So this article has been doing the rounds today. TL;DR version: One Laptop Per Child dropped a bunch of tablet devices off in an Ethiopian village and left the kids to it to see if they would learn to read. What I find interesting is the extraordinary number of assumptions and cultural memes around education inherent in the project, which to me are symptomatic of endemic thinking generally in education. I thought it was worth unpacking a few of these:
Learning doesn’t happen without teachers
The fact that this project was designed as a rogue experiment illustrates how widespread the notion is that learning is something specific that happens in a school with facilitation by teachers (otherwise, why bother making a point of their absence?). Apparently the concept that kids might learn on their own without input is completely alien and requires an experiment to find out if it can actually happen.
Learning only means certain things
I found it quite telling that the tablets were ‘preloaded [with] alphabet-training games, e-books, movies, cartoons, paintings, and other programs’ and locked down to prevent most kinds of customisation or ‘non-intended use’ (props to the kids for swiftly working out how to hack around this). Not only does this indicate that those running the project felt the need to so heavily direct the kids’ potential interactions and learning experiences with the devices, it highlights how ingrained our thinking is around what constitutes learning. Literacy. Reading. Etc. No non-serious games were loaded on the devices, and I’ll hazard a guess no internet connectivity was provided. Obviously literacy is important (although see my point below) but the rather narrow definition of ‘learning’ that was provided for in the design of this project I find frankly astonishing. And what bothers me is that the results – where kids quickly designed their own learning pathways through bypassing restrictions – will probably not result in anyone reconsidering this. I very much doubt that any repeat (or similar) of this project will result in the devices being configured or preloaded any differently. The success of this project still appears to be measured solely by the fact that kids started to learn to read, not by the fact they learned to thwart restrictive software and hack into an OS.
We must fix the broken people
I’ll preface this one by saying I am no sociologist, linguist or expert in cultural studies. However. I find it strange that the idea of education in other cultures generally (and this project specifically) is approached as a deficit model according to western concepts. The students in this project were ‘poor’ and had ‘no access to schooling’. The medium for both determining and teaching literacy appeared to be English. But who are we to assume that other cultures have the same attitudes to and definitions of what constitutes learning, education and literacy? The concept of westerners appearing in another country to ‘fix the natives’ or the ‘poor kids’ by bestowing them with western technology and principles just doesn’t sit well with me. The article uses the quote ‘if they can learn to read, they can read to learn’ – but does this hold true in a non-western linguistic tradition? How is the written word approached in Ethiopian culture?
We must set some goals and measure them
It strikes me that both the expectations and the metrics used to measure outcomes in this project were remarkably shallow. When first delivered, the project founder thought the kids would just ‘play with the boxes’ and expressed surprise when they got the devices out and powered them up. Way to set the bar low. These aren’t cats or babies, these are children with vast cognitive capabilities. Then, after several months, a measure of success was determined to be the fact that kids were singing the alphabet song. The fact that a child can recall and sing a song verbatim is indicative of approximately nothing other than the fact that kids are natural imitators. Why not instead investigate the analytic, problem-solving and creative thinking abilities that were utilised and developed in working around the anti-customisation software as a measure of outcomes? I question both the need to have defined goals at all and the limited nature of the goals and metrics in this project. Why not just stop at dropping off the devices and seeing what happens?
The last paragraph of the article kind of sums these issues up for me:
Giving computers directly to poor kids without any instruction is even more ambitious than OLPC’s earlier pushes. “What can we do for these 100 million kids around the world who don’t go to school?” McNierney said. “Can we give them tool to read and learn—without having to provide schools and teachers and textbooks and all that?”
I’m not convinced that we are going to see any kind of significant changes in education while this kind of thinking still holds. Our unwillingness to redefine the parameters of education is viral – it’s incredibly pervasive on a global scale. And until it starts to change, projects like these aren’t going to yield anything more than superficial results that get keynoted at shiny edtech events.