Down the education rabbit hole: Nigerian parents fighting teachers won’t educate kids

toosad

Last weekend, I was given a taste of the abuse modern day Nigerian teachers receive. It was not fun.

I have been a volunteer children’s teacher in different capacities over the last 5 years, and must admit, it’s one of the most fulfilling things I have ever been involved in. Teaching children holds a distinct excitement for me, and I have always thought that teaching full time would be a good place to go when I get around to retiring from my day job. That thought however, may have been a rose tinted reaction to the fairly comfortable teaching environment in my current volunteer position, until now. Last weekend, I was given a taste of the abuse modern day Nigerian teachers receive. It was not fun.

A month ago, I gave out an assignment to my oldest class of children, aged 8 – 11. They were simply supposed to write an essay, explaining in their own words, the meaning of Christmas. As a prelude to this assignment, we had done a three week Christmas lesson, explaining the historical and religious origins of Christmas, the celebrations over the years, and current trends. As a finally note, also covered the “Christian understanding of Christmas.” The assignment, as I explained it, was heavily biased in favour of the Christian understanding of Christmas – after all, our little class is a church class, albeit a more contemporary one, where we have lessons on ethics, morality, science, history and current affairs.

The papers started coming in a week after the assignment was announced, and they were very impressive. It was easy to expect a good turnout, because we the prize was very attractive 8 inch device from the guys at Cupertino, however, the quality of work was much better than I expected. I felt rather proud of the kids. All, except one.

It was the only printed paper of the entire bunch that I had stuffed in the middle of my Bible. It was neatly done: the essay was printed in red ink, the name done in multicoloured word art, and the footer adorned with colourful Christmas images. It was also very long – one solid red black of text, covering 70% of the sheet – too much work from an 10/11 year old. Red flag.

I settled on the couch to begin reading.

Christmas is an annual commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ and a widely observed holiday, celebrated generally on December 25 by millions of people around the world. A feast central to the Christian liturgical year, it closes the Advent season and initiates…” Red flag. Red flag. Red text. Red flag.

The alarm bells were off as I stopped reading and skimmed the text. By the time I had skimmed down to the bottom of the page, absorbing the detailed note, including parses like “canonical gospels”, “Armenian Apostolic Church” and “southern solstice” there was no argument in my mind that this was copy and paste. I knew it was Wikipedia. I googled the Christmas entry on Wiki and there it was, word for word, save the annotations and flags, which the kid had removed. Only on second read did I find a stray word, which turned out to be an annotation which hadn’t been properly deleted.

I had meant to report the ‘cheating’ to the boy’s mother when I realised it was too late in the evening, so I decided to talk to her after church. When I told her I had a rather serious issue to talk to her about, she was rather alarmed, but a minute or two into my explanation, she cut me short to tell me “Oh, my son has done nothing wrong.” She explained that in their school, they ask them to do their assignments on the internet, print them and bring them to school. In her understanding, the boy was merely doing as he’s used to doing in school, as such he’s not wrong. At this point, the boy began to cry and carry on, that his work was the best and I had given his prize to someone else. He wouldn’t stop even when the mum consoled him with a promise to get him a similar tablet.

At that point, I didn’t want to argue with the parent. I told her I reserve the judgement on what qualifies as a pass in my class, and that I think what the school is doing is wrong. She agreed on my judgement of pass or not, but insisted that her son had done nothing wrong. That topic was over. At least that’s what I thought.

About an hour after I got home, I was told the parent had called while I was inside, so I called back. The call started out civilly enough, but within two minutes, it was clear to me that the matter had a little ways to go. The parent went on to explain again how children getting work from the internet to present as assignment is no problem, and the norm in modern schools. She had her daughter, a younger child in my class, to stand by and collaborate (I found that rather unnecessary). He gripe was that I had called her to report that her son cheated, and she cannot have that, because her son had done nothing wrong. It was a long conversation, but it was not to end without the mother throwing in a zinger of her own – she told me point black that I am not trained to teach, and do not know what applies in contemporary schools, hence had no leg to stand on to judge whether the teaching practice at her son’s school is right or wrong.

Yes. That entered. A true wow moment that honestly got me thinking of resigning my position. In fact I did, for about 2 hours.

In my mind, changes in teaching methods have not changed the fundamentals of what right and wrong are. Changing teaching methods have not changed the dictionary definition of plagiarism, which the upset parent did well to explain to me. According to the parent, if the child had copied out the web page on paper and not referenced the author, it would have been plagiarism. But because the child copied the content of the Wiki page onto Microsoft Word, (editing out all but one of the Wiki annotations), and printed the page out, albeit with his name on the top of the page, the exercise did not constitute plagiarism. Of course this is not the place to debate the differences between writing with pen on paper, and printing from a computer.

