If you have been following the on-going #Africa3d0 discussions on Twitter from my talk at SxSW in Austin, TX, then you have noticed that @OLPCnews challenged me to a debate. The challenge was stoked by my comment during the Q&A session that “…OLPC was dead in the water.” I have kept a skeptical eye on Nicholas Negroponte’s pet project since its initial announcement. This is not the first time that I have spoken out against OLPC. I had the same skeptical point of view last year at Ars Electronica’s Cloud Intelligence Symposium round table.
First things first. There are a couple things that I think the XO accomplishes and I applaud Negroponte for his efforts in these areas.
- OLPC makes an effort to introduce technology to children.
I can’t argue with this effort at all. Fundamentally, it is right up there with my views that Africa’s future will ride largely on a digital renaissance.
- As @OLPCnews put it, “OLPC begat netbooks.”
The form factor proved that you can make a portable, cheap laptop. This has had the effect of reducing the barrier to entry in many markets.
Now, let me admit that @OLPCnews has it right, I am no MARK WARSCHAUER, (who articulates the many structural failures of OLPC from a learned professional’s view point). Nor am I Jon Camfield, whom I have had the pleasure of meeting and discussing the many angles of OLPC. You can find his excellent posts on the subject here, here and here. I will address this from a Ugandan perspective, and as an ever-curious African futurist in terms of the connected learning and cultural experience in Africa.
With that in mind, let me address some of my points in greater detail (and hopefully greater clarity than offered in 140 characters). That being said, here are my reasons for declaring OLPC a failed strategy for Africa.
Failure to Address Failed Education Systems
I applaud OLPC’s attempt to have the governments pay for the laptops and distribute them to the children, but I do not see this going very far beyond a few progressive governments like Kagame’s Rwanda. If the government does not acknowledge and address its poor education system, and put massive weight behind making sure that the cornerstones of their country’s education system are overhauled to be inline with 21st century educational best practices, then OLPC is dead in the water.
Pointing out the successes of individual schools is analogous to putting a bandage on a patient with thousands of festering wounds and maladies and then proclaiming in the loudest voice capable, “see, see, it does work and you are an idiot for saying it doesn’t!!” What Africa’s education system needs is a massive injection of reform from within. In particular, Uganda’s education system stopped progressing at the end of British colonial rule over 40 years ago. It is the same “stuff and regurgitate” method of instruction that doesn’t inspire individual exploration. The teacher is the gate keeper of information. Don’t question authority. A system like this leaves very little room for outside-the-box education systems like OLPC. Injecting XO in just a chosen few schools does not address the problems inherently wrong with the system. XO’s are not a panacea for fundamentally flawed education systems.
Why not go the distance by making sure you have teachers that can leverage the power of such a platform so they can educate better and more effectively.
- “Train the trainer” first, by empowering teachers to believe in the tool. Additionally, provide on-going, practical training for every teacher involved in the program.
- Pay and certify the teachers to use this tool so they feel the inherent value instead of adding another thing they have to do for the same measly pay
- Ensure a supportive political environment that values digital learning tools. Therefore, an ecosystem of governance that simply “gets it,” that the whole educational value chain has to be supported and sustained in order to gain maximum value.
- Build the infrastructure that will continue to support e-learning initiatives beyond the involvement of one vendor.
- More precisely, diversify the electronic teaching tools so that you have a hybrid electronic ecosystem that can respond to the particular needs of the environment. A hybrid learning system that resembles real-world atmosphere is better than limiting students to sugar OS. Add in mobile learning initiatives so they can also interact with the real world.
With nearly 50% of Africa’s population under the age of 15, we are at a critical cross roads in preparing for their future. We need forward-thinking governments that can take the helm and man up to their institutional responsibility of educating their country’s future leaders, innovators, and change makers. This is not Nick Negroponte’s responsibility. No matter how hard he tries to stuff the XO into children’s hands, the war will still be lost, save for a few anecdotal battle successes.
African governments are not equipped to purchase, distribute, maintain 450 million XOs in Africa while simultaneously overhauling failed infrastructures. Let us also remember, that a majority of these African countries function on donor capital. How is this good for us again?
As of 2009, there were approximately 450 million phone subscriptions across Africa. A few countries on the continent have an estimated 90% rate of penetration. To many, this is the first introduction to a piece of technology, the first introduction to a computing device, and if you count SMS and MMS services, the first introduction to electronic communication.
