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Information Scotland

The Journal of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

ISSN 1743-5471

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April 2006 Volume 4(2)

Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

Career development

An Excel adventure

Teaching computer skills to Gambian students taught Jan Crosthwaite some valuable lessons about herself. Here she reports on a life-changing experience.

It all began with a problem. A consignment of computers had to be delivered from Scotland to the Skills Centre in Bakau in the Gambia by Christmas.

The centre helps equip young Gambians with the skills necessary to improve their job prospects. All lessons – in automotive mechanics, carpentry, computing, home economics and more – are in English.

Anne Ross, a teacher who worked with me at the Educational Resources and Information Service (ERIS) in Stirling, is involved with the President’s Award Scheme based at the Bakau centre, and she and her husband have supported its development for the last 20 years.

Through some contacts, I was able to help Anne find space on a container to take the computers to Bakau. The problem was solved. Anne then suggested that my computer skills would be useful in training the students and tutors at the Centre.

It didn’t take me long to decide to make a two-week trip. As part of my remit at ERIS is managing the network and supporting schools with automated library systems, I was confident in my ability to teach computer skills. I was also in the middle of writing my chartership submission and felt that this opportunity for professional development was just too good to miss. Margaret Innes, a part-time Stirling Grid for Learning assistant, accompanied me.

Before I left for the Gambia, Abdoulie Bah, the Chief Executive of the Skills Centre, visited Anne and I was able to meet him. We decided that additional useful work would be indexing the paper-based filing system and computerising student record cards and attendance sheets that had traditionally been printed. He also wanted me to help the administration assistants to increase their knowledge of using Excel.

My first impression of the Bakau Centre was the overwhelming need for up-to-date textbooks and manuals. Getting down to work, my mornings were spent working with the students on exercises using mainly Word and Excel. The level of ability within the class was varied with some students requiring quite a high level of support. But after only one week there was a noticeable improvement in some of the students’ ability, according to Festus Edet, who heads up the computer department.

Afternoons were spent working with the tutors. The first lesson was a brief talk about the history of the computer followed by a practical session. More than 30 tutors turned up. Most had very limited experience of computers and some none at all.

By the end of the first week tutors were coming to work on the computers before the lesson started and each could see positive uses for their department. A lesson on tables which had not been in the original programme was introduced as a direct result of discussions with the tutors. Further needs will be identified as computers are put into each department. Currently only administrative and executive staff, and the computing suite have computers.

The Skills Centre, like the rest of the Gambia, suffers from an erratic power supply. Students and admin staff have to save their work every few minutes because of the frequent power failures.

When the power fails they have to go to a local supplier and buy fuel – a time-consuming task. There are no Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) units fitted to the networks, and all the computers are in danger of being damaged by power surges, one of which made one of the admin PC’s central processing units fail while we there. During the power failures we helped students with English language exercises. Although the Gambian people speak very good English, the levels of written English are variable.

Computerising the centre’s administrative forms and records cards was tackled during my second week. Festus had been manually filling in forms for each department, sometimes staying up until 3am. By loading forms onto the admin system, the workload was shifted to the admin assistants who had much more time to enter data and print records.

The paper-based filing system was indexed over two days during power failures – level of light permitting. I often had to take batches of files to the nearest window to read them.
A master list was created and an indexed list printed for each drawer. A simple alphabetical sequence followed by a number was thought to be the most appropriate method. Current records were “A”, with “B” and “C” being preceding years.

I only had time to work with two admin assistants. Ashmou already used Excel for some financial records but wanted to extend her knowledge of it. Omi had not used Excel before but picked it up very quickly. Both girls completed a number of exercises under my supervision and then went on to do more themselves. They found Excel a very powerful tool. The chief executive agreed to allow the girls to build on these skills by continuing with computer lessons.

I had the opportunity to visit nearby school libraries at Tujering, about an hour away. Both lower and upper basic schools have good libraries with full-time librarians. The librarians had received training and were using DDC 20 for cataloguing. I was very impressed with both of them. A computer room at the upper school gave students the opportunity to use both book-based and computer-based information. Although students were not allowed to borrow books, they were encouraged to use the library as much as possible in their free time.
Library rules and instructions about how to care for books were clearly posted around the library. I promised to send them posters and book covers to brighten the library walls.

The visit to Tujering Medical Centre was a sobering experience. One male nurse had hundreds of people to look after. AIDS was becoming a big problem with one in four estimated to be carrying the HIV virus. I had hoped to look at the health information provided in the Centre, but there was none. Health messages are displayed on the outside of the buildings as a cost-effective method of disseminating information. I did find some AIDS-related government information leaflets – in my hotel foyer.

In Kerewan, four hours away, an outreach Skills Centre is being built. Kerewan has no electricity: a solar panel appeal has been launched and a generator is being sourced in Scotland. However, the upper basic school had a well stocked library.

Going to the Gambia was a life-changing experience. Despite their hardships, the people have a genuine belief in the value of education to better the prospects of their country and themselves.

As for professional development, I feel that I have become more confident, patient and understanding in my work. My IT and verbal communication skills have improved. Learning is a two-way process and I have discovered which approaches work better than others.

My horizons have widened and I am determined to carry on working with and for the Gambian people. I would thoroughly recommend visiting and working in another country as a worthwhile professional development activity.

Jan Crosthwaite is Senior Library Assistant at Educational Resources and Information Service, Stirling.

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Information Scotland Vol. 4(2) April 2006

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Last updated: 06-Jun-2006