More importantly, according to the parent, the fact that current practice in the child’s school is exactly what I saw demonstrated by the son negated any chances that he was cheating in any way. I was saying in my mind, while we were on the topic, that the assignment asked for an essay. Essay. Write and essay! And every other child did just that.

On the issue of education or scholarly experience, by some long storied freak chance, I happened to attend two years of grad school courses, and one year in PhD studies, both online. The one year of doctoral studies was spend doing scholarly research classes only. In those classes, if I learned anything, it was what plagiarism is, and how seriously academic institutions take the subject.

Whatever it is I had to say about my education, my academic credentials were in question. So I thought if I needed to find a definition for plagiarism and how it is viewed in academics, it was best to do so from more respectable authorities. I did a quick google, and found the following paragraph on the Duke University website:

Plagiarism occurs when a student, with intent to deceive or with reckless disregard for proper scholarly procedures, presents any information, ideas or phrasing of another as if they were his/her own and/or does not give appropriate credit to the original source. Proper scholarly procedures require that all quoted material be identified by quotation marks or indentation on the page, and the source of information and ideas, if from another, must be identified and be attributed to that source. Students are responsible for learning proper scholarly procedures” – http://library.duke.edu/research/plagiarism/index.html

I will detail the key elements in the paragraph above. First one is that a student is guilty of plagiarism when there is an attempt to deceive. If a student got work from the Internet, did not indicate that the ‘work’ was from the internet, that’s plagiarism. If such work is not properly credited to the author or source of the ‘borrowed’ work, it’s plagiarism. If the ‘quoted’ material is not identified by quotation marks, it’s plagiarism. Another important detail is that the responsibility for knowing what constitutes plagiarism is the student’s. The teacher does not need to know if the student understands that they are plagiarising or not.

I felt a little lucky after finding the Duke paragraph, so I tried Havard, and found this peach:

If you copy language word for word from another source and use that language in your paper, you are plagiarising verbatim. Even if you write down your own ideas in your own words and place them around text that you’ve drawn directly from a source, you must give credit to the author of the source material, either by placing the source material in quotation marks and providing a clear citation, or by paraphrasing the source material and providing a clear citation.” – http://isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=k70847&pageid=icb.page342054

Let’s say the complexity of plagiarism for scholarly work is too nebulous a scale to measure an 11 year old’s work against, and the citations were merely to disprove the assertions of an unknowing parent. We could also say that the little boy meant well, and actually did good by going on the internet to find material for his work. That could be acceptable under explained circumstances.

However, if the child took his time to edit out every Wiki notation on his page, except one (which I suspect escaped his notice), then there was potential intent to deceive. Also, by typing his name on the paper, without at any point indicating that the entire body of this work is lifted from Wiki, or explaining this to the teacher (until it was announced that he was in trouble), then that qualified as cheating – whether implicit or otherwise.

So did my pupil plagiarise? Or should I use a more basic term, cheat?

Again, we must remember that a teacher’s job is not to judge the intentions of the heart of a pupil. As such, a teacher cannot be blamed for declaring a pupil’s work as plagiarised, whether that was done wilfully or not, as long as the evidence in the body of work match the definitions for plagiarism.

This long winded discourse on plagiarism brought me back to the parent’s explanation, that “that is the way it is done these days” and that “that is what is done in their school”. I am hoping that a teacher, or similarly qualified professional working in the school system would help me clarify this issue, but in my thinking, if a teacher encourages students to lift material from the internet and present as theirs, is that not legalising, or at the best, sanctioning plagiarism? What will happen to these children when they suddenly find themselves in the wider world, where academic rigour is standard? Aren’t we supposed to train up our children in the ways which they should go, so that when they grow up, they wouldn’t depart form it (that was Solomon, by the way, in the Bible’s Book of Proverbs 22:6)?

I suspect that as a means of encouraging academic research, school teachers could have asked kids to go find answers from the internet, print same and bring to school as evidence that they did do the research. They could also have been taught to copy text to MS Word to save ink. I however disagree with the submission that teachers allow kids to copy web pages wholesale, and present them as their essays. I disagree because if this were true, it would be preposterous, an absolute travesty. Teachers who institutionalise this reckless cheating routine should be jailed, because the future of our children are too important to be be toyed with by unscrupulous teachers.

