The community first: subverting the dynamics of putting technology in the classroom

For the nth time, the OCDE, in its Students, Computers and Learning. Making the Connection report, warns us about how technology is not changing academic performance in schools… unless other variables are taken into account — that is for academic performance as it is (quantitatively) measured today: there are, of course, other outcomes, like digital literacy, e-inclusion and social inclusion in general for the student and the family which, to me, are oftentimes successfully met.

Put very shortly, the thing is that there is quite a lot of evidence that what has an impact on academic performance is changes in methodologies. If ICTs (laptops, tablets, smartphones, interative whiteboards, but also blogging, microblogging, social videos, social bookmarking, etc.) have an impact it usually comes indirectly by having an impact in teaching and learning methodologies.

Unluckily, most projects that aim at putting in the classroom (apologies for this imprecise, generic and especially misleading concept) have been focusing almost exclusively in putting hardware and software in the classroom (that is why the name, all in all, may not be misleading at all) and spend little time and budget to everything else around technology.

But, how does one design a project that has an impact on methodologies? Well, the usual answer is training. But training raises several questions and issues:

  • Who trains he trainers?
  • How does the trainer build upon experience?
  • How does the trainer build a reputation?
  • How does the trainer build a legitimacy?
  • How is this training sustainable?
  • How is this training replicable?
  • How is this training scalable?

I think what these questions have in common is a community.

Now, summing up, what educational technology projects usually have done is: they devote all the funds they have to buy technology or digital services, while their main asset, the community, usually remains unattended. Sooner or later, the project runs out of money and thus cannot go on. On the other hand, the asset upon which the project could rely is not put in motion and thus does not trigger the springs and levers that could create the necessary changes for the project to be laid on strong foundations. Yes, this is a cruel simplification, but it is not very far from a general truth: we lose our minds on technology and forget humans.

So, what could be one? It seems that just the opposite direction could be a good starter.

  1. Identify a community of interest, that is, find who the motivated people are and see how they are connected.
  2. Work to shift the community of interest into a community of practice, by making their members share what they do. This will require resources to make sharing easy, comfortable, worth it. Most resources, though, will not be aimed at technology (e.g. a social networking site or platform) but to engage people and build on trust and reputation. It’s called facilitating. And it mostly relies on humans too.
  3. Help the sharing of practices turn into knowledge sharing, so that the community becomes a community of learning: learning by doing, learning by sharing, learning by engaging, learning by dialoguing.
  4. Contribute to raise the tough questions: learning is more about asking rather than answering. With luck, a diagnosis will emerge: where are we, where do we want to go, what do we have, what do we have not.
  5. Some of the things we have not will be knowledge: bring some structured training in.
  6. Some of the things we have not will be technology: bring the technology in.
  7. And back to #1.

In my opinion, it is important to stress that points #5 and #6 are not exactly the same training and technology as in traditional educational technology projects. Firstly, because the decision of which training and which technology comes not from a top-down perspective, but from a bottom-up one. It’s the community who produced the diagnosis and, thus, it’s the community who proposed the solutions (either in training or in technology). Secondly, because the diagnosis did not only identified the gaps or shortages, but also the assets. It may well be, for instance, that the collective found out that most students already have laptops or tablets, and thus the funds can be addressed only to buy devices for those who do not have them and only for them. Or, maybe, that there are other community resources that can be put in motion to fill that gap in, such as libraries or telecentres. Or that some people know some things and willing to share them with others in some formal way (course, training session). Many other examples can be found related to technology or — and most relevantly — to training.

Another matter to be highlighted is that the concept of community (of interest, practice, learning) goes way beyond a sectoral understanding of the concept. When thought of from a top-down approach, the community is educators, teachers. When thought from a bottom-up approach, the definition of community is much wider. The good think about a wider sense of a community is that it will take into consideration all the assets available (inside and outside schools) and it will build a much more strong consensus while it is reached. And both — assets and consensus — are the cornerstones of sustainability, in whatever sense (economic, social…) one may take it.

The importance of the context and the human factor. A reply to ‘The OLPC Correlation With MOOCs’

Óscar Becerra has just written The One Laptop Per Child Correlation With Massive Open Online Courses where he compares the OLPC project with MOOC initiatives.

In a nutshell, the Becerra argues that MOOC should not be compared to other higher education initiatives or institutions, but to what MOOCs can bring to “non-users” of education, as the OLPC should be judged not in comparison to schools, but in comparison to “non-schools”, that is, no educational institutions at all.

