MLearn: One Laptop Per Child

MLearn: One Laptop Per Child

I’m blogging from the MLearn conference in Banff, Alberta. Things are moving very fast, so I’m grabbing what time I can to process the sessions and blog about them.

The keynote this morning was by Mary Lou Jepson of the One Laptop Per Child Initiative, nurtured, of course, by the MIT Media Lab. I’ve heard about this project, but I hadn’t really sat down and considered what it truly meant. Mary Lou framed it in terms of a social welfare and social activism more than anything else; education reform is no minor issue worldwide. She noted that, in a country where they experimented with paying parents to send their kids to school rather than the other way around, the kids themselves grew several inches taller than their peers. (This isn’t a crazy notion; height isn’t only about diet, as it turns out. Cuture, social safety nets and education have an impact on us physically as well as mentally.) So this isn’t just about spreading toys around the world, they see a real impact in the countries where they’re starting to rollout these laptops.

The thrust of this project is to provide laptops to every child in the world, and by extension to create a wireless network (using the laptops themselves as connections for those farther way from the access points) to bring resources into parts of the world where there are none. The technical details and design are amazing, and it’s clear that they’ve proceeded with great thoughtfulness and care.

The budget for this project is, essentially, a country’s textbook budget. So, what these laptops are doing is replacing textbooks in classrooms. When I realized this, my stomach kind of dropped. Is this a good thing? I mean, on one hand, if you had to choose between access to the internet and an ancient textbook that’s been kicking around an elementary school classroom for the last 15 years, which would you pick? I can understand that the internet is going to provide more than a single book (that few governments around the world can afford to replace yearly as knowledge changes and develops), but it’s starkness (“it’s the internet or a book”) that threw me. It’s a dramatic statement. But one that reminds me of what we can do to change the world from the comfort of our own classrooms.

It reminds me all the more how important it is for us (students, faculty, librarians) in the west to make sure those public resources (like wikipedia, like public learning object repositories) are as good as they can be. It reminds me that our own work, our own passions and interests, can translate into real life improvement in the lives of millions around the world. These laptops are going to be different than ours; on one hand, they can do some things ours can’t (work without outlets, without lithium exploding, with a level of brightness that allows them to be used in sunlight), we’ll need to think again about the way we design information for the public. We’re back to 1995 in terms of thinking about easy loading, keeping the images smaller and less frequent, thinking about content over flash. Sure, we can create quicktime movies as learning objects, but if we want to create something for the students in Brazil or Botswana, we’ll need to remember that download speeds aren’t the same there as they are here. I find this challenge exciting and inspiring.

The $100 laptop is designed to be not just an internet portal, but also as an e-book reader. Again you see the original intent; to replace textbooks. Another thing we can do from the richer end of the world is produce e-books for those computers. The term “learning object” seems too empty to me; what if your learning object, produced by students, produced by an entire class perhaps, is an e-book to offer to a country where books are scarce? I’m in a session right now about a class in South Africa that built their own textbook on a wiki. So, even before the laptop project gets started, we’re already doing that kind of work. I like the idea that academic work has a social conscience and a social responsibility. As someone who spent the majority of her adult life in graduate school, I understand the joy or pure academic study, but the part that made me leave graduate school was the lack of impact, the inability to leave the ivory tower from time to time and make that knowledge and depth of understanding useful to someone else. This seems like a bright little light to me.

What’s missing from the laptop program so far is the librarian’s perspective. What they’re creating is essentially a library interface, and in place of working with librarians, they’re working with archive.org. That’s what’s available, right? I think there’s an important role for librarians in this project to make their public resources available and ready for these students, in a format they will be able to make use of.

One of the questions from the audience was about training; who’s going to train the teachers? Who’s going to train the students to use these computers? The answer to this question: Well, kids are good at this stuff. They can pick it up on their own. And then the kids will teach the teachers. My immediate reaction to this was a raised eyebrow. Kids will just pick it up? With no support at all? How will that help the project? If the goal is educational, it seems that providing exactly no support is asking for failure. While I understand their desire not to foist learning theories and curriculum on other cultures, a helping hand would hardly be a bad thing. Some ideas, some pointers, some support. I wondered, as we talked about it, if it might not be the role of both teachers and librarians to provide some training to teachers and librarians in other countries to help them make use of the laptops and the tools. It’s much easier to subvert and be creative with technology if you know first how it works and what it can do. And while the goal of the project is to be technology only, not curriculum or theory, by giving the laptops to the children with the expectation that they will pick it up and teach the teachers, they are bringing that constructivist chaos and reversal of power (the student becomes the teacher) that we so value, but so many feel profoundly uncomfortable with. Are we setting up third world teachers to feel stupid? Are we setting them up to be subverted by their students? It just seems more value-laden than they intend.

