OLPC Sparks a Debate

Reader response to a Nov. 30th article on the New York Times site reflects some of the raging debate being stirred up by MIT’s OLPC project that I blogged about last week.

Some responses have been glowing, even naively positive, calling the distribution of these $150 notebook computers to 3rd world children a pivotal accomplishment in human history, on par with Gutenberg’s movable type that made possible the mass-production of books. Enthusiastic believers are quick to suggest that ready access to the Internet will introduce and bring acceptance to concepts of racial & gender equality, tolerance, and nonviolence in developing nations.

But some comments were more rational, with common-sense concerns about doling out computers in third-world nations where — at least in the western mindset — it seems people have more immediate needs, like clean water, food, medical supplies, and basic educational opportunities. And even more felt OLPC to be a technological solution to a social problem. For example:

“Is there some vast, unrestricted pool of [financial] resources dedicated to educational enterprises in developing countries? No, the $100 laptop idea is a notion that is attracting attention — and investment — where little had existed before. In fact, rather than take (arguably imaginary) funds away from teacher training and curriculum development, this project, naive or not, offers great potential to draw supplementary funding to such endeavors. At the very least, it's laying the groundwork for a cooperative effort to produce palpable results in the education of the world's children.”

“Governments should spend the little amounts they have for education on bulking up their respective teaching communities. If these laptops only last five years but teachers can teach for 20, 30 or 40 more years, what has the most benefit to any society as a whole?”

But most of the comments seemed in sync with my biggest concern — do computers in the classroom pay off for any child, third-world or otherwise:

“The track record to date [in the U.S.] is dismal, where 95% of K-12 classrooms have Internet connections, and the average ratio of students to computers is better than 4:1. Why would technology be any more effective in the developing world? Note, by the way, that in previous generations movies, radio, & television all were touted as educational panaceas.”

“Good teachers first, computers second. Information accumulated in the absence of a conceptual foundation is confusing, not elucidating. If laptops were the key to 'learning how to learn' for the average student, America’s students would stand apart as the best & brightest in the Western world. [Yet] the data suggest otherwise. Educators have been seduced by technology [and corporate] marketing.”

“The U.S. is awash in computers, but it hasn’t done anything much to improve learning or knowledge. If anything, it has made things worse. Test scores are falling. Our youth can't do math, but can play games & surf the net just fine. Computers have proven to be a false panacea.”

“To believe 'learning how to learn' is more valuable than traditional memorization and testing flies in the face of plunging U.S. science & math scores. [And] reports of poor preparation for many recent graduates entering the workplace further fuels the debate.”

“Laptops for students means a loss of eye-contact. How is [the teacher] supposed to know if they're listening or playing Tetris?”

And of course, there were some bluntly anti-OLPC opinions:

“[$100 notebooks] will make a tremendous difference… assuming they're edible.”

“While beautiful in theory, this sounds a lot like giving out free ATM cards to Katrina victims.”

“To give [third-world children] laptops would be like giving flashlights to blind pupils led by blind teachers.”

“This seems like a good idea but might be analogous to giving everyone in the third-world a car but no money to buy gas. Eventually the computers will break and networks will fail — where’s the budget to support, replace, & maintain the computers?”

“This is simply the next link in a long chain of the abuse of the less sophisticated by the more technologically elite — to turn them into consumers of our own culture.”

So, what's your take on this?

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