Celebrating the power of volunteering
Celebrating the power of volunteering
2014 was the culmination of four years of building close relationships with communities in rural Nepal and understanding how some of their needs could be filled with the help of volunteers. Together we have created opportunities for volunteers from around the world to spend time in these communities to help build local knowledge and work with local teachers in school classrooms.
This year saw our greatest number of participants in the Pathways Program – 15 in total. We would like thank: Jennie Alagozidiz, Michael Capponi, Nick Carr, Ashlee Davis, Jason Dickie, Larissa Fry, Lucy Fuller, Tania Haimon, Sarah Hardie, Monica Lamperd, Finlay Mauchline, Amber Reynolds, Sarah Whaleboat and James Wray. In particular, we would like to thank Daniel Lombardo who spent several months working with teacher training, conducting research and networking with local professionals and service providers.
Since 2011, the Pathways Program has afforded over 30 visits from professional and student teachers, technical specialists, and helping hands from Nepal, the Netherlands and Australia. Volunteers have shared their knowledge, time and goodwill towards making contributions to our development objectives and the needs of the schools and community groups we serve. Volunteers have also been ambassadors in establishing friendships and networks between Nepal and their own countries that have continued long after they return home.
We would like to thank the many groups and individuals who have contributed to the Program with special thanks going to: Ves Raj Bastola, who has been unfailing in his service and whose ability to supervise and support volunteers from educationally and culturally diverse backgrounds is nothing short of outstanding; and, Bishow Adhikari, his family and the Annapurna Eco-village for their extraordinary ability to manage, assist and provide support to our participants during their time in Nepal. Every year we hear volunteers describe the Adhikari’s as “our Nepali family.” Their hospitality is truly extraordinary and our hearts go out to them.
We have found that volunteers can experience life changing and eye opening moments as well as personal and professional challenges. Many who have participated in the Program have never before ventured into an emerging economy. It can come as a surprise when they spend time in schools where there is a very limited availability of resources and where children, their parents and teachers have the task of attending to livestock, cultivating their own food, and collecting water from community wells before and after school. One of this year’s participants said:
“to the beautiful souls who have helped create my incredible journey in Nepal I am so so grateful… It has been an amazing learning opportunity for me and I now know the value of my education and have a clear direction in my life… Nepal has a special place in my heart. I have fallen in love with this country, it’s people, it’s peaceful energy, the beautiful landscape in particular those mountains, the dahl baht and just everything this country has. I love you all and I love you Nepal. See you again soon!”
The responses we have received from children and local teachers during impact assessments have been positive and we are responding to a growing demand from schools in the region to become part of the Program.
Our experience from working with local communities to create a positive environment for introducing volunteers, and the experiences of volunteers themselves, has given us important insights that we want to share with our colleagues, future volunteers and institutional partners. Some may be obvious, others are blanketed by preconceived notions about volunteering and are examined in a new way. Other core issues are emphasised in the context in which the Logged On Foundation, an organisation that has a focus on using technology in education and community development, uses this potential ‘resource’ in the geographical and cultural location where it is working.
Volunteers have a chance to make an impact in the communities where they are placed and those who have gained the most have had a good capacity for cross-cultural understanding, intellectual and personal maturity, and the resilience and initiative to rise to the challenge of living and teaching in a community very different from their own.
Participants are debriefed prior to departure and are supervised by a local professional whilst in Nepal. The supervisor provides support and helps to ensure their experience and impact is a positive one.
Volunteers have the opportunity to dispense with preconceived ideas about what constitutes the ‘best’ pedagogical methods and identifying simple, powerful and ‘appropriate’ ways of teaching that engage and resonate positively with students and teachers in this rural setting.
When it comes to teaching children in schools, there are three simple requirements we place on all participants: to work under the direction of local school teachers/supervisors; strictly follow the local curriculum; and, to integrate the use of computers and technology into their teaching where appropriate.
We understand the perspectives of educators from affluent countries when they critique the local education system, but we are aware that different cultures impart different values to educational approaches and concepts. There are exhaustive discussions amongst educational specialists regarding cross-cultural teaching methods and we have considered a number of them over the years.
We are also aware that local schools in many instances lack access to teaching resources, adequately qualified teachers, and teacher training and professional development courses. Teachers themselves may not have the luxury of spending an adequate amount time to prepare lessons because outside of school hours there are livestock to feed, the garden to tend to and family meals to prepare over wood fires.
