As part of our trip to Akuapem North School District for our youth media literacy program development, we visited one of the local schools that might be one of the training sites. Classrooms were as expected, basically cement walls, a cement floor, a roof, windows open to let in air, no electrical lighting, just the ambient sunlight, a chalkboard, a teacher, and a room packed with desks and kids.
Sounds like any classroom, except that, if you were to describe every detail of a classroom in, say, Philadelphia, you have A LOT more than just this list. In this school, as in most schools I have seen in Ghana, this is as far as you can describe it. Nothing more.Probably tough to do any electronic media training in one of these rooms. Unless we bring a car battery or a generator. Or a battery-powered radio.
We went to one of their spare rooms where they said we could hold the training. There was a single power outlet in the room. And a single light bulb. You start to see what the developing world is up against when trying to compete in The Digital Age. As well as why mobile phones are becoming the computers of much of the developing world.
Then we hit their computer lab.
Sure, there were computers. I asked what kind of software was on them, and they said they tended to have Microsoft Office. Even Photoshop. The computers looked old, as described. I was trying to imagine what the real benefit of them was here, in this environment. If there is an adjective that means "equally hopeful and desperate", I think I would use it to describe this room. Hopeful because, hey, computers. Desperate because, hey, timewarp to 2000.
It was at this moment that I noticed them. I'd heard about them. But I'd never actually seen them out there, in the field, in action, where I could reach out and touch them. A current of excitement and childhood curiosity electrified its way through my central nervous system.
Wow, here they are, in all their plastic, metal, and rubber glory - the official computers of the One Laptop Per Child Program. Awesome.
I came into this moment skeptical of the OLPC program. I'm all for getting technology into the hands of those that want it, could benefit from it, and struggle to access it. However, I also think that technology alone is not generally enough, and without training, can bring significant risks, including both a waste of time/resources (I've seen far too many computers just sitting there, collecting dust, as development organizations sit back and feel good about themselves) or open people up to threats they are unaware of (think Nigerian email scams).
XO Laptop Usage
I asked them if I could check out one of the computers, and asked what benefit they bring. As the computer was booting up, the lab administrator explained that the computers can be used to teach people how to turn a computer on and off (hmm...). Also, there are some learning programs on the computer, though all he showed me was a hard drive version of Wikipedia (which isn't updating, and thus doesn't benefit from the constant revision of crowdsourcing, meaning information is likely less reliable than what is online), and a few other resource materials that were basically just encyclopedias.
The way he explained it, the computer was basically just an electronic, power hungry, book, which over time would prove more expensive than a print version of these materials (the marginal cost of something that is already printed approaches zero, versus something electronic, which requires electricity...).
I asked if there were any word processing programs on the computers, or anything people could use to generate content. Nope. Can they access the Internet on these computers? Nope. Did he seem excited to have these computers? Nope.
Do these kids really need a computer?
Now, I want to be fair to the OLPC program. We are, after all, actors in the same cause. The goal is to get technology into the hands of those that can be helped by them, and to ultimately promote opportunity, independence, innovation, etc. But, the more I encounter this program, the more I can't help but be critical of it. I just don't see how spending all of this money on a massive program to send something more powerful than a calculator, but less powerful than a real computer, to rural kids without training on how to turn these things into an actual tool to accomplish an actual end that will directly benefit the community in a tangible way?
And why not, instead, send the financial equivalent in, say, 3G mobile phones? They can do all the things that OLPC computers can do, and yet, so much more - First, they can access the rapidly growing mobile networks in places like Ghana (where there is currently a big push by local companies to build 3G networks), and Second, they represent a much more locally relevant technology, given the explosion of mobile phones in the developing world (though penetration of handsets is still relatively small in rural areas, yet growing).
Lesson learned: Spending money to throw technology at a problem isn't really a solution to the problem in itself. It's just not an effective use of resources. But I'd already come to that conclusion. At least, that's my opinion.
Epilogue to the OLPC Encounter
Back in the U.S., I was scanning through my TweetDeck columns and came across this video:
I was happy this came along. I'm not closed-minded to OLPC. I want it to be successful. I want all development to help people, even if I disagree with it. And, I will admit that I haven't done enough homework exploring the success of OLPC, but certainly should.
