MLearn: South Africa and the Problem of $100 Laptops

MLearn: South Africa and the Problem of $100 Laptops

The One Laptop per Child program is creating a lot of conversation and consternation at the MLearn conference. There have been an interesting series of (still hopeful) criticisms of it, particularly from the delegates from South Africa.

The stunning comment that threw me into a whole new mind set was this: “If you give children laptops, you’re making them targets of violence, theft, and possibly death.”

In a place where the economy is so shaky, where items like cell phones and laptops are just as appealing to the black market as they are to students and teachers, how do you concieve of the prospect of using this technology, giving these (valuable) items to children, encouraging them to take them home and carry them around, when we understand that we’re painting targets on their backs? Even for parts those laptops would have value on the black market. The laptops come with a certain amount of security, but how long will it take for the ravenous black markets of the world to disable it? At what point does risk outweigh benefit? Is there any way (shy of full government and social overhaul) to lower the risk of theft and real physical danger and protect these children? Can we give them technology and keep them safe at the same time?

There was a considerable amount of talk about the value of ownership; when the laptop is theirs, there is a different learning outcome. I’ve seen this kind of process play out myself, so it strikes a chord with me. (I’ve spoken before about the difference between posting on a message board “owned” by the instructor and posting on a blog “owned” by the student; you get a different kind of committment, different kind of content, different kind of interaction. I’ve struggled with how to express the value of ownership, but I feel it rearing its head again here. What if the laptops are one per child, but don’t leave the school? I have a feeling the value of them drains right out with that scenario.

It’s a difficult question, and I’m pretty relieved that it’s not me who has to come up with an answer. I wouldn’t know where to start.

0 thoughts on “MLearn: South Africa and the Problem of $100 Laptops

  1. (heh, I seem to have suddenly become a comment bomber… so sorry!)

    One of the big cautionary “arguments” in the Asian context is that people will not use them for fear of breaking them. This is pretty regular. One of my research participants speaks about a microscope in one of her classrooms which was kept behind a glasscase and no one was allowed to touch it, let alone use it.

    The value of ownership is definitely there for things like stationery kits, textbooks, etc. That is why distribution of school aid is usually done in such a way that it is given directly to the children who will use it. However, I can also imagine how a big ticket item like a computer with internet access could be more problematic. It also has the capacity to create a large schism between the children and the adult generations — those who can use the devices and those who can’t. And after graduation, or if a child drops out, then what? what happens to their computer?

    In one of my earlier comments I noted that a lot of the early literature (online anyway) relating to the OLPC focused on the technology and not the actual “how” of the implementation. So, it doesn’t surprise me at all that there is now much controversy and resistence around.

    Thanks for posting this, too! 😉

    Rochelle: Hey, no problem! I was trying to note down all the (significant) things running through my head at the conference, and this one was really crying out to be blogged.

    And it’s interesting you raise the “fear of breaking it” argument; they’ve started in Cambodia, and Mary Lou pointed out that they haven’t had a single broken laptop yet. She was attributing that to pride of ownership, but perhaps a culture of fear is contributing to that too.

    Now that you mention it: Mary Lou was quite open about what they are and are not providing/working on. They’re delivering the laptops, and spare parts along with it, but they aren’t providing training on how to repair them, or any means of securing repair should you need it. They suggest that when a laptop breaks, the people will be challenged to learn how to fix them. And once they learn that, they have a skill they can market. So they sort of see the lack of training/support as a feature not a bug. I sort of take her point, too; there’s something quite colonial about providing hardware and then offering support for a fee. Though I think I’d be happier if part of the deal included some intensive training for professionals of some shape in the country so that at least someone knows.

    The fear of breaking the damn thing might help keep the laptops safe and working (as in the Cambodian example), but, as you say, may prevent the kind of learning they’re hoping will occur. I personally am not comfortable getting in deep with hardware. I’m fairly sure I would not crack open my laptop and see what’s wrong with it, given that I have no idea how it actually works (other than entirely theoretically). They do sort of expect heroic amounts of curiosity, bravery, and ability to learn new skills from people in developing countries. Faith in people is good, but I’m not certain that they’re not expecting a bit too much.

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