OLPC XO Will Improve Teacher Productivity

   
   
   
   
   

Ivan Krstić, OLPC

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.
olpc nigeria
Rural schools are the global norm
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:


Little OLPC visionaries
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?

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?

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.

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:

olpc users
OLPC is about children
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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

olpc peru kids
OLPC XO in Peru
However, in the developing world, the targeted children are the poor ones that want to reach the level of the state schools in the West. This makes it difficult to compare experiences. For one thing, schools in the West with student centered education will in general have more and even better trained teachers than "normal" schools. In the developing world we are talking about _less_ teachers than normal 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.

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21 Comments

Winter wrote:

"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."

FALSE.

According to Unicef, as of 2001, the number of children out of primary school was around 115 million (an estimated 82% attendance/enrollment rate).

http://www.unicef.org/media/files/pfc2.pdf (page 3).

Perhaps the writer can provide us with the source of his own claims (hint: OLPC does not qualify as a valid source, for obvious reasons).


"Recruiting and (re-)training new and present teachers will take decades, or maybe a century. "

FALSE. Where is the source for such data? It could be 500 years, if that's what OLPC wants to say. It's one of those numbers thrown around hoping that nobody will question them.


"We are talking of a target of 30 million teachers here. "

FALSE, given that the number of children in need is dramatically lower than the numbers claimed by the author.


"The only option now is to improve the "productivity" of the existing teachers without the ability to retrain them en mass."

FALSE.

There is always the option of building new schools and hiring teachers; it is the method that developed countries have used. If it is good for the "first world", then it is good for the "third world".

"The only known way to do that is to introduce computer technology for learning in education, and more specifically to the children. "

FALSE. All young (as in "elementary-school-age") children need is access to a school. There is no technology to "introduce" if there are no schools.

The author must be insane to believe that handing children a laptop will result in them getting an education.


"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."

FALSE. The author contradicts himself. One moment, there are no teachers. Next moment, the teachers are there to train the kids who own the XO.

When should we believe his claims? Answer:the day he takes the trouble to properly and UNBIASEDLY research his data.

Wayan is partially responsible for not demanding that contributors exercise a minimum of intellectual integrity by providing sources for (at least) the most outlandish claims.

Tyro Troy

Truth: One fifth of the Worlds population are school age children.

Truth: Half of the World population are in India/Asia. If there are 5 Billion people in the World and half are in India and China and one fifth of those are school children then around 500 million school children are in China and India.
Where do you find enough Chinese or Indian speaking teachers?

In order to educate the majority of the Worlds children a different approach to education is needed.

As Ivan says 'The goal is very simple - Change how kids learn'.

"Half of the World population are in India/Asia. If there are 5 Billion people in the World and half are in India and China and one fifth of those are school children then around 500 million school children are in China and India.
Where do you find enough Chinese or Indian speaking teachers?"


In China and in India, of course! (wasn't a really difficult question...)

"In order to educate the majority of the Worlds children a different approach to education is needed."


The majority (as in 82%, according to Unicef/Unesco) of children are receiving an education already.

The rest need a regular school and a regular teacher. There is no reason to believe that a "different approach" is needed. Once again, any person who thinks that handing a laptop to kids will MAGICALLY (as in "without teachers" and "without schools")result in an "education" needs to have his head examined.

Are these guys ok, Wayan?

:-)

Tyro Troy (a.k.a ME)

troy/troy himself/rocco,

I have a question for you. Suppose winter or someone else pulls up some statistics that prove there are a lot of childen who are not in school (or in school only a couple of hours a day).

Now will you admit they have made their case? Or will you do as in the past and say nothing in acknowledgement?

"Truth: Half of the World population are in India/Asia. If there are 5 Billion people in the World and half are in India and China and one fifth of those are school children then around 500 million school children are in China and India. Where do you find enough Chinese or Indian speaking teachers?"

Sorry, world population is 6 billion plus.

Age bracket 5-14 (inclusive) ~1.2 billion
In the developed world, adequate schooling is around 10 years of education, so this age bracket will have the approximate correct size. We are talking order of size here.

This link gives nice demographic data, you can construct your own queries:
http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/idb/worldpopinfo.html

With a literacy rate in the developing world of 77% and total world 82% in the decade to 2005, I think that an estimation that 75% of children receive inadequate education is rather plausible.
http://stats.uis.unesco.org/unesco/TableViewer/tableView.aspx?ReportId=201

There is of course reason to be wary of any hard numbers on "inadequate education". Inadequate access to education means different things to different people. Children out of school have inadequate education by any standard (home schooling is not an option in developing countries). But we also know that many children IN school will have inadequate education due to a failing educational system.

