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What We Learned From OLPC Deployments

Scott Kipp

I think there is a great deal being learned from the story of the OLPC Foundation itself, and even more still from the myriad OLPC deployments around the world. Lessons from OLPC projects will be coming out for years to come, to help better match the tools to the desired pedagogical approach.

ICT is coming to education

haiti-ok2The first thing that comes to my mind is that the initiative solidified in the world’s mind what most ICT4ED-ers may have accepted since Logo or even before: that ICT in Education will be a permanent fixture, only varying in scale and technique. That is, the evaluations, discussions and policy assessments about whether or not to have computers in the classroom will very soon be entirely obsolete, if not already.

It is a matter of resource allocation determining how many computers, which kind of deployment, etc, but the details on scale and approach of deployment are more a function of resource allocation capacity than a matter of: should we have computers in the classroom?

But Construnctionism is not

I’ve worked with and observed OLPC initiatives in Harlem, Haiti, Peru and Mozambique, each having their own merits, challenges and approaches. I’ve seen very scant evidence of constructionism in practice. It has been my experience that only in exceptional outlier cases does the use of the XO begin to approach the constructionist ideals.

I think Negroponte’s (and Papper’s and Kay’s) vision of what could happen with a tool like the XO is admirable, but in most places the projects are very far from those scenarios of the “radical reorientation” of the classroom the constructionists envisioned. Mark Warschauer’s studies of OLPC pilots in the US points to a similar finding and reinforces one of his most resounding ideas: the digital divide has little to do with the student:computer ratio.

ICT4E needs local buy-in and support

Each deployment needs the human capacity to create, innovate and develop the use of the technology itself. What we are seeing in OLPC projects around the world is enforcing this: successful deployments are the ones lead by dedicated teachers, administrators and support staff that have the will to make the project work. If unsupported, the project either grinds to a halt or the students end up using the XO for little other taking pictures and copying what the teacher writes on the board. This, unfortunately, is the norm. For now.

Most importantly, teacher training and acceptance

Negroponte originally posited that the OLPC project needed absolutely no teacher training or evaluation to succeed. He quickly changed his stance, but the reality is that the introduction of the XOs into classrooms in the developing world is a radical and in some cases very alienating concept.

Here in Mozambique, as in many places, teachers hold absolute power in the classroom. Giving the children a laptop is sometimes threatening to the teachers, and the kids often dominate the technology much faster than the teachers, but we have also seen that few use the XO to its potential. Sugar Labs is helping to change this, albeit slowly.

Finally, the OLPC approach is reminding us that, unless you have the teachers on board with the program and motivated for its success, the use of the XO and its subsequent benefit for the students will be minimal, if not negative. This reinforces what many ICT4E studies in the past had shown. What was new about OLPC is really the scale of it.

Dozens of countries with the same tools, all at once. It has been truly amazing to see what different places do with the same tools and observe the effects of context. I think many countries are learning a lot about their own goals for education and its development, and that none of the participating countries so far will be taking a step backwards in this sector in the foreseeable future.


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