But, all in all, I was impressed. Since I’ve been looking for ways to bring courseware out of the classroom and into the real world, this project just adds fuel to my fire.

6 thoughts on “MLearn: One Laptop Per Child

  1. Yeah, I’m sure those wacky kids in Darfur will just pick this up and then teach their teachers…

    The problem with the program is that it presupposes that there are schools, and that the people value education above, oh, say, eating and surviving. In a perfect world, the $100 laptop might be a good project. But let’s spend the $$$ on giving people a better chance at existing in a clean, safe, healthy environment before we shove technology down their throats.

    Also, did they mention that MIT will only produce these puppies if there’s a large order (prepaid) from a government, NGO or corporate entity?

    Rochelle: Yes, they did. I think actually your second criticism nullifies the first. The project isn’t shoving technology down anyone’s throats; it’s up to the country to make an investment in the project for it to happen. While the money might come from a corporate or otherwise private sponsor, it’s up for the government to agree or disagree to the project. And she did explain about the large orders; that’s so because these computers are not like yours, they work as a group. A single one of these laptops would be useless; they link to each other and bounce through each other to let computers farther from the access points to still get access to the internet. So the scale of each order is a part of the project. The countries who opt to do this also need to set up the access points.

    I dunno, I’m of two minds about this; I have my criticisms of the project, but saying technology projects should come later seems kind of sour to me. There are tons of projects out there focusing on clean water and adequate food and so forth; the world is imperfect, but this is what these people do, so they’re going to offer what they can. They’ve been testing it out in Cambodia and are getting pretty great results. So I don’t think they’re entirely crazy.

    And it might not be education the laptops bring to countries. It might help kickstart a new branch of their economy (since computers will give them new opportunities, if nothing else). Once those computers get there, there will be people needing help with them, needing repairs, needing better internet connections; in places where they have clean water and food but not much else, kids who have a knack with the thing could sell their services. They can build and sell their own software, games, etc. (They are shipping these with game-making software on them). They have big dreams here.

    I’m quite sure there are kids in Darfur who could become very skilled at programming if given the chance. National trauma is, of course, traumatic, but it doesn’t stop those who survive from having skills and interests that are quite outside the murders and death. I don’t think we can write off the kids of Darfur just because they’re from Darfur.

    As for whether they should put their efforts toward something else: I really hope you do the same. I personally support people offering the best of themselves to others, even if it seems a little unorthodox to you.

  2. I wasn’t writing off the kids from Darfur (I’ve been working quite hard at the school at which I work on this issue). I just think this is one of those terribly idealistic, “technology is the cure-all for economies and peoples” ideas that is not practical.

    Yes, there is some success in Cambodia. And yes, this could “kick start another area of the economy”. But many economies are moribund thanks to corrupt government, national trauma, draught, etc.. Why is technology supposed to be the cure-all and the Thing That Will Bring People Happiness and Wealth and Salvation?

    I’m not saying that this is *your* position. But at many of the tech-oriented conferences I’ve attended, this is *their* position. It’s sort of a modern-day version of “give a man a fish… teach a man a fish…” and I’m not buying it (which, in many circles in which I travel, is heretical).

    I think that giving the best of oneself is a wonderful idea, and I do try (wouldn’t be working with children otherwise). Why should asking questions about this idea, and suggesting that perhaps there are other things that these countries (and people) could use/do better not be in that vein?

    Rochelle: I see what you mean. I also question the idea that technology is a cure-all, and I’m about to post some more on that topic. Mary Lou *is* optimistic, but she asked us to tell her where we felt she was being too optimistic, to tell her where we could see failure looming for the project. I don’t think they’re unwilling to hear this side, in fact, she seemed very encouraging of that conversation. She admitted that the project as a whole hadn’t spent enough time with the education side in the last few years. I guess I feel like, here are these people honestly trying to do what they can for the world, and rather than sit back and mock them for their ignorance on the ways of education, we could try and help. I, like you, don’t think laptops are a cure-all, but I do think there’s a point in there where some good could come of it. In some places. I’m about to post more about this, so I’d be curious on your take.

