As part of my participation in the TechChange Course “New Technologies for Educational Practice”, I conducted an interview with Deborah Elzie at Tulane University’s Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy (DRLA).

Mini Biography

Deborah Elzie is an Instructional Designer with the DRLA at Tulane University’s Payson Center for International Development. Deborah’s education consists of an M.A., Educational Psychology from Columbia University, and M.Ed., Educational Technology from Southeastern Louisiana University. She has expertise in developing, designing and supporting academic institutions in East Africa in the area of distance and eLearning specifically related to health and disaster management. She has experience designing curriculum and training faculty and staff on ways of using blended learning, ICTs, and new media for enhancing teaching and learning. Deb is currently based in Kampala, Uganda working closely with Makerere University’s School of Public Health. Deb is one of the co-founders of The Kuyu Project and StorySpaces. Additionally, she is part of a team of mobile and web programmers working primarily in Uganda. She’s also involved with Africa Women in Tech.

Interview Notes

I spoke with Deborah today (Thursday, April 12, 2012) about the technologies we’ve encountered in the TC106 course, her views on some of them, and her experiences using technology for education in a variety of settings. Deborah’s work focuses on enhancing teaching and learning using ICTs and new media. Here are some of Deborah’s (paraphrased) comments on the field, the merits and pitfalls of some of these technologies, and utilizing them in a development context.

Getting Started in ICT4Ed

I was actually a K-12 teacher years ago, and personally have always been interested in technology. I noticed that a number of my colleagues had difficulty with technology, and it was something that came easy to me. I made a conscious choice to focus my efforts in that area because I was able to help build bridges for people and help them with their technology use. There were particularly some gender issues I noticed; women who were less comfortable with technology and uncomfortable asking the techies for help, who were mostly men. I was able to help assuage their fears and enable them to become more comfortable with using tech.

Education & Technology in East Africa

There are a lot of technologies I’ve found useful, and some I haven’t. My approach is somewhat different – in my experience, including three years here in East Africa, it depends on the context. Even though we may say “these individuals are all faculty, all at schools of public health, and all in East Africa, so they’re probably similar in terms of their tech use,” that’s not really true – specific groups may have had exposure to one particular set of tools and others to another set. Often it’s what people know first that is the thing they attach themselves to, whether the tool is ultimately useful to them or not. For example, people are still using Yahoo!, Hotmail, Internet Explorer & they’re stuck on those models, whether they’re working in public health in New York City or at the school of public health here in Uganda. I first spend some time getting to know where the faculty group is coming from, what they’ve used and why, understand what they want to accomplish before I recommend new tools, and help them slowly synthesize to new technology tools.

I find in the work in the region in development there is also another real issue, when thinking about Moodle or WordPress, for example. Both can be really good for eLearning, but at the same time there’s an element of needing to understand what the funders are using, what they prefer, which is sometimes proprietary, sometimes not. What the funders use can carry a lot of baggage, because maybe you’re working with a school with a number of different funders and the faculty or users have to flip from system to system depending on what the specific funder is using or prefers. The faculty can become really frustrated, because each time a new group comes in pushing a different system (be it Blackboard, WordPress, or another LMS), they’re all different, they have to learn something new, there’s inconsistency. I try to take a different approach. I try to identify which they’ve used and why, what direction they want to go, and then go that way. That said, some of these new and different tools are great, it indicates to me that there’s a movement, a shift away from eLearning using a closed platform and tools where people are contained inside a space (traditional LMS), to using more of a variety of social, personal tools (YouTube, Pinterest, Twitter) and using these more in an open system. I really like the idea of a personal learning environment, each individual as part of a learning network. Each of us have tools we use – books, Twitter, people in our network – we have these things that help us learn personally for ourselves. I take the lifelong learning approach. I try and first approach technology questions on a personal level, what are you using and why, how can this help you in your personal learning? Then we can discuss which can help your students learn in educational settings.

