Or as it is referred to in Kenya, “exams week.” I’m not sure if I will be administering exams to my woodshop class or not. Tomorrow I will clarify the teacher and student expectations. The reality is that a single exam would be a waste of time… who am I designing it for? The fastest kid in the class, or the slowest? Individualized exams won’t tell me much either… I already know where they’re at because they work individually already at the end of each class so I can see what they’re retaining.
I know for sure I don’t test the little kids in art. Over the weekend I bought some watercolors, though, and if I’m teaching at all this week I’ll see if I can put them to use. Something tells me clothes are going to get ruined.
So changing the subject, it’s fair to say that I’ve been a bit of a hermit lately, mostly because:
a) I like being a hermit.
b) Its easy to be a hermit here.
This will end soon, though, since after exams I’m free for a couple weeks before I travel to Nairobi for “In-service training” (IST), after which the entire Deaf Ed group (and my highly anticipated visitor from America, ErinRose!) will be heading back to the coast for more vacation time. In any case, I can forgive myself for being a hermit because I know I will soon be social again.
Yesterday, in addition to paints, I also bought 35 floppy disks, and I intend to make copies of the work I’ve been doing and to take them to IST so other volunteers can pick up disks for themselves and take them wherever. Because this is my goal, I’ve been spending a lot of time tweaking the floppy disk that I use here at school to make it better and better, testing each change with kids in the library as I go.
Of course, the whole reason I’m trying to squeeze stuff onto one disk, a seemingly frustrating goal considering that I’m perfectly capable of loading up the hard drives here if I wanted to, is so I can do exactly what I’m planning: share the disks and have them put to use with no instructions needed, just put it in and turn it on, no matter how old the computer. It’s truly an instant teaching tool, even if its hard to get excited about the stone age technology.
In the version that I’m almost done with (1.2), I really made it a point to find more software that uses the mouse. Version 1.1 had two such programs, but now there are eight. In a mixed computer environment (sometimes one of the machines in the library runs Windows), I noticed the the kids get “mouse envy” and they hold the mouse even if the program doesn’t use it. Now they have more options, and they can tell from the menu icons which program use the mouse and which don’t. I also made changes to make the programs more consistent, especially regarding how to exit them, which was really confusing before. In DOS, each program has its own internal logic… there is no “X” to click in the corner to make something go away. I’ve been doing my best to make sure the Escape key nearly always exits the programs now.
The challenge in making this disk is twofold: on one hand, there’s the content. I really need to think about which programs benefit the kids most, and because space is limited, competition is tough, so it’s tempting to favor old games that are very small. They teach the right topics, but often aren’t very engaging. On the other extreme, I could fit two or three really really fancy programs on the disk that would have big appeal, but would leave the kids asking, “What else is there?” I am glad that I am able to see firsthand with the kids which of the smaller games bore them, so I can slowly weed out the things that aren’t working. I also try to consider longevity: if the programs “work” and they actually learn the material, then what? The disk should also have programs that can be used even after the simple teaching programs have been mastered. Picking those programs is more theoretical. Thanks to my Internet connection here, I have downloaded and tested about 200 programs so far in my effort to pick the best ones for the disk. My spreadsheet is embarrassingly detailed. This is what free time in the Peace Corps does to me.
The other half of this challenge is purely technical: how can I squeeze more onto one disk? I’ve resorted to using a number of compression optimization and reverse-engineering tools to squeeze out every last byte of space for each program. I won’t get into the details, but suffice to say that this is the challenge that turns me into a hermit and keeps me up late as I slowly pick away at the fat. The change from 1.1 to 1.2 is pretty significant as a result, though: 1.1 had 2.51MB worth of learning activities, whereas 1.2 has 3.94MB: a 57% increase. And 1.1 was already pretty optimized. Anyhow, this translates into more activities for the kids, which means I have to work that much harder to pick even more programs.
The last technical thing I’ll mention is how excited I am by a new feature that’s now on the disk: the ability for it to copy itself. If the disk finds it way to some village in the isolated Northeast Province, for example, and a volunteer or teacher there wants to make more copies for a nearby school, they’d previously have a cumbersome process ahead of them, because copying bootable disks isn’t easy. Now they can just put in another disk and click one button. That’s it. I was pretty happy when I got that working.
Well, as exciting as it is to share all of the with you, it’s late, so I’ll leave you with this: the picture of the main menu for the floppy disk, featuring ASCII art designed by yours truly.