I mostly agree with the author, but there are some omissions that are very worth being mentioned… as they may place us, at least, in a more sceptic point of view. Or, in other words, nor may MOOCs might be compared with a comprehensive and affordable educational system and neither should the OLPC be compared with the total lack of alternatives.

First of all, it just happens that education is not about the apprehension of content, but about transforming information into knowledge. Or, in other words, education is about empowerment. Quite often forgotten, there are two kinds of MOOCs: connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs) and non-connectivist MOOCs (xMOOCs). While I find the former empowering, the latter I find them not: just an interesting but mere channel of content distribution. Unfortunately, cMOOCs are rarely dealt with and only xMOOCs are the ones being discussed. Like the article in question. Thus, comparing a non-empowering tool like xMOOCs to a supposedly empowering tool, like the OLPC, is a difficult exercise to do.

Education, empowerment, or development, on the other hand, do not happen in the void, but in a given context. A personal context. A personal starting point. And there is increasing evidence that one’s starting point will tell whether one will improve or worsen one’s situation with a given tool, e.g. laptops or MOOCs. We call this the knowledge gap hypothesis and there are many examples on how public libraries, access to newspapers and information, or laptops in the classroom have a multiplier effect: if you’re in a good position, you’ll do better; if you’re in a bad position, you’re very likely to do worse. So, what is the position of these “non-users” that have now access to the OLPC device or to a (c)MOOC?

Last — and very related with the previous point —, development or empowerment is not only about the existence of individual resources and the possibility to use them, but the personal will or emancipative value to want to use them. Welzel, Inglehart & Klingemann called this the having the objective and the subjective choice of development (to which we have to add effective choice, of course).

Indeed, our last point summarizes the first point (access to MOOCs seen as objective choice) and the second one (the knowledge gap hypothesis as subjective choice).

And there are two common issues in our three points: context and the human factor. Context of the user, both the exogenous context (the socio-economic status, their community, etc.) and the endogenous context (level of education, mental and physical health, etc.), both of them determining what will happen with the objective choice. And the human factor as the facilitator or enabler, which will guide the objective choice through subjective choice into effective choice — again determined by the context provided by legal and cultural framework.

So, MOOCs can be compared to the OLPC in the sense that they both provide good tools to “non-users” of education, but I would refrain myself to say that they both, by themselves, provide rough alternatives to the educational system. Not by themselves.

TIES2012 (IX). Educational projects based on laptops in the school

Notes from the III European Conference on Information Technology in Education and Society: A Critical Insight, in Barcelona, Spain, in January 1-3, 2012. More notes on this event under the tag ties2012.

Educational projects based on laptops in the school

Jesús Valverde, María José Sosa, María del Carmen Garrido (Universidad de Extremadura).
Expectations of educational change before “one laptop per child” or “1:1” projects in the classroom.

Evaluation of the project “Escuela 2.0” in Extremadura (a region in south-western Spain)

In projects based on laptops in the classroom, there has been a dominance of technological innovation over pedagogical innovation, without the educational community taking part of the decision-making, and with insufficient support of the educational system to this new organizational and conceptual model.

Surprisingly enough, ICTs tend to preserve the traditional teaching styles, and the “adaptation” stage usually takes quite long, as teachers do not take up on new roles.

Innovation happens without the support of either formal teams (e.g. departments) or informal teams (e.g. social networking sites), thus leading to frustration: only those that work collaboratively, share experiences, help others “survive”. Technological and organizational problems only come to worsen the situation.

Conclusions for policy:

  • Necessity to build a community of teachers.
  • Training in educational centres, with the help of virtual learning environments.
  • Enhance the role of the ICT coordinator with a trainer in the same area of knowledge of the teacher.
  • Strengthening of the technical support and improvement of infrastructures.

Fernandez Olaskoaga, L.; Losada, D.; José Miguel Correa (Universidad del País Vaco).
1 to 1 model: An implementation study in the Basque Country.

Evaluation of the project “Escuela 2.0” in the Basque Country (a region in northern Spain)

Prior to the “Escuela 2.0” state-wide initiative, there already was a 1-to-1 initiative in the Basque Country. The state-wide initiative “only” implied a change of model, but not the development of a brand-new project.

“Escuela 2.0” provided netbooks for the kids, wifi connectivity in the classroom and digital classrooms (mainly digital interactive whiteboards).

An initial training was also scheduled, but only consisted in a very small test on general “computer science” knowledge. “Eskola 2.0” (the basque version of “Escuela 2.0”) introduced some more training by programming several workshops. At last, a digital material aggregator was created (Agrega) where schools would upload their digital production.

