Can kids really learn without teachers?

Given our discussion today on technology for learners vs. technology for learning, I remember reading this article the other day.

If you’re not familiar with OLPC, OPLC stands for “One Laptop Per Child” and it aims to, well, give one laptop per child in a third world country. Initially, the goal was to bring the cost down to $100 or less, but as far as I know it’s no longer the (main) goal, though of course price is always on their mind. The laptop is also made specifically for a third world country; it’s solar powered, uses flash memory instead of a hard drive (so the data can be shock resistant if they drop it), things like that. You can read more here:

The article was really eye-opening, and it shows how important intuitiveness is necessary in design. I know Windows 8 and Mac OSX try to simplify the design as much as possible, and that’s great (although this particular tablet was running Android).

First of all, it shows how powerful curiosity is — this kid that opened the box had probably never seen anything like it before in his life. Yet he figured out that something was in it, and managed to not only open the box, but even turn on the device in there!

Then, the kids take the concept of “technology for learners” to the extreme. No teacher in sight, no Google to be heard of, yet these kids explored almost every nook on their tablet. They even got around the measures that the researchers installed to stop them from doing things like customize the home page of the tablet.

Of course, these findings need to be researched much, much more. This development in two isolated villages is great, however there still needs to be more tested and understood about their behavior.

For what the observations and research is worth, it definitely proves that kids can learn through self-taught and self-motivated methods, although how effective this is in the long run remains to be seen, at least for these African village kids.

It shows that education can be cheap; these tablets already had preloaded applications on there for the kids to explore and learn. In our own modern world, there are resources like Khan Academy and message boards that people can learn from. Information is so free and yet the structures of the acquisition model of learning can make it expensive (although, with that said, there are benefits to the acquisition model).

Now, in addition to the concept of technology for learners, what do you think of the OLPC? The criticisms of the organization seem to be valid — such as there are other pressing needs to be addressed such as food and water rather than laptops, and that in a sense, these laptops can ‘Westernize’ the groups it is given to. And maybe these devices shouldn’t be given to these remote African tribes that have no contact with people like us; disrupting their lifestyle might just be a bad idea. Maybe (just maybe) this is a very loose form of the acquisition model of learning where we subtly Westernize them in a shell that resembles the participatory model of learning. Of course this is just making assumptions since I don’t know what types of movies or games are included on the devices. Plus it’s just a wacky theory to begin with.

In addition, the organization has been criticized for simply distributing the devices and “walking away”, with the assumption that the recipients would be able to learn the device on their own, without showing the recipients how to use the technology to their advantage. These recipients end up leaving the device on a shelf because they could not figure it out and apply it to their education. Sound familiar?

But at least for the countries that already are adjusting to technology, like Peru, or even here in the United States, it seems like a great, cheap way to introduce technology in low income areas or areas with no access to technology. Maybe it’s not appropriate for remote communities but for ones with technology already there, it seems pretty awesome.

6 responses to “Can kids really learn without teachers?

  1. I think there is certainly the possibility that ethnocentrism is influencing the OLPC campaign. Obviously there is the assumption that cultures without prevalent use of laptops are less educated. Does a laptop really make one educated? That certainly has not been my experience in life.

    Forgive me for being skeptical but I would be surprised if the founding corporate members of OLPC like AMD, eBay, Google, Marvell, and News Corp were primarily concerned with education.

  2. As you and Tim have pointed out, the problem of Westernization and ethnocentricity might apply here, and is a complex issue. Because every area of the world has been subject to at least some of the massive globalization happening right now, it is arguable that these laptops will give children in developing countries more advantage in an increasingly globalized world. However, in the short run, these laptops do not sound beneficial. They’re programmed by Americans and filled with content that probably conveys knowledge that is valuable in an industrialized society rather than knowledge specific to these children’s social and environmental contexts.

    I’m always reluctant to claim what is best for developing countries because I have no idea what these areas are really like, or how children feel about these laptops. I think further research into this project is, therefore, important to our understanding of whether or not it is a worthy one. My guess, however, is that, perhaps ideally, local schools should be opened in these areas that give not only globally important knowledge that will hopefully open up international paths for children who desire them, but also give context-specific knowledge, just as American schools do. For example, we learn history from the American perspective, and we learn American dishes and techniques in cooking classes. As we discussed in class Wednesday, knowledge is socially situated: as interesting as some subjects are to us, they may be uninteresting or simply not applicable to those in developing countries, who have distinct knowledge sets.

    Unfortunately, opening up a bunch of quality schools isn’t exactly practical, and maybe even with the OLPC project’s disadvantages (esp., western influence and self-education), it is a good start.

  3. I’m a little biased, but I believe OLPC is definitely heading in the right direction. The way I see it, the OLPC plan will enable countries to be more connected and participate, perhaps even provide valuable insight toward current issues. Even though the technology may encourage industrialization and westernized American beliefs, I believe the children should be able to play around with it and at least be exposed to world events and what’s happening around them. The supremacists saying that kids won’t be able to figure out the technology on their own are just wrong! (again, I’m very biased towards this point). How can someone judge another without even giving them a chance? People will surprise you in more ways than one in what they can accomplish. I’ve seen my niece figure out simple games on iPhones and tablets; I’m sure kids in third world countries can figure out something as simple as turning on a computer.

    Still, perhaps giving away free laptops to everyone isn’t the way to go. Like Meagan, I really don’t know how the people who are directly affected feels about all this. Setting up for the future is nice and all, but as of now, food, water, shelter, the basic necessities of life are probably more important to them. In a way, OLPC feels like it’s forcing the technology upon them rather than working with them to see what kind of technology they really need. Meagan mentioned how “knowledge is socially situated.” If the people feel its something worthwhile for their kids, then great! However, if its something they’d just throw away, then maybe investing in lifestraws and water sources may be the better choice.

  4. I think it’s great that the kids were able to figure out how to use these computers even through all the programs and operating systems were entirely in English. It’s always amazing when people are given tools and have to figure out how to use them on their own.
    Of course, there’s not a lot of accountability in this “study” and I think it needs to be managed a lot more closely. They got no consent from the children or people that were supposedly using their devices. The researchers also don’t know what the distribution of laptops in the community was. Maybe they were being hoarded by a small group of people. What were they actually learning?
    Finally I’ve seen other sources that are slightly less sensational: adults in the community had received training on the computers, the Ethiopian Ministry of Education was involved in the project, and the kids that had supposedly never seen a computer almost certainly had.

  5. When I see an article like this I have a tendency to overlook all of the underlying politics and go straight to marveling at the human race. These children are taking something completely unknown to them, learning how to use it without any outside influence, and then mastering the technology to the point of being able to circumnavigate limitations put in by highly educated programmers. It proves that mankind can explore, understand, and master new concepts simply driven by human curiosity and shows that there is very little difference between the members of our species. That being said, it’s much harder to do that nowadays with people going online simply to falsify information such as this in order to make their organization look better in the humanitarian spotlight. As of now the article seems to lean on the side of the untrue simply based on the shaky nature of their reporting and data gathering. Hopefully a full scientific study is conducted in order to determine the accuracy of this article’s claims.

  6. I think that in the culture that these kids live in they probably are more self directed and motivated because they see it as an opportunity to learn and not being forced to learn. I think that if money is limited and giving a laptop to a child to learn is the only feasible way then it is a good thing. I think that more research needs to be done in order to determine what kind of software and programs will be on these laptops that will enable them to learn. I think that once this is developed more then it will be a good way to get out knowledge and educate more people in the world.

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