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IT in International Schools: When Giraffes eat Sushi in Tianmen Square!

April 12, 2003

There is no way any of this would or has happended without JJ, Fred, The Fundi, Tim the Mad Professor and Fuad, Tourre, Fella and Sam” Slice” Ethopia….. lots of this, lots of that all has been a combination of chemistry and a moment people have been willings to stop….not think and go for it…because it feels right, for no bad or good reason….IMPULSE!.…. thank you, and I bow to you all….

Power cuts, a group of students in the dark, Political disaster ends up promoting staff professional growth in IT. One late afternoon a colleague and I were discussing working with Information Technology in International Schools. The discussion prompted me to reflect on my own experiences as an Elementary School Information Technology Specialist and Coordinator over the last 8 years in three different international schools. As an IT specialist I often have had little control over the unique forces at play, but somehow I find the energy and motivation to overcome these.

At I.S.T in Dar es Salaam Tanzania the one thing that continually paralyzed our three labs weekly if not daily was power cuts. In a lab full of children busy working on creative writing projects, the first hint would be a gradual fading of the fan, I would shout, “save your work”! Kids would save and instantly the click of their mouse, the power would shut down and the screens would go black. The waiting game would begin. I would go try the circuit breaker switch, and if the power didn’t return, the children would head back to their classroom with disappointment. These power cuts were part of daily life for the school and Tanzanians. Allegedly this was due to Power Station generators funds being used by corrupt officials for their personal use. Our school had a couple independent generators installed on both the Elementary School and High School campuses to circumvent this problem, but having to share two generators to run a school of 1,200 students and teachers, including staff housing with often limited access to oil, was a unique juggling game.

When the high school computer teacher and I first introduced e-mail to staff and the school, we had to run a single phone wire from the lab across a field to the main administration building. This was the single line to the outside world. We would have to make an appointment with the phone company to get an open line, and teachers would make appointments to be able to send e-mails, which where then routed through the University of Dar Es Salaam server, which was prone to power cuts itself. Somehow even with all the challenges there was always a level of excitement and positive energy involved. The smile and sheer joy on people’s faces when, after innumerable tries, they got an e-mail out and then a couple days or even a week later got a response, was so gratifying for all of us who tried to introduce some new technology to the school.

From the tropical coast of Dar Es Salaam and the savannahs of East Africa my family and I moved to China. Where I was the computer coordinator at the Western Academy of Beijing , a K-8 international school. There the power cuts vanished, and with great surprise we moved to a city with a solid infrastructure which was developing at an extremely fast pace. Here the challenges were of a different nature. Over the four years there our school e-mail address changed four times, and access to certain sites such as and other press sites would be blocked at random depending upon the political situation of the country and its relationship with other nations. Government legislation, censorship or localized decision making could within minutes have odd side effects on the efficiency of our connectivity, with little or no warning.

One of the many challenges faced as a Computer Coordinator was during the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade Yugoslavia. With in 24 hours of the event, violent riots against the US embassy and other Nato country embassies in Beijing took place.

Our school had to close down for a few days, leaving our school population at home. At the time it was uncertain how long the situation would last. After talking to my administration and Director of IT, we decided to post daily homework, updates, and online activities on our website. From my apartment in the Asian Games Village the small room where my computer and internet connection were set up, suddenly had a flurry of traffic: teachers dropping of disks with homework assignments, people peering over my shoulder dictating a homework rubric or sharing an idea. I would post these onto the web and supplement this with online activities and informational communications for the school community. The response from the parents was extremely positive, so much so, that by the second day our main competitor was posting homework for its student body.

A side effect was that suddenly many teachers who saw technology as something out of their reach experienced first hand the immediacy of the web. Due to this event there was a sudden growth in interest in and using the web as a teaching tool. Teachers started to explore the use of WebQuests, homework online and communicating with parents via their websites.

From the traffic chaos of Beijing my family and I moved to Tokyo to work at the American School in Japan . I took up a position as the Elementary School Information Technology Specialist. Japan naturally was a big change from both Africa and China; the latter both considered developing nations, albeit at very different levels. Here technology permeates daily life, from the 3rd generation cell phones with web browsing/e-mail capabilities, to hi-tech and digital automation in so many services and infrastructures. This gives the school excellent access to an extremely high tech infrastructure. Ironically being an international school in a foreign country, in Asia puts us in an odd Catch 22 situation with many software suppliers. One of the oddest and most frustrating situations is an endless loop we have been caught in with a large productive software developer regarding licensing of their products. We have been trying over a long period of time to get the proper licenses for the productive software. The Japanese reseller will only sell us licenses for the Japanese language version, which is of little use to us, being an English medium school. Their standard comment is: contact the headquarters in the United States. When we contact the company in the United States they say they cannot sell us licenses as we are not United States-based, and tell us to contact their Japan reseller.

International schools are in a unique position especially in respect to working, developing and integrating technology. As a person working in the field, I have often found an ability to implement new ideas without having to face much administrative or board level red tape. Generally as all these schools are private and well funded, it is easier to get money to fund projects and new hardware purchases. Along this I have the flexibility to move on creative ideas and programs. One of the disadvantages I have experienced is often a feeling of being isolated from professional development resources, the latest trends and access to meeting other peers outside of the school setting who are working with the same challenges and issues. The advent of e-mail and the web have been a huge step in alleviating this. In so many ways the international schools I have worked in have adopted aspects of the infrastructure, politics and culture of their host countries. I am continually challenged, and inspired to push my own capabilities to facilitate change and face unique twist to the day.

John@ISETS

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 5, 2014 12:19 pm

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