Thursday, May 17, 2007

a w00t gandji a?

The One Laptop Per Child project is probably the coolest thing ever. For those not in the know, a non-profit group designed a small, $175 laptop for use by children in the developing world, which governments will buy at cost to distribute for free to all kids attending school. Supposedly.
The laptop is powered by a hand-crank, though AC power is optional. It can access wireless networks, but since they’re usually in short supply in the middle of any given developing country, they’re also able to connect to any other OLPC laptop to create a sort of intranet (e.g., in a village that’s not close to anything, all the kids could connect to each other’s computers and collaborate on something or exchange files).

There are no moving parts. Flash memory is used instead of a standard hard drive. This is crucial, since laptops and dusty, non-air-conditioned environments usually lead to hard drive failures. The screen can be switched from color to black-and-white to make it more readable in sunlight, and uses little energy compared to normal laptop screens.

I doubt I’ll be in Benin when the laptops get here, if they ever do. Even in Nigeria (which borders Benin to the east) they’re only now doing a test run of 3,500 laptops. Still, I thought it would be worthwhile to look at what impact they would have in my village on a day-to-day basis, especially since most of the debate over the laptop seems to be taking place between people who’ve never been to a developing nation.

Textbooks aren’t used in my school due to their relatively high cost (tuition is $40 a year, which many families struggle to afford, so requiring books on top of that would make it impossible). Instead, students buy small notebooks and copy information down from the blackboard in a textbook-like fashion. They’re really methodical about it, using different-colored pens and underlining with rulers, since accurately recording what’s written on the board is the only way to know that what they’re studying at home is what the teacher actually wrote. One of the main selling points to governments is that the laptop will be able to provide a platform for free textbooks. It’s easy to imagine the difference in the quality of education that having a book would provide, but almost as beneficial would be all time that could be spent on instruction rather than on copying. In my classes, I spend around 10-25% of the time just letting kids copy. Still, they complain that they’re being rushed.

A few teachers require their students to buy booklets (around $2-4). This is pretty much unavoidable in biology classes, since drawing a detailed picture in chalk of, say, the cardiovascular system, is both difficult and time-intensive. A computer would make it possible to use diagrams and charts more easily, and for free. It would also give teachers the ability to use photographs.

Though being a way of delivering information might make the investment worth it by itself, the main goal of the project is to teach kids to ‘learn how to learn’. I think that this receives a lot of criticism since the way it would be realized isn’t obvious, and its necessity is deeply underestimated.

Learning is done mostly by rote here. My entire adolescence was spent in interactive classes where collaborative work was required every day, so it’s natural for me to try to teach that way. But it’s physically difficult to run things like that when the class has 60 kids, because you can only ask so many questions to so many kids, and if a student doesn’t want to participate, it’s easy to blend into the crowd (NB: 60 kids in a class is actually pretty small. Most volunteers have around 75, which is again smaller than in some other countries).

Having a laptop could partially solve the class-size issue, if the software were written correctly. A teacher who was networked with the students’ laptops could check to see if someone wasn’t doing their work, and the work itself could provide a much higher level of interactivity than is currently possible. Even outside of school, the programs that the laptop comes with standard (music composition and drawing programs) would encourage creative thinking.

Motivating students to develop a culture of reading would be a tremendous step forward. Reading for leisure is a luxury when a newspaper costs what some people spend on food each day, and books a fourth of a tuition. The laptop doesn’t have the storage capacity to contain a library, but each school could theoretically be distributed with a bunch of USB keys that contained a few thousand books each, and kids could go and ‘borrow’ a copy. This would be even better than a physical library, since books are subject to wear and tear, as well as theft, and there are a limited number of copies. Also, libraries that lend books out usually charge a small fee, which is, of course, not small to poor students.

I could go on forever about the advantages of this thing. There are downsides, to be sure, but they really are insignificant in comparison to the problems the laptops would ameliorate. Even if it served as nothing but a platform for books, it would be worth the investment a thousand times over.

Now we just need $500,000,000.


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