Troy Weekes: “We too can be creators”

Barbadian Troy Weekes, systems designer and education entrepreneur, on rethinking how children learn and how Caribbean people interact with digital technology— as told to Tracy Assing

Troy Weekes. Photo courtesy Troy Weekes

As a young man growing up in St Philip, which is the south-eastern side of Barbados, most evenings I would sit down on the verandah and watch the aircraft take off from Grantley Adams International Airport. I could even see the airport from the pasture where I sometimes flew paper kites and paper jets that I would make. I had a kind of fascination with aeronautics.

I was introduced to the light airplane club in Barbados through an elder that I esteem very much, Mr Charles Larrier. He was a certified aeronautical engineer, and I would go on the airfield and work on the aircraft with him, doing corrosion tests and fixing little things on the frame. That interaction and that involvement in aeronautics from that age — I would have been fourteen or fifteen — led to me deciding to have a career in aviation.

I didn’t want to be a commercial pilot. That was never one of my ambitions. What I wanted was to be able to fly myself around the Caribbean, so that I could go to work — because I never had the intention to work only in Barbados.

So I pursued becoming a pilot. But eventually I came to studying human factors. I was led by my fascination with the relationship between the human mind and the engineering of systems. I developed a passion for something called engineering psychology, which really deals with how to design and develop systems that would take into consideration human capabilities and limitations, both physiological and psychological. That, wrapped all together, defines how I transitioned from little boy throwing around paper in the sky into what I am now.

At university, I worked with a number of pilots, who often complained about the complexity of their work environment, namely the inside of aircraft cockpits. Trying to simplify that interaction between pilots and their operating environment led me to analyse in a scientific manner how to connect a user to their system through an interface. “UX” stands for user experience, and a UX designer would look at a particular interaction that a customer or worker, some person, is having with either another person or a system. Usually it is a system of some sort.

A UX designer would analyse that interaction and more than likely try to simplify what the user is trying to accomplish with the system or the other person. So it’s more or less to look at what’s involved — the pinging points — as well as the objectives of that person, and try to facilitate achieving that objective.

The core of what I do happens to be analysis of problems and strategic decision-making — whether that’s in the management or whether that’s in the development, it really comes down to me weighing a number of alternatives and using scientific methods to make decisions. My interest also grew into the web world, and I sought the application of simplifying user interfaces and applying them in the field of education.

 

Barbados is known for its education system, and I thought I could somehow contribute to keeping Barbados ahead of the game. EZ Learner is an online learning platform I developed along with my team, initially a Barbadian team, communications experts and a wide array of photographers.

Sometimes you have to look for an opportunity to change the way things happen — as we would say in the tech world, to disrupt something. We sought to disrupt education by creating a social network platform that would be filled with our content. In the early stages, this was something that was being done in North America, Europe, etc., but not really in the Caribbean space. We researched the factors and drivers for those international markets and we decided to start our own platform here.

It is unique in terms of being capable of shifting the mindset of our children to become producers of their own knowledge, as opposed to being just passive consumers when they go in the classroom. Give them responsibility for their own learning.

That was a paradigm shift in terms of how education is generally perceived in the Caribbean. We come from a background of rote learning and simply listening to the teacher. Now, we’re actually giving the students that responsibility to, in essence, teach each other. Peer-to-peer social engagement, these kinds of activities that we see emerge with the digital technologies, we’ve embedded all those into the learning environment — and more critically, our aim is to make you learn faster. We intend to have twelve-year-olds who are ready to do their bachelor’s degree, their master’s degree, and have the requisite assessments to show that they’re ready.

When we look at cultural artefacts in general, we realise that in the Caribbean we have retained a mixture of different backgrounds from which we’ve emerged. In my opinion, even though those interfaces would not have been digital and the assets would not have been digital, the cultural artefacts demonstrate that we had an understanding of how to encode purpose into different systems. Even if we look at art we can see there was a way to communicate.

It creates an opportunity for Caribbean people to look at the digital world in a similar way to how we look at cultural aesthetics and translate our creativity and our imagination, how we represent things. Even how we sound and associate certain sounds with certain actions — all of those are very powerful cues, tools in the user interface world. So there is an opportunity for us to put a spin on it.

Another thing that needs to shift, in my opinion, is the way we perceive work. I can work in different countries from right here in the Caribbean. The digital world has allowed me to do that seamlessly. I can also be paid for the work I do elsewhere from right here in the Caribbean. Even in terms of how we look at jobs — that needs to shift. We don’t necessarily have to think about, Oh, I need to get a career in x. Nowadays, I think we should be thinking more multidimensionally, so that we have multiple streams of income, as well as to develop a more sustainable self. You have to be able to survive and to be flexible when immersed in different places.

I think young people need to shift their thinking from the previous kind of unconnected world, and think more globally. In so doing, we must be very wary not to be perpetual consumers of content, of apps, of creations from elsewhere. We need to realise that we too can be creators, and focus on putting our blend, our essence, our flavour into these things that we use.