Virtual Kenyan Classroom

In August I traveled to Kenya with Teachers Without Borders - Canada. We delivered teacher professional development workshops to elementary and secondary teachers in a rural region, located about eighty kilometres outside of Nairobi. When I returned, I started looking for a creative outlet to reflect on my experiences. I wrote about my experiences on this blog, but merely writing about them didn't seem sufficient. So, I started sifting through almost 3000 photographs that I took while in Kenya and it occurred to me that they tell a story that is much more powerful than anything I could ever hope to convey in a blog post. The next day, I started building a virtual exhibit in Second Life.

TWB-Canada Exhibit Poster for the 2008 jokaydia Unconference

But in the process of building this exhibit, I also realized that it could be so much more than just a virtual gallery - it could become a learning environment, a place that anyone interested in education in Kenya could visit and explore. So, the initial virtual gallery idea quickly morphed into "unfinished ..." - a project to build a virtual Kenyan classroom, a typical classroom in a typical rural school in Kenya.

Virtual Kenya Exhibit - Second Life

Of course, some will say that I didn't have to use Second Life, that a blog entry, a Flickr set, or a PowerPoint presentation (or maybe all of them combined) would have been just as effective. That's why, before I began, I asked myself: What can I do in Second Life that I cannot do on the world wide web? Why do I need a multiuser virtual environment?

I wanted the visitors to be able to experience, even if only virtually, what it is like to stand in a typical rural Kenyan classroom. I can’t do that on my blog, but in Second Life I can create that classroom. I can try to re-create that environment. Of course, as a visitor to my classroom exhibit in Second Life, you won’t feel the fine Kenyan dust on the floor - the kind of dust that penetrates into everything in Kenya. You won’t be able to interact with Kenyan students or look through their notebooks. I cannot create tactile experiences in Second Life. What I can do, however, is create a visual experience that is very close to what I saw in Kenya. I can create a replica of a typical classroom and then use it as the setting for tours, presentations, or conversations about education in Kenya. I can create a virtual environment that provides a meaningful context for discussions about education in developing nations.

That environment wouldn't be complete without photographs of children and school life that I took while in Kenya. You will find them scattered around the exhibit. You will see photographs of children and classrooms leaning against a virtual fence or the classroom wall.

Miti Mingi Primary School, Kenya

Again, an argument could be made that all those pictures could have been shared on Flickr. True. I did share them on flickr, but as soon as I uploaded them I realized that they didn't fully represent my experiences, that individual photographs, when placed against the white backdrop of a flickr photo page, lose their richness and become just another snapshot. In Second Life, however, I can create an environment for them, a context that will help the visitor see them as part of a larger story.

When building this virtual space, I tried to make the environment as reminiscent of the actual schools in Kenya as possible. Many of the textures I used for walls or corrugated iron panels were extracted from my own photographs of Kenyan schools and imported into Second Life. Before I built the desks for the virtual classroom, I scrutinized the pictures I took of student desks in Kenyan classrooms. Before building the classroom itself, I carefully analyzed my pictures of rural schools in Kenya.

Why "unfinished ..."?

I chose this title because when I first walked into a classroom in rural Kenya, everything around me seemed ... unfinished - the bare walls and gaping holes instead of windows all contributed to that impression. It seemed that the classrooms were still under construction. Of course, the sad truth is that the classrooms I visited were all finished - there simply isn’t enough money at many of the schools in Kenya to put in windows or buy new desks. There simply isn’t enough money to put plaster on the walls, buy bulletin boards, or put up posters.

Not every classroom in Kenya looks like the one I created in Second Life. Some schools are better equipped than others. Some classrooms have windows and plaster on walls instead of bare bricks. Some have new desks. Many have electricity. The classroom I built in Second Life, however, is not atypical of rural classrooms in Kenya. It represents rural schools and the country itself quite well. In Kenya, many things, including roads, schools, buildings, and public services, seem ... unfinished.