    I’m sorry to hear that your opinion is considered heretical in some circles; I’ve heard a significant amount of criticism of the project here at the conference, but cautious optimism as well. Context is everything, I guess! I’m clearly not moving in the same circles you’ve frequented. I can’t imagine anyone grabbing onto this project without a little caution and criticism, so I think we’re just coming from different places in terms of reception.

  3. Wow, thanks for this Rochelle. I hadn’t seen anything in the OLPC literature which firmly states that it is about replacing the textbook; indeed everything I’ve read has been so focused on the technology that the purpose — the use — has been suppressed. So THANK YOU for sharing this with us. While I can see the purpose of using the network and the OLPC to bring resources to rural schools/impovrished schools/etc., I must say that I agree one shouldn’t be trying to replace the humble book altogether. There is nothing like holding something in your hands and turning pages.

    When I was in the field, we had a library box program in our schools where we gave each school a metal box filled with books which were not on the curriculum. These books were largely child/youth and linguistically appropriate, but saddly we did not have nearly enough books. Publishing — especially in small language groups and long-term war torn countries — is a travesty. So in that context, I could see the point of the OLPC to bring more “extra-curricular” materials to these environments. But to replace the actual textbook? I’ll be interested to see how this all turns out.

    Thanks Again,

    xo xo CG

    Rochelle: I don’t think I’m being too extreme by saying that the laptops are meant to replace textbooks, either. Here are some bits directly from my notes:

    “Ministry of Education distributes the laptops like textbooks.” Laptop as a textbook.

    100 dollar laptop: cheaper than textbooks (over 5 years). Buy laptops instead of textbooks. e-book readers.

    I’m not sure they’re exactly trying to replace all books, but they’re noting that the resources available to students in classrooms are extremely poor. But it’s the textbook budget they’re targeting, not library budgets. So I think it would be misrepresenting the project to suggest that they’re seeking to replace books, but definitely not misrepresenting them to say they are seeking to replace textbooks in classrooms. So yeah.

  4. 🙂 Ah yes, on the surface it may seem as if they are not going to be replacing all books when you put it that way, but in most developing world schools I’ve visited there aren’t any libraries in either rural or urban schools. (The exception being in private schools for the wealthy/privileged and in those schools I mentioned earlier where we had the “library box” which was a very small, mobile box — so small that you only needed 2 people to carry it) So pretty much, the only books around *were* the textbooks. So, if that’s the case, if the OLPC “replaces” the textbooks, then will there be any books left at schools at all?

    This is certainly not the case in all developing context schools — the wealthier countries tend to have small libraries in their urban schools, for e.g. But for many of the countries already involved in the OLPC, one would be hard-pressed to find anything remotely akin to a “library” or extra-curricular book resources in schools.

    From an educational perspective, I’d think that the OLPC scheme would be useful as a way to get a library into these severely resource challenged schools rather than to replace texts. But that’s just my opinion. I continue to watch this project with great interest. Thanks for posting this; it’s most interesting redevelopment!

    xo CG

    Rochelle: I do entirely agree with you that, on some level, what they’re doing with their “laptop versus textbook” idea (creating ebook readers, essentially) is exactly what you say: “a way to get a library” to children who otherwise wouldn’t have one. I think the role librarians could take in this project could be huge, and to be honest it’s a bit disappointing to me that it is likely not my role (as an academic librarian). Though I still hope that I can take part in this project by making faculty aware of it and encouraging them to make the creation of ebooks etc. part of the coursework in classes where such a thing makes sense. In a case like this technology is only one part. The real resource is the resources themselves, and I think we (in Canada, in university communities, in research institutions with rich resources available to us) are in a position to take a real leadership role. For so long academia has been seen as out of touch with real world projects and issues, but I think a moment like this gives us an opportunity to give something back.

    I had a long chat with Jason about this tonight. I feel that he’s in a good position to take part in this, better than I am. I mean, if it’s going to happen, if the resouces are there on the technical side (which they are), then it would be fantastic to complement them with something else on the pedagogical/training/implementation side as well.

  5. You can’t have too many learning resources. These remote places do not have ENOUGH.
    *
    These little laptops will be bringing the Internet to the most remote of places. The book boxes will not be removed, the laptops will be an added resource. I think that these laptops with Internet in some bright soul’s hands could very well end up solving a surprising amount of the world’s problems.
    *
    Just because someone is passing out laptops does not mean that the world has begun to ignore the problems of war, clean water, and food in these places. It just means that more people will have more access to information perhaps to solve these problems.

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