The Miracle Transformation Falacy

   
   
   
   
   

Proponents of OLPC as a solution for underdevelopment seem to be operating under two main fallacies. The first is what we might call, drawing from Atanu Dey, the arithmetic fallacy -- i.e., they are overlooking the most basic arithmetic which shows that purchasing one laptop per child is way beyond the means for developing countries (and, even more beyond the means, when factoring in expenses like electricity, bandwidth, repairs or replacement, etc.)

There is a second fallacy, which is also very important, which we might call the miracle transformation fallacy -- i.e., the notion that, if we could get little green laptops into children's hands, it would miraculously transform their lives. This fallacy falls within an approach known as "media determinism," the notion that a particular media or technology will automatically have a certain effect no matter what context it is deployed in.

However, a long history of experience with all media indicates that they are heavily influenced by the context of their use.

One good example of this is the TV show, Sesame Street, which was designed to foster greater social and educational equity in the U.S. by bringing quality educational programming into the lives of young children who lacked other educational resources. However, subsequent research showed that rich kids benefited much more from Sesame Street than poor kids, in part because they had the parents and other family members who sat and watched with them and discussed the show in ways that maximized what children got out of it.

This kind of "Sesame Street effect," in which the rich disproportionately benefit from reforms targeted at the poor, is also seen in educational computing. A national study by Wenglinsky in the U.S. indicates that, overall, there is a consistently negative interaction between frequency of technology use and test score outcomes in mathematics (at both the fourth and eighth grade), science (at both the fourth and eighth grade), and reading (at the eighth grade). However, this is not true for all students. He found that the single strongest factor determining whether students received a positive benefit from school use of technology was the children's socioeconomic status (SES), with low-SES children tending to see test scores go down with computer use and high-SES children tending to see them go up. Wenglinsky's data suggests that this is in part due to the differential ways computers are used by teachers of high- and low-SES students.

Well, then, what if we bypass the teachers and just put the computers directly into children's hands? There is also some research on this question as well--and it's equally depressing. Though there are conflicting reports on whether the overall effect on children's academic achievement of access to a home computer and Internet is positive or negative, there is unanimity that any effect is highly differentiated by race and SES, with white and high-SES children getting the most benefit from a home computer, and Black and low-SES children either getting little academic benefit or even suffering lower academic outcomes after getting access to home computers and the Internet (see, e.g., this study at Duke University.) Again, the reasons likely are related to the types of parental or family support for using a computer as a learning tool, rather than as a distraction from study. A study in Romania also confirmed negative effects on academic achievement of home access to computers.

In spite of these disconcerting research findings, I remain optimistic about the potential benefits of laptop use by children. However, I do not think these benefits will come about simply by placing laptops in childrens' hands. Rather, laptop programs need to be part of complex educational reform efforts, involving teacher training, curriculum development, pedagogical support, etc. I also believe that it is the least realistic to carry out these broad reform efforts in the world's poorest nations, which lack the other resources necessary for their success (electricity, bandwidth, teachers who are skilled at using technology, etc.) Yes, we can and will get there eventually, and we need to keep that on our agenda, but we can't leap there suddenly.

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We generally agree on some concepts about "what is good": education is good. ICTs are good. High ratio of computers is good, thus one-to-one. These notions tend to cascade: one laptop per child is a good way to do ICTs for education. [more]

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the arithmetic fallacy -- i.e., they are overlooking the most basic arithmetic which shows that purchasing one laptop per child is way beyond the means for developing countries (and, even more beyond the means, when factoring in expenses like electricity, bandwidth, repairs or replacement, etc.)

There is a second fallacy, which is also very important, which we might call the miracle transformation fallacy -- i.e., the notion that, if we could get little green laptops into children's hands, it would miraculously transform their lives.

However, I do not think these benefits will come about simply by placing laptops in childrens' hands. Rather, laptop programs need to be part of complex educational reform efforts, involving teacher training, curriculum development, pedagogical support, etc. I also believe that it is the least realistic to carry out these broad reform efforts in the world's poorest nations, which lack the other resources necessary for their success (electricity, bandwidth, teachers who are skilled at using technology, etc.)

Very important points. Sometimes people forget to take a realistic look at things. Yes it's great to think about what OLPC could accomplish, but it's limited by the "Real World" and we can't forget that. I recomend anyone interested in the OLPC project read the book "The Flickering Mind" as Technology in Education isn't new, and with each new generation of technology we make the same mistakes over and over again. We should try to learn from our previous mistakes. Infrastructure, maintenance, and support / teacher training / cirriculum development are very important. Many times in the past technology has been placed in classrooms without properly addressing these concerns and in short order it fallen to disuse and become a collosal waste of money.

