Educational and other effects of giving children tablets for learning: Critical questions on the One Laptop Per Child approach

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Recent news articles have been discussing the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project being implemented in various parts of the Majority World. Here’s an article at Mashable, and another at Dvice.

Basically, the OLPC programme recently gave tablets to Grade-1-aged children in two remote Ethiopian villages. OLPC has given tablets to children before. What was different this time is that they simply gave the children the packaged tablets with no instructions or guidance on what to do with them. They just let the children figure it out.

So what happened?

Turns out, on their own, the children not only figured out how to turn on and use the tablets, but they also used the installed educational software to learn letters and words. Moreover, after just a few months, some of the children even figured out how to ‘hack’ the tablets.

The OLPC and the news articles around the project are hopeful that this may mean that children can learn, in the absence of teachers, from tablets.

But can a child actually learn to read – even learn to ‘learn’ – through a technological device such as a tablet?

Previous research on the One Laptop Per Child approach has had mixed results – including some disappointment with the lack of improvement in student achievement on standardized tests – not that those are necessarily the best measures of children’s learning outcomes.

There is plenty of research indicating that one of the best ways for a child to learn is through interactive instructional support from a responsive and challenging teacher. But it is also clear that children are incredibly creative, smart, and innovative agents in their own learning processes.

We know as well that children learn a great deal through their play and exploration. When that play and exploration are supported and extended by a ‘facilitator’, learning can be even further enhanced. Good quality teachers are no doubt the best ‘facilitators’ of this process.

But could an educational technological device play part of that facilitating role? Can a child learn at least some useful knowledge and skills on a tablet?

It is doubtful that a technological device could come close to replacing a good quality human teacher who is interacting with the child, responding to the child, and scaffolding the child’s learning. But are there aspects of ‘educating’ and ‘learning’ that can be supported by technology? The evidence is mixed. What about in contexts where there aren’t really many good teachers at all to facilitate learning? Is a tablet better than nothing? Would children be able to apply tablet-based learning beyond the tablet, in real-life contexts?

There are more significant questions to consider as well, about the short- and long-term effects of technology on human thought. What are the effects of learning through technology on children’s ways of learning and thinking? There is some research indicating that adults’ use of technology for information can negatively affectmemoryhigher order cognitive processes such as critical thinking and analysis, among other detrimental effects. The effects on children may be particularly pervasive. Brain development occurs most rapidly in early childhood, and high levels of technology use in the early years of life may have particularly strong effects in shaping neural connections and other aspects of brain development – affecting long-term cognitive skills (e.g., attention and memory), perceptual capacities (e.g., vision), and social-emotional capacities.

Other critical questions to consider include the effects of  introducing a foreign technology and language on a community’s ways of life, ways of being, ways of relating? In this case, the product wasn’t even really ‘introduced’, it was just kind of put there – without any discussion with the communities or families. This approach reflects other Western projects implemented in the Majority world critiqued by William Easterly in his book, The White Man’s Burden. (Others have also written about how international development projects, often ‘paved with good intentions‘, reflect a sort of ‘soft imperialism’.)

Does a project like this serve to create a new whole new consumer market for this and other kinds of technologies? I am reminded of the sanitary pads that a certain corporation gives out for free to high school girls in some parts of East Africa – resulting in them, as adult women, becoming consumers of and paying for that corporation’s product.

How does this presumptuous imposition of a new technology, without thoughtful reflection and discussion, affect – disrupt – a community? Family life? Language? Values? Relationships with the earth and with each other? How does it affect a community’s self-determination and in/dependence?

I don’t think there are easy answers to these questions, but I think it’s important that they be considered by those of us in the fields of education and international development, as well as – and more importantly – discussed with those in the communities being affected by such projects.

Please do share your thoughts.

Sadaf Shallwani

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8 thoughts on “Educational and other effects of giving children tablets for learning: Critical questions on the One Laptop Per Child approach

  1. It’s SO difficult to find the appropriate footing with technology! I feel like I’m too much of a traditionalist in favoring old-school approaches to teaching (in the university classroom, at least), probably because my experience with technology is that it’s “fun”, but that it often creates a distraction that impedes the learning goals at hand (the message gets lost in the medium) and my goal is always to elicit critical thinking, bottom line. That’s not to say that tech. can’t be used beneficially, but I haven’t figured this out with university students. It’s fascinating to think about developmental implications for the new generation that is growing up in this context. I’m trying to be optimistic, but what I’m seeing is a lot of impatience (just google the answer rather than thinking about it!) and a lot reliance on non-reputable sources to “learn.” At the same time, there is SO much potential for new discovery, particularly from the perspective of global thinking and access to free online courses from some of the best institutions in the world.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Janet.

    Technology is being used so widely nowadays – even at the elementary school and preschool levels, without adequate consideration, in my opinion, to its potential effects on critical thinking, deep thinking, and analysis skills.

    I found this article recently – thought it might be of interest.

    Why E-Reading with Your Kid Can Impede Learning
    http://ideas.time.com/2011/12/20/why-ereading-with-your-kid-can-impede-learning/

  3. This is doubtful that technological device can ever take place of teachers. Teachers can give extra knowledge along witht the course knowledge. This is helpful for the overall development of a child. But the device will only provide us what we want it to provide, no extra knowledge will be gained.

  4. We should teach teachers first and give them one iPad per teacher and require them to master core knowledge and subject knowledge at their own pace before they are allowed to teach. Give them a sign on bonus to start. Reward them for each course they master. Then once the teacher master what they are supposed to be teaching, then they can use computers, books, or whatever educational materials they have at hand to teach. Then, reward them for student achievement. At the same time, kids should be free to learn whatever they can from computers, tablets, phones, videos,Legos, or whatever they have access to (unless it does them harm).

  5. Better to have only a few shared laptops in the class as per Montessori ideal to learn co-operation, patience, perseverance, and sharing. Never replacing a loving, moral, wise, example teacher.

  6. Thank you all for sharing your thoughts and ideas.

    It’s true that individual laptops/tablets foster individuality rather than collectivity. I wonder if simply requiring children to share would be adequate to foster cooperation and collaboration.

    • To foster co-operation is very important. It’s also important to foster individualism. It really boils down to following each kids progressive needs, feeding in as best we can in all the ways we can.

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