Nicholas Negroponte has stated publically that he wants to ‘parachute’ tablets into remote villages in Africa. Is he out of his mind? Does he know nothing about the history of Africa? This idea stinks to high-heaven of educational colonialism.
1. Negroponte: the bull that brings his own china shop
It’s not as if Negroponte hasn’t tried this before in Africa. His first failure in Africa, goes way back to 1982, when he and Papert set up Le Centre Mondial to use Apple IIs in schools near Dakar in Senegal. It was a spectacular failure ending in acrimony with Papert, Negroponte and others fell out with the locals and simply walked out. The funders, French Government, wisely killed off the project and the centre. It failed because Negroponte is the sort of bull that brings his own china shop, charging in with solutions that are ill-planned, ill-researched and often inappropriate.
2. What’s to prove?
Much is made of the fact that the Tablets were just left there in their packages. Well maybe not. In fact, the adults were taught how to mechanically recharge the laptops. A special building with solar panels was built for the project in the village. There seems to be lots of interaction between visiting OLPC technicians and lots of obviously staged photographs. Nevertheless, it would seem that the kids were literally left to their own devices. But so what? There seems to be an almost racist assumption behind the doubt that African kids could manage to press a few buttons on a new, shiny, touch-screen tablet. Every parent on the planet could have told you that kids use this stuff without manuals and adult instruction. That’s a given, it merely proves what we already know.
3. Never seen letters?
Serious doubts have also been expressed about Negroponte’s claim that these people have never seen print, even road signs or words on packaging. Many Africans have expressed astonishment at this statement. It’s only 50 miles from the capital Addis Ababa. Beni, an Ethiopian, says, “I know part of Wonchi and it is not as remote as you displayed it.” Another says “I bet there is a good number of people in that village who write and read. I bet these children have their own "school" that teaches them something in "Amhari" or probably even some English….I seriously doubt the very "strange" picture painted here.” Indeed, it’s on the lip of a well-known tourist spot the Wonchi Crater, which has a lodge hotel (previous residence of Haile Selassie) and is a centre for Eco-tourism. There’s even Tripadvisor reviews for the place and lots of pictures taken by tourists as the crater rim is an established trek route, which you can do in a day from the capital.
What’s not clear here is how much the reports rely on data from the swapped out memory cards. Just because screens are accessed doesn’t mean the content’s been understood and certainly not that anything has been learnt. You really do have to question the testimonies of the paid OLPC workers who visit these villages and swap out the cards. This is not objective research, it’s interventionist and fails on the very first test for ‘objectivity’. If you drop some spectacular shiny $300 toy into a village, build them a spanking new building and install solar power, all for free, where people survive on a dollar a day, don’t be surprised that they pick it up, touch it, press buttons and see things move and hear sound which you can mimic. This is not surprising at all, it is predictable. Do we imagine that the children in this village are miraculously free from the influence of the adults? If you were a poor adult, wouldn’t you be encouraging the kids to use the shiny toy the rich foreigners gave you, in the hope of more visits, more money?
5. Inappropriate content
Parachuting in US software, Disneyfied stories of Princes and Princesses and programmes with obscure and irrelevant vocabulary has been widely criticised by African commentators. To wilfully ignore context is not just to miss the educational opportunities, it is ‘cognitive colonialism’ of the worst kind. In some parts of Africa, and the rest of the world, this approach would be widely resented. Imagine, say the Chinese, dropping off tablets for poor kids in rural America or the UK, pre-loaded with Chinese only content, apps on the Chinese alphabet and Chinese stories. We’d be claiming ‘propoganda’ quicker than you could open the packages.
6. Ignores context
If they live in such a remote rural location, why are these kids being given English alphabet apps? A visitor reported seeing the kids use the ‘Alphabet Game’ where they were ‘reciting’ A for Apple, C for Cat… O for Octopus – OCTOPUS! The stories were similarly inappropriate, largely Western, with themes such as Princes and Princesses. You get my drift. First, why give these children content in English and not their own language, Amhari? As Meron, an Ethiopian, says, with some obvious resentment, “we have our own language and alphabet.” Second, why give them Western Disneyfied fairy stories and not Ethiopian stories? Third, and more obviously, why not give them content that is relevant to their world, that would have some causal impact on their lives? The educational and colonial assumption is that we are superior and you need our stuff to progress.
