My Visit to OLPC Trial School in Mekelle, Ethiopia


Reading the "XO Laptops are Banned in OLPC Ethiopia Classrooms" posting made me think back to my OLPC Trial School Visit in November 2008 to Maiwayni School in Mekelle, northern Ethiopia, who were starting a trial of OLPC laptops.

I am Alex Little and I visited the school shortly after approximately 100 year 6 and 7 students had been handed their XO's and the staff had attended training. A single day of staff training consisted of half a day on how to use the XO laptop and interface, then half a day on how to use them in their teaching.

olpc ethiopia
XO's better than using books?

The headmaster had lent me his XO so I could join a year 7 English class and when I walked into the classroom all 50+ students had their XOs open and running. Students had been given some training in how to use and look after their laptop, which obviously had an effect as I was told off by a 12 year old girl when I tried to close the laptop without powering down first!

All the year 6 and 7 textbooks had been scanned in and loaded up onto the XOs, so as I sat through the lesson, with the teacher writing up on the blackboard, I watched as the students all followed their place in the scanned copy of their textbook.

I came away from the lesson feeling slightly disappointed, the laptops were being used purely as a substitute for a paper copy of the textbook. In fact, maybe worse than a paper copy, as many of the exercises involved activities such as filling in the missing word, which could be completed in a paper textbook, but not in the electronic version, although at least everyone had their own copy (which may not have been true for paper textbooks).

Admittedly, I only had a very short visit, only sitting in on one lesson and didn't get chance to have informal chats with the teachers and children. Perhaps other lessons made more use of the XO, or the children were using them outside the classroom in ways I'd not seen - but it didn't appear to me to be fulfilling the laptop's potential.

There are side-effect advantages to letting students loose with a laptop. Whilst working in the computer science department in Mekelle University, I saw many students who started a computer science degree having never used a computer before. When running lab sessions, much of the time was spent teaching students basic IT skills (how to enter a username and password, locate the '#' key etc) rather than developing real programming skills. Allowing students to experiment and play with a laptop, so gaining basic keyboard skills and some level of IT literacy, would make them better prepared for college or university.

The "XO Laptops are Banned in OLPC Ethiopia Classrooms" posting identifies two of what I also believe are the main barriers to computers being successfully used as a tool for teaching and learning, rote learning and lack of training for teachers.

How can a teacher, whose entire learning, training and teaching experience, from primary school to high school to teaching college to then working in a school, has been of rote memorisation, suddenly be expected to adopt new teaching methods after a half day workshop. I find it no surprise that teachers are shying away from using the XO and no longer using them in the classroom. It's not a problem with the XO (or any other similar laptop scheme), but the way in which computers, as a tool for teaching and learning, have been introduced into a system and teaching style unprepared and untrained for such a change.

It will be interesting to visit Maiwayni School again next time I'm in Mekelle to see whether the XOs are still on the children's desks.

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