I am Robert B. Kozma, Ph.D., an international consultant on technology in service of developing countries. I have just returned from Kenya where I where I attended the eLearning Africa Conference in Nairobi from May 28-30.
The OLPC XO machine was displayed in the vendor area and several presentations referenced it. Having worked in Africa and other developing countries over the past ten years, I was prompted to reflect on the implications that One Laptop Per Child has for education improvement in these countries.
The OLPC group has come up with some truly novel features meant to address the specific constraints of users in developing countries, such as the mesh network, the dual-mode display, and a range off-grid power sources, although the latter are yet to be fully developed. This is not surprising, given its MIT Media Lab origins.
But Professor Negroponte consistently points out that, "This is an education project, not a laptop project." And this is where my reservations begin. Based on my 35 years of studying educational applications of technology in developed (the U.S. and a range of OECD countries) and developing countries (Thailand, Chile, Jordan, Egypt, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya), I have to say that as an "education project" OLPC is fundamentally incomplete.
Numerous research studies and my personal experience in many countries suggest that the mere introduction of computers into schools will not bring about educational improvement. Reforming education is hard work that involves making coordinated changes in pedagogy, curriculum, assessment, and teacher training, as well as technology.
While any one of these factors - such as technology - can be used as a lever to launch other changes, reform has to be viewed as systemic change. Without coordinating all of the components, it is more likely that change in a single factor - such as technology - will be merely assimilated into the current system unreformed or be rejected altogether.
But the OLPC education philosophy does not address the education system at all. The entire OLPC enterprise is based on the premise that if given the proper resources - in this case "appropriately designed" hardware and software - children will learn how to learn on their own. There is no consideration of how this intervention fits or does not fit with the current curriculum, assessment, or pedagogical practices.
The goal of the OLPC is laudable but I sincerely doubt that the pervasive use of computers envisioned by OLPC will be realized without addressing these overriding factors in the education system. Let me give two personal experiences that support my conclusion.
Several years ago, I visited a secondary school in rural Uganda while evaluating the World Links for Development program for the World Bank. A teacher was describing how excited his students were about projects they were doing with other students in Canada and South Africa. We were standing in the middle of the computer lab filled with twelve brand new work stations.
Yet it was the middle of the school day and the lab was totally empty of students. I pointed this out to the teacher and he said that since computers were not part of the curriculum and were not covered by the examination he could not use them during the school day.
In the second case, I was visiting a secondary school in Alexandria, Egypt and a social studies teacher was showing the exciting collaborative projects that students were doing in the computer lab. I happen to be accompanied by an inspector from the Ministry of Education who jumped at the teacher and berated him in front of all his students for deviating from the established curriculum for that day.
The dedication of these teachers was sincere and the enthusiasm of their students was clear. But I doubt that either these teachers or their students will be able to sustain their efforts without important changes being made in the system that they confront daily. To bring about education reform in developing countries, curricula need to be changed to move from rote learning to problem solving, creative thinking, and team skills.
National examinations need to move from the recall of facts to complex, collaborative tasks that involve the use of technology. And teachers need training in new pedagogical approaches. But Professor Negroponte shows only distain for teachers and the educational system, as evidenced by these quotes:
"Teachers teach the kids? Give me a break." (Negroponte, 2006, LinuxWorld Conference and Expo, Boston).AIDS and malaria are common problems among teachers, as they are among the African population more generally, and they contribute significantly to absenteeism in the workforce. But I have met many teachers in Africa and I have yet to meet one that was drunk.
"In many countries, school is a treat. Teachers often don't show up." (Negroponte, 2007, UCLA, Los Angeles)
"In some countries, which I'll leave unnamed, as many of as one-third of the teachers never show up at school. And some show up drunk" (Negroponte, 2006, NetEvents Conference, Hong Kong).
If only Professor Negroponte held the same level of positive regard for teachers and unbounded faith in their human potential as he does for students. Yet in many of his statements, Negroponte's attitude about teachers borders on contempt. It is difficult to see how the OLPC program can bring about positive change in education systems with this kind of cynical attitude at its core.
Which raises the question, why it is that OLPC is working with education systems at all? Instead, why are they not working through after-school programs where children can explore their own projects free of the constraints of the established curriculum, much as is done in developing countries with the Computer Clubhouse program?
The answer is that the business model demands that they work with the education system. In order to get the desired features of the XO laptop at a low price, OLPC needs the hundreds of millions of customers that can only be delivered by Ministries of Education (Negroponte, 2004, NetEvents European Press Summit).
This brings us back to the original question: Is this an education project or merely a laptop project? We know Lee Felsenstein's opinion. What's yours?