In the video, Negroponte claims the most compelling evidence he's found that the program is working is that everywhere they go, truancy drops to zero. Right away, I call shenanigans. I've seen these computers. I don't see how these computers, alone, can single-handedly thwart truancy. Especially when in a place like Ghana, truancy is often for reasons like, "Today's a big farm day, and all hands are needed for harvest". But, I'd like to believe it.
Unfortunately, he doesn't really substantiate this claim with real documentation. Just anecdote. Then he goes on to say that people claim truancy is for reasons like a need to work, but it turns out that's not true, that it's really because school is boring and "not particularly relevant". Um, I don't know his sources, but my sources are people who have actually lived in villages for several years, and have studied these issues.
What really strikes me here, though, is this "not particularly relevant" claim. I don't doubt that learning about our Solar System or William Shakespeare might not be immediately relevant to the life of a farmer. However, the implication here is that that all changes when you introduce an OLPC computer. I'm sorry, Negroponte, but a computer isn't relevant in those societies, either. With the right software and training program, they could be, if they help teach agricultural management skills, like how to produce more yield with fewer resources, or how to track inventory and pricing success. But I don't remember that being an option with your computers.
He contends that kids often lack a passion for learning due to things like rote memorization methodologies, and that their program helps tap into their passion for learning. I don't doubt that, and am happy to hear this is the case. But, I can say that you can do all of that without computers, and for A LOT less money. My other issue is that everything that was shown to me in Ghana was an example of rote learning, just memorizing definitions, and such. If there's more the computer can do, um, maybe the problem is just giving people computers and expecting them to figure it out for themselves.
For me, the zenith of this video is when he confronts people who say that you can't just give a kid a computer and just walk away. He says, "Well, you sort of CAN, actually". He says you can hand a closed box to a child that has never seen a computer before, and that that child will open the box and have the laptop working pretty quickly.
I Need to Say This Directly to You, Nicholas Negroponte:
I think what you are espousing here is precisely what is wrong with development. There are far too many programs out there in which organizations spend megabucks to spread what they think the world needs, without a proper, comprehensive, earnest needs assessment, and without a tailored-program to ensure both that the resource of the program will be used appropriately (if at all), that the resource will be used for any real period of time, or that there will be lasting results. You are espousing this model.
And even worse, the degree of comfort with which you are expressing these ideas in the video suggest that you even think that those of us that disagree with this model are in some way misguided. Yet, we are the ones producing measurable results, minimizing unintended consequences, and optimizing the value of taxpayer and donor funding. We aren't the ones that just throw money and technology at a problem and hope for the best.
In the video, you say: "Obviously some guided experience is going to benefit everybody, and you prefer that".
Then why not do it? Why not spend half your money on technology, and half your money on guided experience? Even if you only reach half as many people? Then, you can be sure that your computers are having the impact you intend. Certainly, serendipity is often a key factor for innovation, as is merely being exposed to ideas and innovation. But, that should not be a primary development model. That's really just an accident, and by my standard, you can barely even attribute your success directly to your program.
More importantly, let's go back to my own anecdotal experience in a Ghanaian school district. They said they'd rather have a few new, good computers, than a bunch of old ones. The reason for that is that they want something that is actually going to be useful to them, and not just something that people think will be useful to them. I've conducted my media development work on many continents, and many developing countries, including those where computers are abundantly available.
The problem I've seen has considerably less to do with a lack of computers, but a lack of skills. Countless Ukrainian schools, for instance, have stocked computer labs. And yet, very few educators can do little more than turn their computers on. Kids can do more, but that knowledge is mostly how to play video games.
My Point: Just inserting computers is not really a game changer. Not in my experience. Not when skills are not included. (Lest we forget that computers are a high skill technology).
Again, I want your program to succeed. I want to be convinced by real, compelling results. And I should do more to completely familiarize myself with your results (though, since we are both in the same basic development niche, and yet I don't know your results to the level you probably wish I did, I'd say the burden is on you to ensure that people like me have the best information available, or else perhaps you have a marketing issue you need to address).
But, I regret to say that, the more I get to know your program, the less I feel that it is the appropriate solution to the problem. Unless you really just think the problem is simply that kids in developing countries don't have access to lowgrade computers.
If so, yikes.
Author's Note: In case you are wondering, this post is a continuation of "Youth media literacy in Ghana, and a revealing visit to a school district".
Ben Colmery originally published this post as A One Laptop Per Child test case in Ghana only strengthens my skepticism