13 January, 2009

The Audacity of Technology

The Audacity of Technology
Sushma Joshi
The Kathmandu Post

Should a five year old in a rural village lacking a reliable supply of electricity and basic school supplies dream of owning a computer of her own? For Rabi Karmacharya, director of the Open Learning Exchange in Nepal (OLE), the answer is a resounding yes. The audacity of his hope, that many schools in rural Nepal will follow and adopt the successful model he's implemented in two schools near Lakhuribhanjyang, a few kilometers outside of Kathmandu, appears particularly foolhardy to people who say that the computers cost too much, have no reliable technical support, and use a technology that lacks teaching software and tools.
All these objections make perfect sense in the urban clamor of the valley, where I sit sipping coffee at the balcony of the Java Coffeehouse with Chris Hoadley, a Fulbright fellow at New York University whose research specializes in educational communications. Chris shares with me some of the common criticisms against the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) laptops. OLPC's founder, Nicholas Negroponte, has been pushy about the “all or nothing” model, insisting that countries use OLPC in each and every school if it takes on a country, the fact that cheaper computers of different models are available on the market, and that OLPC often requires proprietory software shipped directly from Boston -- unlike other educational computer models which now piggyback off open source. Also, a laptop for each student decreases collaborative skills and encourages students to be loners. And besides, he asks, should two hundred dollars be spent on a computer when the school itself may lack basic facilities, like schoolbooks?

All of this makes logical sense. My brain tells me he is right. My gut tells me something else. I've already visited Lakhuraybhajyang and I've seen the five year olds from an impoverished Tamang village in their schoolroom, sitting on the floor, opening their little computers and using them with an ease and dedication that left me startled. A little boy with snot running down his nose had hit the spacebar with a distinct pow! The sounds filled up the room -- now all the students were playing what sounded like a videogame. Pow! Pow! Pow! The snot-filled student was on a roll, intent on hitting his target. A little appalled by this sudden transformation of the classroom into what felt like a videogame bar, I turned to Ravi and said: what's going on? He smiled and gestured to the teacher, who explained to me that the children were playing a math game. The boy, who was on the edge of his seat and with his mouth open, was not killing virtual enemies but hitting the right answers to what was, as I scanned the screens, complex math problems. The five year olds were giving lightning fast reactions to additions and subtractions that -- I'll be honest with you -- I'd have a hard time answering with the same speed.

Teachers praised the new technology. One unexpected side-effect -- attendance became more regular as students had to come to school to charge their computers. Not only do students learn faster on the computers, but at times they go home and go through the lessons before the teachers get to them. OLE Nepal encourages students to share their computers with siblings and students in other classrooms, leading to a shared sense of pride and ownership. According to headmaster Shivahari Dahal: “The children are happy with the computers. They seek how to do things on them. They feel like they can do things by themselves.”

In a school system where everything is memorized, the sudden freedom to be able to figure out how to work a technology better than your teacher is surely empowering, especially to five year olds. Would a Nepali schoolchild feel the same sense of empowerment from a textbook which he is made to memorize?

“The children learn by themselves,” was a refrain repeated by different teachers. Indeed, the teachers seem more lost than the students. In a way, the design of the computer itself -- keys meant for tiny fingers, a small screen, a laptop that's unbreakable, all of this turns the traditional power hierarchy between teacher and student.

Computers, of course, cannot erase old problems. For instance, we ask a young boy sitting in the back why he doesn't have a computer. The teacher remarks that he doesn't attend school regularly. When asked why, the boy answers bravely: because my teacher hits me! Corporeal punishment, long walking distances, poverty which drives children to work, language barriers -- all of these issues continue to remain in Nepali schools, and cannot be addressed through technology but only through a school administration willing to work with a diverse student body and a commitment to excellence.

Which is what we saw in the second school. Krishna Bahadur Thapa, principal, has turned the Viswamitra Ganesh school at Lubu as a model of true community excellence. The student body is diverse -- Dalits, Brahmins, Newars all study here. As in other parts of Nepal, there's a shortage of textbooks, but the school has been able to ask for, and get, used books as donations. The difference in the Class Two students was stark. Unlike students in the first school, these five year olds were lively, talkative, and unafraid of their teacher. They took to their work seriously. “How many tigers are there?” The children repeat in perfect synchronized voices: “There are two tigers.”

Tests show children who own the OLPC computers score higher in math and English -- the two subjects which lack good teachers and which are responsible for leading to many SLC exam failures.

The meticulous and careful implementation of the OLE Nepal team, along with their dedicated follow-up, has meant that the technical assistance is consistently on call, and there have been, so far, no issues of maintenance. OLE Nepal is working to create curriculum based interactive education content, and also to add more teacher training components in line with the Government of Nepal's curriculum, and with NCED, the government's training apex body. They plan to finetune their model before applying it to five other different geographical and socioeconomic areas next school year, in conjunction with the Department of Education. OLE Nepal has already signed a partnership agreement with the United Nations World Food Program to deploy OLPC project in Dadeldhura. Talks are ongoing with other potential partners to support the deployment in other districts, including one in the Terai region.

Of course, electricity, or the lack of it, remains the number one problem. So does Internet access and connectivity, which OLE Nepal is trying to add to all computers. Chris Hoadley is quick to say he's not just a naysayer -- he is, after all, a specialist in education and communications. Bringing in computers, he agrees, may have the Trojan Mouse effect -- instead of bemoaning the lack of electricity, communities may wire up their homes and schools because of the computers, which they view as vital to their children's development.

There are 6.5 million schoolchildren in Nepal. Clearly, a laptop for each is impractical. Two hundred dollars, says Hoadley, is a lot for a rural household struggling with basic needs. Yes, it is. But for parents living in remote villages where walking distance is a crucial factor, the possibility and power of these small computers, and the way it could change their children's future through access to information, override other financial concerns. “Forestry groups in Mustang and Dadeldhura have said they are willing to invest in them themselves if they have to,” says Rabi Karmacharya. For groups still cut off from the flow of globalization, these machines are not just a question of economic rationalism, a $200 investment that could be spent in some better way. They are, in all senses of the word, a lifeline to the modern world.
Posted on: 2009-01-02 19:28:44 (Server Time)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Take this instead -
Meet Raspberry Pi Zero: The $5 computer is here