Clark, Mcluhan and many others have being promoting ideas about media and message for a while now, but one thing that often gets overlooked (not by these two necessarily) the fact that there is a large cultural loading aspect involved in the delivery of messages. We see it everyday as we, in the developed world, value news from one source over another or we disregard the words of one official or another, depending on your political stripe. But what about in a place where voices from Westren devices or vehicles are valued over those of locals (as a legacy of colonialism) or where the words of an elder are still taken as gospel? These places do exist and it is often in these places where we find aid of one sort or another being delivered – if it’s needed or not.
OLPC is one such device that finds itself in those regions. And with any luck, part of the teaching and professional development that is done with the teachers is to ensure that they are able to tell their students that the content that comes from this device should not be placed above the content that comes from the teacher only because it is “new, Westren or technological”. Education can not be removed from the culture that it is trying to operate in. In Canada at least, we have some very painful reminders of what happens when the local traditions and ideas are not respected in the case of Residential Schools and every day we are being reminded as to how a cultural mismatch as to the value of education puts children from one family at a disadvantage to children from another family, regardless of the origin of the mismatch. No amount of technology will ever be able to solve this, and unless there is a real reason to use the technology as a tool, it is likely that it will be used to gloss over the gap that really exists as students cut and paste their way through the work that they are assigned.
So what got me onto this kick? A post on one of the lists that I follow (reposted here -Martin Lucas, original author- and here) had a really good look at one of the places that has received the OLPC/XO. From the post:
In this rather thinly populated media landscape it is worth noting one area where communications technology is burgeoning. Cell phones are to Malawi what Coca Cola once tried to be in the US: iconic and ubiquitous. The average Malawian has only sporadic access to clean water; electricity and paved roads are a rarity. While some might think infrastructure projects are a higher priority, they depend on a socio-economic base and a level of state intervention that lie in the future. In the meantime, individual Malawians are busy linking themselves up to one of the three competing cell phone networks. While Malawi had about 100,000 landline phones in 2005, there were already some half a million mobile phones according to the CIA Factbook. And this number is growing rapidly as cell coverage is extended around the country.
Join our World!’ ‘Let us connect you!’ shout the slogans in yellow on bright red backgrounds painted on walls, on the sides of trucks, on umbrellas, tee shirts and billboards.
More intriguing than the hard sell of a large well-supported corporate campaign are the ad hoc local efforts to create support systems for cell phone usage. Typical are the tiny ramshackle wooden shops, ironically similar in size and shape to the telephone booths of another era in Europe and North America. Here small entrepreneurs haul a lead oxide car battery charged at the local garage. For a miniscule fee users can plug their cell phones in at this ‘charging station’. These small local efforts to create communications infrastructure speak to the central place the ability to communicate holds for Malwians, even in what looks like a situation where logic might dictate other priorities.
After all, this is a very poor country. Almost no one buys a full tank of gas here, and cell phone cards are ‘topped up’ at the filling stations by customers who don’t even own a bicycle. On the main streets of Blantyre and along the highways women in red vests and parasols come to the car window to sell you minutes, , or or wait patiently sitting in little kiosks like miniature outdoor cafes perched in the otherwise muddy marketplaces.
For Malawians on all economic levels cell phones hold the gloss of the new. I am shown an iPhone, imported at great expense by an IT firm. The employee told me they were waiting for the hack to come any day. People often have two phones, one for each of the major networks, or as another young tech-savvy user showed me, a cell phone from Dubai capable of handling two sim cards. Malawian mobile etiquette seems to dictate that almost any activity, particularly a meeting, can be interrupted to take a call.
