When Wikipedia doesn’t include input from other groups, we all suffer. So getting these Haitian kids logged on was a big deal, for me.

We were still relying on the French a little bit – I told them to pull up that article to get ideas, and in some cases people just copied directly from it. However, we also got a lot of instances of kids writing what they do. “Sheep meat is really tasty and lots of people like it,” one kid added to the sheep article.

We had some political interests. Teachers wanted to write about something called a PAC – no, not a “political action committee,” like in the U.S., but a “people’s agricultural coalition.” A kid pulled up an article on the former president Michel Martelly, that hadn’t been modified to reflect the fact that he’s no longer president, and started making those changes.

I tried to explain things like “don’t add a photo that isn’t Creative Commons.” The idea that someone could steal a picture was a little confusing, but we talked about how when you’re buying a book you’re buying more than the ink and the paper – you’re buying the time that the writer, artist, or photographer took to make it.

We also talked about how “even though other people will probably come to edit it later, you need to do your best to make sure everything you put on there is well-written.” In my mind, one of the best ways to get kids to put their best effort into their work is the idea that someone else will see it and benefit from it, beyond your teacher and your classroom.

Except, Wikipedia should probably install a draft feature. When kids are writing something out for the first time, they aren’t going to be concerned about things like punctuation and capitalization, and it showed. When I came up behind them and started making corrections, they clearly understood what I was doing – they knew how to use this stuff correctly, when it mattered. But, when they were first trying to type stuff out, it wasn’t what they were focused on.

I tried to show them that all the stuff they were writing really is staying on the Internet. I asked each kid what article they had written, and then I loaded the modified page up on my computer, to demonstrate that it wasn’t just living on their computer.

There were some teacahable moments. Kenel, the director from the Anse-a-Galets school, researched Lagonav, and found two different numbers for the altitude of the island’s highest point. He remembered one from back when they memorized this information in school, but the other, which was three feet lower, he’d never seen before.

Cue a discussion on accuracy, and how if you’re adding new information, especially information that conflicts with what’s already there, you really need to back it up with sources.

“Or maybe the island shifted three feet in the earthquake?” a kid volunteered. I told him that seems like way too much for a whole chunk of land to just move, but it’s something we would have to do more research on.



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