Teaching, Institutional and Professional Barriers

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Despite what certain commercial critics of OLPC may say for self-interested reasons, the OLPC machine is a powerful, general-purpose computer with many marvelous integrated input-output devices and expansion possibilities. Even in the most developed countries, such a machine would have been met with jaw-dropping awe even a decade ago, particularly for how cheaply it can be manufactured now.

But can digital technology make the existing system work better in some way? McKinsey Inc. did a well-known study of the growth of USA business productivity in the late 1990s, which said in part:

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the widespread adoption of information and communications technology was not the most important cause of the acceleration in productivity after 1995. Our... case studies clearly show that the relationship between IT and labor productivity is extremely variable... In rare cases, IT can deliver truly extraordinary productivity improvements, expanding labor capacity by an order of magnitude... [but] the bulk of the acceleration in productivity after 1995 can be traced to managerial and technological innovations that improved the basic operations of companies. These innovations were structural...

In other words, you have to re-engineer the institution to exploit technology - the latter is not a "magic bullet."

The OLPC team does include people who see it as a platform for a greatly improved methods of learning. However effective their methods may be, it seems to me they are utopian university types who have had limited actual influence on the educational bureaucracies of their native land. e.g. Did they have much influence on what Maine teachers actually did with their laptop-equipped students? (I am open to persuasion) But they are not alone! (Find links to reports on the Maine experiment at page bottom.)

I think the harsh reality of most K-12 education in the world is that it is tradition-bound, and that the economic fact for most teachers is that they had better "toe the line" and not "rock the boat" if they want to stay employed. "After all, don't all children deserve the best education (as if we knew what that was and will be!) - who would be so callous as to do experiments on a child!" Can we hope that when such teachers rise in the educational bureaucracy they change long-held habits and become reformers and revolutionaries? Not likely.

Consider the lecture. Originally a means for students to make their own hand-written copies of textbooks before movable type made mass production of books cheap, the lecture has hung on as a venerable institution a half-millenium after it became largely obsolete. No wonder thinkers like Alvin Toffler have called schools medieval.

Stipulating such a culture, one wonders who the agents of change will be when the OLPC gear enters the picture. It would be a terrible shame if this vital part of the equation did not get enough attention and the OLPC program "failed" - a tragedy all the worse because of the opprobium with which it would smear digital technology if an attempt to try something similar was made later.

I live in the United States and have seen what happens when a hopeful but clueless political leader raises the money for a large federal-state-wide rollout of high tech without any idea how the various independent school districts will work to exploit same. (This example involved a satellite dish at every school.) The result? Equipment rusting for want of use, whose potential was never realized, even for a short while. Don't think that national political leaders of developing nations are incapable of similar folly.

While re-engineering may be vital, experience also teaches that technology may not integrate with existing institutions in the way which technologists hope.

Mass-production and large-lot-selling will make the OLPC gear cheap. And a bundled default GUI and app suite can enable a large user community to share the experience of using it, to discover its strengths and weaknesses. But what if teachers do not embrace the model of the default system - perhaps because doing so incurs no benefit to them if successful and grave risks if not? And what if the nation in which this sad result transpires is unwilling or unable to adapt the default software to make it commpatible with actual clinical practice? If you think this is not a possible scenario, you have never lived within a system where fear and conformity reign, being the only way to stay out of trouble.

A recent The New York Times article on non-elite colleges in India paints a bleak picture, writing in part:

[Students] said their courses offered few chances to work in groups or hold discussions... A deeper problem, specialists say, is a classroom environment that treats students like children even if they are in their mid-20’s. Teaching emphasizes silent note-taking and discipline at the expense of analysis and debate... Rote memorization is rife at Indian colleges because students continue to be judged almost solely by exam results. There is scant incentive to widen their horizons — to read books, found clubs or stage plays.