This is a dangerous assumption and comes straight out of Negroponte’s association with Papert at MIT, whose constructivism can be traced back to Rousseau. The idea is that children are natural learners and that we need only get adults out of the way and all will be well. Really? The whole problem here around illiteracy and poor knowledge of health issues is the fact that there’s been no sensible schooling. The problem is a lack of trained teachers and absentee teachers. David Hollow, of Jigsaw, is worth listening to, as he has worked in some of the Ethiopian schools where Negroponte has placed his devices. “Whilst many children enjoyed playing on the laptops, there was limited, if any, integration into the classroom routine. Most teachers objected to the way the laptops were distracting the children, leading to some of them banning laptops from the classroom entirely.”
David also gives a detailed breakdown of costs, in relation to Ethiopia, showing that these projects are incredibly expensive and that money would have been better spent on textbooks or teacher training and salaries. The African commentators on his post certainly seem to agree that textbooks and other resources would be a better way to spend the money. We know that these tablets are around $200 but the total costs of solar power, maintenance and support adds considerably to this. If we take the number of people who live on less than $1 and $2 a day (20% & 40% of world’s population) we see that they would have to spend a huge proportion of their earnings to use this technology. The global average of ICT spending is around 3% of income, so these people can only really afford around $10-$20 at most. And that would have to be seen as relevant. That’s why cheap mobile phones have been such a hit in these countries. It’s affordable and has some obvious economic advantages. Latly, remember how ruthlessly commercial Negroponte's goal is here. He's already had a competitive spat with Intel and wants to sell millions of tehse computers to the developing world.
9. No comparisons
A glaring omission in this so-called research, are comparators. These are expensive projects with expensive kit, new buildings, solar power installations, on the ground technicians, visits every week to the locations, academics flying regularly in and out from Europe and the US. Let’s pause and ask whether other interventions, such as books, small libraries, teachers, buildings, vocational training, radio even one-to-many devices may have been better. Did no one think to compare this intervention with others in terms of cost, learning and impact?
10. Hacked off
Perhaps the most famous, and hyperbolic story that emerges from the ‘experiment’, is Negroponte’s claim that these kids ‘hacked Android’ to switch the tablets camera on. There’s remarkably little information about the supposed ‘hack’ to Android. Backtracking later on Negroponte’s hacking comment, Ed McNierney, OLPC’s chief technology officer, said that the kids had ‘gotten around’ OLPC’s effort to freeze desktop settings. Did he mean touching a few buttons until the camera turned red? Hardly hacking. Did these kids write or change code to do the hack? No. Did they simply change the ‘settings’? Probably. Did an adult do this? Maybe. Did a visiting adult do this? Possibly. Or did they just switch on the camera? Likely. Was the camera working in the first place? Could be. We don’t know because there’s no science here, no real attempt to isolate fact from testimony. There’s a lots of people here with agendas, and clearly few with the objectivity needed in such a project. (PS A quick look on YouTube shows a Camera settings icon on the Motorola Tablet)
I should end by saying that some of the OLPC initiatives, in Rwanda etc, I support to a degree, as I can see a strategy. What I dislike is this YouTube, TED talk 'feelgood' approch to research. What happens when the academics have had their fill, and Negroponte has done the rounds of the international conference circuit and needs a new topic, they’re off abandoning these children and projects. Is this anything more than TED fodder for the egos of US academics? These parachute interventions are easy but not at all informative. Indeed, they may well be counterproductive, leading to the wrong type of spend by Governments keener on photo-opps than real learning. They may even damage the effort needed to implement sustainable learning that is relevant and changes lives. I’m off to Africa this month and again in May, where I hope to learn a thing or two….. I’ll keep you posted.