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Where Are The Teachers In The Debate Over OLPC?

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on September 28, 2007

The conversation thread over the “failure” of the OLPC is passionate, insightful and illuminating but it lacks one voice—where are the educators? I hear the voice of the designers, the voice of the tech folks, the voice of nonprofits but where are the people who actually know something about teaching poor kids in rural villages in Africa, India, China, Latin America, the Middle East—and hey, the U.S. as well? If you’re out there, please write in. If the folks who do plug into this blog know teachers or education professionals, can you get them into the discussion?

I’m wondering if the reason why the ministeries of education in India and China and elsewhere turned their back on the XO is pedagogical philosphy. There is a “learning by doing” education philosophy that is baked into the open source technology of the XO. Here’s a quuote from the OLPC site:

“Learning is our main goal; we do not focus on computer literacy, as that is a by-product of the fluency children will gain through use of the laptop for learning. Children—especially young children—do not need to learn about IT and certainly do not need to be fluent users of WORD, EXCEL and POWERPOINT. They are not office workers. However, picking up these skills, having grown up with a laptop, will be readily accomplished.

Epistemologists from John Dewey to Paulo Freire to Seymour Papert agree that you learn through doing. This suggests that if you want more learning, you want more doing. Thus OLPC puts an emphasis on software tools for exploring and expressing, rather than instruction. Love is a better master than duty. Using the laptop as the agency for engaging children in constructing knowledge based upon their personal interests and providing them tools for sharing and critiquing these constructions will lead them to become learners and teachers.”

This is an education philosophy that certainly works for me. I employed it whenever I could when I taught science to third graders in the Peace Corps.

But—and here are several big buts—learning by doing may be a radical approach not appreciated by local teachers used to teaching by rote (teaching to test). Indeed, OLPC seems to imply that teachers aren’t central to the educational process and that the kids will learn by doing themselves. That’s what all the inter-connection is about. And maybe that’s why they reject the XO and the OLPC effort. Has anyone asked them?

Without bringing these teachers and their government representatives into the conversation and into the coalition very early in the design and testing of education materials and tools, there is no way an outside nonprofit is going to be allowed to enter villages and towns to interface with children. At least not in China and India.

Another but—there are dozens and dozens of languages and cultures in the thousands of villages and neighborhoods in the emerging world. To make learning by doing work, it has to be shaped to these languages and cultures. Is this work done? As the XO comes off the production line now, three years after the project was launched, has the education work been done to allow million of kids to learn by doing? It doesn’t appear to be the case. Am I wrong in this?

So where is the voice of education? Where are the teachers on the issue of OLPC?

Say what you will about the commercial reasons for Intel’s push into emerging markets, but Intel has put real money into teacher training and digital curriculum development.

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Reader Comments

Michael Poindexter

September 28, 2007 04:48 PM

The fact that the real educators were never part of the design of the XO says volumes about the project. You can’t design a tool without having used the tool! That is a simple principle every design student learns. Everyone would like to help children in developing countries, but the fact that children are dying everyday from lack of food and unsanitary conditions provides no justification for such a project! Resources and the ingenuity of the first world could be better utilized to affect the lives of people in the emerging world.

Rob Sidelong

September 30, 2007 08:46 AM

One idea about why the teachers are not here is because the problem that you see with the OLPC project is also a fundamental problem with the approach of many designers towards projects. That is, quite often the stakeholders in a project (outside of business or manufacturing stakeholders) come down the list in terms of importance. Because many designers don't make a deep connection with 'users' (for want of a better word) outside of business considerations then this does not become a ingrained part of their practice.

Then when designers talk it is only other designers who listen; after all if no connection has been made with anyone outside of the design sphere or anyone who is not a designer, why would they be interested in or even know about the conversation? That's why I think you have no teachers here; they are elsewhere reading about the OLPC. Unfortunately for all the talk about designers designing for people it doesn't often happen that any deep connection (with users, with the outside world) is made and that flows through to things like this blog. It ends up being designers talking to designers.

For mine (a graduating design student this year) it is a problem that I see in design (the proverbial elephant in the room...).


November 15, 2007 08:52 AM

If you read a bit further into the OLPC project then you will see the true intention, the true intention in my opinion is to change the world of education, and the way to change the world of education is by redesigning on a blank piece of canvas that all the world can see. If you can get this to work in the Third world ( And I fully believe that it will) then the rest of the Teachers and Schools in the west will have to follow.

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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