A major fallacy in technology in education is that it is improperly implemented. It must not simply be used, it must be used properly. As an example, the use of calculators in math. Calculators can speed up complex calculations but they really should be introduced after the fundamentals of mental math are mastered so the user knows conceptually what's going on. Another fallacy is simply doing training for applications. Learning how to use applications like a word processor, web browser, HyperCard may be useful in becoming comfortable with a computer, but should not be done at the expense of higher level critical thinking which will prepare the student for future unknown situarions.

Another commonly brought up concern in "The Flickering mind" is that sometime technology results in shallower thinking. For example Internet research tends to contain a lot more shallow information and unverified sources than books (a good legal ebook library can help in this regard), sometimes students focus more on creating a PowerPoint presentation than learning the actual material, and a lot of students don't write as well (content wise) on a computer as compared to pencil and paper.

http://www.olpcnews.com/countries/rwanda/120000_xo_laptops_headed_to_ol.html

Charbax in this post seems to be a big beliver of that magic cloud that will magically make everything better and huge infrastructures will magically appear.

As it is, in North America huge amounts of government money were spent on Rural electrification, and huge amounts of government / educational money were spent delivering internet access to schools. Yet somehow in a country with a poorer (or more corrupt) government and poor citizens, magically the required infrastructure will appear?

Mark,

Is it fair to say then that children's socioeconomic status is the best predictor of educational outcomes? Greater than the use (or non-use) of ICT?

Within the U.S., yes. Use or non-use of ICT at school is a relatively minor factor. Other factors that are important include teacher quality.

I'm not aware of international studies on the affect of SES on educational outcomes internationally, though, again, there is international research that shows that use or non-use of ICT at school or home is a relatively minor factor in educational achievement and not always a positive one (see, for example, http://www.cesifo-group.de/DocCIDL/cesifo1_wp1321.pdf).

The mention studies (and several others) make clear that just having access to home computers, and fast internet does not make a lot of difference. Is what you DO with the computer that makes the difference thus SES or a good ICT program is vital.
There are people the have the "if you build it they are going to come" approach, but this is simply not true. However, generalizing to "ICT education is a fallacy" is equally wrong and unfounded specially when we are talking for a continuously evolving field.

That's why the divide of OLPC as a "computer program" or an "educational program" is really important. That's why Sugar needs to develop further, get enriched with content, get integrated to curricula and be seriously and independently evaluated on its promises.

Good points. I agree that we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Each of the elements you mention is important (interface, content, etc.) I think the most important element, though, is social support, so that's why I think the role of teachers, other mentors, and peer support is especially important.

@mavrothal:
"Is what you DO with the computer that makes the difference thus SES or a good ICT program is vital. "

Obviously, everybody would love to increase the SES of the children. But that would cost more than the OLPC program ;-)

So we are stuck with other means of increasing educational level.

I think that electrification and connecting of homes is more important to the educational advances of children than the same in school. Just like SES, it is at home that children get the prerequisites to excel at school.

Winter

Citing research in American schools with trained teachers, supporting education resources and totally different social fabric is not relevant when looking at how ICT resources can impact educational change in developing countries. This is sloppy thinking and should be exposed as that.

I fully agree that it is how you use the tool that is important and IMHO, children need guidance to do that (as demonstrated in the Sesame St example).


The XO is being marketed in the U.S., for example, in the city of Birmingham where some 15,000 XOs have been purchased, as well as in South Carolina. It is thus sloppy thinking to argue that U.S. research should be ignored in discussing the XO, and needs to be exposed as such.

I also cited a study from Romania in my post. It is sloppy thinking to overlook that, and should be ignored as such.

The OLPC is also being marketed in places such as Rwanda, where there is very little history of mass educational computing, and thus no prior research to draw on. It is sloppy thinking not to take into account the research experience from other countries, and should be exposed as such.

"Rather, laptop programs need to be part of complex educational reform efforts, involving teacher training, curriculum development, pedagogical support, etc."

Fully agreed. And I think this is the case in the countries buying and deploying XOs.

Don't confuse OLPC's communication and countries implementation of this project.

I wonder if the implicit miracle is premised upon the (mythical) belief that children, as digital natives, will naturally start using the computers as tools for learning. The Myth of the digital native is not only complete nonsense, but it is also wasting money. I wrote down some more thoughts about the digital native myth at http://stigmergicweb.org/2006/10/20/the-myth-of-the-digital-native/

@Rob Wall:
"I wonder if the implicit miracle is premised upon the (mythical) belief that children, as digital natives, will naturally start using the computers as tools for learning."

The implicit miracle expected is that children will use computers as tools for living. That is, chatting, collaborating, and using it to connect and impress peers.

And I have never seen a counterexample of that.

Just as with any other type of play, learning is just a side effect.

Winter

@Rob
Excellent points. I enjoyed reading it.

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