Where Are The Teachers In The Debate Over OLPC?

The conversation thread over the

The conversation thread over the “failure” of the OLPC is passionate, insightful and illuminating but it lacks one voice—where are the educators? I hear the voice of the designers, the voice of the tech folks, the voice of nonprofits but where are the people who actually know something about teaching poor kids in rural villages in Africa, India, China, Latin America, the Middle East—and hey, the U.S. as well? If you’re out there, please write in. If the folks who do plug into this blog know teachers or education professionals, can you get them into the discussion?

I’m wondering if the reason why the ministeries of education in India and China and elsewhere turned their back on the XO is pedagogical philosphy. There is a “learning by doing” education philosophy that is baked into the open source technology of the XO. Here’s a quuote from the OLPC site:

“Learning is our main goal; we do not focus on computer literacy, as that is a by-product of the fluency children will gain through use of the laptop for learning. Children—especially young children—do not need to learn about IT and certainly do not need to be fluent users of WORD, EXCEL and POWERPOINT. They are not office workers. However, picking up these skills, having grown up with a laptop, will be readily accomplished.

Epistemologists from John Dewey to Paulo Freire to Seymour Papert agree that you learn through doing. This suggests that if you want more learning, you want more doing. Thus OLPC puts an emphasis on software tools for exploring and expressing, rather than instruction. Love is a better master than duty. Using the laptop as the agency for engaging children in constructing knowledge based upon their personal interests and providing them tools for sharing and critiquing these constructions will lead them to become learners and teachers.”

This is an education philosophy that certainly works for me. I employed it whenever I could when I taught science to third graders in the Peace Corps.

But—and here are several big buts—learning by doing may be a radical approach not appreciated by local teachers used to teaching by rote (teaching to test). Indeed, OLPC seems to imply that teachers aren’t central to the educational process and that the kids will learn by doing themselves. That’s what all the inter-connection is about. And maybe that’s why they reject the XO and the OLPC effort. Has anyone asked them?

Without bringing these teachers and their government representatives into the conversation and into the coalition very early in the design and testing of education materials and tools, there is no way an outside nonprofit is going to be allowed to enter villages and towns to interface with children. At least not in China and India.

Another but—there are dozens and dozens of languages and cultures in the thousands of villages and neighborhoods in the emerging world. To make learning by doing work, it has to be shaped to these languages and cultures. Is this work done? As the XO comes off the production line now, three years after the project was launched, has the education work been done to allow million of kids to learn by doing? It doesn’t appear to be the case. Am I wrong in this?

So where is the voice of education? Where are the teachers on the issue of OLPC?

Say what you will about the commercial reasons for Intel’s push into emerging markets, but Intel has put real money into teacher training and digital curriculum development.

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