Last Sunday, I went up a rostrum to appeal to parents to take more interest in their children’s school work. I am doing so again, through this medium. As parents, we are the first frontier (strange that I now find myself in that ‘we’). Parents are the first and maybe last schools their children should attend, and no one can teach a child better than a parent – no one should. Parents cannot abandon the job of educating their children to schools and teachers. Education is expensive, and parents are having to pay over the odds for a chance at decent education for their children, but that still does not excuse the parents from their jobs – parents must review their children’s school work, assist with homework, and generally be part of their children’s academic life. It is only then that they can spot inconsistencies and miseducations that may exist in the classroom.

If parents accept all that teachers hand out to their kids, and indeed their methods, as gospel truth, they may miss out on the grand prize of providing that valuable education they seek to provide for their kids. And if you are a parent, and you feel your child is not getting a decent enough education, do not go be an embarrassment to creation by abusing your child’s teacher; walk to a mirror, stare for a moment and lay your lashing on the person in that mirror, you.

Presentation tips for entrepreneurs…and everyone else

This will not be a typical post from me. And no, I’m not a life coach, or any kind of coach.

Credits: whitehotcenter.com
Image credit: whitehotcenter.com

A couple of months back, I attended a pitch even at CCHUB and remarked how entrepreneurs needed to learn presentation skills. As of then, my thinking was that there are many resources out there that local ‘presenters’ could read up and self help. Well, I decided to write up a few tips of my own, when I witnessed a particularly horrible presentation from a guy with a decent product who really should have made a sale on the merit of the product, but lost the pitch on account of an presentation quality.

So here’s my made-for-the market presentation tips for entrepreneurs. How does one make a good presentation in these parts:

Invest in a very sharp suit.

Research shows that good looking people are more likely to be hired at interviews – we can advance that and say sharp looking people get more attention. No, seriously, buy a suit. You have to look the part; look like you belong.

It may not ultimately win your pitch, but you are better off if your audience spends more time admiring the cut of your lapel than getting turned off because you look like you don’t belong with the money you’re pitching for. By the way, this is a $100 problem. If you can’t invest that much in your appearance, you client probably shouldn’t trust you with his money.

If you do invest in that suit, there no need to spoil it by not wearing the right belt – I’ve seen way too many people wear great suits and spoil the picture with a raggedy looking belt or tie. Please don’t. Rather than wear a silly tie, lose the tie completely. It’s in vogue anyway. Sensibly sharp colours are great for ladies, but I’m not sure my style guide is adequate for all genders, so I’ll let that slide.

Invest in non-cheesy ice breakers.

Most people who are coming into presentations where you’re asking for money, or trying to sell a product, come with a prefabricated NO. Your job usually is to turn that no into a yes. A great way to begin your presentation is to warm things up, in order to get your audience to relax. An on-the-spot joke is often a great idea, but of course that joke should be that, a joke. Any icebreaker which reflects negatively on your listener is an unnecessary yellow card. Self deprecating jokes work great if they’re actually funny. Better your audience laughs at you, than at the boss at the head of the table.

Pretty presentations work.

Remember that 100 slide presentation which showed your product idea in great detail, and would leave no doubt in the mind of the audience by the time you’re done? Well, it’s time to ditch it. Spend some time to compress your thoughts into a few slides – go heavy on bullet points, quick data and visual aids. Keep the colors pretty. (I’m a big fan of minimalist presentation slides, and would recommend that everyday.)

That truck load of text your audience really needed to see? Well, that’s why you’re standing out there. Talk. Present.

If it really bothers you, prepare two presentation decks – one for the presentation, and one to give to your audience after you are done.

Keep eye contact. 

Let’s assume you were trying to sell an idea or product. The most important people you would want to talk to are: i) the guy who signs the cheque, and ii) the guys who can influence to get the cheque signed. Identify these people quickly an drake sure you keep your eyes focused on them at least 60% the time. You are not presenting to a room full of people, you are presenting to a few people who need to get you where you want to go. Yes, you need hallelujah moments when you speak to the entire room, but keep your focus on the important people.

Build participation

Remember that marketing book that said the best way to sell is to keep your customer interested? The 1120 pages may have seemed like bullshitting, but they were right. Engage with your audience. Get them to become part of your pitch. Use local illustrations, draw parallels and explain in simple language which allows the audience to go beyond understanding you to seeing your perspective. Use questions and activities to build interaction and engagement.

If your customer, the boss, takes it upon himself to explain part of your product to one of his staff who seems ridiculously slow, or if one of the influencers (remember them?) volunteers to explain to the boss in office vernacular, you are on track.

