“It’s not a Technology Project. It’s an Education Project.” I didn’t say that. Nicholas Negroponte did. You know who he his, we blogged about him 2 days ago that also had a YouTube film and an overview of his workht here.
In case you missed it, Negroponte is ex-Director of the MIT Media Lab and chief evangelist for the One Laptop Per Child Project- a plan to provide $100 laptops to the children of the world. The OLPC Foundation believes that using these laptops will lead to learning. This post will tell you what are the pedagogical principles behind the OLPC, how making a $100 laptop is possible, what the current state of the project is and what could go wrong. I will use information from the Hole in the Wall experiment, first started in India in ’99, do explain why the idea may work.
What are the pedagogical principles behind the OLPC ?
“Learning is our main goal; we do not focus on computer literacy, as that is a by-product of the fluency children will gain through use of the laptop for learning. Children—especially young children—do not need to learn about IT and certainly do not need to be fluent users of WORD, EXCEL and POWERPOINT—They are not office workers. However, picking up these skills, having grown up with a laptop, will be readily accomplished.
Learning some math facts while learning to hate math is far from ideal. Learning about things that are personally meaningful while constructing knowledge—especially where children realize that they had to extend themselves beyond what they believed they were capable of doing—is both natural and liberating.
Children need to learn learning, which is primarily acquired through the passion that comes from access, the ability to make things, to communicate and to express. Writing a computer program, while seemingly esoteric, is in fact the closest a child can come to thinking about thinking. Likewise, debugging a program is the closest one can come to learning learning.
It goes without saying that Internet access and tools for expression (text, music, video, graphics) are the contemporary “toys” for learning. Every child of any means in the developed world has access to a computer at home and usually his or her own, with music, DVD, plus interactive and rich media to do anything from learning languages to play games. Making these same resources available to the roughly one-billion other children, who do not have such access, has seemed ridiculously daunting, but is no longer. This is simply because the high costs of laptops has been artificial and perpetuated, not innate. It is fair to say that OLPC has broken this spell.”
The extract above was taken from the wiki site of the OLPC Project. You can access the entire wiki here.
The paragraph above tried hard to make a compelling case for the use of laptops, but fails. Yes, we don’t need to teach kids MS Office. Agreed. What do we need to teach them? Not articulated.
I think Laptops can help- indeed may studies have proven that they do (more on one such later). This is predominantly due to the ability of the machine to invoke curiosity and to provide rich visual imagery of a world unknown to the children until then. Also, interactive software and peer-to-peer sharing over wireless lan networks may being critical thinking, manipulation with data and collaborative skills in children.
But numeracy and literacy still need to happen- children need to learn how to write and talk in a language what the computer understands (or wants to make them learn).That and many other objectives need a teacher.
To my mind, the laptop is a useful tool but can only supplement not replace the teacher.
Lets look at what one group of experimenters found:
One of India’s leading IT Training companies participated in the “Hole in the Wall” experiment a few years earlier. A Latop was installed in the wall of a Delhi slum and then left unattended. It was observed through a telephoto lens from afar. With no prior experience, the children learnt to use the computer on their own. This prompted Dr. Sugata Mitra of NIIT who led the experiment to propose the following hpothesis:
” The acquisition of basic computing skills by any set of children can be achieved through incidental learning provided the learners are given access to a suitable computing facility, with entertaining and motivating content and some minimal (human) guidance.”
The acquisition of these basic computing skills having been achieved. more traditional curricula can be pushed through the machine. In experiments with these computers (called learning stations) the NIIT team found the following:
The data above shows increasing achievement levels. Even though it does not mention control groups and their achievement levels, my experience with rural education suggests that the Learning-Station abled children would have come out ahead. So, on this evidence, the idea of a ‘minimally-invasive education’ (as defined by the Hole in the Wall Team) is worth suporting.
Ok, I get all this. But how are they managing to make Laptops for $100?
Over 50% of laptop costs are towards Sales & Distribution and Margins. As a not-for-profit, OLPC will lose this completely.
The screen is a large component of cost, with every extra diagonal inch adding $ 10. The OLPC laptops will be smaller.
The Laptop body will be smaller and of more inexpensive materials.
These 3 major costs bring the cost per laptop to $135. With economies of scale the OLPC team hopes to drop the cost to $60 or thereabouts.
So, the OLPC will donate laptops?
Yes and no. While some Laptops will be donated, I understand that the majority will have to be purchased by the government and distributed to the children. The OLPC recommends every child have one.
What is the current status?
Governments around the world are signing up. Rwanda was the latest to do so. India, which was invited to join has refused- apparently its a medical risk (for the eyes- overexposure to screens). Plus the government feels it does not have the cash to spend on this project.
On the technological side, experiments are on to perfect mesh networks (almost perfected) that will allow kids to connect to each other over a local LAN, school servers and even a portable yo-yo microgenerator that will allow kids to crank up on battery power. I am glad they cracked the last one- most other designs, including a hand shaft, solar power etc have either proven inadequate or too expensive.
Pilot programs continue around the world and results are encouraging- I understand that early next year the show should hit the road.
So, will it work?
I hope so. It’s an idea that has the power to make a difference (even if it doesn’t change the world, as it promises to), However, I couln’t help thinking of some shortcomings. I hope I’m proven wrong.
a) How does new software (new learning for the kids) reach them? It would have to created or underwritten by the not-for-profits or big corporations doing pro-bono work. Unless of course the OLPC team wants governments to have a recurring outlay on software (which does seem wishful)
b) What about laptop security: I am not talking about virus attacks, but security of the physical systems. The only way, probably, to do so would be to treat them as school aids- give them to kids every morning and take them back after school (though given that many schools dont have cupboards, finding storage spaces for laptops would be difficult- and another item of expenditure). But this beats one of the planks of the OLPC learning system- kids using & playing (learning) with these things at home, every day, even on holidays.
Moreover, since the laptops will run basic software programmes, they would have a market outside the school and the village.Why would an impoverished family, in the possession of a $100 object not sell it for food and amenities? Maybe the government should have a pay-as-you-go model in place to build ownership amongst families.
c) Wear-and-tear: How long will kids use these laptops. When they get slow and irritating, will the government buy them shiny new ones? Or does learning end with the laptop? Also there are costs to maintenance and use- in terms of resource time and materials used. What about repairs? I understand that they expects kids to conduct minor repairs- but seriously, wouldn’t that be too much to ask? Still, what about the major repairs?
d) What about Teachers? This still doesn’t resolve that problem: Pratham’s ASER survey found that in many schools there is gross absence of teachers (apart from when they arent on official non-teaching duties) and basic classroom materials like chalk and paper were absent. Most schools have student teacher ratios that make it impossible to teach with a modicum of success. I assume the same fate belies underdeveloped countries in other parts of the world. With money being diverted to the OLPC project, this will only worsen.
If this idea has to be implemented, governments are best advised to share computers between children and use any saved outlay money to put more teachers in the classroom, without whom learning through these machines will be hampered.
My concerns then are twinfold: it makes poor economic and logistical sense. I wonder what you think?
Let me stop here now. There is much more to be said and written about the OLPC project, I will do so if this entry creates enough interest. I hope this post has been of help. One caveat: I have read a little about the OLPC project but not significantly. If there’s anything that I’ve said that is error or if you can resolve the questions I worry about- click the comments link below and write in. I’m on my $15,000 laptop, listening in 🙂
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