We work at the grass-roots level and we respect the local education system. Therefore, we require volunteers to work side-by-side and under the direction of local teachers to deliver simple and effective education programs that are targeted at improving the results of students. Simple and effective is important given the restraints in this rural teaching environment.
By working closely with local teachers, we are attempting to introduce skills and techniques that they could integrate into their own teaching. However, we are aware that professional development of local teachers requires a long-term strategy of direct teacher training by local experts that can be supplemented with volunteers spending time beside them in the classroom at certain times of the year.
Volunteers have tended to focus on learner-centred projects where children have been empowered to become active in their own learning, with teachers supporting their endeavour and fostering their problem-solving and critical thinking skills. These projects have occurred in parallel with existing rote learning methods which is commonly practiced in local schools and is characterised by memorisation and recitation of selected material.
For example, one of our projects involved students being divided into working groups and asked to take photos and write about their life at home, in the village and at school. The project focused on improving digital literacy and communication skills, especially using English. When they completed their task, the student groups came together to prepare their content on the computers and then published what they collectively created online in the school’s first ever website.
Once the site was launched, it took some convincing that what they created was available on the web. Around 70% of households in the region in which we working have at least one member of the family overseas who have permanently moved or have temporarily immigrated to another country for employment. So following the publication of the website, we observed via Facebook and other digital media the accolades and congratulations that were sent to students from their families, friends and Nepali people from around the world. The sense of achievement when they realised that they were the first to publish this type of material about their village for a global audience and the fact that they were more than capable of doing so was palpable. http://sblss.blogspot.com.au
The power of technology-driven, student-centred approaches to education for inspiring and building the confidence and self-esteem of children, especially in an environment where rote learning is the norm, became clear to us. Using computers, cameras and other technology opens up new and powerful avenues for learning and creativity as well as allowing children to showcase their talents for others to appreciate. An example from this year’s Program participants was a project where children became involved in the process of creating their own music video. This project allowed children to strengthen their English comprehension, vocabulary, grammar, speaking, and listening skills through learning and understanding the meaning of the song and through creating their own performance. At the end of the project, the entire school was able to view the performance in the school’s Computer Centre.
Credit to Larissa Fry and Tania Haimon for their work with the children to produce the video.
The power to learn, create and grow
An obvious but important point is the potential for participants to develop personal and professional skills that can come from being in a program where they can step out of their comfort zone, are completely immersed in a different cultural and linguistic environment, are challenged in ways that have been described above, and have the opportunity to reflect on their biases and preconceived notions.
In addition, professional and pre-service teachers who participate in the Pathways Program have the opportunity of learning about the local education system in ways that contrast with their own training and experience that can help loosen certain stereotypes.
In Australia, for example, cultural diversity is evident in many schools with around 45% of the Australian population being born, or have at least one parent born, overseas from one of over 200 countries. Teacher training institutions have a focus on preparing pre-service teachers for the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse school systems.
In this and previous years, the Australian Government made funding available to encourage more pre-service teachers to become Asia-literate through access to teaching opportunities in Asia. Many of the volunteers participating in the Pathways Program have done so with the help of their home institution and this government funding.
Our Program has provided unique opportunities for individuals to develop greater skills and abilities in working with diversity. We have found, however, that participants who have measured everything against their own values experienced difficulty adjusting to the demands of the Program. The best outcomes were achieved by those who have had the capacity to: communicate effectively with students (participants with ESL training were particularly successful); decentre preconceived ideas about what they believe constitutes the best pedagogical methods; be innovative in identifying simple and powerful ways of teaching and integrated this with the local curriculum; be prepared to be unprepared and respond to the situation and the demands of students and teachers; and, quickly craft lessons that engaged students with various abilities in the classroom.
Working with local teachers, supervisors, members of the community, and the Logged On team has allowed many participants to overcome challenging situations faced in the classroom and, on a personal level, make the self-adjustment required to work and live in a village. In particular, participants who entered the Program as a group have worked together and adapted and bonded through sharing ideas and experiences and working as a team to craft their teaching materials and approaches.
These competencies and bonds were not just cemented within the Program, but also during the treks and activities that were arranged outside the placement period. These activities provided powerful experiences that have helped shape beliefs and reinforce behaviours for some participants that are consistent with building personal resilience. We are committed to further exploring the opportunities our Program has in building competencies, confidence and educational leadership in pre-service teachers with institutional partners.
