I have been critical of OLPC in this column previously but I want to express now that I support the ultimate goal of the program. And while I do not believe that One Laptop Per Child is appropriate for all countries and I have serious reservations about their implementation model, I would like to provide some recommendations to policy makers, based on research and my own consulting experience around the world, that I believe will help make OLPC a success in those countries that choose to adopt it.
First, I believe along with the OLPC program that all students, as well as a nation's society and economy more generally, can benefit from an educational system that prepares students to be problem solvers, knowledge creators, and self-learners.
This is a profoundly different educational goal from that of most of the world's education systems that aspire (if that is the appropriate word) to produce students who are proficient at recalling established facts and accurately applying standard procedures.
While such a goal may have been sufficient (if that, too, is the appropriate word) for simpler times and for a manufacture-based economy built on standard procedures and unskilled or semi-skilled labor, the world today is a much different place that calls for a fundamental transformation in educational systems.
The set of social, economic, and environmental challenges that confront us today are significantly more complex than in previous decades and requires an education system that can develop a nation's citizenry and workforce to its full creative and productive capacity.
While I share the goal of the OLPC, it is not at all clear to me that giving each child a computer is the only or even best way of accomplishing this goal. Indeed, there is significant evidence that merely distributing computers in schools will have little effect on education.
But if policy makers decide to buy into the OLPC, what can they do to increase the return on the significant investment that their participation requires? I have five recommendations:
- Align education policy goals and programs with other social and economic policy goals. The OLPC finesses the need to change education policies, programs and structures. The program seeks to transform the education system in a covert way by distributing XO hardware and software that will, presumably, change how it is that students learn and, in turn, change education without directly addressing the policies and structures of the education system.
First, there is no evidence that this approach to educational change is effective. Second, there is considerable evidence that educational systems are extremely resilient and if perturbed will merely absorb an intervention into the current system without affecting change or will reject the intervention altogether. On the other hand, there are a number of countries (such as Finland, Chile, Singapore, Ireland, Korea) that have directly addressed educational change as a central vehicle for dramatic social and economic development. These countries have shown that computers can be used to launch, foster, and support significant educational change if they are used as part of a broader vision of social and economic improvement.
Consequently, policymakers who are joining OLPC in order to provide students with new skills that are needed to address the challenges of the 21st century should not only introduce computers but look at the broad range of educational policies, programs and structures that must also be changed if the introduction of computers is going to contribute to social and economic development.
- Revise the curriculum and school pedagogy. One the corollary changes that will be needed to produce students with skills, attitudes, and propensities needed to address 21st century challenges is a revision of the curriculum.
Beyond the memorization of established facts and the reproduction of standard procedures, students will need to be able to apply school subject knowledge to solve complex, real world problems. They will need to be able to work in teams on extended projects that cut across subject matter lines. They will need to be able use technology to search for, organize, evaluate and create knowledge. And they will be able to set their own learning goals, evaluate their progress and the quality of their products, and continuously revise and refine what it is that they know.
These are the skills that will propel students - along with a nation's social and economic structures - into the 21st century. Contrary to Professor Negroponte's assertion, these skills are extremely complex and - unlike learning one's mother tongue - they do not come automatically through interaction with other students and with powerful machines. These new skills require new curricular goals, new classroom content and activities, and new pedagogical structures.
Policy makers should plan for these changes as part of the introduction of XO machines, if this investment is to pay off.
- Redesign assessments. Whatever changes may be made in the formal curriculum, they will be undone in the classroom if corresponding changes do not occur in assessments. Current assessments have been refined over the decades to measure the individual performance of students on the recall of facts and the application of simple procedures.
Educational policy makers who are serious about the introduction of new skills into the curriculum must create assessments that provide students with ongoing opportunities to apply their knowledge in complex, real world settings, to work in teams, and to assess themselves and each other with challenging standards for success. Without these changes, teachers and students who faithfully use XO machines and materials as intended will most certainly generate disappointing results, because traditional assessments are not designed to measure the learning goals of OLPC.
More likely, teachers will subvert the goals of OLPC and either squeeze the use of the XO into the standard education model for which the traditional assessments are designed or reject the use of the XO as irrelevant to their educational goals.
- Provide extensive teacher professional development. The biggest disagreement that I have with the OLPC implementation model is its total disregard for the role that the teacher plays in student classroom success. Evaluation studies (primarily in the U.S.) that show successful implementation of laptop programs demonstrate the important role that teachers play in structuring the students' use of the computer. The training of teachers - and even parents - is an essential component to this success.
This professional development includes more than training in equipment operation. New pedagogical models are required, if the laptop programs are going to result in the constuctivist and constructionist learning outcomes envisioned by OLPC. Teachers need training and practice in these pedagogical techniques. Policy makers implementing OLPC are advised to design an extensive program and supportive structure for teacher professional development. This training is often most effectively administered by other teachers who have already implemented and are currently using the techniques in their classes.
Consequently, the most effective professional development programs involve communities of teachers who are engaged in collaboration and mutual support. These efforts often involve extensive partnerships between government agencies, professional organizations, and the private sector.
- Provide technical support. The OLPC program also underestimates the magnitude of effort needed for the large-scale installation and maintenance of hardware, software, and networking equipment. Children and teachers can not maintain the system. An extensive network of skilled technicians must be developed to support schools, teachers, parents, and children.
I recommend starting with a number of lead schools that represent the broad range of demographic conditions in the country. The initial implementations - pilot projects, if you will - allow the country to build an experiential base for subsequent scaling, create a core of lead principals and teachers who can support this scaling, and provide evidence that can aid in fine-tuning the program and justify its scaling.
At the same time, initial implementations provide a phase-in period in which national agencies can revise the curriculum and redesign assessments. While this process will take far longer than that envisioned by OLPC, it is more realistic and the changes are just as dramatic and more likely to occur - that is, if the political will is there.