Keep it sharp

No, a super long, fact laden, stat heavy presentation won’t leave everyone clear about what you have to sell. It’s a little worse than that long deck you were asked to trash. Keep your presentation short and to the point. If anything is going to keep you going for long, it should be your audience asking interesting questions.

Know your stuff

See what I did there? I kept the most important tip of them all for last. And yes, it is what it says. Know your stuff. If you get your sharp suit, break ice really nice, build a colourful deck and kept all the eye contact in the world, without knowing what you’re talking about, you probably should get your butt kicked out of there.

I admit, not every pitch will result in a sale, but if you make a really good pitch, you will definitely get noticed. No, I’m not going to count the number of times we’ve been offered more than our team asked for, or got job offers, on the back of good presentations. Kindly make your own suggestions in the comment section. Thank you.

The World Needs Her Autobots

autobot_transformers_1440x900An emerging trend I’ve noticed over the last year and half is that entrepreneurs and startup owners are sneering at people seeking paid employment. It’s rather ironic, this turn of events, considering that a few years back, parents and family usually sneered at kids who thought to start businesses, or threatened to disown children who turned down paid employment for the improbable ‘attraction’ of being a business owner.

Entrepreneurship fundamentally is embracing uncertainty, and the average entrepreneur may sneer at the endless routine  of paid employment. The average banker, for example, represents a human bot, doing the same thing over and over again, day after day, week on week, year on year! It is that endless routine that helped make my mind up about going into business – and I was one of the lucky ones who had a pretty interesting job.

Then there’s CCHUB. I remember once going to CCHub to find a developer – my thinking before then was that if there was a  place to find good developers, it would be the hub. Maybe I misunderstood what the hub stood for, or what the hub people thought about paid employment, but after my visit, I felt a little pity for the concept of paid employment and it’s adherents – the bots. The guys at the hub all seemed to mentally spit at the thought of working 9-5 (and more) jobs.

So what’s really wrong about having an autobot job, especially considering the most common flaws of startup entrepreneurs?

  • If we all became entrepreneurs, who will work for our companies?
  • The average entrepreneur often lacks true brick-and-mortar business skills, and needs to be guided or supported by trained managers – where would the managers come from if everyone became a startup owner.
  • Often, the glamorous stories of entrepreneurship conveniently skip those months where there’s no revenue, the zero account balances and the debts to family and friends. Because the market is very volatile, and support systems are lacking, the average entrepreneur needs a family structured in a way which has that support of a regular pay check, when one partner is running a startup.

One of the things I’m very sure about is that the fours years I spent in and out of paid employment help build a foundation for how I currently run my business. If I didn’t learn anything positive in my last job, I did learn how not to run a business, and how not to treat the people who work for me. My last job taught me management, at no cost to myself, and there was no way I would run a team where people are happy (most of the time) to work with me. There are clear differences in the way I run my team, and the way my close friends run theirs, and this is clearly down to our experiences in jobs we had or did not have.

I’m currently sitting here, typing out a blog, deliberately giving the silent treatment to a logistic staff I called up to talk to. I learned that from my former job – say 10 words, and let it sink in with silence, only broken by the sounds of a keyboard.

Steve Jobs was one of the greatest CEOs ever, but he was one of the worst managers who ever lived. It needed autobot managers to keep his team moving and working, because working with Steve made “working in a living hell” the kindergarten of horrible job experience. But he was smart – for the most part of his second coming at Apple, he hired great managers. The best CEOs are probably the ones who are smart enough to hire great staff and managers or who have had experience in autobot jobs.

Recently, I was reviewing the career of Sim Shagaya, founder of Konga.com and DealDey. He’s one of Nigeria’s leading start founders, and one of the few guys Nigeria’s smaller startup CEO would close up shop to go work for. He also has a very impressive CV, don’t let me tell you, check out his LinkedIn. We love SIM because we think he’s cool. But once in his life, the cool Sim was an autobot!

The world is defined by CEOs, but run by managers. A world without it’s autobot managers will be a world full of really angry or depressed people. This is because most startup CEOs are really shitty managers of people. Managing people is a skill that rarely comes naturally, and one of the best ways to gain management is through traditional employment.

It is great that we are beginning to build a startup culture in Nigeria, and young people are aspiring to start and grow businesses, with less protestations by their families. It is also important to note however, that not becoming an entrepreneur is also a very valid career path. I also think every entrepreneur should try working for someone else – the experience is invaluable.