A federal agency in India (cf. OLPC_India) has argued against participating in OLPC. But if the text above describes how college students there are treated, how much more rigid and traditional the education of children must be! Would schools there embrace the modes of exploration and collaboration the OLPC anticipates?

I don't especially want to beat up on India. Here in the United States, it is rather appalling how ineffective ordinary K-12 teachers are proving in leveraging all the wonderful technology which has been poured into the schools (admittedly - at far below a rate of one laptop per child, with rare exceptions). Just four years ago a Pew Internet & American Life Report was titled: The widening gap between Internet-savvy students and their schools which wrote in part:

Internet-savvy students are far ahead of their teachers and principals in taking advantage of online educational resources...

My personal unscientifically sampled observations seem to support such a view of the world. Many teachers are still remarkably intimidated, if not ignorant, about computer and communication technology. The kids take to it like fish to water, but tend to squander time playing exciting massive multiplayer online games which do not much expand either their knowledge or reasoning power.

I hope the OLPC people will never forget they come from a peer group with an average 140+ IQ and that the vast majority of human beings have an IQ between 85 and 115, and some lower yet, too. They might be surprised at how the smallest "gotcha" leads teachers and others to give up trying if anything goes wrong.

Some people have tried to insult the OLPC machine by calling it a "gadget". But there are worse things than being a fixed-function appliance that works reliably - like being an infinitely malleable playpen for hackers if attached to a global network. The Redmond people weren't smart enough to avoid this horror show - will the OLPC folks be?

Reasons like those above are why I would like the overall OLPC effort to concentrate on developing quality e-books for the kids. Once you have paid for the e-book reader, it's lots cheaper to fabricate book copies via digital technology than by printing on paper (about US$2 per paperback). How wonderful it would be to give each child a whole library, rather than just a few books a year!

Books are something even the biggest lunkhead teacher and ed bureaucrat understand - they are not seen as distractions requiring enormous amounts of teacher training and pedagogical reform. They are even the Trojan horse which can put the laptops into the hands of the kids, some of whom will hopefully find some inspiring and mind-expanding interactive things to do with them, too.

I hope readers will not feel I am trying to crush the hopes of the people who have great dreams for OLPC. It's just that the real world may be a lot more ugly than many imagine. The various "localization" efforts (cf. Countries) have much more to do than just translate to the local language - they have to transpose ideas to the local educational culture and maybe even fight to reform the latter if possible. Ideas for promoting effective OLPC project application are discussed in Rollout_and_community_building_ideas.

Docdtv 05:50, 4 December 2006 (EST)


If you listen to the November 2006 OLPC video, at Technology Review you learn that many students in the developing world might only attend school two or three hours daily. The hope is expressed that something like the OLPC machine could help children learn during the hours they are not in school. What I find questionable about this is the following: These kids will not otherwise be playing basketball, watching TV or spending time in a tanning salon. Most likely, they will be doing some of the hard chores done in poor countries to keep body and soul together. How much leisure time do all but the tiniest kids in the target countries enjoy? I don't know - but it can't be much. (Comparative_education profiles the formal educational systems of the world's nations. In particular, it includes a pointer to an ongoing broadcast video series archived online, which follows children in seven nations, the majority impoverished.)

I have argued elsewhere that people whose hands and eyes are preoccupied with First-World "blue-collar" chores like baby-diapering, truck-driving and dish-washing might benefit from the advent of the digital audio player, which could just as easily deliver educational prose as music. (Its highly compact, physically robust nature and day-long playing ability do not interfere even with fairly vigorous, uninterrupted activity.) It could be that audio e-books and "MP3" players might help chore-bound kids in poor countries more than the world's best notebook PC they never have time to use. Maybe the magic is in flash memory, rather than processors or displays.

It is hardly the case that I see no benefit - sometimes overwhelming - for visual illustrations. Goguen's [On Notation] persuasively argues for the advantages of graphical representations over linear prose for many important types of explanations. But simple words are good enough for other things and might be reserved for off-campus audio player use. If you can make a whole laptop computer stuffed with goodies for $150, how cheap then might you make a digital audio player?