Eskola 2.0 had three axis:

  • A provision of resources: one laptop per child.
  • A technological training, based on the TPACK model.
  • Digital materials, uploaded to the Agrega initiative.

The teachers of the project answered a survey on the expectations about the project.

The most interesting outcome of the survey is that, in the short run, it was good to get devices (laptops, whiteboards) but that the rest (training, information, educational model, etc.) was negative or very negative.

In the medium run, though, the teachers expect to have the opportunity to follow some training, that there will be some pedagogical innovation, that the communication with families might be enhanced.

Telma Panerai; Gomes de Carvalho, A.B.; De Souza, B. (Universidade Federal de Pernambuco).
Embedding digital culture in some public schools in Brazil: the case of the one laptop per child.

One of the biggest problems in Brazil when it comes to the use of computers at school is cost. Cybercafes are an option for accessing the Internet or using a PC, but still, it does cost money. On the other hand, international connectivity is far from being optimal.

The first OLPC projects in Brazil started in 2007. In 2010 the project got to Pernambuco (a poor state in north-east Brazil). 4,000 laptops where provided to a 26,000 inhabitants city: that was quite a shock. Students would own the laptop, which provided both empowerment and responsibility… and the possibility of being robbed up. The computers were made by the Brazilian firm CCE and were called “uquinha” (small UCA, from Um Computador por Aluno – one laptop per child).

An action-research project was conducted from June to December 2010.

Students quickly stablish a process of digital immersion. The teachers, on the other hand, were anxious and insecure in the pedagogical application of the laptops, fearing loss of control. The learning process, though, was deeply changed: more students attended classes and the way they learnt was transformed. Public spaces were also reshaped, as students used them to access the Internet or study.

Noemí Martín; Cabré, J.; Sampé, M. (Universitat Rovira i Virgili).
Dialogical learning in a digital society: the experience of a rural school in Ariño.

(project in a rural school in Ariño, Teruel, a rural province in middle-east Spain, quite isolated from its surroundings)

How has the usage of ICTs in a rural area? How has affected learning? And kids’ lives?

What means “dialogic”? A dialogue amongst all the members of the community, where goals, means and processes are acknowledged by consensus.

The centre decided becoming pioneer in adapting ICTs in learning and evolving into a learning community. The centre, thus, went through different projects since 1999, ending up adopting the state-wide programme “Escuela 2.0”.

The project has implied new ways of learning, but also new social relationships, new relationships between the two local schools (which operate under the centre’s guidance), etc. Motivation of students increased, as did academic results. Families also were more implied in the learning process of their children, learning too how to operate computers, how to use them to learn, etc. And not only kids learn more, but master different competences that are understood to be crucial in an information society, like problem solving, autonomy, etc.

Discussion

Joan-Anton Sánchez: how can we go from the laptop as a mere digital container to a learning tool? A: it depends on your starting point. If, like in many Argentinian schools, books are scarce, having 100% of the children having a (digital) textbook that is a great improvement.

Joan-Anton Sánchez: laptops as institutional infrastructure or bring your own device? Again, it depends on whether the student already got an own device (and the new one is just an added cost) or the device is but a means to overcome the digital divide.

There is a growing consensus among the participants that more resources should be devoted to training, but not to courses or workshops, but to building communities of practice, not relying these communities of practice on everyone’s good will, but on liberating resources or workload for specific leaders.

III European Conference on Information Technology in Education and Society: A Critical Insight (2012)

Cheap technologies for Developing Countries

I’ve been recently interviewed by e-mail by journalist Ignacio Fossati. He put clever questions that made me think, which I really appreciated. Some of my answers were grounded on plain evidence, but other were just my own opinion — arguably all of them. As most of the interview dealt with “cheap technologies for Developing Countries”, such as the OLPC project, and we’ve been having some debate lately here, with Teemu Leinonen or at Peter Ryan‘s, I thought I’d share them here, so the debate can go on.

In bold characters, the questions; the answers following.

Cheap laptops, what do you think their acceptance will be like in developing countries? Do you think it will be a success?

Personally I think that they will undoubtedly have some acceptance. In part because there already is a government demand, but in my opinion, they will above all get into these countries through the private sector. The great success of Negroponte and his OLPC project has not been to create a new device, but breaking the spiral “more powerful hardware – new software demanding more hardware power – more powerful hardware – new software demanding more hardware power – etc.”, and showing that it is possible a good hard with a limited soft and vice versa.

Once broken this dynamic of “more, more, more,” the private sector will enter with force into a market of billions of potential users so far neglected because they could not afford that “more hardware, more software.”

