Friday, 13 April 2007

One Moodle Per Child?

Jamais Cascio has posted about an IEEE article on the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative. The idea is to give 100 million children in the developing world their own laptop. They've designed a ruggedized, cheap, easy-to-use laptop for about $150 and the first experiments are now taking place in Nigeria.

Jamais highlights one issue raised in the article "Felsenstein notes that teachers will (rightly) see these laptops as a direct assault on their authority, and many will be banned from classrooms, leaving the kids to use the machines unsupervised."
Jamais believes a generation growing up hacking it's own machines outside of the institutional confines will be a boon to a developing nation. I'm not sure I disagree.... but I adoption is the achilles heel of a project I desperately want to succeed. IThe laptop is a physical by-product of a revolutionary meme. The alien memetic virus is guaranteed to create an institutional allergic reaction.

What happens when the laptop is banned from the school for causing disruption and challengin the authority of the teacher (who isn't getting any training)? Without a network, how useful is a participatory culture device?

All of this gets me to thinking about the role of Moodle in this endeavour. The laptops are built on a constructivst model. They encourage experimentation, production of artifacts, sharing wtih others... all of the wonderful ideas we espouse in the Moodle community. But we also provide tools to reinforce teacher authority (roles, grading, quizzes, etc) to both encourage adoption and to meet the needs of teachers where they are. We introduce new concepts by disguising them as the old, like memetic camoflauge.

Of course, this means we have a wide variation in the levels of use. Most Moodle teachers use it to post static resources with little thought to how to change their teaching. They use the technology to amplify their old, inefficient methods. A smaller number use it to slightly modify their delivery, moving some tasks out of the classroom. And then a very few understand the potential revolution and transform their classroom practice in extraordinary and powerful ways.

The compromises made by Moodle have made it easy for schools to adopt, providing the potential for transformation while not demanding it. I wonder if the OLPC demands too much transformation to be accepted. The lack of training, content, and the radical philosophy for radical philosophy's sake smack of academic hubris. If it's pushed outside of the classroom through institutional reaction, we will have lost a huge opportunity to help catalyze the development of the poorer nations.

I desperately hope I'm wrong, and we see a flowering of participatory education in OLPC nations. But I've been involved in too many educational institutions to be optimistic.


Mary James said...

Hi Jason,

Thanks for bringing this article to my attention. I have personal as well as professional reasons for wanting this project to succeed. I have links with a primary school in The Gambia, and I have never seen a more dedicated staff nor children more desperately keen to learn. The authority of the teacher is so much stronger in Africa than we have come to accept as normal here. Laptops will not destroy this relationship in one small African country. With my own eyes, I have seen the thirst for change at the grassroots. And we cannot afford not to try this experiment, we have a moral obligation to bring Africa with us. So while I understand where your concerns come from, we should not impose our sceptical views on the rest of the world which is desperate for change. And Moodle will be a huge part of it.

Jason Cole said...

Hi Mary.

I'm glad you are seeng the possibility for change in Gambia. I agree we can't afford not to try, but I think we could do a better job supporting adoption of the technology to make a real difference.