Chris Whittle, the founder and CEO of the Edison Schools company, recently published a book titled Crash Course... (ISBN 1594489025). Among other things, he puts forth the idea that USA schools greatly expand students’ independent learning: At the elementary level pupils spend an hour or two outside class, perhaps watched over only by an older peer. This steps up with grade level, so that by high school students spend only one-third of their time in traditional classrooms. (His primary, but not sole, motivation is the reduction of teacher staffing so that salaries can be doubled or more at constant cost, attracting a better class of teachers.) Someone like Whittle thinks greatly expanded self-learning is plausible for K-12 on a society-wide scale. But his proposal is just that - it's not being done in the United States today. Whittle would of course applaud things like the OLPC project, because another thing he bemoans is what he says is the dearth of real basic research into education.

I think it would be wonderful to get kids with time on their hands to embrace learning on their own - and become good at it, too. As the ambitious son of immigrants to the United States, I was an avid auto-didact, even in the era when little more than a neighborhood public library served as my source of information. But I found I was unusual among my peers!

- Docdtv 05:05, 7 December 2006 (EST)


I thought I would illustrate some points made above with a narrative I've used elsewhere in the past.

In 2002, USA writer and TV commentator Andy Rooney wrote here

I was slow to come to a computer. For years after everyone else had one, I was still writing on that old Underwood [typewriter] over there.
There's no doubt about it, though, a computer is a great tool for a writer. It's so easy that I make changes I never would have bothered with if I had to retype the whole page. And there's no doubt either that my writing is better since I started using a computer -- you may not have noticed that.

Whether or not you enjoy Mr. Rooney's work, or agree with his many opinions, you have to allow that he is very successful in his chosen profession - the author of maybe a dozen books, among other things.

Which makes his confession above remarkable! How could someone in business ignore a technology which bestows such profound benefits and costs its user so little? (Even allowing for the minimal learning needed to turn an accomplished typist into a user of the dozen word processor commands which extract 99% of the advantages of replacing a typewriter.)

The truth is that while water DOES flow downhill in the long run, sometimes it has to fill pools, to get over crests, to find its way down to the river valley. Those who can see beyond the crest, and can afford to dump water they pay for into the pool at their own expense, can make the water flow down the hill before the next guy. But this is always an uncertain process, and has just as much power to lead to ruin as waiting until competitors have stolen the march on you. A critical task of marketing is to know when it may be worth the company's sacrifice to pay up-front costs so that a revenue stream can be unleashed: the classic example is King Gilette with his cheap razors and expensive blades.

Inertia, distraction and vanity can also delay the adoption of new technology - it is not only a lack of capital, knowledge and courage. Very often an improved method has to wait until a business is failing before the latter is willing to look beyond familiar methods in an attempt to try anything that will rescue it from disaster. If you are rich anyway, you may be too lazy to do what will make you richer yet. Quite possibly that is why Andy Rooney put off using computers so very long.

Below is an illustration of this principle in the educational field of interest to readers of the OLPC Wiki:

A 2003Fast Company profile of (Forbes 400) education magnate John Sperling, founder of the University of Phoenix, wrote:

Gambling that he could take the adult-education curriculum that San Jose State had rejected and make it succeed elsewhere, Sperling set about putting his ideas to work. He sought out the vice president of development at Stanford University... [who] warned that educational bureaucracies innovate only out of fiscal desperation. In a letter, he advised Sperling to 'find a school in financial trouble and convince the people running it that your program will generate a profit.'

The immediate financial success Sperling had with such a client put him on the road to success and riches.

But this begs the question of how to induce state socialist education systems to adopt new methods, when they have no real measures of effectiveness like financial profit, which determine whether they stay in business or depart it.

--Docdtv 23:37, 30 December 2006 (EST)


Evaluating Laptop Programs

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