Being an entrepreneur is cool. Very cool. Nothing beats that feeling of seeing something one started from nothing grow into something. That feeling is rather difficult to top. But nothing tops (negatively) that sinking feeling at the end of a month which had no revenue, knowing not where money is going to come from. Startup culture is often a swing between heady highs, and hopeless lows. In the midst of so much uncertainty, of emotional extremes, the world needs her autobots to keep things going smooth and calm like.

And hey, the Autobots, if you really think it through, are the good guys. Life could be much worse, in a world where we also have Decepticons.

When Professors Plagiarise

Yesterday, I was visited by my best mate from university. He had gist, so we had a great time reminiscing, catching up and pretending guys don’t gossip. He also had news. One of our old university teachers, then a PhD, has been made a professor.

There was silence.

The silence was followed by anger – from my friend. A lot of anger. He was angry, not because his longtime romantic interest in this professor’s daughter ultimately came to nothing, but because he wasn’t sure if finding a way to disgrace this professorial fraud was enough punishment for the intellectual crimes we know he is guilty of. He wasn’t sure how far he should go to knock this man down.

My friend, like me, is passionate about education, and equally depressed at the direction Nigeria’s education system is headed. His father graduated first class in mathematics, and his lifelong dream has been to teach in a university, and this professor we were discussing was the worst example of who a man of letters should be.

Money for grades, harassment and sexual exploitation by Nigeria’s university teachers have long since become a staple (and the man we were discussing should have got a second PhD on those subject matters), so that is not what we were fuming at. We’re not numb, but we would better allow the police deal with crimes. Academic fraud however, is a very different kettle of fish.

In our second year in university, we were ‘mandated’ to buy a book written by the good doctor who also happened to be running for Head of Department, so it was a no brainer that buying this book was key to even getting an evaluation for exam papers. So we all bought the book. There couldn’t be much harm in that, right? Except a few of us had bought this fantastic book by an American professor, which was the holy grail for an entire course year, and it turns our huge patches of this book had managed to lift themselves wholesale, smack onto the book ‘authored’ by our dear Dr. At least 70% of the book’s core were from our ‘holy grail’.

At that time, we fumed, but we were powerless students, so we stayed silent. It also happened that the same man published a few more books, which by some weird coincidence, managed to bear word-for-word resemblance to works by foreign authors.

Time flies. But last night, I could not imagine how hundreds of peers in the Nigerian academic community, especially those in those sacred professorial committees, would manage to not have caught this man for the wholesale fraud he had published for years, and made him a professor! It brings one to a painful realisation that this man, for the next decade or more, is going to be paid to teach university students on nothing more than fraudulent, empty publishing records, which by the way, forms a big part of the professorial qualification process. I’m not going to delve into the authenticity, or qualification of those panels.

So this morning, I’m thinking if it wouldn’t be a wise idea to purchase 100 copies of that American text I owned in second year, along with 100 copies of my professor’s book, review and stick notes to them, and mail them to the university senate, the Academic Staff Union of Universities and also publish the review in a national daily. What do I gain – maybe nothing more than potentially losing a man his job, but it would feel good to have one fraud thrown out of our university system.

But then, maybe, nothing would happen. He’s a Nigerian professor after all.

Are you building capacity? You could start with your house boy

Image credits: http://calabarboy.com

As I write this, my driver is sitting in the office chill room, reading www.ventures-africa.com and he’s doing quite well. He’s told me a few times this morning how interesting it is, and I believe him.

About a week ago, I noticed the two drivers we have do nothing during their off hours, but sleep. That in itself is not a bad thing, when there’s nothing else to do and your job does not require for you to think, but I was struck by how much time they are wasting sleeping, and wondered if that much time could not be used positively.

I had an idea – make them read.

Know it’s funny, what do drivers know? But I thought about it. These guys can read ok. They never have issues when I send notes to them about things that need to be done, or bank runs. So if they can read the notes, why not newspapers, or finance, or entrepreneurship? I do not want these drivers to be drivers in two years. I want them to be more useful to everyone, including myself.

My mind was made up. I called them in and told them they would have to start reading. Their first responses were classic. Speechless, they stared at me for a moment, wondering what I as up to. I told them again, that I want them to begin reading. They laughed again, but I told them I was serious. I explained to them quickly why I thought it would be good for them, and how it would work.

Simply, the plan was they would read – anything but sports, entertainment or romance. All soft sell stuff was inadmissible. Only real reading would count. At the end of the week, we would do a review of what they had learned over the week. I knew I would likely be too busy to do weekly reviews, so I added a caveat that I could ask for a review at anytime, so they had to keep on writing.

