Low Expectations and Cheap Publication: The Case of One Laptop per Child. Waltenegus Dargie
The one and only time I attended a meeting chaired by the former Prime Minster of Ethiopia, Ato Meles Zenawi, was in August 2007, when Ethiopia was hosting the World Technology Information Forum in Addis Ababa. One of the speakers at the forum was a former MIT professor by the name Nickolas Negroponte, who was also the vice president of the One Laptop per Child program (OLPC).
When his turn arrived, Professor Negroponte passionately gave a speech about the importance and initial success of the OLPC program citing several empirical examples to quantify the remarkable impact the program had been making on poverty-stricken African and Asian children.
Sitting at the back and trying to comprehend the real motivation behind the talk, I could not help but reflect on the arguments between Lida and the phlegmatic painter in Chekhov’s beautiful story: The House with the Mezzanine. Poor Lida tries hard to improve the facilities of the local health care centres and to educate the poor children of her village, but for the painter, the activity of this young, attractive, and selfless girl is a sickening display of the ignorance and perpetual self –deception of the gentry.
“…Last week Anna died in childbirth. If there had been a dispensary nearby, she would still be alive” she challenges him….
“…Dispensaries, peasant literacy, book with pathetic precepts and jokes cannot diminish either ignorance or mortality, any more than the light from your windows can illuminate this huge garden,” is the answer from the phlegmatic painter. “The people must be free from heavy physical labour … their yoke must be lightened, they must be given a respite, so that they don’t spend their whole lives at the stove, the washtub, and in the field… ”
When Professor Negroponte finished his talk, I had so much to ask but I kept my mouth shut. I did not want to appear antagonistic in front of so many African VIPs, who were eagerly paying attention to what he was saying.
Five years have passed since then and after millions of USD investment into his project, the OLPC seems immensely successful, for on September 13, 2012, Professor Negroponte published an article on the MIT Technology Review (http://www.technologyreview.com/view/429206/emtech-preview-another-way-to-think-about-learning/) to report the result of a vital experiment.
The article is full of the images of poverty stricken, barefooted, scantily dressed, and dusty children; just the sort of images a local westerner would immediately retrieve to his mind whenever the name “Ethiopia” is mentioned to him. These children are located in two places in Ethiopia — in Wonchit and Wolenchite, the former being a little town near the historical city of Ambo, the city of the great poet Tsegaye Gebre Medhin.
In his article, Professor Negroponte reports that his team distributed tablet computers (we don’t know how many) to these children, one tablet per child, without telling them how they functioned or what types of applications they were loaded on. The aim was to remotely observe what the children would do with the devices. The result was remarkable:
“Within minutes of arrival, the tablets were unboxed and turned on by the kids themselves. After the first week, on average, 47 apps were used per day. After week two, the kids were playing games to race each other in saying the ABCs.”
We are not told (in the article) about the complexity level of the applications running on the devices nor do we know whether opening on average 47 applications per day indicates randomness, despair, or confusion in the children’s activity. We are told, however, that one of the children’s remarkable achievements was their ability to type “ABC…” without any help.
In a subsequent presentation the professor delivered at the EmTech conference (http://www2.technologyreview.com/emtech/12/), he expressed astonishment that the children could actually be able to open the boxes they were presented with and extract the tablets instead of playing with the boxes in the first place. Moreover, he seems to suggest that the children have been ignorant of the existence of letters and alphabets.
Following the publication of the article, almost all major mainstream American and UK media reported the phenomenal breakthrough by stating: Ethiopian kids hack tablets in five months with zero instruction”. No doubt some of them reported this out of the wish to publish something positive about Ethiopia while others published it without closely examining the real implication.
A careful examination of Mr. Negroponte’s article reveals that his expectation of Ethiopian Children, contrary to his claim, was indeed very low. Behaviourally speaking, children’s curiosity and learning through random exploration is almost universal treats. In this regard, the article does not make any scientific contribution. Intellectually speaking, the article does not describe the experimental setting in detail nor does it enumerate the specific achievements of the children for us to appreciate the results. Even so the article put emphasis on the children’s ability to unpack the gifts and on their ability to type some alphabets. These observations would be interesting if he were speaking of wild apes or monkeys and not of human beings. I find his conclusion at once shallow and disrespectful.
Little he knew that Ethiopia has been teaching its children, even the sort of children he nakedly exposed to the world, in caves and dilapidated rooms as well as in the backyards of innumerable churches how to write and read Amharic and Geez for thousands of years. Furthermore, the correlation between human poverty and intellect brightness is still a contentious issue. The writers and poets who were admired in Ethiopia were once very much like the children who appeared in Negroponte’s article, as Tsegaye Gebre Medhin reminds us in a poem published fifty years before the present article saw light:
በሱ ተመስሎ፣ በዚያ ተመስሎ፣
ዳግመኛ ተፈጥሮ፣ሁለተኛ በቅሎ፣
ያ ለመኝ ተማሪ፣ ቅማላም ተማሪ፣
በኛ ተመስሎ፣ እሱ ኖሯል ቀሪ ።
While the relevance of OLPC to Africa at large and Ethiopia in particular is contentious, the claims it and similar projects make are seriously flawed and questionable. It is desirable to know the position of our government and how much and why it invests on such projects.