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 affect: memory, higher 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.