Last week passed and we did no review. Then we had a power problem this morning and a small window opened. I walked into the chill room and called them up. I asked about the reading they had done, and was greeted with muffled laughter. No they had not read anything. On impulse, I handed my iPad to my driver, without asking if he knew how to use one. There was a news piece on Dangote I was reading, so I handed that to him and asked him to read it too, and review.

An hour later, my driver had not returned.

The next time I passed by the chill room, he was hunched over the tablet, reading! I felt a touch of joy when he looked up and I noticed he was reading another article, one on entrepreneurship. He quickly volunteered his response to my unasked question: he thoroughly enjoyed the Dangote news and will unload to me later on.

I asked his driver colleague why he wasn’t reading, and he said he had no time, that there were too many things on his mind. Ok, I thought, I’ll give you what is on my own mind. I explained to him how reading could be the difference between the kinds of problems he had now, and having my kinds of problems. I told him that while my problems are big, I bet he would rather have my kinds of problems than the ones he currently has. He agreed. Again, I went through the conversation of what the difference is, between those rich people and the poor ones – education, knowledge. When I handed him a newspaper editorial to read, he did not refuse.

My own driver at this time ventured to explain what he had read, but I told him to write it down instead. A quick, to the point review. He returned in 20 minutes.

This was his first review:

Dangote want(s) to expand his business and take it to the [next] level, by listing his company on to London Stock Exchange.
By my own understanding, by listing his business to London Stock Exchange he will get more money to expand his business but loss his chairmanship of the dangote groups.
In real sense, it is good for his businesses and his income, because more money will come into the business.

Yes, I was impressed.

I was so impressed, I let him keep the iPad for a few more hours, digesting all he could. When we met again, shortly before I left office, he was ready with all sorts of insights, and conversational topics. He also had questions. For example, what is the meaning of “only you can sell you?” I realized too that my driver could write better than he could speak – so I encouraged him to write his thoughts, as these would help him better organize his thoughts. Since he had a bit of time before we left office, he quickly wrote me another review of three topics. These were even better than the previous one – I am currently thinking of opening up a section on my blog to post his thoughts on.

So what have I learned – I have learned again, that every human has the capacity to be great. Greatness is something everyone is born with – only time and opportunity nurtures some to be greater than others.

Today, I remembered once again, a story I had heard about Neil Blackburn, a former MD of Mobil Producing Nigeria Unlimited (now ExxonMobil). Neil had joined the company as a roustabout, but was so smart and hardworking, when he retired, he was heading one of the most lucrative regions of the global energy company.

My driver is obviously smart. He could be the next *insert big title of choice here*, so the question for me is, how can I help him reach into himself and discover his potentials? Can I be the mentor he needs to become the person he could be?

A passage from his second review read:

(To gain) Self-confidence, you need to have a mentor, and follow his footsteps to achieve your goals.

So if he is ready to take that step, will I be ready to help him? Equally important, if that domestic staff you have is showing crazy promise, would you be ready to help him or her?

One of the things we do in our office is to ensure that our ‘domestic’ staff understand our business. We hold quarterly retreats, where we discuss quarter trends, progress, insights, profits and (God forbid) losses. Our office assistants and drivers attend those sessions too. When we had our recent knowledge event, thy attended too, and we were lucky we had them around, because they made the big money lunch at Eko Hotel justifiable.

If you can’t do anything else, be a mentor. Even if it’s to your gate man, or house boy.

If you can’t do anything else, be a mentor

Two weeks ago, I was in Akwa Ibom, and I was going to be there for five days. It was going to be the longest time I would be visiting in a few years, so I planned an extra activity into the family event I was attending. I was planning to visit with the principal of the oldest senior science school in the community.

I had attended this school for what I would describe as some of the lowest periods of my life, and until recently, every memory form that place was horrible. However, I’d recently thought about some of the programmes I have thought about getting involved in, and could not find a better place to begin. I had decided to work with a couple of young entrepreneurs and professionals, and old successful professional to setup periodic mentorship rounds in this school, and a few others in the local communities, to help the kids in secondary school see what’s out there.

The reasons for getting myself involved in this mentoring business are two or three fold:

A few years back, I had also gotten involved in teaching basic computer classes to local kids, which opened my eyes to the opportunities for giving back to our communities.

The little I want to reference to my short time at this science school is that we had a lot of fantastic students back then, who were a lot more brilliant than I was. However, life happens – a lot of these brilliant chaps are still out there looking for work, with their top class papers. They are looking in the oil industry, or ExxonMobil to be specific.

