Analyzing OLPC’s Failures

Tuesday, 2008-May-20 at 19:57 1 comment

I saw this on IceRocket and decided to weigh in.

Update: Read Paul’s comment below.

Much of the logistical problem has been documented before. In areas where there are no roads, no utilities, and no reliable freight systems, it is definitely going to be difficult to successfully deliver large quantities of valuable goods to a targeted (but dispersed and politically unconnected) group of people. This can be even worse in areas where there may be insurrections or organized criminal groups.

I agree with you that the people within the organization should have expected things to be long and difficult. If OLPC is there to transform education, it won’t be a one or two year thing. Instead, it is going to be a lifetime of work, followed by multiple lifetimes of work by others. It cannot be about selling laptops—OLPC needs to get those laptops and especially their software into the hands of third world children even if it relies upon fundraisers in Western nations to come up with the revenue—it has to be about helping those kids to develop their creative learning skills. Any plan that didn’t include ways to keep going even if there were zero sales is too optimistic.

The questions about constructivist learning are relatively new to my ears. I compare this with our current top-down model, in which the content and the pace are dictated by someone in authority. If you believe that this model is sufficient in anything other than an industrial age economy (where graduates will be essentially interchangeable), I invite you to spend time in any public school in America. Our school system, once envied around the world, utterly failed once our factories closed and graduates needed to show individual capabilities. Those children, whether white, black, orange, or green, will grow up into a world where they cannot depend on being interchangeable “cogs in the machine”, and this is one of the biggest reasons why I have been a supporter.

Having only recently finished navigating a youth through our K-12 system, let me point out some issues with the way schools are run in our country. I don’t have any point of reference for the schools in any foreign nation, so I will use these as a proxy.

  1. Herd mentality—students are individuals that learn at different paces and have different interests. Trying to teach all students the same things at the same time leaves the slowest kids behind, while the faster kids are bored.
  2. Homework—after spending much of their waking hours at school, kids come home and spend more time doing work for school. In some cases, that’s all they have time to do before bedtime. With the sole exceptions of mathematics and reading, if students aren’t getting it at school, homework is only going to make things worse.
  3. Top-down—directed learning is essential for learning the basics or reading, writing, and arithmetic, but beyond that, directed learning requires teachers to trample students’ natural interests and force them to focus on someone’s pre-formed plan. Again, that works when everyone is going to work on the assembly line at the same factory. As soon as the big plant closes and everyone has to differentiate to survive, this kind of schooling fails.
  4. Computer literacy—focuses around learning to use current versions of word processing and spreadsheet software. For a second grader, there will be about four interface changes before graduation (two every five years), so that time is wasted. The software is proprietary, so students and their parents are made to sign highly-restrictive contracts that forbid system exploration and restrict learning. In addition, computers are locked away in labs, where student time is limited to minor slices of the week and equipment is shared with all other students. This one is probably unique to the developed world, as developing nations do not already have computers in the schools.
  5. Unrealistic “reform” proposals—pushed by national and regional governments trying to restore the luster to the school system. Many resources are wasted on these schemes, with little to show for them. Because these proposals come from those farthest removed from the classroom and the family, they rarely have any lasting positive effects.
  6. Dictatorial style—because even the smallest decisions (such as hair styles and clothing styles) are taken from them, students never learn to make good decisions. Then when they get older and start making bad decisions the way we trained them, we want to punish them.

I watched MJ struggle his way through school until he got into a less-structured environment. Once there, he shone, graduating with a higher GPA than I had when I was in high school. Once a non-reader, he is now reading about three books at any time, finishing at least one every week. And now both employed and attending college! With 20 – 30% of California students failing to graduate, that is impressive.

That said, OLPC has accomplished some wonderful things, and I hope it continues to do so. As an “exploration-based learning” tool, I think it is a good start in the right direction. Sadly, the only reason for adding Windows is to enable foreign schools to make the same mistakes that ours have made, the mistake of thinking that small children need “computer training” that consists of learning to use office applications. This can only result in worse outcomes for the students whose computers are not powerful enough to run the current versions of proprietary office applications and who will be years behind by the time they enter the job market.

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1 Comment

  • 1. Paul C  |  Tuesday, 2008-May-20 at 21:58

    Thanks for linking through. I appreciate your perspective, but I think it suffers from the same blinkers that the OLPC project has suffered from. You start from two of your own assumptions: a) your state’s educational system is broken, and b) that you think you have part of the solution. Now, while both of those assumptions might be true, a) the problems facing your state’s educational system are not the same as those facing other educational systems and b) the solution to those problems are therefore unlikely to be those required for other educational systems even if they’re correct.

    From my perspective, the logistics was only one aspect of OLPC’s flawed approach. When you say that “If you believe that this model is sufficient in anything other than an industrial age economy”, you need to bear in mind that nearly all of the children targeted by OLPC are in a pre-industrial economy. I agree that the standard approach to education needs to be updated in light of our new understanding of how children learn (although I’m not convinced that constructivism is the answer) but attempting to transplant solutions from post-industrial economies to pre-industrial economies is exactly what I mean when I refer to the worst kind of development.


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