One Laptop Per Child Versus Intel--Who Speaks for India and China?

At the Consumer Electronic Show this week, the One Laptop Per Child foundation was supposed to make two announcements—the number of computers it sold under the Give One, Get One holiday program and a new olpc machine made jointly with Intel. But now Intel has pulled out or been pushed out of the project with olpc, depending on who you believe. It’s a mess and a mess of huge dimensions that encompasses a conversation of profit vs. nonprofit, nationalism vs. colonialism, technology vs. pedagogy, rote vs. experiential learning, Western design vs. Eastern design, good intentions vs. bad intentions. It doesn’t get bigger, or nastier.

Nicholas Negroponte, the ex-head of the MIT Media Lab and founder of the olpc project, frames the current mess in terms of profit vs. non-profit. He says Intel has been sabotaging olpc in Asia, Africa,

and Latin America to sell its own low-cost ClassMate laptop to these markets. The olpc laptop uses an AMD chip, is Linux open source and therefor threatens Intel's commercial success in emerging markets, Negroponte argues.

That may be true, I don't know. The argument strikes me as a bit odd--like asking book publishers not to offer different textbooks to school kids if a non--profit is selling them to school districts. But I don't want to get into that. What does disturb me--and has disturbed me for a long time about olpc is the underlying educational assumptions based on the work of Piaget behind it. It is these educational assumptions, I believe, that is the reason why China, India, Nigeria--the target nations for olpc from the very beginning--have rejected the olpc laptops.

The XO computer is a true marvel--a wonderful machine designed to be extremely collaborative. And it is designed to be collaborative because the underlying educational assumption is that the kids will learn on their own without help from teachers, coaches or parents. Yes, this is a bold statement but I believe it is bascially correct.

The olpc foundation has from the beginning followed the learning by doing educational philosophy. I used it to teach science to third graders in the Philippines in the late sixties. I remember the lesson plan--bring in lots of bottle caps, give a bunch to each kid, and ask the class to divide them in two. Then three. Then four. Then ask them how they made choices--color, shape, size. That's classification, a basic cornerstone of science.

I did that as part of a local program run by young Filipino teachers trying out a new curriculum developed by the educational department of the country.

The olpc philosophy strikes me as very different and very anti-teacher, anti-establishment. Which is why I think it is being rejected around the world by many countries, especially in Asia. Read this speech given by Negroponte in December 06.: "A lot of people say, "When did you get this idea?" Well, this particular slide is 1982, outside of Decar, before the IBM PC existed actually on the market of Eastern Europe, and Steve Jobs gave me some Apple Twos. Seymour Papert, a name I'll refer to several times, and I were working on the provision to children, a language called Logo, in developing countries.

10 years before that, actually 15 years before that, Seymour, still at MIT or at least having just arrived at MIT, came up with a very simple observation and that is that when children write computer programs about something like drawing a circle, they have to understand the concept of circleness a lot more than if they just read about it in the text book or somebody describes it on a blackboard. And for those of you who have written computer programs, you know that in fact, the first time you write it, it has bugs. And that when you de-bug a program, you are actually performing a set of operations that is the closest you can get to thinking about thinking.

Consider it for a moment. Writing a program and then de-bugging it is a very interesting microcosm, that children actually then engage very differently in their own learning. And we can prove that. So this goes back to some very, very fundamental concepts and very fundamental theories of children and learning. And you will almost never hear me use the word "teaching". Almost never. And teaching is just one way of learning. And most of you probably will admit that it wasn't necessarily the largest or the disproportionately hyped, that most of the learning we have all done has been quite different.

And in fact, in the first years of our lives, we all learnt how to walk, we all learnt how to talk, in ways that didn't include teachers. What they included was interacting with the world. You learnt how to walk because standing up got you something. You learnt how to talk because talking allowed you to ask for something. And you interacted with this world around you and you did a great deal of learning.

Suddenly, at about the age of six, you're told to stop learning that way, and for the next 12 years if you're lucky, you'll do all of your learning by being told, somebody like me, standing here on the podium, maybe a book, maybe something. But some form of instruction. The key word being that I instruct you, I have some body of knowledge in my head, and the job is to get it out of my head and put it into your head. Well, that is a very small fraction of learning. You certainly want the pilot on your airplane, you certainly want the brain surgeon in the hospital to have done a lot of learning that way. But for children learning learning is really very, very fundamental.

And the last point, what I mean by number three, is, if you look at the world as a whole, there are, in rough numbers, 1.2 billion children. Of those children, about 0.5 billion live in rural parts of developing countries. If you go to a rural part of a developing country, you find that the education is even more primitive. This is certainly true in China and India.

By the way, China and India together have almost 50% of the children in the world. Now when you go to these rural schools, the teacher can be very well meaning, but the teacher might only have a sixth grade education. In some countries, which I'll leave unnamed, as many of as one-third of the teachers never show up at school. And some percent show up drunk. So really, if you are going to affect education, you cannot just train teachers and build schools. That will take you the next 30 years and it's a long and slow process. So the only alternative is to leverage the children themselves and that's what One Laptop Per Child is. It's how can you give the child an opportunity to have a bigger role in his or her learning."

Not only is this profoundly anti-teacher, it also misinterprets experience learning. Children learn language by interacting with their family. Almost all learning takes place in a teaching context. Yes, of course, there is learning by the individual alone, but most "learning" takes place in a context of a guide, a coach, be it parent, teacher, priest, older sibling, whatever. Learning without guidance results in what is happening in some of villages in Africa where the XO laptop is being tested--kids are plugging into pornography online. Or swapping photos, which appears to be the most popular application.

I think the educational establishments in India, China, Nigeria and other nations are rejecting the olpc approach because they feel insulted and misused. One Indian professor told me recently in Bangalore that sure, India has a rote educational system that is the anti-thesis of experiential learning but it has brought 200 million out of poverty in a decade so what's so wrong with that? And China has brought half a billion people out of poverty within a rote educational system.

In fact, as I think about it, if your economic advantage is efficiency--to do the same things again and again at lower costs-- a rote education system may be the right one for you at this time in history. China does this through manufacturing low-cost goods for export and India does this through low-cost services for US, European and other Western global corporations.

Say what you will about Intel's commercial actions, it's approach to education in poor villages has been to work with teachers on the ground, training them and creating local curricula. Yes, I know olpc is doing some of that in Brazil, but it's major thrust is to bypass teachers, not co-create with them. Intel's success, if it has much, may well turn out to be that it embraces the local educational establishment in both its pedagogy and its business model, while olpc does the opposite.

The disaster at olpc has many lessons. One of the most important is that, despite good intentions, technology, design and innovation by themselves cannot solve problems if they ignore local culture and history. The XO laptop for the world's poorest children is being rejected by India, China and Nigeria as yet another form of foreign Western colonialism. And it is.

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