Hi, my name is Bryan Berry. I live in Nepal and I volunteer most of my free time to OLPC Nepal. I am not an educator by profession yet I was not surprised by the examples cited in the recent article in the New York Times "Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops." I was interested to read Amir Kaeger's response to the article.
As the article title proclaims, many American schools have adopted and since dropped laptops in the classroom after failing to find any improvement in test scores. I believe that the laptops did not produce measurable results primarily for the following reason: The best way to raise test scores is teach to the test. There are also three additional lesser reasons:
- Most educational software today is sub-par
- American schools already so many resources that laptops only offer marginally more access to information
- Teachers need familiar material when they first begin to incorporate laptops into the classroom
The best way for the schools to raise test scores is to gear all classwork to the tests and for parents to pressure their kids to study hard. That's how it works throughout Asia. I believe that testing has an important place in education but it is only part of education. Furthermore, years of intense exam cramming are not a recipe for producing adults with
- strong problem-solving skills and
- a love of learning.
After Israel, I lived in Hong Kong. Students in Hong Kong schools consistently rank near the top in international test scores for math. Hong Kong schools emphasize rigorous testing from first grade on. This system also produces people that often don't enjoy learning. I can only provide anecdotal evidence to support this. I observed that a much lower portion of Hong Kongers read in their free time and the attitudes of the Hong Kongers I knew. Further, Hong Kong companies are known for their ability to maximizing profit, be it in manufacturing operations or real estate development but not for developing new and innovative products.
In a 2000 OECD education survey, Hong Kong scored 1st worldwide in Mathematical Literacy while Israel came in at #33. Whoah! If Israelis have such low test scores, why did Google put a large research unit there? Why does Intel design all its notebook processors there? Golly, Israel also puts out a ton of entrepreneurs, musicians, and writers. I don't mean to knock Hong Kong, I just want to draw attention to the fact that Israelis excel in technical fields despite their low test scores.
But I digress, I am trying to explain why I believe OLPC will improve education despite a lack of hard evidence (higher test scores). The only evidence that we can get in the short term are higher test scores. The real proof will be if the OLPC generation grows up to be an incredibly creative and successful group of people. The delegations of Korean teachers were looking for an educational silver bullet for creativity and innovation during their trips to Israel but they never found it.
Amir's questions whether that "if" is too much of a risk. I argue that it isn't. Kids in developing countries will get access to at least a thousand times more information than they do currently and the auto-didactic/genius kids will teach themselves amazing things. If OLPC just does those two things but fails to help the average kid "learn learning," it will still be a huge success. I do think a lot of those so-called average kids will find a program like TamTam or eToys that really inspires them.
The week prior to the NYT article on laptops, Thomas Friedman published an article "China Needs an Einstein. So do we." The article examines the connection between political freedom and creativity. I argue that OLPC is the first of two steps that will unleash an immense amount of creativity. Which leads me to my second point . . .
Most Educational Software is Sub-Par
When teachers receive a new textbook, it is a completely static document. They can't edit it, rearrange it, or provide feedback to the authors on how effective it is. Proprietary educational software is the same. Educational consultants design it, programmers write it, and X months later it arrives at schools. I have been really, really impressed with Squeak, pygames, and TamTam. I have also tested some proprietary packages that are very expensive and not impressive.
We need to democratize the process of educational content development. We need an online repository of open source learning content that allowed teachers and students to rate the materials and provide feedback. Teachers and students could also modify the materials and upload them as a separate version. Their would be official versions and unofficial versions just like Ubuntu has official and unofficial repositories of software. This explosion of open learning content is the second step after OLPC that will release an amazing amount of creativity and quite possibly revolutionize education.
American Schools Already Have Tons of Stuff
The laptops deployed to the American schools in the NYT article were not the first computers the students had worked with. A large majority of them probably have computers at home and Internet access. This means they already have access to virtually limitless information in addition to the large number of textbooks -- large compared to developing countries -- their school issued them. American kids are spoiled with information access compared poor countries and they already have access to computers. This dulls the impact of laptops on education when it comes to test scores.
Give the Teachers Something They are familiar With
The leader of OLPC Nepal's education group, Christine Stone, has instructed us to develop learning activities for Nepali classes that are similar to the ones Nepali teachers currently use. The teachers will not embrace something radically different from what they currently do.
Similarly, the NYT article cites a math teacher that grows frustrated with the math package on the laptops and reverts to having his kids use graphing calculators ($80-120 on Amazon.com). This is quite telling since a graphing calculator is just a special purpose PDA. The math teacher just happened to be more comfortable with the graphing calculator's interface than the laptops'.
We intend to give the kids super cool learning activities and games that they can do in their own time. Those activities will be truly "constructivist" activities.
By the way, OLPC Nepal is looking for volunteer engineers. We will be working very intensely this summer and fall to implement as many learning activities as we can. Volunteers will work very closely with our Education Director Christine Stone, Nepali teachers, and a lot of kids. You can read the full notice on our blog.