Computers Will Change Education... Over Time


There have been many discussions in OLPC News about whether the laptops are a good or cost-effective solution for schools. Recently, the program in Peru was pronounced 'failed'. More recently, an engineer in Thailand determined that the laptop was a toy and that no significant difference in performance was shown by students with laptops.

Suppose you selected a group of children, gave them bicycles, and taught them how to ride. You decided to measure the results of this initiative by the time required by children with and without bicycles to complete a 100 meter course. You were pleased that every child with a bicycle completed the course faster than any of the children without bicycles. However, there was a protest. It was decided that all the children should be measured running the course. Now, it was learned that the children with bicycles did not perform any better than those without.

Suppose as a developing country, you decided to prepare your children beginning in primary school to participate effectively in the global economy. Modern organizations place high value on their employees being able to work in teams with their colleagues to complete tasks and solve problems. Hand-written reports are extremely rare, everything is typed. Spelling is done by a spell-checker. No one trusts pencil and paper calculations, they are always checked by a calculator or a spreadsheet.

Keyboard skills are much more essential than good penmanship. Every employee is expected to be able to use a computer effectively. In this context, the OLPC program not only appears appropriate but, a 'no-brainer'.

However, primary schools do not measure their students performance on these modern skills. Not only are students not measured on their computer skills, computers are not used for evaluation (tests are done with pencil and paper).

I believe that the introduction of computers in the classroom will follow the pattern of most other industries. First, the computer is used for front-office functions. In schools this is maintaining enrollment data, attendance, gradebooks, transcripts, and so forth.

The use of the computer to perform the primary mission of the organization (e.g. using computers in manufacturing as opposed to accounts payable and accounts receivable) comes later and is much more difficult (although much more rewarding financially). The consistent pattern is that the computer must first do the job as it is currently being done by humans. Later the use of the computer evolves to take better advantage of its capabilities.

In the educational context, I believe this means that the laptops must first emulate textbooks and support the existing curriculum of the schools. Over time, the computer will act as a catalyst in moving the school curriculum in closer alignment with the skills required in contemporary life.

Tony Anderson is a volunteer with OLE Nepal and OLPC Rwanda


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So, are you essentially, saying that the expense and time cost of distributing computers to kids in developing countries is justified merely because it teaches basic computer skills? And the reason you give is that "modern" or "global" employers want people with computer skills. Where is the research that says the best chance these kids have for getting a job is with a "modern" or "global" organization? Or even that they have a good chance?

Have you ever worked in a modern manufacturing facility? Very few of the employees need even minimal keyboarding skills. Those who do also need far more advanced skills that can reasonably be attained just by having a laptop. Having a laptop isn't going to teach someone how to run a CNC (that's Computer Numerically Controlled) machine.

I mention manufacturing because it is common knowledge that manufacturing creates the most jobs world-wide. Not everyone in the world can be a knowledge worker. Someone has to make the stuff we use. Hoping that giving laptops to kids in developing countries will enable them all to get jobs at "modern" or "global" organizations is about as irrationally optimistic as thinking that installing basketball courts in inner cities will help all the kids trapped there get into the NBA.

I am not saying that we should not give laptops to kids. Just that, if you are going to give laptops to kids then you must have something for them to learn using those laptops other than merely to use those laptops.

I do not agree with you. At the moment computers are used everywhere, people are trying to automate any process, any job. Now perhaps difficult to imagine what the world without computers. Therefore, I believe that if the child will be taught using the computer since childhood, then it will be easier to get a job.


I couldn't agree more. The laptops are going to primary school children. The laptops are a means to help them learn, In the beginning that learning will focus on the traditional reading, writing, and arithmetic.


I believe Tony is right. The best opportunity for the jump from the "front office" to the "manufacturing floor" classroom is in reading, writing and access to information. The approach that I believe in is to introduce in a single purpose task, but broadly applicable, and then expand into other areas.
Start with something most teachers can quickly understand, accept and be comfortable with using. I am not a fan of dropping a computer in a classroom and expecting it to be used immediately in many complex ways. I do expect that at some point there will be a jump to a new paradigm as it is recognize that new methods of learning will work better and then the scaffolding will be in place. Thus, evolution versus revolution.

the bicycle example is cute :-)
However, we are testing the kids in a terrain (of life) rather than a running course.
If they are going to walk/run or cycle faster through it depends on the terrain of course but mostly on the cycling ability.
With the exception of rock-climbing ( :-) ) a good cycler will do better. But (s)he needs a good bike and a lot of expert training and practice, to get there.
A novice will brake the bike and hurt itself...

