Thanks to Ed Cherlin for your reference to the OLPC trials in Ethiopia and and the challenge of a rote-learning based culture per Eduvision's Ethiopia Implementation Report. This is a very useful report. As I read it I found myself thinking -I recognise what they are saying - it could have been written for Nigeria.
I have written a few observations to support my statement that the Ethiopian report seems equally applicable in Nigeria, where there is also rote learning, and a very formal hierarchical social structure.
People bow in different ways to different people, all kinds of variations from a nod of the head to lying flat on the ground, depending on the status of the people involved. A young person passing an older one without offering the correct greeting will be called back. It is not a culture where you normally question your elders.
Differences in Questioning
One of the things I have learned through Teachers Talking (an introduction to ICT for teachers in rural schools) is that the attitude to questioning in Nigeria is very different to the UK. One of the problems I find myself facing when I present Teachers Talking (TT) is the challenge of getting participants to ask questions. It is even difficult to get them to generate questions for specific purposes - i.e. where there is no suggestion that anyone is showing ignorance.
For instance there is one activity in the "No Computer Computer Course" part of TT where the participants need to generate ten Yes/No questions which are appropriate for the children they teach. When I first started to do this activity I was completely bewildered as to why it seemed so difficult to get sets of age-and-culture-appropriate closed questions.
I have now started to include TT sessions that specifically relate to asking questions. I also try to make a point of thanking people when they ask a question, and encouraging all participants to notice how the question has added value to the session for all of us. I have started to include a session on questioning and the difference between open and closed questions.
I have found adults intrigued to discover the six key "Who? What? Where? Why? When? How?" questions - which is something that is done at primary level in the UK. In TT now we even have an "energiser" where we practice closed questions by playing the childhood game of choosing one person to give answers and then all trying to trick the person into answering "Yes" or "No".
Using Technology as a Tool
Another example comes from when I was teaching a group of young people who are, by local standards, computer literate. They are also helpers at a children's computer club, where they tend to do the kind of rote learning described in the Ethiopian report. John Dada had asked me to help them see other options for their work with the children. I suggested we might get the children to collect information in a structured way, help them to put in into the computers, and then see what they could find out.
Initially I found myself bewildered by the young people's difficulty in taking this idea forward. Then I realised that they had learned to input specific spreadsheets and databases, but they had not really come across any genuine uses. They had learned about "computers" but they had not learned about "information handling".
It took me several days to realise how my assumptions about their level of computer literacy were too strongly based in my own information-rich culture. I struggled with the problem, trying to see why the trainees and I were not "connecting" on various issues. Fantsuam Foundation colleagues Kazanka Comfort and Bala Bidi listened to me patiently in the evenings as I tried to analyse what was going wrong.
An "Empty" Computer
Then one evening, as Comfort and I were in the kitchen, and she was crouching by the kerosene stove where our food was cooking, she picked up a plate, pretended to look at it carefully and started talking to me about it. We were both hungry and looking forward to eating, and as she watched over the food, in the light of the hurricane lamp, she described the plate to me .. that it was called a plate... that she had bought it at the market.. that she was very happy with this plate...she managed to go on and on, earnestly explaining how it looked - its shape and the pattern of red and green peppers painted on it .. how wonderful it was to have a plate...
We were both smiling at how long she could keep sharing all her knowledge about the plate. She had solved my problem about the trainees and the computers! Of course the plate was useless to us until there was food on it - that was obvious. But it was not so obvious to the trainees that a computer was useless until it had useful information in it.
They had seen computers. (They had even seen computers decorated with examples of spreadsheets and databases.) But they had no experience of people who were hungry for information coming to use computers. To all intents and purposes the computers they knew were "empty computers" - as useless as the plate before the meal was ready! Together, Comfort and I had come to understand the culture gap in this instance. I re-thought the way I was presenting the course and the next day I could feel a much better connection with the trainees.
Engage Culture Too
If OLPC is to be relevant in rural Africa, it cannot just be about getting computers to places (beyond the interest of the elites) that have virtually no education budget, precious few books and certainly no computers, electricity or Internet connection.
It needs to be about helping poorly resourced teachers who are struggling against the odds to do the best they can with large classes and a blackboard. Many are trying hard to do the best they can, in the only way they know, usually in a language that is not their first language (English) and using a system imposed by the colonialists. Given the constraints they face it is very understandable why they use rote learning.
However the system is not appropriate for the Information Age. One of the great ironies of the present educational system, as I see it, is that it was modeled on a system developed in the UK largely to serve the commercial needs of the industrial revolution (all those book-keepers and clerks with wonderful copperplate writing). But the colonialists didn't bring an industrial revolution with them. No wonder there is unemployment amongst literate Nigerians and the civil service is ludicrously overstaffed. What do you do with people who can read and write when there is little commerce for them to serve?
As my friend Mr Timothy says (on the farms) "we labour like animals", and once people are numerate and literate they expect better opportunities than "labouring like animals" - but most people in Nigeria will have to create those opportunities for themselves. That is the educational challenge. As the excellent Ethiopian report points out, if OLPC is to help, it will need to continue to consider cultural context as well as technology.
It is refreshing to see OLPC starting to address cultural issues more seriously now, as well as technical ones. If the designers are considering those aspects, then it does makes the whole project seem more potentially relevant to education in the rural areas that I know, and others like them.
Pamela McLean is the Convenor of CAWD Net - Charity for African Welfare and Development