BBC News has a story on the very first introduction of One Laptop Per Child laptops into a poor village and it’s not pretty. OLPC put 300 laptops, along with a satellite internet link, a power generator and solar panels into the Galadima Primar School in Abuja, Nigeria in March for a five-month test.
The good news is that the kids loved them. They quickly started taking pictures with the onboard camera and exchanging video files. A teacher, Miss Manzo, is quoted in the BBC story as saying “It is one of the happiest things that has happened to the school. Before, we felt we were not very important but now we have the laptop we feel that we have moved ahead.” She goes on to say that the children use
the laptops at home "and even help their parents."
What do the children use the laptop for? Mostly taking pictures and sharing them with friends. eachers use the preloaded encyclopaedia for their classes. A lesson on the mammalian eye based on preloaded content, along with math lessons that used the laptop calculator, was observed by the BBC journalists. The headmistress of the school, Mrs. Juliana Okowkno, says "I pray that the government will try and help every child in Nigeria get access to this."
Now for the bad news. Some 40 of the machines have been broken or stolen. The students play games often on their computers rather than follow the class. There are few, if any, technicians available to fix hardware and software problems. The solar panels on the roof of the school are useful because they were not aligned properly. Some of the students accessed pornography through their laptops.
Perhaps most important, the internet connection connection (including a dish) is expensive. The 1.2 m dish and a one watt radio cost $2,500. A 128kbps connection costs $350 a month or $4,200 a year. The OLPCs themselves now cost $188 per.
During the five month trial, the village received the internet connection for free. Now it is on its own--and can't pay, so the connection is cut. It is asking for the government to subsidize the payment.
What are we to make of this information? Clearly, children love the machine. Most of them had never seen a computer before and the great design of the laptop was compelling. They are learning about technology even as they play. But why do they like it? By far, the most used function of the one laptop designed specifically for the world's poorest children is taking pictures. The webcam--taking pictures and sharing them with friends--is the most discussed computer function. That's cool and great, but is it the highest priority for "education?"
Then there is the cost. I personally hadn't added up all the money that goes into the $100" laptop. What, in fact, is the true bottom line cost of the OLPC? Will governments that accept the OLPC subsidize the operating cost--electricity, repairs, etc.?
Finally, there is the actual teaching. The laptops in Nigeria came with pre-loaded learning programs. The BBC story doesn't say who wrote these lessons and where they came from. The teachers appear to like them and perhaps that is enough. But is it? Were the lessons written by teachers in Nigeria? Would you accept lesson plans from another country for your kids?
Does it matter? OLPC's educational philosophy is to give kids in poor countries tools more than content and they can learn through sharing. Sounds good to me yet do we do that with our own kids in our own schools? Don't we have teach to test, curriculum, lesson plans, facts that we think everyone should know? Don't we teach values as well as information, patriotism as well as as math (think of the shape of American history we teach and how others might have other perspectives)?
Here is the education philosophy off the OLPC site:
"Children actively engage in knowledge construction exploring The laptop gives learners opportunities they have not had before. Tools such as a Web browser, rich media player, and e-book reader bring into reach domains of knowledge that are otherwise difficult-or impossible-for children to access. expressing The laptop helps children build upon their active interest in the world around them to engage with powerful ideas. Tools for writing, composing, simulating, expressing, constructing, designing, modeling, imagining, creating, critiquing, debugging, and collaborating enable children to become positive, contributing members of their communities. learning The laptop takes learners beyond instruction. They are actively engaged in a process of learning through doing. Children also learn by teaching, actively assisting other learners. read more resources The laptop not only delivers the world to children, but also brings the best practices of children and their teachers to the world. Each school represents a learning hub; a node in a globally shared resource."
What do you think? I know lots of people are going to buy an OLPC this Christmas for their own kids because it is now available in the US (buy one, get another that can be sent to the poor overseas). What does this mean?