Experiments in IT Delivery: The Floating Classroom

So, as you might have been following over the years, through the Ragged Uni project I have been trying to find various ways of delivering free computer training in community situations where people have least access.  To see the photos of the floating classroom scroll to the bottom.  Meantime, I will try and provide some context as to how this has come together.


Digital Deadend by Prof Virginia Eubanks
Digital Deadend by Prof Virginia Eubanks

My personal relationship with modern computers is one where I had to salvage computers from what other people discarded and learn to make them work with the minimum of money invested.  It is amazing what gets thrown out; not only does the computer industry build in redundancy to the products pushing people to buy a whole new bundle every three years, but also people throw things out because they think the technology has become redundant.



Being in the low income bracket, this has suited me however only because people have trained me to take what others have thrown away and make it serve my purposes.  Without the likes of knowledgeable people perceiving that my life would become better if I could use a basic computer set up, and acting on this differential of opportunity in a pragmatic way, I would be no better off.


Thus this is the practical ethos which infuses the way I have developed this digital access project. We have to work with what we have available rather than hopes and dreams, paying particular attention to the people all around us who have something to offer in terms of sharing their experience.


Everyday now, I bring to mind the very skills which I was taught so that I could take part in the opportunities that computers afford me, and by proxy of these I hold in mind a series of conversations with Jes and Ed, Kenny, Anthony, Scott, Graeme and numerous others.


YouTube player


Using the language which Prof Virginia Eubanks describes in her book ‘Digital Deadend’, we live in a time of ‘digital haves and digital havenots’; not all of them obvious.  My interest is with enabling provision for those who have not for a number of reasons.  The start of trying to provide basic computer training began in Edinburgh where I established a good relationship with Graeme Sturrock who owns and runs Edinburgh Computer Repairs.  I had asked him if he would be able to support the project by giving any computers to local projects.  He said no problem, and gave ten desktop computers, monitors and mice for me to situate somewhere.


I then spoke to local projects, Adult Learning Project and the Forest Café, and asked if they would want some of the free equipment.  This is where the complexities started to become apparent, and it was at this point that I started to understand why there is a lack of computer training in the community context.  These projects declined to take the computer suite kindly offered and PAT tested. I thought logically, that if I could get working computers donated, there would be a fast uptake to house and use them – with free support offered. I was wrong.


The barriers to community projects accepting free computers were many, to my surprise:

  • There is an issue with the way that computer equipment is contractually locked down in the contract that large firms (BT) offer meaning that community projects cannot change when needed.
  • The computer set ups which are often encountered inside institutional spaces have a great amount of their functionality locked so that effective practical teaching cannot take place
  • There is an issue with insuring the equipment without sinking the projects via added costs; there is an issue with taking on the responsibility of upkeep and maintenance
  • There is an issue with PAT testing and the costs associated
  • There is an issue with maintaining the software so that bloat does not make the hardware redundant
  • There is an issue with getting the right expertise to tailor teaching to the individuals/groups without cost.
  • Security and trust of the participants often conflict with each other; thus wariness often closes down possible opportunities


All these problems give indicators as to why there is such a prominent digital divide in the UK population.  As an opportunity, having basic computer skills represents increasingly something which we need to be versed with so that we can stay out of the realm of relative poverty.  Many people who live in the lower ends of the economic spectrum have great computer skills, however, do not have access to the internet or the equipment they need to practice the skills they have developed.  Again, ‘Digital Deadend’ comes as recommended reading should you be thinking about digital literacies in the times of 2016.


People Know How

Weighing up the issues, and taking into consideration the constraints, the practical way to go had to be by taking the route of making all the equipment and circumstances to the community which needs it most. Then, at the end of the session, it can be packed down and taken away.


After doing free ‘IT and Biscuits’ events at Central Library in Edinburgh each month during 2015, it helped gather together a sense of the computer issues which people wanted help with.  Using a simple set up, it worked on an ad hoc basis, where people came along on a drop in basis to work through the issues they had.  We also had tea, biscuits and conversation.


Simultaneously in 2015, I started to work with Glenn Liddall and his colleagues at People Know How.  He had explained that he wanted to set up a new charity which deftly brought together needs and participants in what he (and his trustees) have called a Social Innovation Academy.  Finding out more, I realised that this dynamic and reflective way of working with communities was badly needed.


It occurred to me that his vision was to bring together community groups, students and volunteers, and open access learning materials to structure learning opportunities which had the outcome of bootstrapping each stakeholders aims.  This was when Ragged University forged a partnership with People Know How.  Not only had he the active listening skills, but also a wealth of experience to offer in realising project aims.


My suggestion was that we co-create a floating classroom which would mean that we could deliver valuable computer training in commonly accessible technologies.  With the right mobile equipment we could go into community groups and centres tailoring the training to the needs which were situated and relevant.  Particularly with the advent of technologies such as WordPress, Youtube, Mixcloud and Linux, the costs and barriers which established and birthing community projects face could be largely removed.  Having learned to create websites over the last number of years for the Ragged University project, I knew how much help it could be to a community which wanted to let the world know where they are.  Also, passing on the training I have had in finding the relevant information on the internet, or showing people how to self publish seemed to have equal value.


Working with Graeme Sturrock of Edinburgh Computer Repairs to upcycle laptops which were robust and capable, we arrived at a suite of Dell laptops – often cited for their resilience.  Reducing down the costs of licensed software by choosing open source alternatives which have come to bloom – such as Open Office, GNU Image Manipulation Program, Mozilla Firefox, Avast Antivirus, etc – we could set up a standardised learning environment in which to instruct digital learning.  The next problem was transport, as we needed a low cost solution to getting the right stuff (equipment), in the right place, at the right time, with the right people.


Components working together
Components working together

We spoke with Jason Murray of Hofbauer Protective Case Solutions about the possibility of custom making the right case for transporting all the equipment via public transport (lacking the considerable financial and environmental costs of a car etc). He worked with us to design a carbon fiber case capable of carrying all the equipment, keeping it safe on route, and also having longevity.  He came up with the solution for us to pilot.


The final piece of the puzzle came together as we needed a reliable internet solution.  Often institutional internet networks are slow, unreliable, and so constrained as to not allow many of the useful functions which are essential to practical teaching.


To illustrate this, when visiting Newbattle Abbey College in 2013, I wanted to show the tutors there the work of Sugata Mitra; this internet search was barred due to a ‘porn blocker’ software.  This is not unique to Newbattle Abbey College, and over the years I have repeatedly encountered accounts from people in very established universities telling me anecdotes of how they, as teachers, were expected to innovate in terms of teaching but were locked out of utilising the technology due to blanket ‘security’ policies.  How many times I have heard that ‘Blackboard’ the proprietary software which is often used prevents many educators from educating.


The break came when EE developed – in my humble opinion – the first dependable mobile internet solution; the Osprey and its fellow devices.  I have tried so many different mobile dongles and found them to be notoriously unreliable, extortionately expensive and vulnerable to all sorts of manipulations.


When these devices came out I waited, read reviews, found people who had used them, and then asked a patron to support Ragged University by sponsoring the use of one.  I was surprised when it worked so well.  It enables up to 9 laptops to connect to the internet at 4G speeds. Finally we had the common technology solutions which could be brought together in a mobile configuration so that computer training could be done almost anywhere.


Retrospective Notes on Successes and Failures

The floating classroom was an interesting experiment which managed to offer a number of proofs of concept and reveal a number of issues which were not anticipated and rarely discussed.  The floating classroom was a collaboration around a particular design.  The collaborative space between two discrete projects is subject to entropy over time.  This is because People Know How and Ragged University continued on different trajectories following different itineraries, so that the floating classroom in its original conception only stayed in its original design for a number of months.


The concept design was brought together by Alex Dunedin in the Ragged University project, a project which does not own infrastructure but adapts to the environment and utilises common technology to deliver activities.  This means that the project does not own buildings or equipment as these inevitably require upkeep, maintenance and stewarding.  People Know How is a project which owns infrastructure and occupies physical spaces for long periods taking on leases, involving itself in funding cycles and administration and is more formally organised.


The idea of using a flight case to house and carry a set of laptops and utilities worked fine.  The idea of using dongle hubs to provide wireless internet access to a group of computer users worked fine.  The whole set up packed down well and was safely transportable via public transport buses to different parts of the city.  It could set up in locales using four-way plug adaptors tapping into standard wall sockets.  The laptops were capable and could hold both Windows operating system and Linux operating systems providing a range of options to use open source software for any number of tasks such as document creation, audio file preparation, in-browser learning.


Issues which were encountered were that, as with any equipment, there needed to be a sort of quartermaster assigned to oversee the distribution and taking back in of the equipment each and every time it was deployed.  In the setting of People Know How this was not done and over time items went missing, got lost and were not maintained.  As a project it takes in bulk waves of volunteer learners who come and go; with this particular set up the equipment in the flight case was not overseen and so the computers, power supplies, mouses etc experienced the problems stated.


A second issue with the floating classroom as a shared project experiment was that it suited People Know How to set up the laptops in more sedentary and fixed roles in their organisation as it grew and developed.  Thus the flight case and the notion of taking capability out to places where computer capability was needed was not taken forward by the organisation after the initial trials.


The issues which were found in taking effectively a computing lab out into communities included the fact that communities often wanted to use their own computers which had wide and ranging software set ups and states of functionality.  This required meeting people at the needs which they expressed and most of the needs which were expressed were to do with making their computers functional because they were often sluggish and unmaintained, primarily because Microsoft windows in its standard configuration is a bloated, processor heavy platform which produces many of the problems which prevent effective use of silicon technology. Secondarily there are issues with any number of security and bloatware problems with the Microsoft operating system which interfered with the capacity of processors to deliver a reasonable and responsive software experience.


As a result trying to engage communities in the necessary maintenance, upkeep, and security learning lost a great deal of attention because it did not speak to the creative aspirations of the groups which had come to engage primarily in libraries and community centers.  This coupled with the fact that there were ranging capabilities and levels of understanding in those who attended made parceling teaching into discrete lessons problematic for informal and community education; where one person wanted to do audio processing and another word processing and another video production, nearly all of them did not want to ‘tidy up their computer’ freeing up necessary disk space, running security software to remove low grade malware, and tweaking the system so that it functioned sufficiently.


Similarly people were more reticent about using computers which they could not take home to use and continue their learning creativity in their own lives.  Thus the use of a computer lab is limited to specific co-produced creative projects which are planned and staged over time requiring commitments from people to continue through several sessions.  In the community setting people are not so commonly capable of signing over significant chunks of time due to other life tasks they have to dedicate themselves to, thus single session and shorter courses are better engaged with.



One response to this is to move people to a standardised software environment which could be done by using Linux.  Distributions of Linux which fit on a USB could resolve a number of issues which were encountered.  By giving each person a copy of Linux TAILS on a USB and getting them to boot to the USB they were brought into a standardised working environment which was safe, secure and which prevented operation system fragmentation of Windows.  This provided most tools needed to do rudimentary and semi-advanced production activities – for example Linux TAILS out of the box has a copy of Libreoffice in it and Audacity, Tor Browser and many other software packages.


YouTube player


Linux TAILS resolved the issues of privacy and security which are commonly encountered with community settings where the data and computing activity of populations are predated upon by tech companies such as Microsoft and consumer analytics businesses involved in surveillance capitalism. The option of creating a persistent environment on the USB meant that people could take home their work and their customised work area and continue working in their own lives; the privacy and security features of Linux TAILS also allows it to be easily booted to on other people’s computers as it is specially designed to leave no traces or affect the host computer.


YouTube player


Finally, the last issue is that even when the digital logistics were worked out a proportion of people were habituated to Microsoft environments and so saw using a slightly different environment with the same capacities as a psychological barrier.  It is a bit like the difference of eating Heinz Baked Beans or having other brands – some people just will not use things which they are not already accustomed to.


The conclusion of these digital experiments of doing teaching in the community is that for successful digital teaching to happen in the community context by-and-large it is only practical to do one-to-one teaching meeting the individual where they are at and building incrementally on the proximal lessons they need to work towards their desired goal over time.  This makes relationship learning viable but batch teaching not effective – this is my evaluation of why there are so many digital literacy projects which fail to make constructive inroads.


It is better to do less well, than more poorly.  Building with the notion of the zone of proximal development with the circumstances and motivations of the individual tangible successes are possible, but attempting to scale this up in an industrial way is a fools errand and results in adulteration of true pedagogy and development.  An example of this was when I was asked to deliver ‘digital literacy training’ for a national homelessness charity; I retracted from this when I discovered that its main aim in outcome was to get people engaging with the digital by default benefits system online – the learning agenda had been highjacked by government policy and manipulative funding allocation.


In my experience no organisations have committed to delivering the kind of deep one-to-one learning required for useful digital literacies training because of what they see as the costs and expense.  It therefore is only really possible and viable in the informal learning economy which goes on.