Meeting up with some of these old mates, the big conversation was jobs. There were no jobs. Because the Nigerian system was so Nigerian, they just could not get jobs in the oil industry. All of then were currently doing trainings, similar trainings, to better their chances of getting into the oil industry.

The other topic was a slight disappointment on the part of my friends, at me, that a thoroughbred scientist like myself, would be out here, building a career in advertising. The fact that my company had hands in online advertising, applications development, bla, kini, ko, etc. made no difference.

I realize now, that growing up, the only difference between my life and a lot of people I grew up with was the support system of family, and more importantly mentors. My family built my values, and my mentors, specifically, my MENTOR, opened my eyes to what the world really needed. My mentor used to spend hours talking about what the world really needed, what the industries needed, and how important actual experience was in life after university.

Because of the insights I had, I spent a great deal of my university years outside of the university. Before I met my mentor, I was an A student. Two years later, I was getting ducked marks for not meeting minimum attendance requirements – but I was spending quality attendance in the oil industry and volunteer projects.

My friends where still making great grades. When I set up a project group, to get my friends to be more involved in building experience, very few friends were willing to put time on it. Not a lot of people were willing to follow an ex-A student, who was now a B student (because I hardly met attendance %, there was no way I could score As). It got to a head when I decided to build an application for use in the oil industry for my final project – I could not find a supervisor. No one was willing to supervise such a silly venture, till I met a man who took a risk by supervising me, despite his doubts about the project. When he finally saw what I was doing, he gave me an A without seeing the final product.

When I graduated, I had a job waiting for me. A few months in, I got offered a project and moved to Lagos. I haven’t returned since. In my time in the oil industry as a student running a project, a position was opening for me, which my mentor had groomed me for, but because he had done such a fantastic job of mentoring me, I knew the oil industry was not the place for me. I disappointed my mentor by not taking the oil route, but he supported my decision. When I wanted to setup my business, he was there to support me, and I owe a lot to him.

It was during my conversations two weeks back that I realized that without my mentor, I probably would have been a good student, come out and hugged my papers, waiting for a job in the oil industry. Because we grew up in the oil industry, it was all that some of us knew, the beginning, the end.

And it is probably what the kids in the science school are currently thinking. There’s not a lot wrong with our teachers. They were trained in the 70’s and 80’s, and back then, finishing school and getting a job was all they knew. Nothing had happened to change that. This is the reason they have nothing better to teach the next generation. Because they are limited by what they can see, and they can only teach what they know, the students will have no options different to what the teachers tell them. The oil industry cannot employ up to a million Nigerians (upstrean/downstream), but no one is telling that to the teachers, or students. ExxonMobil can only hire so many graduate engineers with little skill and no experience, but the teachers may not know that.

This is why, if I expect better from this generation, I have to help share a different perspective with these young people. If the next generation is to be better, if they are to do better, they need exists to open them to alternatives. They may not see alternatives in their local communities, but their minds should be opened up to these alternatives. They should be made to see the need to question the norm, to dare to be different, to branch out, off the beaten path, to be crazy and not be afraid. They should be made to see that getting good grades is fantastic, but also that there’s nothing wrong with building skill and experience outside of the walls of the classroom.

We should mentor.

We should work with schools to provide perspective. We need to help build extra-curricular activities which help the students see more, and experience difference. We need to expect change, but more importantly, we should be the change we want to see.

I have never believed in one perfect way, but I am hoping to take a few trips down to that school, and with the support of the teaching staff, hold talk sessions with the students, and share experiences which I hope, along with other experiences better than mine, would help these kids make better decisions, and see beyond what exists in their communities.

Nigeria: The Technology Future, Education & The Lower 60%

I will begin by saying this post has a yet unwritten prequel. My earlier intention was to take on my understanding of ‘functional education’, before this, but I will get to writing that soon. For now, I’ll focus on building the tech economy for the future, and how the chief with a foot long chewing stick holds the future of the tech based economy in Nigeria.

I would also like to warn that this post is NOT about the top 5% – if you believe Lagos in the rest of Nigeria, you probably should not be reading this.

A few weeks ago, I visited CCHub for the first time to attend the pitching event for  #TechInEd, an event which focused on technology developed for use in education. I was really interested in the #TechInEd for two reasons:

  1. Recently, Apple had launched a project which would increase the use of iPads for education – I wanted to see what our own developers were thinking in that direction
  2. Every Sunday, I dress in my most ‘unfavourite’ pair of jeans to church, where I take care of 30 – 40 children – I wanted to see if the pitches would have anything that would interest the kindergarten teacher inside of me.