Faculty & Student Tech Interactions

About a year ago I did a workshop here in Kampala with six of the schools of public health involved in the HEALTH Alliance here in East Africa. One of the attendees by the name of Tom Olewe was new faculty at the University of Nairobi and new to the network; he is a medical doctor who recently got an MPH and began teaching. He came to the workshop having already used technology to solve a problem he’d encountered with the commuting and traffic in Nairobi. The traffic there is horrible – he would be working in his clinic and need to go teach a class, but ran the risk of being stuck in traffic for an hour or two. So he started using Skype and Google Docs – it wasn’t intended to be a distance-based class, but he started using these tools to share information with his students, to have collaborative lectures. They were sharing information and students added to the body of knowledge through collaborating on Google Docs, and used Skype for synchronous discussion. So he used it because he had difficulty traveling and he and the students found these tools very useful.

Another example is the use of video and social media at the Kigali Health Institute. A lot of the faculty I’ve worked with there are using YouTube and Facebook. Some of the participants in my workshops had been creating videos for their skills labs, videos demonstrating different procedures for the students, but they hadn’t put them on YouTube. We talked to the faculty about sharing the videos, and at first they didn’t understand why anyone else would want to look at them. So we talked about students at other universities who might find them helpful or instructive. Since the workshop they’ve been looking at the issue of opening them up to the public – the skills lab uses actors, so it should be fine, so they’re considering it. Some of them had also created a Facebook page for their skills lab and students were interacting with them, so the social media piece is growing as well, and my experience has been that students are already using it but faculty have sometimes been more reluctant. But some of them are considering it and trying to find the best ways to use it with students while at the same time maintaining a separation between their personal lives and their classrooms – so creating Pages on Facebook instead of friending students, that kind of thing.

Student Interests & Needs

We’ve been testing a WordPress platform at DRLA with the students, the DRLA Commons. There are positives and negatives with that. One surprising thing we’re found is that the students wanted a consistent interface – if all of their other professors were using Blackboard, they wanted to use that platform even if its not the “best” one. Students want to use one platform to access all of their courses instead of different ones for different classes. Overall, though, there is a movement away from LMS systems to a more open system engaging with social media. A lot of leaders in the field are split on this issue, there are two camps – pro-LMS and pro-social/open systems. I think the whole paradigm is wrong. I don’t like closed systems, but some of our students are more comfortable with that.

Students want to use technology, and sometimes faculty push back against that, so there’s a disconnect. At KHI, for example, the faculty did a mini-assessment of what students were doing with tech, how they were using it, just an informal thing – so they videotaped and asked students questions as they learned to use video, but what they found was interesting. The students were saying that often their lecturers were using notes from years ago and they had to sit through the lectures, but after class they would go on YouTube and Google to find the latest information and learned that way. So students are ahead of the faculty in a lot of ways and I try to press at those edges.

Assistive Technologies in Louisiana

When I left New York and came to Louisiana, there wasn’t a position available in public health, so I took a job working for the Louisiana Department of Education working on their Louisiana Virtual School. One of our projects was working to create an algebra course for the Louisiana School for the Blind. I worked with Dianne Gauthier, and she & I worked closely with them over the course of about a year. They had an existing LVS class in algebra, and the school for the blind wanted the class as well, so we examined all of the technology out there (there were a lot of proprietary systems) and in the end we created this course through a great deal of trial & error. They used Blackboard at the time, but in the end a whole host of technologies were included to make it work for them. It took a long time and a lot of work to find a process that would convert math equations into a format that was readable by the browsers (the JAWS system the students used to listen/read), and to read a math equation is difficult, so we used 2 or 3 different pieces of software for them to be audible for the students, and then another system so they students could read it in Braille. Even then, the technology was constantly changing, even within that year it changed so much. The end result was a the web-based system that the math layer could use, and the Braille system, but it took 6-8 months of trial & error and banging our heads against the wall and calling people – there were not a lot of people out there who could help, so it was frustrating! We worked with the students every week, watching them, talking with them, seeing what the issues were, so they were part of the process.

Supplemental Links

For more information about Deborah Elzie, her work, or the information presented here: