Dedicated Nigerian Host Assembles 350 Students from Around the Country

When they heard about my instructional odyssey, the Very Large Data Base Endowment — a professional society I’ve been involved with most of my career — set aside a generous fund specifically to help local organizers bring students and faculty from surrounding areas to take advantage of my teaching. There’s been small-scale dipping into the fund here and there, but my week in Nigeria demonstrated just how much impact it can have. Thanks to an extraordinarily hard-working and enthusiastic organizer, more than half of the 350 participants in my Big Data short-course at University of Ibadan traveled untold hours on terrible roads from distant parts of the country, one making a three-day journey from neighboring Cameroon. Their transportation costs were reimbursed and they were provided simple guesthouse accommodations and meals for the duration of their stay. To say they were appreciative is an understatement.

A small fraction of the highly appreciative Big Data participants

I had some apprehension about traveling to Nigeria, which doesn’t have a great reputation, to say the least. My concerns were hardly alleviated when I bought the one and only guidebook to the country. After emphasizing that tourists rarely go there, it had some choice assessments: “one of world’s most chaotic and dangerous places”; “nothing works, everything is seriously dilapidated, and the infrastructure is a disaster”; “appalling and awful, fascinating and appealing, funny and sad, all at the same time”; and “nowhere on earth will you experience such mind-boggling, vibrant chaos as in this mass of humanity.” There’s no doubt Nigeria has huge challenges, and a distinct edge to it, but overall I felt far more at ease than I expected. How could I not be charmed by a street-sweeper’s small daughter in her party dress curtseying politely each time I passed by on my morning jog? (Though I’m told it was safe for me to jog only because I was staying inside the university campus.) How could I not be awed by throngs of market women in wildly colorful clothing, nonchalantly balancing massive loads on their heads? (I only regret not taking photos.)

On the other hand, it was obvious that getting anything done in Nigeria is a huge undertaking, due to complex unspoken social and business mores, not to mention widespread corruption at all levels. By the end of my week I had an even greater appreciation for the incredible accomplishments of my organizer and her team of helpers — many from the local chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), another professional society that’s been helpful in various ways with my odyssey.

The four-day Big Data course was held at University of Ibadan’s distance learning center, in a vast room with 500 internet-enabled cubicles and four projection screens. It’s a great concept in a place like Nigeria to have a venue for students to work through online classes together, though perhaps a bit less suited for conventional teaching. Even from my raised platform I could only see the students in the first couple of rows. But when I asked a question (“How many are still following along?” “How many are ready for lunch?” “How many want to learn the R language?”), hands would shoot up from the cubicles and shake wildly. It took some getting used to!

Students emerged from their cubicles to applaud at the end of the course

The Big Data teaching went well overall, with a reasonable fraction of the participants following the material as far as I could tell, and a few truly excelling. (I have a “super bonus” problem in one of the course modules that only a handful of students had completed in all of my 15 previous countries combined; at least 10 students finished it in Nigeria.) Each day we managed to begin the class within about 30 minutes of the advertised 9:00 start time, which is pretty good, and we continued until 5:30 or 6:00. But the breaks were interminable, with teaching never resuming anywhere near the specified time. Obstacles to restarting were many: hectic and slow-moving snack or meal lines, the electricity generator “needing a rest,” each student being required to check out and check in for reasons I was never entirely clear on though I believe it had to do with receiving certificates at the end, internet failures to attend to, microphone batteries dying and nobody knowing where new batteries were, and other general African chaos. As an additional complexity, we tried to organize the schedule around prayer time for the Muslim participants.

Despite the long breaks, I never got a rest unless I stayed holed up inside the guarded classroom while students were required to stay outside, which I preferred not to do. Mingling with the students invariably turned into a never-ending photo session — at times the pushing and shouting as people jockeyed into position was remarkable; I felt like a movie star!

A post-class photo session, calmer than some

Similar pushing and shouting occurred at another time in the Big Data teaching that took me by surprise. Those who’ve been following the blog know that I bring along Google and Stanford swag to give out as prizes to the first few students to finish each assignment. Students were so anxious about winning the prizes, and so genuinely mad when they didn’t, that I had to start using the six volunteer course assistants to keep the line-up at my desk under control, or to monitor in which order students raised their hands (no minor task in that vast cubicle-filled room). Finally I had to tell the students that their behavior was making it no fun for me to give prizes, and I would put the prizes away unless things improved. It worked! I was told the student’s initial approach toward the prizes was somewhat emblematic of the way people in Nigeria can end up behaving out of necessity, and that they appreciated my little lecture.

My tireless organizer, along with the six course assistants sporting their thank-you Google bags and Stanford sunglasses

In the first session of the Big Data material I always give as an example and puzzle a somewhat sophisticated scam based on exploiting massive amounts of data — it’s the first chance for students to win prizes. On the spur of the moment I took a risk and mentioned that they should do well on this one, since Nigerians are known for their scams. Thankfully I got a huge laugh.

The last day of my visit was a Design Thinking & Collaborative Problem-Solving workshop, plus a roundtable discussion for women. I restrict Design Thinking workshops to 30 participants; I had a full house, with at least 10 waiting-list hopefuls hovering outside the door most of the day. During the workshop I wondered if the participants were really “getting it.” For starters, I had surprising difficulty conveying the instructions effectively. (English is Nigeria’s official language, but it’s secondary for most people after one of a large number of ethnic languages.) The team’s prototypes weren’t as sophisticated as some of the other places I’ve taught, though to be fair they had fairly limited materials. But when we debriefed at the end, they had some of the best observations about the workshop experience I’ve heard yet. Several said their teams had highly divergent opinions and ideas, yet when they were forced by the methodology to listen to one another, their ideas started to fit together “like magic” to produce an awesome result.

Design Thinking participants said it was “like magic” when their disparate ideas came together

The closing roundtable gathered together those women participants who were still around, many of them faculty at universities elsewhere in the country. It was a lively and interesting discussion, with a new twist on the “cultural and family expectations” topic: To a one they said their own parents were proud of their career, while their husband’s parents wished they would just stay home and take care of the kids. Kudos to these women for staying the path and serving as examples to others in what’s undeniably a challenging country.

My sabbatical officially ended in the spring, but I plan to keep the instructional odyssey alive indefinitely, with a goal of two one-week excursions per year. Next up: The Philippines in January