The work that Teachers Without Borders - Canada has begun in Kenya is also unfinished. We had initiated great projects, worked with many teachers, and established valuable contacts with ministry officials and other NGOs. We look at these accomplishments as work in progress and an opportunity to continue to move towards our goals. One of those goals - and my goal for this virtual exhibit - is to raise awareness of some of the challenges faced by teachers, students, and administrators in developing nations.

I hope that you will take the time to walk through the exhibit and experience school life in a rural Kenyan classroom. The following link will take you into Second Life, to the island of jokaydia where the project is hosted: (SLurl to the Virtual Kenya Exhibit).

Virtual Kenya Project Machinima (Link to the original file on

Interested in a Tour?

If you like what you see and would like to bring your students or colleagues into this space, or learn more about education in Kenya or the work of Teachers Without Borders - Canada, please feel free to contact me. I've given a number of tours already and would be happy to chat about the space or help you build a lesson around this virtual exhibit.

Towards Passion-Based Conversations

"The trouble with traditional education was not that educators took upon themselves the responsibility of providing an environment. The trouble was that they did not consider the other factor in creating an experience; namely, the powers and purposes of those taught." - John Dewey, Experience and Education, 1938.

"Can a Student Get Up and Leave?"

In September 2006, I found myself, along with a group of inspiring educators on Waiheke Island, just north of Auckland, New Zealand. One morning, after a breakfast on a sun-drenched patio of the Hekerua Lodge, we started discussing what is now often referred to as School 2.0. We talked about the use of cell phones and video games. We talked about giving every student the freedom to learn with any tool or technology that he or she is most comfortable with.

I played the devil's advocate and argued that we cannot have classrooms filled with individuals who learn in any way they please. What about students who need structure?, I asked. What about those with ADHD? How can such an environment be conducive to learning? Is it responsible to give nine-year-olds, for example, the freedom to play video games? Isn't it my responsibility as a teacher to engage learners in learning? If we're at school, then those video games or cellphones are likely to be disruptive, aren't they? A classroom is a community, I argued, we need rules.

Sean, Leigh, and Alex argued that in our existing classrooms, teachers often present themselves as authoritarian guides and experts, often limiting the use of tools, such as games or cellphones, that have the potential to help our students learn. Today's classrooms, in other words, are too restrictive and the role of the teacher is based on control, regardless of how passionate and engaging that teacher is.

It was at precisely that moment that Stephen asked,

"In your classroom, can a student get up and leave?"

Of course, he knew the answer. I did too. We all did.

The recent discussion about School 2.0 reminded me of Stephen's question. The point here is that in a traditional classroom, the student cannot leave, at least not without facing pretty grim consequences. Whenever I think of School 2.0, I think of what it would feel like to know that every one of my students, regardless of their age, had the freedom to get up and leave. No consequences.

"A Positive and Constructive Development of Purposes"

I enjoy reading the School 2.0 manifestos. They offer a glimpse into a world where teachers are free to be passionate and engaging, where students really want to learn, and where the restrictive policies of our current world do not exist. Initially, I also wanted to add my thoughts to the School 2.0 Wiki. I decided not to because manifestos alone are not going to help me transform my professional practice so that it is better suited to help today's young learners. I have a lot of respect for all the educators who posted their thoughts, but I also know that this approach is not going to work for me.

I prefer to avoid slogans. They are often mere reactionary measures aimed against the status quo. Overtime, they tend to lose substance. I'm afraid the slogans of School 2.0 will only reinforce yet another "ism" or be perceived as yet another panacea for our contemporary educational woes. Many educators will become convinced of its supposed innate value, but most will be unable to explain how to effectively use this new "2.0" approach in the classroom. Instead, we will continue to hear and read simplistic slogans that trivialize the complexity and challenge of teaching in our new electronically reconfigured environment. Remember what happens to Old Major's beautiful utopian ideals that he explains with such passion and conviction at the beginning of Orwell's Animal Farm? Yes, they become reduced to "Four legs good, two legs bad" - a slogan repeated mindlessly by the dim-witted sheep on the farm. It reminds me of a time not long ago when, walking down a hallway at an educational conference, I overheard one attendee instruct her colleague: "Well, you really need a wiki for your class!" Is this what our complex and challenging times are being reduced to? A wiki for every classroom?

