Ivan Krstić, Chief Security Architect, One Laptop Per Child held two talks recently, one at Open Source Summit and another at Google Talks. I liked both talks, and think they are both worth a look, as they give us a view inside the OLPC core team. Ivan is actually concerned with security in the XO, all the stuff you don't see. But his Open Source Summit talk went quite long on the educational aspects and the interface. The latter part was actually done and demonstrated by Eben Eliason.
Most of the technological and interface details of the talk have been presented on OLPC News before. So I will not go into detail here (but please, listen to the talks, they are worth it).
OLPC came to me sometime in the middle of last year. It was sort of an interesting conversation. They asked me a couple of questions when I first talked to an OLPC person. The questions were: Can you secure 100 million machines? Can you rewrite the file system and by the way, can you make this usable by six year olds?Ivan's view of the OLPC has been that of an educational project from the start, as you can see from his talk. He is not really an education expert, nor does he speak officially for the OLPC on these matters. So I will treat his views as presenting to us how the OLPC team thinks about the educational aims of the project. Ivan summarizes it thus:
I found something interesting which is that the goal of the organization, the goal of One Laptop Per Child doesn't involve the word laptop anywhere, right? So the goal is very simple. It is four words. Change how kids learn. Laptops are really not in the picture.This idea is of course the result of a view about how the educational problems of the developing world are hampering economic development. After some observations about unsupervised and informal learning, he describes the ideal of formal, school, teaching in the West as follows:
Here's the thing about this. If you grew up in most places of the Western world, you probably have at least once, the experience of going through that process with a great teacher. If you have a great teacher, this is phenomenal. Right? It's one of those rare, fantastic experiences where it just works.Of course, this immediately shows us where things can go wrong.
Now, thing about it is, if you have a lousy teacher, it is a pretty lousy experience. If you have no teacher at all, the system breaks down. It just doesn't work. If the way you teach kids, if the way kids are supposed to learn is by having that authority figure who is doing the unidirectional thing and he isn't there, well then learning stops[.]Now it is obvious that this happens everywhere. In the West there are (mostly) safeguards against low quality teachers and schools. So you can occasionally run into a wonderful teacher, or a miserable one. But most of the time teachers will be adequate. Not so in the developing world.
So why is this a problem? Well, because about 1/5th, this is actually, around, the estimates right now are about 1.2 billion kids in the developing world. That's 1/5th of the total population of the planet. So, if most of that 1/5th of the global population of the planet doesn't have proper access to learning, we should be worried. Estimates go up to 75% of these kids having insufficient access to education or no access to education.So for around 900 million children in the world, the educational systems, schools and teachers, systematically fail to teach them adequately. Mostly because of a lack of qualified teachers. Now I won't go into details about these statistics. It doesn't really matter whether it is 1 billion or 600 million children. The number is simply huge.
Now, any parent knows that if school classes become larger than 30 pupils, teachers and children become strained, and learning starts to deteriorate. So, ideally, there should be 1 teacher for at most 30 pupils. This means that 900 million children need 30 million teachers. If there is a (small) shortage of, eg, 10%, this means the world needs 3 million new teachers.
So how can you even attempt to address a problem of this scale? One solution is you could try and engage yourself in this massive talk down rethinking of everything that is cool is supposed to be. Rethink all of education. Rethink, come up with a global curriculum that everyone can agree on. Train incredible amounts of new teachers. Build incredible amounts of new schools. Get all the schools and all the teachers trained in the new curriculum. Get everyone doing this.Obviously, retraining tens of millions of teachers and recruiting and training millions of new teachers would be an operation of unprecedented scale. Ivan estimates it would take...
You know, if you are an unbelievable optimist, I think you can say this could take 50-100 years.Now the picture will be more differentiated. Of these 900 million children, many will be in situations that are not dramatic enough to warrant such drastic actions. On the other hand, many children will be in situations where education is not the first priority. Civil wars, famines, general health and other symptoms of extreme poverty will trump any concerns about education.
So we can assume that the OLPC will target children in stable communities with a considerable teacher shortage. In these communities, an improved education will really make a difference for the future of the children in specific, and the communities in general. Now the earlier quote about the job interview implies that the OLPC estimates that they can reach around 100 million children in these communities at the first release. This is what Ivan has to say about their philosophy:
It can't be that we have to wait 100 years before we start seeing some kind of change. What can we do about it? And the next set of questions that were asked was OK well what would constitute the sort of perfect solution to this? What would be the characteristics of such a solution regardless of what the solution is?It is obvious that you cannot extend the current educational systems as used in the West to 50-60 children per teacher. Either the teaching will suffer from large classes, or children will get less hours. Without an option to increase the number of qualified teachers, the only other option is to let the children do more on their own. To me it seems either that, or give up on the children.