But even if we scale down to an unbelievable 450 million children in need of better education, that would still mean we are talking about a target of 15 million well trained teachers. I don't think that what cannot be done with 30 million, is easy with 15 million.

But this is all completely beside the point. The OLPC seems to be only planning for a 100 million laptop release now. Whether they succeed or not is also not my point.

Sadly, it will be rather easy to select 100 million children that live in stable communities with a shortage of teachers. That is, children that would really be helped by an improved education (eg, Brazil, Mexico, Nepal, India, Thailand etc). 100 million children in school need 3 million well trained teachers.

Somehow, the relevant countries were unable in the past to supply these teacher, even with the help of donor countries from the developed world. So I believe Ivan is right, there will be no short term solution to this problem if we stick to the old strategies. And that is the point Ivan wants to make. And I do support him in this.

Winter

Regardless if there are 50 million or 500 million children in the world today, I think the crux of Winter's post is intriguing and worthy of discussion: will the OLPC XO enhance education in situations where "normal" teaching is failing due to severe staffing problems? Can it facilitate positive, cost-effective unsupervised learning?

My personal belief is that OLPC can help children become excited about learning in the short term and possibly facilitate beneficial unsupervised learning in the long term, but it is not yet proven to do either, not particularly affordable in the current cost matrix, and while Negroponte might consider it a great tragedy, not solving a very high-priority problem for the recipients.

In addition, it's simply not enough to give students a laptop and say: "now you can start learning". I see very little in the current implementation of the OLPC that helps kids learning by themselves. Etoys is a great app, but my feeling is it's a framework, not content. I wish more focus to be concentrated from OLPC in content development. In other words, if the developing countries lack teachers, why don't OLPC uses many teachers available in developed countries to produces useful content for the OLPC?

The argument above is around "no teachers"/"few teachers" and "not in school"/"receiving a poor education". There are many students in the US who are receiving a poor education - and it's not for want of school buildings.

I'd like to direct attention back to the dichotomy "kids versus teachers"/"kids with teachers". To me, the great sin of the OLPC program as it was first announced was the dismissal of teachers as a factor - Nick declared that their job would be to "get out of the way". If you claim to be pursuing a worthy goal such as improving education in underdeveloped areas (and eventually, everywhere) you should admit that it's a difficult process and it requires the design of a whole system - not just a laptop. Thus, Kristic's history is revealing when you look at what was publicly first presented.

So I want to continue to assert, as clearly as possible, that education requires more than hardware, software, operating systems and good intentions, and it cannot be separated from teachers. As Alan Kay put it in 2005, (see http://fonly.typepad.com/fonlyblog/2005/11/alan_kay_comes_.html ) the top of the heap is "mentoring", which has to be designed along with everything else.

How is the mentoring being designed in OLPC? From what I can tell, very poorly if at all. It will take a lot of concentrated effort, along with experimentation, to get the job done right. First, though, there has to be agreement within the project that the job needs to be done. I hope that they will reach that stage soon - perhaps they already have.

Dear Tyro Troy,

Number of children that teacher can teach can increase by large percentage if the laptop helps as planed, one teacher must however exist anyway for every child.

My opinion is that the value of learning to learn and passion for learning is incalculable and really worth the price if it can be achieved through these laptops. Also in developed countries, where I do not think that the current system of education can teach that yet.

Also, lets be clear, Krstic presented Negroponte's version of the education situation, not his own original thought. Just check out Negroponte's speeches from last year: http://www.olpctalks.com/nicholas_negroponte/

"I wish more focus to be concentrated from OLPC in content development. In other words, if the developing countries lack teachers, why don't OLPC uses many teachers available in developed countries to produces useful content for the OLPC?"

I must admit that I am rather ignorant about the situation in the developing world.

A country like Brazil has a well functioning university system, book publishers, a TV and film industry, and a major Linux distribution (Mandriva) employing top programmers.

Can anyone explain to me why such a country cannot develop digital learning materials, teacher instruction, and a deployment plan at local prices?

Why should, eg, Brazil, wait for the OLPC to help them out at USA prices?

I really feel like I am missing something important.

Winter

All, (Scratch and Magic Words in real life)

I thought that you might be interested in some real life feed back from families in the rural American mid-west using Constructivist type software on donated computers.

"> I thought there was not much to Magic Words because I guess I could
> not see the potential immediately. But Gina took to it like a fish to
> water and spent quite a bit of time playing around with it and getting
> it to work."

"he is working with Scratch now. I have begun to more strictly limit
my son's use electronic games right now. Now if he wants to sit in
front of a computer all day he has something very worthwhile to do."