John Dewey reminds us in his preface to Experience and Education that:

any movement that thinks and acts in terms of an 'ism becomes so involved in reaction against other 'isms that it is unwittingly controlled by them. For it then forms its principles by reaction against them instead of by a comprehensive constructive survey of actual needs, problems, and possibilities.


the problems are not even recognized, to say nothing of being solved, when it is assumed that it suffices to reject the ideas and practices of the old education and then go to the opposite extreme (Dewey, 1998).

I'm not really interested in stating how my classroom today should be different from the classroom where I was taught twenty-five years ago. I liked that classroom. I liked many of my teachers. They were strict and told me to ask for permission every time I wanted to leave my seat, even if it was only to sharpen my pencil. At the same time, they taught me many valuable and important skills that I used later on to pursue my goals in life. They did not have wikis, or podcasts, or blogs and yet they still managed to help me get to where I wanted to be. The teachers I liked, respected, and learned from possessed one important skill: they knew how to talk to me as an individual.

So, I am not interested in defining myself in contrast to School 1.0. What I'm really interested in is what I am going to do tomorrow, in class. What are the needs that I'm facing - my own and those of my students. Here and now. What are the problems? Finally, what are the possibilities? It's nice to talk about passion, participation, openness, and inquiry, for example, but what if you're told to teach Macbeth to a group of thirty sixteen-year-olds? What do all these slogans mean then, in practice? What, in other words, am I going to do to make myself relevant in the lives of my students? How can I assist them in learning more and getting closer to where they want to go? We need some tangible ideas and modes of practice based on a solid understanding of how and why our students want to access learning. So, let's not proceed by "reaction against what has been current in education" and adopt instead "a positive and constructive development of purposes, methods, and subject-matter on the foundation of a theory of experience and its educational potentialities" (Dewey, 1998). "To Make Learning Available"

In order to adopt Stephen's proposed approach, which is "to make learning available, in whatever form is desired and appropriate, to assist students as they do what they choose to do," we need to start thinking about ourselves, our presence in our schools and our classrooms. What if our students had the freedom to get up and leave? Would openness, participation, and inquiry keep them in our classrooms? Would a wiki or a podcast? Only if it was their own wiki or their own podcast.

That's why, I believe that education today needs a renewed approach to professional development and a closer look at how we can address "the powers and purposes" of our students. Twenty-five years ago, my teachers knew how to help me succeed. Based on what the world was like back then, they had developed their own practice. Based on what the world is like now, I need to develop my own. I'm not going to fantasize about schools without classrooms, schedules, or carefully compartmentalized subjects. I would love to see that in my lifetime, but I'm choosing to be realistic. Chances are, those things will remain firmly entrenched in our societies for a very long time. What I need now is an understanding of what I need to do tomorrow to ensure that my students can access learning in whatever form and whatever way they find most relevant.

"Passion-Based Conversations"

When I wrote about passion-based learning, I wanted to show that teachers need to redefine themselves as individuals and not automatons that focus on outcomes and expectations. I am passionate about human rights. I spend a lot of my own time reading about human rights and human rights abuses around the world. What I do in my classroom, how I do it, and who I am as a teacher is based to a large extent on my passion for social justice.

So what?

