Ethiopian Tablet Hoopla – Take a Deep Breath

The OLPC initiative in Ethiopia is getting some traction in ed tech circles, and I came across a blog response by Ben Grey, a tech CIO for a K-12 district, professor, teacher and optimist in the field.  He was thrilled about the potential coming from this initial look at data.  I find his passion inspiring, but was weary of the article’s elements Grey was ignoring while extolling other virtues.  I responded to his blog via comment, and will mirror that below:

I appreciate your enthusiasm in this field…such energy is needed in the edu world. This article came across my computer today as well, and my reaction was slightly different.

I saw the Ethiopian children’s unintended use of the devices in the same light as you, but I don’t see anything new here. People in your comment stream have already talked about “more them, less us” in the student/teacher dynamic, and any constructivist worth their salt would look at these results and say Duh. Kids want to learn, want to explore, and want to create, and they want to take ownership. Jailbreaking the camera and the desktop design is part of a learning process, something folks like Piaget and Papert would have expected in any supportive environment.

Perhaps your questions relate to the methodology of our educational hierarchy imposing force-fed curriculum and standardized metrics on students rather than encouraging critical approaches, divergent thinking and creativity. I agree wholeheartedly, but that is a policy debate and a cultural debate, and on both sides the constructivist side is losing. The MIT article is about improving literacy rates through the use of these tablets, packed up with software for the kids to use. The results on literacy proved that the Ethiopian children understood pattern recognition and some basic cognitive thought…which to you and I is not nearly as groundbreaking as the other stuff with the computers, but the literacy side was the intended one.

And if your focus missed the lit side of things, what do you think the pro-capital/anti-teacher side of things is going to miss when reading this? They are going to see a title where literacy improves with no teachers around, and start working on models that build up more software for kids to use to learn to read so they can cut staff (read: teachers). It’s awesome that Negraponte’s group saw benefit in the jailbreaking of the tablets, but it’s important to note that even his team’s IT cabal disabled the camera and removed the “superfluous” aspects of computing to focus on literacy software. The ed tech startups are not going to be as interested in such unintended benefits, because their look at Big Data and Learning Analytics does not have time for unintended happenstance.

Also, it was interesting that OLPC got bad press regarding Peru. It was great that Peru went to the remote areas first to organize, and I was sad that OLPC kind of blamed low assessment based on that. The Omar Dengo Foundation in Costa Rica is doing the same thing as was done in Peru, and they aren’t having those sorts of issues, at least so it seems.

So…I don’t want to be a wet blanket here, but the excitement here is not about remembering that kids have a great capacity to learn and we should let them do their thing. We need to channel the energy into policy action reminding people that children need space and time to learn and explore, and when it comes to those three R’s, a software program is just a tool, and a teacher is a resource rather than a drill sergeant.

1 thought on “Ethiopian Tablet Hoopla – Take a Deep Breath

  1. Rolin Moe Post author

    At Mr. Grey’s website, another reader considered my viewpoint as an alarmingly pessimistic one. I replied as such:

    I’m trying to be less pessimistic and more pragmatic about things. I posted about the article toward the bottom of this blog – – so you can see I am excited about the potential in Dr. Negraponte’s words as well.

    When I saw the fervor of folks realizing learning can happen without the very structured reality of our formal K-12 education…well, that’s not a new realization, and there are a lot of great people who have been working for a very long time to share that. Their battles need to be considered as well, we need to see why despite the large number of education folk who ascribe to constructivism our political and cultural forces are pushing us back to behaviorism. If this is a push agains that (and it could be), trailblazing is not the answer; we’ll end up in the same place as before. Dr. Negraponte has a great deal of clout, so this work could be important in our societal practice of learning. But it’s naive to think that the Pearson’s of the world don’t see this as a way to get more software out there. And regarding the jailbreaking, which is what is so exciting for the bloggers and commentators I have read on this topic, IT departments started disabling and removing cameras and desktop access well after constructivism and OLPC were underway; such a move was in response to (for whatever reason) students having laptops. We knew kids did best when given the tech and allowed to create and construct, and yet we imposed restrictions on their usage and creative freedom, rendering a lot of these machines as software repositories.

    So, before we jump headfirst into a new fervor, we ought to see why contemporary theoretical and pedagogical beliefs run counter to societal and political beliefs on how to educate.


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