Sunday, May 9, 2010

Education in a Box, Or Not

I recently mentioned the One Laptop Per Child project (OLPC), which aims to provide every child in developing countries with a low spec laptop. These laptops will cost between $190 and $200, which is a lot of money when you consider that government health spending per capita is a lot less than this (though figures vary a lot). I don't seriously believe that a project like this will have much benefit if teachers are left out of the picture. But according to a more recent article "Basic computers skills to enable children use the computers can be learnt in a day".

Having spent some time trying to help people who had never used computers before learn basic things, I would question any claim that you can teach teachers how to teach with these computers in a day. Perhaps it's just a reflection on my teaching skills, but I think people need a long time to get used to complex equipment and to go on to teach others.

But I especially wonder how these computers will "help to get children to learn how to think critically and analytically to become problem solvers." I agree wholeheartedly that children need to learn these things, so do most adults. But how till the introduction of the computers achieve this? Yet again, teachers will need time to learn how to impart critical thinking and analytical skills and to include them in the current curriculum. Laptops are neither necessary nor sufficient for this, they seem quite irrelevant, in fact.

I guess I'm repeating myself but if this project "aims to change the way children are taught" it will need to change the way teachers teach. This is not going to happen over night. Sure, some children will take on laptops quickly and perhaps put them to good use, but many children here lack the most basic skills, such as reading and writing. And they lack them because of other basic needs not being catered for. They don't learn to write properly because they don't have proper desks or three people are sharing a desk made for two. And they don't get much reading practice because they have no books or because there is no electricity at home. Many children don't attend school very often, for various reasons, many have far too many other things to do and neglect their study.

It is quite true that current classroom practice involves getting children to memorize a lot of things, but have people become more critical in their thinking since the advent of cheap laptops and computers? I don't believe so. And is the alternative to memorizing things just bearing in mind that everything they need to know is somewhere there in the laptop? If it is, then it is in danger of staying in the laptop. I think we are being conned into thinking that education in East Africa is suddenly going to improve because children are given cheap laptops.

Also, apparently the laptops are designed for 6-12 year olds. This is something I hadn't realized before. What people over the age of 12 are going to do is anyone's guess. Perhaps they are expected to still have the skills they acquire when they have access to a computer many years later. I sound like a Luddite, which I'm certainly not. But it's just one more piece of technology being thrown at a problem that is not technological. Children need good basic education, they need good basic materials and they need well trained teachers. If the OLPC project proposes providing these, great. Otherwise it will have little benefit.



Bob Lloyd said...

There are lots of aspects of this issue and of course it's simplistic to think it is a panacea putting laptops in front of kids. But laptops have great potential too.

For example, they allow pupils to check up details for themselves, question the information presented to them, seek out answers for themselves, and in that way the curriculum loses some of its constraints.

It doesn't teach them basic skills like numeracy and literacy and in fact those skills are really prerequisites for effective computer use. But memorising lots of facts is less and less important when they are available through the web.

That's not to say that some memorising is important because it enables rapid thinking and assessing. As long as teachers can dispense with the common stance as didact and shift from teaching lots of content for parrotting towards enabling kids to learn for themselves, the laptop can be an excellent resource.

It's a difficult issue which as you say, takes a lot of time, and challenges many traditional teaching assumptions.

Simon said...

Thanks Bob, I know you have a background in both computing and teaching!

I agree laptops have those advantages but if children had access to books they could do the same, but I'm not sure if the ability to question things and be critical will come so easily, considering it is very much discouraged at present.

A decent library would be far cheaper than a few hundred laptops. But books are in very short supply here, even text books, and they are expensive. The cost of an OLAP laptop is the equivalent of a year or secondary schooling in some areas, a cost that many can't meet, so that kind of cash could probably be better spent in other ways.

I don't see children becoming questioning and critical people until their parents and teachers are also questioning and critical. It's possible that these qualities will develop when people have greater access to information, but the basics are still lacking in many places.

Memorising lots of facts is indeed less important but knowing that you have all you need written down for you somewhere is not a substitute for reading it at some stage!

I feel a bit mean minded criticizing the project but I still think bypassing the teacher, the teaching, the textbooks and many other basics that children need is not the way to improve educational standards here, which are quite abysmal.

If it's part of a greater effort to improve education, these laptops would be excellent. But I haven't heard of any major efforts to improve education or access to education. Perhaps millions of laptops will magically transform things, the way we are told millions of mobile phones have done. But I'm sceptical. It probably even shows a bit.

Joyful said...

The more I think of this project of One Laptop, the less I like it. I tend to agree with you Simon that a basic education is much more important than getting laptops for children. Especially when you consider that a netbook in North America now sells for just under $300., the One Laptop per Child expense is not so cheap after all.

Children do need a good basic education which includes the ability to think critically, adequate nutrition, good sleep and someone to believe in them. When they have even one or two of these factors evident in their lives it can mean the difference between basic survival or dreams and motivation to do something more with their lives. I come from a very underprivileged background in my country but I still managed to go to university (self-funded). I did it with perseverance and the hope of a better future. My first degree was in elementary education and special needs. While I can't equate my situation to an African child's, I can certainly understand what would motivate them and how much they need a hand up. A laptop would be a nice thing to have but there are other means of learning the skills required if one needs them.