Have the wheels come off?

A recent article written by Audrey Watters carries the emotive headline The Failure of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), and there has been some heated response. In the article, which is actually balanced and measured, Watters comments on recent media reports that the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Project inspired by Nicolas Negroponte does not increase test scores. She goes on to discuss the implications of this supposed failure with a nod toward the anti-Edtech brigade, whom we assume are saying 'told you so', and also in the context of other technology projects which have had reasonable success. On such project mentioned is Sugata Mitra's Hole in the Wall project (HITW), where computers are placed in villages and deprived areas for children to use with no evident teacher support. A comparison between the two projects is quite helpful.

When compared to Negroponte's OLPC project there are clearly some differences. Although both Negroponte and Mitra believe fervently in a 'minimally invasive education' where children are allowed to explore for themselves, OLPC is conducted largely on a 1-1 computer to child ratio. Ostensibly, this sounds sensible, and with personalised learning high on the political agenda, OLPC has been welcomed with open arms by many governments worldwide, particularly those with widespread poverty. In a real sense, OLPC has been a very real attempt at bridging the socio-economic divide. OLPC does exactly what it says on the tin - it provides one highly resilient laptop computer for each learner.

In the HITW project on the other hand, computers are almost always used by small groups of children, who together work through their exploration, negotiate their meaning and solve problems collaboratively. Perhaps this is the first important difference we need to contend with. Are children better learners when they learn on their own, or when they learn with their peers? Swiss psychologist and child development theorist Jean Piaget would have agreed with the OLPC project. The child is a solo scientist, in Piaget's terms, and this makes discovery learning a most valid approach. Learning on your own, according to Piaget was just as valid as going to school to learn communally. Russian constructivist psychologist Lev Vygotsky would have disagreed with this position, and would probably have pointed to HITW as the most effective way to learn, because in his terms, children acquire their skills through conversation, the use of language and collaborative learning - or in his terms, through the asymmetric relationships that exist within the zone of proximal development.

Notwithstanding this kind of theoretical posturing, a second point to consider is that the HITW project situates computers in communal spaces where they cannot be moved. Does this in some way also situate what is learnt, so that those gathered around it gain something extra that they would not gain from the OLPC's fairly mobile device that can be used in multiple contexts? OLPC and HITW are different, but one is not necessarily any more effective or powerful than the other.

Thirdly, and possibly most importantly, we need to consider the tests used. Are we simply to accept that the tests used by a variety of authorities to measure OLPC children's learning gain are accurate, or appropriate? Are they actually measuring what we should be measuring? As highlighted by several of the comments on the Audrey Watters blog, many are rightly sceptical. Can we (and should we) actually measure the sheer joy of discovering something new? Are we not ignoring the excitement generated by new experiences? Can we quantify how powerful this is as it generates motivation and the impetus to go on and learn more, both inside and outside of the classroom? Can we really accurately capture the many sensory experiences children enjoy when they are learning, and reduce these to a single grade or mark of overall achievement? Finally - is the measure used to gauge the contribution OLPC has made toward learning really necessary? Surely these are immeasurable, and the only reason anyone would attempt to do so, is because there is a hidden political agenda that emerges as  a measure of peformativity (i.e. school league tables). It seems a shame that much funding for innovative education projects relies on centralised government money.  One Laptop Per Child is a Herculean effort at liberating and democratising learning. It should be praised not buried.

Image by Steve Wheeler

Creative Commons License
Have the wheels come off? by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at steve-wheeler.blogspot.com.


Dave Holden said…
Steve, amen on this post and the analysis. I side on the Mitra side of the equation. Too often the validity of the tests are not questioned because they give us a nice metric to quote and compare. Here in the US, we are caught in this testing trap and we show no signs of slowing down. It will take awhile for decision-makers to realize creativity and learning happens when many variables converge in ways standardized tests cannot measure. One example of this phenomena comes from the machines surrounding me as I write this - a MacBook Pro, Ipad and Iphone. Apple was born in a garage by people not selected by testing. And each of these devices where not the first in their category, but are innovative leaps from people working collaboratively to improve concepts and versions of earlier devices.
Steve Wheeler said…
You hit the nail on the head Dave - creativity is the centrally most important aspect of learning and it is so often ignored in favour of soulless testing regimes. Thanks for dropping by and commenting.
Felix said…
Good post; thank you.

As one who's tied into OLPC projects, I'm not unbiassed so I'll not try to argue anything ... but I see it and HITW as equally valuable.

On the other hand, I see testing (while necessary) as very rarely saying very much useful about education ... only about training.

Popular Posts