The TechInEd was revealing – there are serious thinkers out there, but I came away with this feeling that the startups out there are mostly thinking about the top 15%. Of course as the business man in me has nothing against developing for the top 15%, but the event being about education (and there exists this healthy bias on my part about education, especially education in the lowest 50%), I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that my ‘constituency’ seems to have been overlooked.

Many of the apps on display at #TechInEd seemed to be targeted at “lego, BMX and PS3” club, kids with regular access to computers, and the internet. While these may become viable, profitable businesses, my personal biases in the field of education app development mean that if an app makes money, but does not solve the problem of tech education, then it’s a failure. Much as there is an education deficit in Nigeria, that deficit has not place in the Lekki *Insert first world country name* School, where kids play PlayStation Portable during break periods. The deficit is live and breathing in the local primary school, scattered in everyone’s village around the country, and that’s where my every thought about technology education goes.

Now why am I so interested in technology education in the local schools and communities? (Please note, the cross from #TechInEd apps to technology education is intended – they’re intrinsically linked for me, you see?) Because over and over, I have heard people talk about growing technology in Nigeria, how the future is technology, and how this future would be driven by mobile apps deployed in education. The allusion that mobile apps are going to help us build capacity for a tech based economy of the future, I believe is a fallacy.

I have nothing against mobile apps, and truly believe they have a place in the future.

However, the lowest 50%, much as we want to believe, won’t get computer literate on mobile apps. Yes, information will be accessed on mobiles, but I still don’t see a future where my iPad replaces my PC as my coding station. If rural children will have to take over the tech future, then they have to have access to real computers. If we want to bring technology into education, for me, it’s the simple nuts and bolts act of teaching basic computer usage at the most rudimentary level. This thinking is one I’ve had for the last eight years.

To test my thinking, I did something crazy.

In 2008, I went with a few friends of mine into a local community to conduct what later turned out to be my first experiment in rural computer literacy. We had earlier met with the leadership of a local church to give us space and let us teach basic computing to local children in the community. These children were ones who previously have no experience with computers. The idea was simple, give opportunity to these children to experience the same knowledge that children in the fancy schools has access to.

We had one university graduate, an undergraduate, 3 secondary school students and a bright cousin of mine in primary 4 at the time, armed with two desktops computers, two laptops and a handful of accessories. Classes started in the open church auditorium. No fancy tables, just pews, dusty floors and a handful of very excited kids.

The challenges of the first two days was getting the fear of new technology out of these kinds, who were too afraid of ‘spoiling the computer’ to do more than stare at the equipment, but once that fear had been dispelled, wonderful things happened. These children, who mostly had only seen computers from a distance, were typing, drawing and generally kicking butt with Windows.

We had earlier explained how the computer works, and what a wonderful piece of work the CPU is, and a day later, every child wanted to see what the insider of the CPU looked like. So we dismantled the white box and pushed and pulled a few things, and the kids put them back, put the equipment back together under supervision, and put the PC back on.

The best part of the one month was when we introduced the best performing children to the Internet. It was the wow moment of wow moments. Email to them, was magic and an hour into training, my box was flooded. I got a few of my friends to write regularly to these kids, and the facts that they could sit in an internet cafe, write to someone in America, a real person, and the person wrote back in an email was unbelievable to them. Every once in a while, I still receive an email from one of those kids.

So then I realized, building a critical mass for a technology based economy is very simple. It’s simply dependent on if we can get a whole generation of kids prepped to provide a fertile ground for this to grow.

At this point, you may want to read this

A 15 year rural program, which ensures every kid in primary school can use a PC will build the base. Tree shaking tests can bring out the real gems who will go on to special scholarship trainings, but if every child, irrespective of where they come from  – ijebu ode, or Atan Onoyom, can use a computer, a whole new world opens up.

No, don’t flag off huge money guzzling programs. Semi-nomadic, community supported programs can work if the right consultation is done.The future is dependent on whether we can build a knowledge based economy, driven by functional education (there again, a reminder to write that prequel). We may need to use equipment share programmes, and nomadic teachers to compensate to teacher deficit, but it can be done.

Public education is broken, but technology can bridge that gap. Local governments, churches and local communities are strategic to achieving the target of a technology driven economy – yes, the illiterate chief with the foot long chewing stick if the future of technology.

Truth is the concept is possible. If we can export Yahoo Yahoo, getting worldwide infamous in the process, then a movement can build something positive to export to the world. If teenagers are learning Yahoo in cyber cafes, then we can channel that energy into building an economy which will allow even the poorest of us, if they have the right aptitude, get opportunities to do something really great.