The mobile phone in Africa does something that the OLPC will never do, it integrates itself into the rhythm of life in Africa. Its use flows with the pace of life: it augments ones life experience when it needs to; it plays rescuer when the need arises, it creates incomes where none were possible previously; it makes the world smaller where previously distances were vast. Most importantly, it educates everyone. Try doing that with an XO. Anyone that comes across a mobile phone instantly experiences the benefits of a mobile simply by accomplishing a necessary task; call someone, text someone, calculate a price difference, set an alarm, tell time, research a particular crop disease. Even the dumbest of phones provide immeasurable exposure to technology to the greatest number of people in Africa. If this isn’t a prime example of educating a nation, I don’t know what is.
The rise of smart phones far outpaced the OLPC. A majority of Africa’s half-billion children will come of age on smart phones more suited to their traditional lifestyles than OLPC and they will learn real-world experiences. Phones are not getting dumber with features being stripped away. They are getting smarter, ubiquitous and cheaper. @OLPCnews should educate itself on the potential to educate on a mobile by visiting my good friend Steve Vosloo’s Innovating Education project in South Africa. The project is proving success even without the use of smartphones. If they can the mobile phone as a viable pedagogical tool without the use of smart phones, how much more successful will they be with smart phones? OLPC is not the only way, nor is it the best way to introduce technology to children, nor is it the best. Defending OLPC’s relevance is analogous to defending either Blueray or HD-DVD when prevailing data shows digital downloads are the way to go. That whole race was lost the minute Steve Jobs introduced the iTunes Music Store.
My third point addresses something that is dear to me. I am not sure how many people will agree with me so mileage may vary depending on your cultural experiences. As I said above, the mobile phone goes about educating and enriching lives in rhythm with Africa’s variety of cultural norms. Outside forces empowering children with their very own laptop (however well-meaning the altruistic gesture might be), puts a majority of children at odds with their place in the family structure. In some cultures, children have their place in the social order, with responsibilities to perform accordingly—be it washing dishes, collecting water and firewood, or cooking. In this structure, children learn social responsibilities to one another and how family functions. They learn things you can’t teach in a classroom.
Throwing something as complex as a laptop into the ownership of a child disrupts this social knowledge transfer mechanisms. Examples were given of successes in Kenya where parents learned from children because of the presence of the laptops. This is by no means a cultural norm. Exceptions are going to happen but the overall effect will be the loosening of the traditional family bond when the child knows more than the parent.
The crux of my argument here is the ability for children to take these laptops home. These laptops should be left at the schools, perhaps to serve as the community computer library. This accomplishes two things, it gives open access to the community, and preserves cultural family orders.
I will posit that mobile phones provide a parallel learning experience where both parent and child can interact with the technology without upsetting the social balance. Both can talk on it with fair ease, they can both text on it with equal aplomb and both are able to use it to enrich their respective worlds. Parents can use the technology to run the family, while the children can interact with the games, stay in touch with their friends, or complete simple tasks designed to introduce them to how their world functions.
Finally, I will address some of Wayan’s comments from his rebuttal to my remarks. I won’t address them all, lest this dialog fall into a disappointing discourse of “Does to! Does not!!”
Wayan: “…And with the low attendance already prevalent in Africa, it makes sense to give out XO’s there, as a rationale for sending children to school, rather than charging poor parents who cannot afford much.”
TMS: I am really tired of this argument that we are poor so incidentally everything should be given to us for free. Stop treating us like your indigent dependents. If there is a value proposition for us to own a cell phone, we will find a way to pay for it. Clam-shelled arguments that we “cannot afford much” is insulting. The West is not responsible for saving us. Please shelve the “white man’s burden” argument. It is not Africa’s responsibility to reinvent America’s declining public education systems, except for America.
Wayan: … “The mobile phone vs. computer argument is an old one, and the results are always the same: there is a place for both. You’ll not read (or write) a textbook on your mobile phone, but it is handy for short text, and for voice, its the killer app…”
TMS: See my point above on regarding Steve Volsoo’s mobile learning projects at Shuttleworth Foundation in South Africa. Also, see my points on a hybrid system, (I think we agree).
To conclude, I am no Mark Warschauer, for sure. But then again, while he is accomplished, he is not me. I am an educated Ugandan with the ability to speak for myself and my continent. Many of my original points were concurred by the @OLPCNews crew. So, it was disappointed that they descended to a level of being catty and condescending. Call me what you may, but accepting yet another Western-driven top-down solution unchallenged, is not going to be my cup of tea. Threatening me with the OLPC fanboy army doesn’t exactly inspire respect either. Thanks for playing.