Realistic expectations, technology and education
Volunteers who participate in the Pathways Program for the first time have an image of what life is like or the idea of what the needs are in a ‘developing’ country. The fantasy perceptions of the destination and the actual destination can be quite different.
One example, relating to our core objective of using technology in education, follows from the question that volunteers and visitors frequently ask us about what educational material they could bring to schools for their visit. Their suggestions are usually “colour pens, pencils, books, and note pads”, and when they are advised “cameras, laptops, keyboards and mice”, they sometimes give confused reactions or at worst grimacing faces.
There seems to be preconceived notions about what constitutes appropriate educational assistance in the communities where we are working. Technology is sometimes perceived to be inappropriate in a development setting and that teaching programs should gravitate towards the ‘traditional’ use of pen and paper. This notion also appears to sit comfortably with some participants because computers and the internet may take away a more interactive one-on-one engagement with children who may end up glued to their digital devices as they can be in affluent societies.
From our interviews with children at our project sites, not unexpectedly, there is a genuine desire to spend more time on computers and the internet. What was not expected was the majority of the children requested that they spend around 1-2 hours a week learning on the computers. The fixation on digital devices that occurs in affluent countries does not happen in the areas we are working because of low bandwidth internet connections, community attitudes, and there just isn’t the luxury of time.
Technology can disrupt notions of ‘traditional’ that tourists sometimes seek as part of their overseas experience. We, as an organisation, find ourselves advocating the benefits of computers, the internet and other technologies in education as not just a tool that is best suited in more affluent parts of the world, whether in Nepal or elsewhere. There is a huge demand for computers in schools in Nepal, especially since the government introduced compulsory computer science education for years 6-8 (inclusive) despite the fact that many rural government schools are unable to afford computers, the internet and their maintenance.
It is clear to us that rural communities understand the potential benefits of computers, the internet and technology in general. For example, before the completion of our first project in 2011, we became aware of how important mobile phone technology and the internet were in the area we were working. The most privileged and educated to the most marginalised and illiterate members of the community had or were at some point exposed to mobile phones and the internet. In many instances, mothers would travel to the nearby town to use Skype to contact their children who were working overseas. We also observed illiterate women operating their mobile phones between cutting grain by hand in the fields. These women have learned enough to be able to identify symbols and read simple English to be able to make the technology work for their purposes. They are knowledgeable and receptive to the potential technology has to empower their lives and those of their children.
We believe that digital technologies have the potential to create opportunities for members of the community and most importantly, help create educational opportunities for children. We advocate for the use of technology in education and we invite individuals and organisations who share our goal to take part in the Pathways Program.
Make a difference to the community
Many volunteers go to Nepal every year to find inspiration and experience, and we are very supportive of this endeavour. Some are placed by commercial and non-profit organisations at great cost to volunteers and we have seen teaching positions being made available that do not require prior experience or qualifications.
The Pathways Program is part of what we do to help communities and it is a program that is well received by all stakeholders. We don’t want it to be just another volunteer program that is clouded by its potential commercial value or focuses on making volunteers feel good about their contribution. There must be a significant benefit to the community and any placement must be done so with adequate community consultation and consent.
There are a number of core features to our Program that are aimed at making a positive long-term impact:
- There is a strong community consultation and review process that occurs annually. We collect exam results and interview volunteers, children and local teachers to ensure that the Program is having a positive effect.
- We seek suitably qualified people that have the qualities that we feel will allow them to succeed in the Program. Applicants will be approved only if they meet the criteria and the host community gives their approval.
- The outcomes and collective experiences of volunteers are being used to build a knowledge base so there is a reference point for new volunteers to be able to continue on from the efforts of their predecessors.
- Any volunteer program should not detract from the important work of building capacity amongst local teachers and members of the community. Volunteers have been involved in capacity building as well as working with teachers in school classrooms. When volunteers work with children, we look at ways of integrating their efforts with teacher training so the potential for improving the education outcomes of children continues long after volunteers have departed.
In conclusion, we are aiming for excellence in the Pathways Program, our volunteer initiative, in three core areas: the professional and personal development of volunteers, having a positive and lasting impact on communities in rural Nepal, and that our development objectives are met so we can continue to grow our program of assistance to as many underserved communities as possible.
Mark Pinoli, CEO
* This is a summary of a research paper being prepared for publication.
Photo credit: Jason Dickie, Bishow Adhkari, Daniel Lombardo and Mark Pinoli.