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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.

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 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.