Tony went to school before computers were invented. I went to school without touching a computer until high school. Yet we both make our living with computers.

Children do not need to use computers in school to get a good job where computers are used. Children do need to have a sense of exploration and life-long learning to be successful with whatever technology we'll be using for work in 15 years.

So the real question is: are XO laptops the best way to ignite that drive for continuous learning?

I think Tony makes a very valid point. I'm not sure if computer literacy has to been aligned with any specific vocation to be valid. Look at the irony of this thread, we're all using some kind of digital device to communicate, share, engage, learn from each other, etc. It's how we live now. Why should it be any different for children and students?

As for Tony's use of the bicycle, right on! Here is someone who said the very same thing back in 1980 or so when I was graduating from college in California. Tony is in good company... :-)

Scott Love
Palo Alto, CA

I think laptops will die someday, and someday is coming. The future are tablets but is going to take time until we make them superior to laptops, but we will.

I always believed that computers are there to serve us, we are not here to serve computers. keyboard skills? I don't think so when sound recognition is here to stay.

How many friends do you communicate with keyboard, and how many do you talk with, touch and see? Do you appreciate the difference in the quality of real interaction?

Natural communications for us human is the way future computers will talk with us, and keyboard is not natural, we have 1/4 of the brain devoted to speech.

Drawing and pen recognition will come to tablets too, we just need this to become mass produced as some touch screens have already enough resolution for it on prototypes.

You will be able to continue using keyboards like you can use the command line interface if you wish, but it will not be the main input source.

a couple of points:
The OLPC is not intended to provide computer skills to kids. It's origins lie in Seymour Papert's ideas on constructionism and the idea that we can assist in the facilitation of child development by providing them with 'tools to think with'.

By presenting children with enquiry based learning they will develop thinking skills and 'formal' frameworks for engaging in the world. The xo and in particular the LOGO based activities were designed with this task in mind, that kids would develop computer skills was a side benefit.

As the project developed this initial goal got added to with the idea that a computer could also remedy many other social problems such as absentee teachers, poor curricula and even truancy.

What you seem to be suggesting is a new benefit, that children will develop employment based skills, particularly a high level IT skill set. There are lots of problems with this assertion, ie are they going to be gaining the right skills, will the skills they have be up to date, do they actually need high level computer skills, are their other skills they could be learning in the time they spend learning these skills that may be more suited to the local economy etc etc.

Is the OLPC the best way to deliver these IT skills? is education only about being able to participate in the 'global economy' what ever that is (and let's just forget for a moment about the problems of trade injustices that structure economic activity) what about other functions of education?

Finally your metaphor of a bicycle race, well that works if the end measure is a speed race, but what if we choose another criteria or evaluation tool. What if we took your hypothetical class and said OK the experimental sample get taught for ten hours a week to ride a bicycle. The control sample just get 10 hours physical exercise consisting of running swimming and football. At the end of our ten week experiment we ask them all to travel 100 meters as quick as possible. The experimental sample all get on their bikes and zoom ahead and win easily.

Yes bikes are the best way to travel one hundred meters. But what if we asked them to swim the one hundred meters? or dibble a football or anything except ride a bike? do such a specific set of skills outweigh a general training (education)? and this is the important bit, would the cost or the bikes and having to learn them be a valid investment ? especially when they were completely untrialled before the were bought...

I am afraid I did not make my points clearly enough. The point of the bicycle analogy is that the laptops are being evaluated on the basis of their impact on student performance in the classroom, but the students are not evaluated on their new skills acquired by use of the laptops (i.e. they can't use the bicycles).

I thought it was clear that the laptops are for use in primary school and not for learning 'ICT' as a subject like Mathematics. However, the side benefit of use of the laptop is to build a foundation in skills that will be important as they enter the workforce.

While 'learning to think' or 'learning to learn' is the goal, this goal is an intangible in the context of primary school education. The schools are evaluated on the students performance in learning the 'three Rs'. For the laptops to be considered successful, they will first have to be an effective 'textbook/workbook' which demonstrably helps the students learn the required curriculum.

I wish it were otherwise, but in every industry, computers were first used to 'automate' the methods already in use. I don't see primary school education as an exception.