Cargo Cult, Part 2

In a previous post I gave free rein to my disapproval of a One Laptop Per Child “experiment” (maybe I’ll stop doing the scare quotes – just imagine scare quotes in future) which involved dropping off a few boxes of Motorola Xoom tablets in a remote Ethiopian village. In this follow-up post I’d like to turn down the sarcasm and try to think a bit more calmly and specifically about how the OLPC approach seems to differ from my ideas about tech and education.


I actually think this was an interesting experiment in many ways, even if I disagree with what I know of its methods, and it does point to some interesting areas for future thought – how necessary are teachers? To what extent can current handheld devices provide a satisfactory elementary education, and satisfactory by whose standards? Which viewpoint is more culturally patronizing: OLPC’s apparent assumption that all Ethiopian villagers must learn English, or (my position in my previous post) to assume that maybe they don’t need it and won’t use it? Is patronizing intervention better than no intervention at all? I could analyze my mixed feelings about this for hours. I’d like to switch gears and jot down a few more focused thoughts on relevance that this article might have for me personally as an educator interested in technology integration:

  • Reading about this experiment makes me grateful to be in an educational environment made up of assorted stakeholders and different voices.
  • Parents and students at our school have a say in their own education – decisions aren’t all being made by invisible people on the other side of the world. Don’t even underprivileged students deserve something of the same experience?
  • Our school provides a supportive social environment where students learn how to interact with each other – with and without technology. Don’t even underprivileged students deserve something of the same experience?
  • The “education” (I’m back to scare quotes, sorry, I’ll try to control myself) in the experiment by OLPC seems to lack a moral or ethical dimension, and in fact the experimenters are delighted when the children “hack” the devices. Would OLPC be equally overjoyed if, in a few years, the students used their tablets and new English skills to scam people around the world with spam 419 e-mails? Education isn’t just learning how to use language or technology, but the concomitant imparting of skills in good citizenship when using these tools.
  • When we do use technology, we use it to connect humans to other humans, and we do it with thoughtful and experienced guidance, even if it’s sometimes with a “light touch”.
  • We use technology to help students produce authentic projects, not passively absorb (even if through a game) predetermined, pre-loaded content.
  • Games can be part of education. Computerized sing-alongs and quizzes and cartoon videos can be part of education. But only if they provide something meaningful to the student at that point in the student’s life, and build toward a larger underlying understanding. Otherwise it’s either just a game, or just memorization – but neither of those is necessarily learning, or education.
  • We learn together – teachers and students – and we use technology to constantly improve and refine what we learn and how we do it.

For all these reasons – and not, I hope, just because of a childish instinct for occupational self-preservation – I don’t think that we’re ready to exchange teachers for a few boxes of solar-powered tablets. Not even for very poor or very isolated children. Maybe in a few years this program will conduct a similar experiment, but with online devices – and with living human teachers and students on the other end of the line. That’s an experiment I’d be much more interested in hearing about.

A less top-down communication method than leaving monoliths, also from 2001
A less top-down communication method than leaving monoliths, also from 2001 source:

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