All through out this website people been asking for real life examples beyond Gifted Special Education public schools and Montessori type private schools. For those in other nations, our mid-western interior is mostly small farm villages. Many Cell phones have no coverage there.

I hope finally settles the Constructivist debate, so we can focus on implementation.

Wayan: I presented my own take on things, based exclusively on research I've done myself and my best personal understanding of the situation; the fact that this agrees with Nicholas' position is one of the reasons I joined OLPC. It would behoove you to be very careful about implying I'm parroting someone else's thoughts.

Ivan,

I have great respect for your technology work and do believe you did your homework before joining OLPC. But as an independent observer, I find your speech mirrors previous Negroponte speeches too closely to be fully original.

This is not to say that your drinking special Kool-Aid, or are in any way dense, only that he's directly influenced you to the point that you've repeated key thoughts and phrases that he proposed earlier.

And I say this with full respect to Negroponte too. I also find myself repeating his catch-phrases when I talk about OLPC. A mark of his marketing genius.

Winter, yours is a pretty sensible question,

A" country like Brazil has a well functioning university system, book publishers, a TV and film industry, and a major Linux distribution (Mandriva) employing top programmers.

Can anyone explain to me why such a country cannot develop digital learning materials, teacher instruction, and a deployment plan at local prices? "

Based on my experience, I can tell you that even if it appears to have everything in place, Brazil is a country with so many different economical and policy-making problems that it may be significantly difficult to try and do something like that. Take as a pointer the fact that, for instance, while one of the few remaining airliner manufacturers in the world is Brazilian, and that they have taken the decision to build a nuclear submarine for their Navy (why they want to is something nobody knows, but that's a different matter), they are still one of the most unequal places on Earth in terms of income distribution, have a terrible percentage of the population well below the poverty line, and a crime rate that is staggering.

In other worlds: it's a country with many islands of development surrounded by poverty and despair. It's very difficult to fix things there and many problems have to compete for relatively scarce resources; and most certainly, their priorities do not seem rational sometimes.

The link to the NZ meta study has become stale. Here is the new one:

http://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/7672/A-Review-of-the-Literature-on-Computer-Assisted.pdf

A Review of the Literature on Computer-Assisted Learning, Particularly Integrated Learning Systems, and Outcomes with Respect to Literacy and Numeracy
Report to the Ministry of Education

Winter

Following up on the post above:

In case anyone is interested, we (infoDev) have gathered together some useful resources (like the one from New Zealand cited by Winter, which was published back in 2000) related to the monitoring and evaluation of ICT in education initiatives:

Quick guide to useful resources related to the monitoring and evaluation of ICT in education initiatives
http://www.infoDev.org/ict4edu-evaluation-resources

We disseminate this to assist those interested in the topic, but not sure where to begin.

-M

Can I have a OLPC XO laptop now for $100
Seems they can't be bought for under US $499.99

I expect we'll get them at $100 when 2.5Ghz Laptops sell for about the sme price.

I suppose I'll get my first laptop at 18, only 7 years to wait.
But I want to swap my teacher for a laptop now !
Move along, nothing in it for me.

"But I want to swap my teacher for a laptop now !"

If you already have a qualified teacher (and books), I think the OLPC is right to give priority to those children that don't have a qualified teacher.

And if you can spare $500, why go for the XO? You can buy yourself a cheap computer and internet access. The $100 was for those families that cannot spare $500 for a computer and comparable amounts for books.

But somehow, you didn't sound really sincere.

Winter

The entire argument of letting students learn by themselves is so very flawed.

Can you imagine each child allowed to start learning at his own paste and each has his own ideas about what learning means and each child goes to one subject different from another?

Gosh what kind of class would that be? The entire class would be a mess of giggles here and there with no real work done.

The syllabus assigned by the authorities and you expect each child knows what is going on?

Kind of thinking , you are not teachers nor know what is happening in classes in developing world.

Replace the teachers with children learning by themselves.... ???

Whether teachers are qualified or not is not the main issue. Teachers MUST be the one that controls and guide the classes. Can you imagine the entire countries' students studying by themselves?? Even universities in developed countries do not do that !!!
... want to talk about little children in third world countries .

You guys must be kidding.

@Alan:
"The entire argument of letting students learn by themselves is so very flawed."

Exactly, and that is why this post is titled "OLPC XO Will Improve Teacher Productivity".

The point is that, if there are not enough teachers and you cannot provide more teachers fast enough, you must try to improve the productivity of each teacher.

So you supply teachers and children with modern information and communication equipment (ICT) so each teacher can help more children at a time. Just like ICT does in other industries.

Sounds logical, doesn't it?

See also:
http://www.olpcnews.com/use_cases/education/olpc_effective_violin.html

Winter

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