Well, if I have a student in my class who is passionate about Medieval Europe, for example, he will not be too happy in my classroom. My ability to sustain a conversation with him about that topic would be rather limited. But what's stopping me from helping him connect with a teacher and a classroom in Leeds where the topics he cares about are studied and where the teacher is just as passionate about Medieval Europe as I am about human rights? What's stopping that teacher in Leeds from telling some of her students "Get in touch with this teacher in Ontario. You can have a great conversation about Darfur"? What's stopping us? Most teachers would say: assessment and evaluation, state-defined curriculum expectations, reporting, etc.. But let's keep in mind that just because some of our students are building their own networks by communicating with experts from around the world does not mean that in our classrooms we cannot assist them in becoming stronger writers, or help them improve their reading comprehension or research skills. We can still have meaningful conversations about their work. These students can even use their own networks and their conversations with content experts located elsewhere to immeasurably enrich their own classrooms.

We need to start offering what James Shimabukuro calls "flexible schedules and virtual learning opportunities that defy time and space constraints." These opportunities "will be defined by function, purpose, and membership rather than temporal, physical, or geographical boundaries." They will allow us to become advisers "skilled in working with students and motivating them to discover the learning styles and goals that are best suited to their interests." In other words, we need to give students the freedom to access learning. Then, we need to listen and assist.

So, what do I do tomorrow, in my classroom, to assist my students? I think we all need to learn how to have conversations with people who want to learn. How do we effectively assist students in learning and not thrust that learning upon them? I admit that this may sound simplistic to those of us who have been using web 2.0 technologies in our classrooms for some time, but I think we still need to address the fact that many of us are really not engaged in conversations with our students. Many of us are proud of the fact that we create blogging communities, use wikis, or help students connect with their peers from around the world. We are proud that our students seem engaged by these environments. Let's not forget, however, that quite often the students participate because participate they must - they are at school, after all, in somebody's class.

We need to learn how to sustain conversations that are initiated by the students themselves, not conversations that emerge from the official Ministry documents or our own interests and beliefs. I think that passion-based learning will help, but I also know that there is much more that I can do. It seems to me that this new approach will require that we revisit Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development. Perhaps we could refine the notion of "instructional conversation" (Tharp & Gallimore, 1991) where the teacher is involved in "assisted performance." This approach is not perfect but I think it gives us a good place to start: "To truly teach, one must converse; to truly converse is to teach" (Tharp & Gallimore, 1991).

Passion-Based Learning

Will Richardson made a very interesting comment today during his presentation at the Online Connectivism Conference. He said that learning today can be "passion-based and deeply personalized." I do, of course, agree with him. Since we have rejected traditional classrooms where students are treated as empty vessels and embraced learning that is learner-centred, passion needs to acquire an important status in education. And yet, I really don't see that passion around me. My colleagues seem to be concerned with outcomes and expectations, not the passion that they can awaken in their students. Many K-12 students also seem to be going through the motions and "playing school." Yes - I know - there are teachers who engage students by giving them opportunities to make podcasts or use their blogs to connect with peers from all around the globe. I'm one of those teachers. However, I think it's time to acknowledge that just because students make podcasts or contribute to blogs does not mean that they have become passionate about the topic they're researching. If a teacher says, "I'd like you to create a podcast to share your work," students will do it. In fact, they will even show a lot of enthusiasm because the project takes them out of their seats and often even out of their classroom. Are they really working on something that they are passionate about? Rarely.

So, what interests me is how educators can help young people (or anyone, for that matter) find and pursue their passion?

It certainly isn't a new question. Good educators have always been able to ignite that spark in their students. Today, however, we tend to think that using online tools that appeal to young people will automatically ensure their engagement. Genuine passion cannot be ignited with a podcast or a blog. Instead, we need to give our students the freedom to learn and engage with ideas that they find relevant and important. I think it begins with stepping out of what Will today referred to as the "Comfort Zone of Content." It begins, it seems to me, when the teacher becomes a learner and replaces the static curriculum documents with inquiry, conversation, knowledge-building, and personal networks.

