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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.

6 Responses to “What We Learned From OLPC Deployments”

  1. It's even more complicated than the article suggests, when you look at restructuring curricula around using the power of ubiquitous computing in homework assignments, and revamping teacher training at education schools worldwide.

    A key element is the emerging movement toward electronic textbooks, or as I prefer to say it, replacing printed textbooks with something better. When computers can be integrated into the curriculum, they can also be integrated into the presentation of materials for learning and into every kind of investigation and construction of real work products. In many countries, homework projects can save lives, and not just be graded and forgotten. I believe that it is at the point where we have these electronic learning materials and accompanying lesson plans for constructing results of real world value that Constructionism can be seen to have immediate value, and will take off.

  2. You say you've "seen very scant evidence of constructionism in practice", but how exactly are you defining constuctionist practice here?

    According to Seymour Papert (who has done most to bring forward the ideas of constructivism), constructivism is "learning by mistake", and allowing students to be "guided by the work as it proceeds rather than staying with a pre-established plan"[1] . Papert's view is that learning and acceptance comes more easily through making and playing, rather than through traditional guided formal arrangements of teaching

    If we use this definition, there has been quite a lot of constructivism going on in the OLPC project! For example, David Hollow talked at Africa Gathering[2] about how children were taking home and playing with their OLPC's in Ethiopia. As Wayan Vota said, commenting on this presentation
    ''From a Constructionist perspective, the laptops are a great success – children are self-directing their learning around the teachers."[3]

    So in fact, we can argue that the OLPC is doing something disruptive. It is exposing a disconnect between the formal 'teaching' environment of the school, and the informal 'learning' spaces where many actually learn (particularly in developing countries), and this the cause of many of its issues to which you refer.

    Perhaps we should in reframe the debate then. Do we see education, as taught (and examined) between the four walls of the school, as the key to becoming 'productive' in developing countries? For Hollow and Vota, the focus is on how we can reform the often poor schooling in developing countries to improve education. This is a tenable position, and one where the OLPC can become a distraction.

    However, there is an alternative. Others[4] argue that in fact the instuitution of the school in becoming increasingly problematic, both in its forms of teaching, relevance, buracracy etc (and this applies everywhere in the world). From this view, perhaps it is more appropriate to position the OLPC as a creditable attempt (albeit with many problems) to start to disrupt the prevailing visions of such education systems…

    [1] Papert – Situating constructivism(91)
    [2] http://www.africagathering.org.uk/2009/06/05/davi
    [3] See http://www.olpcnews.com/countries/ethiopia/xo_lap
    [4] Many educational experts like Etienne Wenger, Steven Downes and George Siemens to name but a few

    • Scott Kipp

      Hi @cgfoz,

      Thanks for your comment and your links.

      It is useful to stick with a working definition of constructionism / social constructivism, thank you for pointing that out. When I mention the theory, I understand it in reference to the extension of Piaget's original cognitive theory as later applied to education, and ICT4ED more specifically, by Pappert, Kay, and others: the use of the cognitive process for deep, critical and meaningful exploration, resulting in learning. That is the definition of constructivism as I see it, extracted from the respective works. Such learning could occur individually or in any social context. If applied to a facilitated (or non-facilitated) social environment such as a classroom, it is often called social constructivism, or constructionism as Pappert coined it, stressing the need for the proper tools to assist the process.

      I think to label it merely "learning by mistake" is an incorrect oversimplification of the process. Dogs can learn by mistake, but that does not mean they try to understand or question why the invisible fence is shocking them. Rather, it is the deployment of the human psyche in critical understanding, resulting in something more complex than mere memory (i.e. resulting in meaningful learning). Many have likened it to a modern and somewhat more critical approach to the experience-based learning pedagogies long ago advocated by Francis Parker, Helen Parkhurst, John Dewey, and many others.

      Using that definition, I can only reiterate that to date I have seen very scant evidence of a constructivist approach to the learning process in OLPC projects. In closely watching the use of the XO and the software running on most XO's with Sugar, I find that the majority of usage would be difficult to classify as constructivist-leaning for now (as I mentioned, the impressive work of Walter Bender and Sugar Labs might soon change this). The features of the Sugar applications that have the potential for interactivity and the social construction of knowledge are, in my experience, either technically dysfunctional or unfit for the environments in which they are deployed. Examples of technical breakdowns are sometimes the result of the XO (speakers are too weak for Tam Tam Jam, mesh network is often a complete failure) and sometimes of the resource-poor environment (no access to internet, minimal access to new texts or supportive materials). In these majority cases, the benefits of using the XO become more focused on ICT skills development, something very distinct and separate from the progressive educational development of constructionism.

      You point to David Hollow's talk as evidence of the existence of the constructivist approach, but I in watching Mr. Hollow's video I am not sure I follow how you could come to this conclusion. His research would be interesting to read to see. He does mention that the children used the XO laptop at home and in surprising ways, however I do not see how this equates to practicing constructivism. What were the children actually doing with the laptop? In close observation, most use of the XO is very limited to a few applications, some of which I have seen with the potential of negative educational impact. "Memorize" for example, is a program allowing users to create their own flash cards for a game of memory. Although encouraging of creativity perhaps, allowing young users to make matching pairs of cards reading "2 + 2" with a match to "7" is hardly what I could identify as constructive, be it interactive or otherwise.

      I have been absolutely astounded by how fast children can dominate the techniques of the XO, but the two issues must be analyzed as separate: the use of the XO and the development of a critical cognitive process. That is, the use of the XO itself, in any setting, does not necessarily imply the practice of the constructivist approach. This would apply to any ICT4ED tool. The result depends on the input, in this case being "What is being done with the XO? Is it being used for thorough change to the learning process or more for the development of digital literacy skills?"

      There are of course, outliers taking exception to this. Clear examples of progressive use can be found where the environment (be it or out of the educational institution) is supportive and fostering of a more probing use of the XO and any software. It has been my experience that these places are typically accompanied by individuals, be them educators, administrators or community members that exert an uncommon effort in helping the project succeed (e.g. Teaching Matters, an NGO in New York City, and some schools connected to Project Ceibal in Uruguay —

      I think the most significant "rift" that OLPC has exposed would be that between the ICT tool and the educational goal of whichever learning environment the tool is serving. The XO is a leap forward in malleability and innovation, but still quite far from being the great scaffold for critical thinking development as it was originally purported.

    • The challenge people have is mostly in their ability to imagine what a school in a developing country village looks like. What does it do. What is the quality of education it provides. If people can begin understanding these very basic questions, OLPC will appear to offer an opportunity to leapfrog several generations, at least 6 to 7 generations, of learning cycles or as many generations of educational transformation efforts in the traditional "educratic" order.


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