I also believe that the mixed model pda+phone (smartphone) can be an interesting trojan horse, given the high penetration of mobile and the already numerous management applications for cellulars in those countries and that have been very successful.

Do you think the production of low cost laptops is the best way to extend and promote the use of computers in the Third World?

Absolutely not. But with two shades/comments.

The first one is that it has already been demonstrated — in developing countries, but in developed countries as well — that the user (citizen, Administration, firms) should see some use (and benefit) in the computer or the Internet. If not, once large infrastructures have been installed (e.g. wire) these will clearly be unused or underused. The laptop, without some clear uses in its design, has neither present nor future.

However, and this is my second nuance, this computer, accompanied by an intelligent design in the field of uses (e.g. a teaching method based on distance education, educational content embedded by default on the computer, a learning plan of shared learning within the family, etc.) can be a spearhead that will break the natural rejection that most of us adopt in front of a new technology.

Therefore, it is by no means the solution, but may be part — and, in fact, be the most attractive sometimes — of a comprehensive plan to promote the Information Society based on content and services.

These proposed low-cost products for developing countries (laptops, mobile phones, cars …), can actually help to reduce the gap of the digital divide?

This question has a short answer and a long one.

Of course, all that implies mainstreaming Information and Communication Technologies helps to narrow the digital divide, by definition: more technology, less gap. Elemental.

The long answer has three parts.

The first, and we discussed: the technology is useless if not used. All in all, and like any technology, the computer is just a tool, for communication and information in a digital world. If, in the end, we cannot access neither information nor communication, the gap remains.

Which brings us to the second part: quality. It is now already (almost) more worrying the quality of Internet connection that the penetration itself: many services require increasingly broadband to operate optimally. Therefore, if these low-cost products have, in addition, low performance, their contribution to bridging the digital divide is also tiny. We should not be thus confusing cost with performance.

Last, the digital divide is a reflection, a derivative of the socio-economic gap. In this regard, if these devices do not reduce poverty or increase welfare, sooner or later, the digital divide will widen as currently are social inequalities. We would then be putting a patch or attacking the symptoms rather than the disease.

Is there room for a number of competitors in the market for low-cost computers?

At the state we are in, we have to count connected computers. According to the statistics, 17% of the population in the World is already connected. So there still is a 83% left to be covered. Moreover, if we include both homes and businesses, we can potentially achieve (as happens with telephony in many countries) more than 100% penetration. So, effectively, and in theory, there should be room for everyone.

Of course, the problem is not supply, but demand: who among these 5.5 billion people can afford to be connected? That is the question to be solved. Mobile telephony, low-cost computers, wi-fi and mesh networks have provided a good bunch of examples of people who previously could not afford connectivity and that now can. And other examples have shown that, if there is a way to make the cost worthwhile (by reducing other costs due to use of technology), this is usually not a barrier.

Do you think that behind this “solidarity rush” hides an unreported trade war?

Businesses, by definition, with their owners and stockholders behind, are not nonprofits. And that’s it. They look for profits: this is their role and we should not make value judgments on this issue.

What is reprehensible is when these firms try to convince us of otherwise, or, much worse, when they harm others with their economic activity.

Almost 90% of the money that goes into research and development is spent on the development of technologies to serve 10% of the richest people in the world. Could this trend be changed or is there something being done in this matter?

I fear that the capitalist system works this way. We need to generate surplus value to satisfy the owner of the capital, and this can only be achieved by selling to the one that can pay, which is the richest.

It occurs to me, however, two ways to reverse this trend:

The first one, the more usual one, is trying to socially share the profit beyond benefiting a few stockholders. It is the model of most agencies for international cooperation, development aid and private foundations and NGOs in general.

The second one is the opposite: try to have more people that can buy things so that 10% becomes a 20%, 30%, etc. That is, betting for the development of the poorest to enable them to be good consumers, so that they “count” on the global scene.

Simplified example: we may investigate malaria (which does not affect the majority of developed people) and provide free vaccines as a way of sharing the wealth (in kind in this case), or we can increase the purchasing power of people who suffer from malaria so they can make demand for vaccines grow and hence the market believes that it is a profitable market to do research in this disease.

Both options have been supported and criticized simultaneously, by people working in development cooperation and solidarity: on the one hand, considering the most disadvantaged as a mere consumers (and squeeze them for profit) is something inhuman; on the other hand, is a way to make development more sustainable in the long run, abandoning charity (which would be the first option presented before) for further development in the strict sense.

But this is another debate ;)

Update:
The piece of news finally got published on March 26th, 2009: El bajo coste llega a los países en desarrollo