Friday, December 07, 2007

No, That's EXACTLY How OLPC Envisioned It

Wayan Vota is, as usual, making a jackass of himself over on his OLPC News, using some decontextualized video of the OLPC pilot in Nepal Thailand to claim that OLPC is working, but it isn't working the way the Foundation envisioned it, it is working the way Wayan Vota envisioned it. You see, he was right all along.

So in the two videos, you see a kid controlling the TamTam synthesizer with the XO's large trackpad, making weird noises (not unlike me let loose with an electric guitar). In the second video, we see kids sitting on the floor in a semi-circle, playing a local tune.

Vota says:

Now exactly who thinks that either of these accomplishments came from a random TamTam activity without a music teacher to guide the children in learning musical scales, melody, tone, and temper?

This is wrong on two levels. First off, there is good reason to think at least some of these results came from self-directed activity with the laptop. Vota only links to Vota, but if you find the OLPC report from the Thailand pilot, you find this quote:

One girl quickly started playing the village's local tune within an hour of exploration.

That seems pretty definitive. Certainly the kid making weird noises with his trackpad looks like... a kid undertaking some self-directed play, but I'll let you decide.

But on a deeper level, Vota is insinuating that the OLPC model is that adults should be excluded from the use of the computers, that somehow any time teachers are helping and guiding the kids, that's a failure of the OLPC model. Of course it is not.

What OLPC has said is, in effect, "We think giving every child a laptop is so important, we will not let the lack of a qualified teacher, or literate parents, or a specifically trained teacher, or a reliable source of electricity at home, or anything stand in the way." And they say, in effect, "We cannot know what will work and what should be taught in every village. Local customization and innovation will arise." But the point was never to not include teachers, the community, the nation, etc.

These videos portray OLPC working exactly as it was envisioned. Vota's remarks are typical of one strain of OLPC criticism which I generally have avoided commenting upon. The basic form is "OLPC is doing it wrong, they should do 'X.'" Where "X" is either exactly what any of the principles on OLPC have designed OLPC to do and have implemented in their (decades of) previous experience, or "X" is a simplified version of that.


Wayan said...

Before you make a jackass of yourself, do note that its Thai children in the video, not Nepali. And those "weird noises"? Classical Thai music. Educate yourself.

Next, if you follow OLPC as closely as I do, you'll hear time and time again how Nicholas Negroponte believes that children should educate themselves without teacher interference, an implementation miracle with OLPC magic.

Thankfully, Ministries of Education and local OLPC groups (like Nepal) are not just "passing out laptops like textbooks" but investing heavily in teacher training and curriculum development, so OLPC will be seen as a strong compliment to, not a weak replacement for formal childhood education.

Tom Hoffman said...

Apologies my "Nepal" gaffe. I spent a lot of time chatting with Nepali hackers on IRC this year, and now I seem to think everyplace in Asia is Nepal.

Nothing in the Wikipedia pages on Thai music gives me any reason to think the kid in the first video is playing Thai music, unless there is an unrhythmic, unmelodic tradition played on some kind of instrument which allows continuous notes to be bent across a very large range. Perhaps some kind of giant, one stringed, bowed lute? If anyone can produce an example of classical Thai music that sounds like this, I'll stand corrected.

Again, Vota shamelessly misrepresents even the quotes he links to on his on site. For example, I find Negroponte saying "Yes. Well, several things. Let's talk a bit about the child sort of teacher relationship. Many people worry about it, say that, you know, the teachers are in control and then really they would lose that control. Well, I know many parents who ask their children for help and then tell me that the parent-child relationship actually benefits. It doesn't deteriorate. There is an esteem that the child gets, and a pleasure the parent gets. And we hope that that transfers one-to-one to teacher-student. And when we go into a village, you work with the teachers first to give, as the person who asked the questions said so brightly, self-confidence, enough self-confidence to let the children teach them."

The point has never, ever been to exclude adults from the process.

Wayan said...


Negroponte says a lot. You quoted from his Al Jazeera interview, which is rather recent and I think is starting to reflect the reality that he has to accept teachers to sell laptops.

In his earlier talks, he wasn't so consolatory. I'll now quote from his DLD interview:

"Or some of the teachers won't show up, or the teachers will have a 6th-Grade education at best. So, if you look at that and you say to yourself: "How do I fix that? How do I deal with that?" It is not by training teachers, it is not by building schools. In all due respect, it's not about curriculum or content. It's about levering the children themselves."

Which, by itself seems benign enough, until you find out his impression of teachers from his Net Events speech:

"Now when you go to these rural schools, the teacher can be very well meaning, but the teacher might only have a sixth grade education. In some countries, which I'll leave unnamed, as many of as one-third of the teachers never show up at school. And some percent show up drunk. So really, if you are going to affect education, you cannot just train teachers and build schools. That will take you the next 30 years and it's a long and slow process."

Then again, I was actually in the meeting where he talked about OLPC's Implementation Magic, and his attitude, which does not come across in the text, was condescending to educators at best.

Odd considering he's a university professor.

Tom Hoffman said...

But the argument has never been to exclude teachers. It is simply that there is value in getting the computers into kids hands regardless of the quality of their teachers.

But anyhow, it took me about two minutes to find some statistics on teacher absenteeism in the developing world:,,contentMDK:20824881~pagePK:64165401~piPK:64165026~theSitePK:469382,00.html

It appears to be a real problem, not just some fantasy of Negroponte's. Interestingly, one of the ways to improve teacher attendance, according to the World Bank (yeah, I know, we'll take their word for it for the moment) is "better daily incentives" and infrastructure. Perhaps like, say, laptops for them and their students?

Bill Kerr said...

I had an exchange, along with Sylvia Martinez, in a discussion thread of OLPCnews in april with wayan and others (Teacher training needed for software success ). I decided then that wayan was misrepresenting Negroponte by selective out of full context quotation. If you have the patience read the comments thread.

I wondered why he did that and persisted with it when the full context was pointed out to him. He repeat his "magic" critique mantra about Negroponte over and over. The Big Lie (distortion)technique.

Then I discovered that he was big in geek corp and geekcorp was funded by Intel and Intel hated the OLPC. At that point I stopped wondering. I get the feeling that Intel is still working very hard to undermine the OLPC even though they are now on the board.

Perhaps unfairly - Wayan is complex and does say important things from time to time. But the overall thrust of his energy is to tear down an inspirational project. There is a difference between constructive critique and toxic critique in the overall way in which it is presented, its nuances and emphasis. It makes me both sad and angry that a talented person like wayan who could help this great project focus so much on the negative. What a waste. He chases the headlines but there are volunteers putting in many hours just because they see it as a great cause.

Gnuosphere said...

"teacher absenteeism in the developing world"

From what I witnessed regarding many schools around me when living in Africa, this is an unfortunate and very real problem...along with other problems such as corporal punishment, overcrowded classrooms, and lack of resources. It was disheartening (yet a valuable eye-opener) to be near that.

Of course, we must be careful not to generalize and be aware that even in the worst conditions there are good teachers making good things happen. However, it is naive to state that Negroponte's remarks are "condescending". These problems are actual and worth pointing out.