5 minute read

Today’s IADB event, Reinventing the Classroom, brought together thought-leaders, practitioners and government officials to discuss the role of technology in education in Latin America. In sum, it was a lot of preaching to the choir. This particular choir, however, hailed from many different churches, temples, cathedrals, and bazaars.

Everyone present believed in the importance of technology in education, but there was enough differences in opinion and methodologies to keep it interesting. It ranged from presentations on real-world experiences of projects in Portugal using a variation of the Intel Classmate to projects in Brazil and Argentina to the amazing Plan CEIBAL of Uruguay, using the OLPC XO. Presenters extolled the virtues of free and open source software as well as the familiar Windows XP.

By the end of the day-long seminar, I felt an odd mix of hope and despair. Hope because of the vibrant communities on the periphery creating documentation and curricula, beginning with things like last weeks mini-book sprint, Class Acts, creating a set of inspirational stories to help teachers see the potential of the OLPC in their classrooms.

Despair because core problems aren’t changing, and haven’t ever changed. One presenter (names withheld, but can be re-insterted – presentation webcasts and documents should be available at the first link above) drove home the point with this quote:

“I believe that the laptop is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.”

The actual quote reads “motion picture” instead of laptop, and was penned in 1922 by Thomas Edison.

Nicholas Negroponte used the following analogy, which reminds us of the hassles of repeating history on two levels; paraphrasing:

Imagine that I have a technology that will change the quality of life. The right thing to do is to set up a pilot project to test this technology, then go and measure the benefits of that technology, and then -- very scientifically -- evaluate the technology before rolling it out. This sounds reasonable until the I say that the technology is electricity.

He used this to explain the dire need to accept laptops as the undeniable key to the future of education. And true, while in hindsight electricity has proven a very, very valuable technology, we have to remember that at the outset, you had people – Thomas Edison again in fact – electrocuting elephants to prove that AC electricity was dangerous. And yes, both Youtube and Wikipedia have the video.

Even today countries wrestle with the question of if and how to extend their electrical grid or provide otherwise for rural electrification through off-grid technologies. In a resource-constrained system, sometimes you have to settle for the possible, not the ideal.

To be fair, Negroponte touched on this with a nod to a new focus on driving the cost of the OLPC down and promoting the hard numbers on the OLPC Total Cost of Ownership presented by CEIBAL, and I don’t want to dwell any longer on his analogy.

The important note, going forward, is not to repeat past mistakes but to start to learn from them – beyond simply doing more or using different technology, but by beginning to approach the problem differently.

Having so many different viewpoints as were provided by the presenters today is a good start.