Saturday, December 30, 2006

regarding the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC)

Summary: the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) project desires to sell $100 laptops to developing country governments, with which to educate their children into 21st century digerati and close the gap between global North and South.

I'm pessimistic. Herewith my commentary, as posted within

The Cult of the Individual and the OLPC

I have been following the OLPC project with some interest. I've read through chunks of this Wiki and various public articles. I've also read the article in the MIT Quarterly publication.

I fear that the OLPC team will come up with a great technological achievement that will be a dismal failure at deployment time.

The sociocultural baggage carried by the OLPC ("One Laptop Per Child") may well get in the way of the project's own objectives.

OLPC is essentially individualist. Empower the child through access to advanced information technology . . . and get out of the way.

However, in the bulk of the world, children are not seen as individuals and, just as important, do not see themselves as individuals. The essential social relation is that of the family and NOT of the individual. The poorer the family, the stronger the family bond, as long as the family itself has hope of survival. Children are expected to contribute, and do contribute, to the survival of the family. Children also represent the investment capital of the family -- to the extent that children go to school, it is in order to improve their skills and earning power to support their parents in their old age.

An African proverb sums this up best: "Me against my brother; me and my brother against my family; me and my family against my village; me and my village against my tribe; me and my tribe against my country; me and my country against the world."

The involvement of the family group in the OLPC project is essential. Will the older brother watch the cows so that younger brother can spend more time on the OLPC? Does Father's need to keep his small business books on the OLPC override his son's need to learn to read? Will the OLPC end up used primarily as a backlight so that Mother can keep sewing into the evening?

To introduce the OLPC into the family without considering the effects on the family -- and the village, and the tribe -- is to add yet another destabilizing influence. From the perspective of the individual (and of the Western 'cult of the individual') this is a positive factor.

From the perspective of the actual gatekeepers and stakeholders in the OLPC process, from Ministers of Education through regional train-the-trainers, local schoolteachers, village elders, heads of household and their families . . not necessarily so.

No one in authority feels that they will gain from something that diminishes that authority, no matter the apparent good that "other people" might derive from it.

I am concerned that the local petty authorities will -- correctly if the technology is haphazardly deployed -- see the OLPC as a disruptive, destabilizing influence and either "lose" the OLPCs, sell them on what will clearly be a hot black market, or (perhaps worst) lock them in a closet and only let kids handle them when a dust plume from a visiting inspector's vehicle is seen on the horizon.

The alternative is to use the OLPC as what sociologists call a "change agent." Make the OLPC accessible and usable by the entire family group. Tackle the equally arduous challenge of adult literacy at the same time as educating the next generation. If the parents get X amount of good out of the OLPC, they will be more likely to support their children in getting exponentially more good (X to the Y) out of the OLPC, even if they never quite understand the benefits themselves.

To misquote Shakespeare, my advice to the project team is "Get thee to a sociologist, quick!"

In all seriousness, the initial deployment in each major cultural grouping (which may be several per country!) should include a researcher with local language skills and some exposure to ethnographic techniques and/or anthropology, tasked to get feedback not only from students and teachers but from the communities in which the OLPCs are deployed.

Social facts are exactly that -- facts, which the outsider ignores at the very real risk of failure.

[drewkitty] M.A. [degree], University of California, Irvine (I am no longer affiliated with UCI and my opinions are my own.)


zakueins said...

It is one of those "good ideas" for a lot of the places where, quite frankly, they need good ideas.

The biggest problem is that-yes, they'll have a laptop, but who controls the information superstructure that they connect to? In most of those places, they need more economic and political freedom-captial is too highly bound up in a noble-class/clans/"old familes", that should be circulating inside the country in the form of investments. Until those are broken up, not much will change.

drewkitty said...

Thank you for commenting. I was wondering if people did that here.

zakueins said...

They do. I try to comment, so I can be commented in return. A kind of equivilant exchange of thoughts.