Thursday, June 19, 2008

A big “thanks” to some special people

I would like to thank my Facebook friends for their support and kind words. Also, I would like to give a special thanks to Visualzen, Inc. of Norfolk, Virginia for its $500 contribution to our cause in Cambodia. David Morales (CEO of Visualzen) and I first met when I was a student at ODU studying for my bachelor’s degree in information systems. He has taken a passion and aptitude for designing customized Internet software solutions for government and education and built a fantastic little enterprise. I have worked with Visualzen on a number of projects in different professional capacities, and although sometimes I feel its growing pains, Visualzen is always a pleasure to work with. Thanks again, Visualzen!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

About the Interactive English Learning Lab

This trip is part of a self-study course I am writing for my MBA, called “Integrating Technology into a Developing Economy’s Educational Curriculum.” One of my major objectives is to leave the school with some resources for teaching the kids to speak English. Understanding English is an important skill to have, as it often leads to some of the best-paying jobs in the country—tourism. The city of Siem Reap is the home of the famous Angkor Wat and surrounding temples, and about a million people come to see them annually. To get a job in one of the luxury hotels that are popping up all over the place, the kids need computer experience and knowledge of English. I want to Establish an Interactive English Learning Lab there in Wat Bo, which offers basic conversational English learning with computer-based software I am writing, complete with audio instruction and commentary in Khmer.

To get jobs in the tourism industry, kids need two skills: computer proficiency, and basic conversational English. The interactive English Learning Lab accomplishes both of those missions. Here is a screen capture of the Interactive English Learning Lab:

Interactive English Learning Lab
All the words, as well as the individual letters, are clickable, and take advantage of the fact that .wav audio files will play directly inside Internet Explorer without any plug-in, visible controls, or delay. So, when someone clicks on a word or a letter, the sound plays instantly, creating an interactive, self-paced learning tool. The sounds are preloaded and embedded in the page, which makes the pages load slowly. There has to be a better way: if any fellow techie out there knows of a better way to play audio interactively on a website, please let me know. Maybe version 2.0 can correct the slow load time...

I realize, as you may, too, that the view you are seeing above is not going to be much help to someone who cannot speak English. I will have a Khmer speaking person translate the directions and those will be provided as audio files as well. The “def” feature you see next to some of the words will be expanded so it appears after every word, and when clicked it will play an audio file that provides a Khmer translation for the English word. I dabbled with printing the words in Khmer script, but that was scrapped when I realized that to turn on Khmer is to turn off Roman letters; the two don’t mix on a computer. (A lesson I learned in a most heart-dropping manner when I attempted to install a Khmer font on my system and all of the sudden I had boxes all over the place instead of English characters! Good thing I am so familiar with Windows dialog boxes and icons because if I wasn’t I would have had to re-format my computer.) So, unless everything is Khmer, it turns into a big mess.

The Interactive English Learning Lab is a web browser-based software, but it runs without Internet connectivity. Ideally, I would have liked it to be a website, but I didn’t want to miss my delivery if the school did not get the DSL connection in time. Furthermore, even if Wat Bo gets the Internet we may not give it to the kids right away, at least not until we can devise a plan to keep them safe from predators. Future editions may run online, but this first edition runs on the computers in the lab at Wat Bo.

My letter to Ms. Ponheary Ly

Below is my letter to Ms. Ponheary Ly, of the foundation that bears her name. Ponheary is a survivor of the killing fields, and her foundation seeks to give kids at or below the poverty level a fighting chance at a real future by subsidizing their education. The work her foundation does is fantastic, and for $20 you can send a kid to school for a year.

The Wat Bo Primary School, where I am headed in a couple of days, has the highest concentration of PLF-funded kids, but it has many other advantages (see my earlier post). In the letter I post below, I wanted to describe to Ponheary what I was bringing with me in a couple of weeks.


I have some exciting news! I am building a computer program that will teach kids how to speak and read English, and it has a special emphasis on those words and phrases common in the hotel and/or tourism industry. I spent 16 hours the last two days making sound recordings, and the result is a very neat, interactive tool.

I still have lots of work to do, but I have a great start to something I think Wat Bo students will get lots of use out of. I call it the Interactive English Learning Lab.

Part of what will make this project a success, though, is I need to provide them the words of the lessons in Khmer script. I will need your help there. I want the students to be able to read the word they know in Khmer, and then see it on the screen written in English and click on it to hear it.

Do you have access to a computer that can type in Khmer? If not, that will be one of the first things I set up for you, because I really think it is important to give them on-screen instruction in Khmer.

When I come, I will bring some scripts that explain about the English language, and I will record you reading them in Khmer. Then, we can provide the students with audio and visual methods for leaning English. Since they are computer programs, the kids can use them any time that there is space in the lab.

Also, I would like to take photos of some sixth graders, and write a small biography of each one. The goal is to get at least 30 students' pictures taken and biographies written. I will, of course, need help talking to them and translating what they say into English. Another MBA student came up with the idea of using the photos and biographies to inspire William & Mary students to "adopt" these kids and sponsor their studies, providing them books, uniforms, bicycles, and possibly a small stipend to go on to secondary school. The thought is that it costs so little, yet makes such a big difference in the Cambodian children's lives.