All of this interest in cell phones is set against a backdrop of a country where few of the basics can be taken for granted. I visited a pre-school. Although it is inside the city limits, the locale is hardly easy to get to. I engaged a taxi for about US$30, about a week’s pay for a middle class person. [A local might expect to pay half what I do.] This is the rainy season, and the dirt road is just on the edge of what is navigable for a regular passenger car. The building the children use has a leaky tin roof. The outhouse in back has actually collapsed in the rain, as had several shops (built from mud bricks) along the highway nearby in the torrential rains.
it is hard to know where the laptop fits in this picture. Children can and do buy paper exercise books and pencils. It is tough to keep them, or any printed matter, in huts where people sit on the floor, where furniture is scarce, and water and dirt are everywhere. As it is, although there are schools, text books are rare. Schools with electricity are also uncommon. Because the classes are so large, well over 100 each in the public schools according to informed sources, school desks are also not practical. And many classes end up under a shade tree as an alternative.
What is appropriate communications technology for an educational situation here? In terms of social context, Story Workshop, in conjunction with organizations such as UNICEF, works with schools and NGOs to develop ‘radio listening clubs’. These are groups that meet to discuss the issues raised in broadcasts on the social topics mentioned above. The groups get reading matter related to the shows, tee shirts and in most cases a radio for the group to listen on, as well as on air recognition and interaction. This model is a tried and true one in Southern Africa, going back to before independence, and creating a viable context for the technology and the content, content generated by Story Workshop writers using extensive time in the field talking to villagers.
One component of a critical assessment of the OLPC initiative, or of IT products, involves a critique of a Western technology-based answer to social problems in societies already living with a long legacy of Western solutions. While the version of colonialism practiced here was not extremely vicious by the standards of some other African countries, it was hardly benign.
What is clear that, like television before it, with new mobile phone technology, the medium is perceived as the message. The cell phone is the voice of a new world, of a modernity acquirable in a way that leapfrogs the difficulties of creating the infrastructure and institutions of contemporary industrial society, however interpreted. These social implications are not perceived as culturally determined, or rather, the advent of ‘Western’ communications technology is perceived either as a neutral benefit, like the way a paved road is better than a dirt one, or as part of the new world of modernity in the way that drinking a Coca-Cola is ‘better’ than eating a local mango, for instance, or even drinking a local ‘Soba’ softdrink. In otherwords, as far as I can see, the culture critique is not taken seriously on a ground level.
In general UNICEF makes it a policy to work as closely as it can with government structures in order to develop capacity, but, I am told, any effort to distribute through the Education Ministry would be doomed to failure.
Where does this type of critique meet the desire of visionaries like Negroponte who are motivated in their efforts to promote the One Laptop per Child intiative by constructionist theories of learning that suggest that children will engage in problem-solving, particularly around math and science issues, in a whole new way given early access to computers? For me, one question to ask emerges from looking at a broader context of pedagogical theory. Negroponte says “It’s an education project, not a laptop project.”
Right away, it is possible to suggest that inquiry-based learning is independent of a specific technology. In fact, computers and internet access guarantee little in the way of critical thinking. In a new program, children in New York City are taught inquiry-based methods of interacting with IT-based data by school librarian media specialists, who promote critical thinking and an ability to evaluate information as an antidote to the rising tide of a ‘cut-and-paste’ mentality. In otherwords, by meany measures access to IT has ahad a stultifying effect on independent thinking. Instead of real research and evaluation most students are happy just to ‘google it.’
One aspect of this [new government] curriculum is a new emphasis on pedagogical interactivity rather than verbal repetition. As support for this idea, the curriculum group suggested that the Ministry of Education make a slate, a chalkboard smaller than a normal sheet of writing paper, available to each beginning first grade student. The cost would be about One euro per slate. There are approximately one million first graders each year in Malawi, so the initial cost would be about one million Euros, or about US$ 1.4 million. The Education Ministry said this kind of money is simply not available. In this context cheap laptops, unless they come free, with extra money for distribution, curriculum development, teacher development, maintenance and repair, are destined to be as ineffectual as any other type of aid that does not integrate properly into the society it is designed to help.
While there is little doubt in my mind that Malawians will benefit from low cost IT tech and pedagogical support, these can only be a factor in a complex social-technological equation, not a panacea.