Monday, February 18, 2013

What can you do with one laptop?

To start off some overdue reflections on the Learning Technologies 2013 conference, I've been thinking about the keynote given by Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the One Laptop Per Child foundation.  Nicholas gave a passionate talk, daring to question pretty much all of our assumptions about how learning and education should be approached.  He believes that too much weight is given to memorisation of facts and standardised tests, which kills off children's natural curiosity, as it teaches them to fear failure instead of learning from it.  Within this system, the computer has simply become another tool of our instructionist mentality, with no thought for anyone (let alone children) daring to experiment with the machines themselves.

These beliefs have led to the creation of a non-profit foundation, with the goal of distributing laptops to the world's poorest children, giving them real empowerment in their own learning.  2.5 million children now own a laptop of their own, sometimes in villages that have never even had electricity before.  The XO laptop itself is an example of what can be achieved by stripping a computer down to the bare essentials, with the emphasis on access to information and the freedom to customise the machines.  By building the machines in bulk and using open-source software, OLPC has managed to keep the machines affordable
So what are the results to date?  A detailed research study is still inconclusive about the long-term effects on learning, leading some critics to label the project a failure.  This is sadly premature, as the criticism focuses on the lack impact on test scores - perhaps they are still missing the point about changing our attitudes on learning?  If anything there is a slight positive effect on cognitive ability observed by the researchers.  I'll be interested to see how the situation develops over the years as the laptops become more widely used, and people learn to make even more effective use of them.

The critics also overlook another massive success of the project, namely that so many laptops were distributed with so little corruption or theft.  Distributing something as simple as textbooks can prove problematic, and corruption is often a problem in poor countries.  Take a look at Transparency International for examples of corruption in third world education projects, and you begin to understand what a tremendous achievement this is.  Operating as a not-for-profit organisation has allowed OLPC to achieve amazing political cooperation, bringing government ministers directly to the table.  Mission, not market, should be our approach to education.

Bookmarks for OLPC