Can’t wait to see you again!


Sunday, June 15, 2008

Why Wat Bo Primary School?

One of the buildings of Wat Bo Primary School
Below is an excerpt from a piece I wrote seeking grant funding. Later, I discovered I was too old to qualify as a grant writer for this particular grant. Oh well, I do like how it answers the question I am posed quite often.


We selected Wat Bo specifically because it facilitates success. It is an urban school, and as such both teachers and children are more technologically aware. With 600 sponsored children, Wat Bo has the largest concentration of (poverty level) students assisted by the PLF. Furthermore, the school has an advanced curriculum that is celebrated as one of Cambodia's most progressive and, basic as it might seem, Wat Bo has access to Internet, telephone, and electricity. Additionally, there is a far greater opportunity for Wat Bo's graduates to apply what they learn in favorable jobs in the booming tourism industry.

What this initiative is about

Ponheary Ly, founder of an organization dedicated to making education available to all Cambodian children
Below is an excerpt from a letter I used to explain our objectives on this mission back to Cambodia. After we were able to satisfy objectives 1 and 2, and tabling item 3 for lack of resources, I turned my efforts to objective #4. Since I am a web programmer by trade, I thought I could try and build what we had wanted to buy. I fashioned the Interactive English Learning Lab project into a self-study course for my MBA at William & Mary, and I call the course "Integrating Information Technology into the Educational Curriculum of a Developing Economy."


Kids in a classroom. Wat Bo teaches kids in 1st-6th gradesA couple classmates and I are going back to the Wat Bo Primary School in Siem Reap, Cambodia this June. Because I am not sure how much background you have about this, let me set the stage.

Wat Bo Primary School is a public school, led by a dedicated principal whose leadership has been complemented by the efforts of Ponheary Ly. Ponheary and the principal are lifelong friends whose relationship began long before the Killing Fields, a bloody period in Cambodia’s recent history when schools were converted to prisons and torture centers, teachers (and the suspected-to-be-educated) were killed without question, and for four years people were forced to work menial jobs for 12 hours a day in exchange for only famine-inducing rations and deplorable living conditions. Since Pol Pot left power in 1979 and the Khmer Rouge's rule ended, the country of Cambodia has been starting over.

We had the honor of helping the Wat Bo Primary School a lot in the hours we were there during our first visit in January with Dr. Don Rahtz's International Business Practicum. Our International Business Practicum class giving the laptops to the Wat Bo SchoolWe built and ran network cables, fixed several broken PCs, and set up three new laptops and a wireless file sharing network. There is no doubt we made a huge impact on the students’ and teachers’ lives. There was also a lot left undone, and so much more we could have done with time and resources. Part in an effort to finish what we started, part in a desire to see those little smiling faces and eyes filled with hope, a small group of us has decided to return to the Wat Bo School. We are going to finish what we began: fixing and upgrading the technology at the school, and getting them what they need to change these kids’ lives.

As an IT leader organizing our return trip, I have described some of the biggest information technology (and other) challenges facing our group, and arranged them in order of priority.

1) Get the school a DSL Internet connection. DSL is the predominant high-speed Internet service in Siem Reap. Right now, only the school’s principal has Internet, and his connection is dial-up. The laptops we gave the school, which have wireless capability and connectivity, are currently relegated to just sharing files.

2) Two new computer lab workstations and a pair of video conferencing cams. The computer lab could use some additional resources. Additionally, we would like to establish a technological link between the William and Mary Mason School of Business and the Wat Bo School administration via web cams. One would be located at the Wat Bo School, one at William and Mary.

3) Get the headmaster a new computer and printer. He has unselfishly sacrificed his own computing power for his students’ benefit, as the lab computers are much more powerful and modern than his. As the backbone for the school, his current machine is just not making the grade.

4) Interactive English Learning Lab. English is the ticket out of poverty for many Cambodian children and their families. I would like to establish an English Learning Lab, with self-paced and interactive computer-based lessons. Consider what Sophea, who hopes to get a job as an interpreter, said about learning English: “Now I can hope to have a good job and support my parents.”

5) Miscellaneous supplies. Ethernet hub/cables, a networked laser printer for the student lab and faculty laptops, a digital camera for the headmaster, photo processing software, learning/critical thinking games for young children, 220v power strips, headphones for the computers, web cam, English software and reference materials, a more secure door and lock to keep all the equipment physically safe, etc.

6) Donation to the Ponheary Ly Foundation (PLF). The PLF is always interested in building its nest egg so fund great programs like after school English tutoring sessions, breakfast programs, school uniform subsidies, and bicycle scholarships to top-performing primary school graduates so they can continue their studies (which usually requires a daily trek of 9-miles or more). A $5,000 investment in the foundation earns about enough interest per month to:

i. Buy one bicycle for a scholarship recipient, or
ii. Pay teachers to do 60 after school English lessons , or
iii. Provide 600 breakfasts for students.