Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Computers Can't Eliminate Poverty

I recently read a particularly cynical take on the effort to distribute computers to children in impoverished areas of the world:
What a child needs is to be sequestered from human contact with the latest technology. A third world educational initiative should be conducted in the manner of an experiment in developing the cognitive power of chimpanzees. Feel the techno-idiocy: it burns.

I remember this idea getting serious momentum years ago until it was pointed out to some of the philanthropists that the places they were planning to distribuite computing to didn't have electricity. Now they've figured out how to put solar panels in the things, so its let them eat laptops: the sequel.
In fairness to the cynic, the actual proposal literally involved "tak[ing] tablets and drop[ping] them out of helicopters", unaccompanied by "any adults or teaching resources" to "see if the tablets could be used to teach them to read without additional instruction", with allusions to the Coke bottle in "The Gods Must Be Crazy", an approach that does seem rather absurd.

Thomas Friedman's recent column on an initiative to distribute inexpensive tablet computers to children in India brought it to mind, sharing a second-hand account of a maid's reaction to learning of the program:
"'What can you do on it?’ she asked me. I said, ‘If your daughter goes to school, she can use it to download videos of class lessons,’ just like she had seen my son download physics lectures every week from M.I.T.’s [OpenCourseWare]. I said, ‘You have seen our son sitting at the computer listening to a teacher who is speaking. That teacher is actually in America.’ She just kept getting wider- and wider-eyed. Then she asked me will her kids be able to learn English on it. I said, ‘Yes, they will definitely be able to learn English,’ which is the passport for upward mobility here. I said, ‘It will be so cheap you will be able to buy one for your son and one for your daughter!'"
I think that a decent computer, along with an adequate source of power and access to content, can be a powerful learning tool. But let's be honest here. Even if we assume that they have access to quality instruction, most kids aren't going to spend hours staring at the screen of a notebook computer trying to learn math or English. We may be dealing with a particularly motivated population of students and parents, but even within that context there is going to be a lot of frustration and failure. Hardware is the easy part - creating and distributing quality, up-to-date, accessible software and content is costly and difficult. Even if you create it, absent strong motivation it's likely to be underutilized.

If a school district were to propose to Friedman that it was going to totally eliminate classroom instruction in favor of having kids buy notebooks, no verification of Internet access, lessons and content to be developed at some point in the future, I would hope he would be skeptical and critical. This type of technology distribution is much more of an "every little bit helps" approach than a magic bullet.

I would like to see India push forward and invest the necessary money in content, software and infrastructure to make distance learning a reality for every one of the nation's children. Even if we assume only 5% of kids will actually see a significant benefit, advancing academically at or above 'grade level' despite a lack of access to schools and teachers, or using the computer to push beyond what they can learn in class, that's a lot of kids. Although I agree that you can't eat computers, it is not likely that the kids who most need this type of program will have reasonable, equivalent access to educational opportunity.

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