And there was an agreement on a set of characteristics such as this pure learning thing was awesome when you were a kid. Can we leverage that again to bypass the problem of teachers not being there and schools not being there and get more learning again to be peer-to-peer between the kids themselves?
Now this sounds like a classical economic problem: A labour shortage requires an increase in productivity. That is, each teacher must educate more children. From economic theory, we know that there are only two ways to increase productivity, training and technology. There is no known way to train a teacher to handle 50 or more children effectively in the classical way. Moreover, most of the teachers are effectively out of reach for any training program (small, isolated communities, slums).Remains only a single option: Use technology to let children learn on their own more and help the teacher work more efficiently.
If some children can work without supervision, the teacher has time to assist those children that cannot. If Teacher-Student contacts can be handled electronically, this too will save time There are ample theories about children learning without constant supervision. They come under the label of "Student-Centered Learning" (as commented by Robert Lane on July 02, 2007). They all assume that the children should take most of the initiative. Moreover, if you want children to work productively for long periods without supervision, you must take care of their motivation.
Which comes down to making learning interesting and fun. These are strong motives for children to stick with an activity. In general, these two softy words have an undeserved bad image in more conservative circles. However, it is clear that the only other motive that gets children to work unsupervised is fear, and that is well known to hamper learning. Actually, fear leads to avoidance learning, ie, the children will avoid the subjects learned for the rest of their lives.
There is experience in the West about using computer technology in schools. A comprehensive meta-study from New Zealand concludes that:
The literature on computer-assisted learning does not provide a clear picture of the value of this form of learning. The analyses of quantitative measures of outcomes seem to imply that computer-assisted learning, on average, is no more effective than other types of interventions and may be less so. However, results with respect to enhanced learning outcomes are variable.On the whole, this meta-study concludes that, given a choice, other interventions should be preferred to computer-assisted learning. Given that developing countries do not have much of a choice, these studies indicate that computer-assisted learning can indeed be used productively in education.
This may be partly because of the nature of the research; partly because of the constantly changing and varied nature of computer-assisted learning but, more likely, this is because of widely varying contexts and the complex and interactive influences operating when computer-assisted learning is introduced into such contexts.
In Appendix 3 of this meta-analysis, there are several computer-assisted learning methods that were judged to have Comprehensive Evidence for improvement (CE). One relevant example from the text is the CHILD study from the late 1980s.
The Computers Helping Instruction and Learning Development (CHILD) study, which started in 1987, investigated the impact of computers on over 1,400 students and their teachers from nine Florida elementary schools (Kromhout & Butzin, 1993).Note that all these studies were done studying enhanced "classical" teaching, where children in normally functioning schools were exposed to teaching enhanced with computer-assisted methods. In this situation, the cost-effectiveness of expensive programs, eg, Integrated-Learning-Systems, is seriously questioned.
Results of the study showed positive and statistically significant changes in standardised test scores for all participating grades and schools. The largest effects appeared for students involved in the program for more than one year.
However, the OLPC tries to enhance education in situations where "normal" teaching is failing due to severe staffing problems. Here, the evidence seems to indicate that such programs can indeed be effective. Especially, I think, if the programs can recruit peer tutoring and other collaborative processes. Personally, I think the biggest gains can be made when children use this technology on their own, and reserve classroom time to instruction.
The New-Zealand study also points out the importance of social constructivist views of learning, which were lacking from much of the software.
Generally, computer-assisted learning software is under pinned by an older, neo-behaviorist theory of learning, one that has been displaced in the classroom by more social constructivist views of learning.There is too a lot of experience with student centered learning. However, this type of schools is mainly frequented by children of well-off parents. These children are there to get a better education than they can get in the traditional, state, schools.
Still, the OLPC tackles the problem of improving education in the developing world by trying to get children to learn unsupervised on a laptop. It is essential that the child has her own laptop all the time available for the same reason people in the west tend to prefer a personal laptop over a shared one. Sharing computers is very time consuming, and scheduling the use of it even more so.
To effectively be able to use a computer for extended work, you must be able to use it for hours on a time, and be sure to find all your stuff where you left it.
So it was really only at this point in the whole thinking process that we said laptops. We can do this with laptops and we can attack the problem of education and learning with laptops and then we can let sort of schooling which is really a different concept than education fix itself over time.And OLPC did design a really good tool for that purpose.
To summarize this aspect of Ivan's talk. There are around 900 million children in the world that receive inadequate education due to a shortage of qualified teachers. Recruiting and (re-)training new and present teachers will take decades, or maybe a century. We are talking of a target of 30 million teachers here. The only option now is to improve the "productivity" of the existing teachers without the ability to retrain them en mass.
The only known way to do that is to introduce computer technology for learning in education, and more specifically to the children. If the teachers then go to a more Student-Centered learning approach, the children can partially learn productively unsupervised, freeing the teacher to handle tasks that really need supervision. The OLPC XO laptop is the fruit of this philosophy.