In order to make my students passionate about their classroom work, I need to accept the fact that not everyone will become passionate about the course content that I have so meticulously prepared. Not everyone cares about Macbeth, World War II, or Animal Farm. I can spend inordinate amounts of time trying to make that content appeal to my students. I can try to make it interesting. Will they enjoy making a podcast on the life of William Shakespeare? Of course they will. Will they enjoy putting their own thoughts on Lady Macbeth on their own blog where they can receive comments and exchange views with other classmates? Yes, they will. The very nature of these activities makes them appealing. The very fact that they allow students to get out of their seats and traditional roles will make students enthusiastic and engaged. But what happens after the marks have been assigned? What happens after they graduate or move on to take yet another carefully compartmentalized course on literature or European history? Will they continue to produce podcasts? Will they continue to post blog entries?

Maybe I'm oversimplifying things here but, let's face it, if all the theory and technology that we have at our disposal amount, in practical terms, to having students record an mp3 file, blog for a couple of weeks, or connect with other students to exchange ideas about a fictional character or their home province, then sooner or later these new tools and approaches will acquire the status of mere classroom work. They will become as uninviting as "chalk and talk" is today. It seems to me that we are often focusing on technology for the sake of focusing on technology. Are we helping students find ideas that they are passionate about? Is producing a podcast with my classmates going to make me care about whatever it is that we're working on? It will certainly engage me. The novelty will be appealing. But not for long.

If I am really serious about helping my students find ideas and topics they are passionate about, I need to forget about my course content and step outside that "comfort zone of content." What I have prepared, what I deem pedagogically sound, may be wonderful but, to my students, it will always be mere course content, something one learns in order to "do well" - a hoop that every student needs to jump through and certainly not something that one wants to come back to and keep exploring.

As an educator, I need to step outside my "comfort zone of content" by sharing my own self: things that I myself am passionate about. I need to stop peddling content and show that I am a learner too.

So, in April, when we begin our unit on The Diary of Anne Frank, I am going to start by explaining my own personal reasons for choosing that book. Instead of inundating my students with biographies, historical facts, and supplemental readings, I will tell them my own story and explain why I am passionate about this topic.

  • I will tell them how and why I became passionate about the Holocaust, nuclear proliferation, human rights, and social justice.
  • I will tell them that it has a lot to do with my background and a month-long trip to Japan where my wife and I decided to travel to Hiroshima and then Nagasaki.
  • I will tell them and show them what we saw.
  • I will share notes from my journal and the books I bought at the museums.
  • I will tell them that my grandfather fought in the Polish resistance during World War II.
  • I will tell them that, after the war, the communist regime didn't always make his life easy.
  • I will show them Soviet-approved history textbooks that I studied from in grade six, in a Polish classroom.
  • I will explain what I had to unlearn.
  • I will tell them about the promise that I made to myself to teach young people about the atrocities of war and the importance of protecting human rights.
  • I will tell them that my contribution to our class will be in the form of one text, The Diary of Anne Frank, and that I encourage them to bring in and create their own texts.
  • I will ask them to look for a topic that they care about.
  • I will show them my texts (print and electronic) on human rights that I've collected over the years.
  • I will show them my RSS feeds and Google Alerts.
  • I will show them my delicious bookmarks.
  • I will show them my flickr account.
  • I will show them a resource that I'm creating for teachers and students to help them learn more about human rights.
  • I will show them the various tools that I will use to expand my own knowledge.
  • I will show them that knowledge is an active process.
  • I will show them my network.
  • I will tell them that I am not an expert and that there are many things that I still need to learn.
  • I will tell them that we can create an environment where learning can be deeply personal.
  • I will invite them to create their own texts and build their own networks.
  • I will encourage them to find experts and make them part of their networks.
  • I will tell them that our texts will be interconnected not just because they will all be online but because those who are passionate about their ideas understand the importance of sharing their thoughts and discoveries.
  • I will tell my students that I hope to learn from and with them.