The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project has been gaining momentum for some months now, but some countries – notably India – have opted out of the pilot. Considering that the viability of OLPC depends on large orders of the machines (in the millions), this might be an appropriate moment to have a close look at why OLPC might be seen by some as problematic.
As explained on its website, OLPC is a non-profit association dedicated to research to develop a $100 laptop—a technology that could revolutionize the education of millions of children around the world. The laptops will have wireless connectivity, the capability to create ad hoc wireless mesh networks, innovative power solutions (including wind-up), and will be equipped to do “just about everything” a $1000 laptop can do – except store huge amounts of data (they are to only include 500 MB of Flash memory).
The Indian Ministry of Education has dismissed the laptop as “pedagogically suspect”, with Education Secretary Sudeep Banerjee saying “we cannot visualise a situation for decades when we can go beyond the pilot stage. We need classrooms and teachers more urgently than fancy tools.” [here I am quoting directly from the article in The Register].
OLPC’s pedagogical outlook is framed in terms of constructivist learning, specifically drawing on Seymour Papert‘s Piaget-influenced, student-centered approach. While this may be a progressive approach that yields better educational outcomes in some circumstances, there is a clear need for debate about the utility of this approach in non-Western cultures, and in areas of the world afflicted with widespread illiteracy and poverty. Can approaches to education that emphasize high student autonomy and self-reliance be applied judiciously in situations where poverty and illiteracy is extreme? How are the communities where the technology is to be deployed to be engaged with the project? How will the project integrate with existing edcuational institutions in the pilot countries? And how will the project make effective use of traditional knowledge in the areas where it is deployed?
These are only a few preliminary questions that spring to mind. I should add that I believe that projects like OLPC have enormous potential. However, as someone who is currently working on a research project involving the deployment of Internet Communication Technologies (ICTs) into underserved communities, I have some knowledge of this very challenging terrain, and I believe that projects like OLPC are doomed to fail if they are not led and championed by the target communities themselves. The technology must adapt to the social and cultural context in which it is to be introduced, not the other way around. And given the mixed outcomes of the “Hole-In-The-Wall” experiment (which relied on what was then called a minimally invasive educational approach, a phrase that seems to echo the claims of “constructivism”), I think that India’s Education Ministry is justified in having reservations about OLPC.
But I’m trying to promote the project by getting more people involved and talking about it. The OLPC project has a wiki for questions and discussion about the educational content and approach of OLPC. I particularly urge readers who have experience in cross cultural education initiatives to submit their queries to the OLPC project, or to try and get involved with the project directly.