Growing Up With Nell
November 1, 2012 6:52 AM   Subscribe

Last year, folks speculated that the One Laptop Per Child's plan to 'drop laptops from helicopters to isolated villages' in Ethiopia might mean that someone had been reading Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age a bit too closely. (previously) They had been, and they did it, and it worked really well.
posted by peripatetron errant (121 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite

 
So they didn't quite drop them from helicopters, they set them, still boxed, at the edge of the villages. And then they watched, via software and then visiting in person months later. I'm just so excited that someone has started to build something like The Illustrated Primer.
posted by peripatetron errant at 6:57 AM on November 1, 2012


Still skeptical that this is a good use of resources or isn't just another these people need a honky vanity project.

Sort of related: why your desire to work with Cambodian orphans is not actually a good thing.
posted by MartinWisse at 7:03 AM on November 1, 2012 [18 favorites]


This is sweet, but remains to be seen if there are long term benefits, if this is sustainable, or if it is replicable.
posted by k8t at 7:07 AM on November 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


What these kids accomplished is awesome.
posted by evening at 7:07 AM on November 1, 2012 [6 favorites]


The English language pre-loaded seems a bit er... colonial thinking?

I like the fact it took them less than a year to start hacking it.
posted by edgeways at 7:08 AM on November 1, 2012


The English language pre-loaded seems a bit er... colonial thinking?

English is the default language of every operating system, every programming language, medicine, aviation, engineering and telecommunications...
posted by thewalrus at 7:09 AM on November 1, 2012 [18 favorites]


Still skeptical that this is a good use of resources or isn't just another these people need a honky vanity project.

I'm not 100% sure this is meant to literally be a "good use of resources" - I don't think anyone's arguing that this is more efficient than, say, some minimal training. I see this more as a kind of proof-of-concept/experiment to verify that formal training is probably not nearly as important as many people think it is, and that "good uses of resources" may well be best directed to, eg, building more stuff rather than worrying as much about extensive training in using said cool stuff.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:10 AM on November 1, 2012 [14 favorites]


So they conducted an experiment and remotely collected data from a population that they had no buy-in with, didn't make any efforts to co-design with, and never collected consent from?
posted by codacorolla at 7:13 AM on November 1, 2012 [17 favorites]


I like what OLPC tried to do (open software/hardware), but I think there are more complex things than the technology that they conveniently glossed over. Global distribution of cheap laptops is one, and creating robust educational environments being another. I think this is an attempt to make up for the unscalable elements of their program, and ones that they did not consider important.

Also, it irritates me that there is no external validation of their program. The reason, according to Negroponte, is that they are outside the conventional paradigm. This is just too arrogant. They should be comparing a few different approaches over time. Then saying "Dropping laptops from the sky" is a good thing because it costs X per child and has this measurable benefit. Instead, you end up with words and personality driving the argument.

The fact the Negroponte uses the sentence "Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera!" is quite telling about his character. At one talk I saw him become extremely angry at the idea that more than technology was needed to solve the problems of the world and he became quite insulting to his fellow panelists (who were all Harvard/MIT faculty) that were suggesting healthcare, infrastructure and public safety are all critical elements of development. One of them told him to be civil or to stop talking.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 7:14 AM on November 1, 2012 [12 favorites]


Do the computers actually get equally distributed? Are they considered valuable commodity items? Just because there's one for every child in a village doesn't mean there won't be children who horde them, or parents who take them away, or people using them as bargaining chips.

This isn't to say that I don't think this project has value. I'm just very curious about how the actual objects are dealt with in a daily way.
posted by Mizu at 7:15 AM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


English won. Get over it.

Wait, what's this? Engrish? It's changing and will become unrecognizable as English soon enough thanks to influence of all the other languages?
Even better.
posted by entropos at 7:16 AM on November 1, 2012 [6 favorites]


So they conducted an experiment and remotely collected data from a population that they had no buy-in with, didn't make any efforts to co-design with, and never collected consent from?

Isn't the language in this article deeply, deeply patronizing? Sort of "talking dog" language? Also, isn't it sort of creepy to drop and leave mysterious boxes with no information? Isn't that white people showboating? Would anyone do that in, like, Santa Clara or wherever? No, they would not. Even a project that appeared to leave mysterious boxes around for kids to find would be carefully vetted and there'd be adults who knew what was going on, but because it is rural Ethiopia (which stands in a lot of white westerners' minds for a kind of abject back-of-beyond), well heck, treat people as experiments! The people are kind of a terra nullius, right?

Not to say that it's not cool that the kids figured this stuff out - that is cool! And in many ways I totally support giving people tools and letting them determine how to use them! And I think that if you can't actually work against neoliberalism in other ways, if there are no other efforts you can make, giving people computers as a sort of blank slate project is perfectly reasonable - sure, you may not get as good results as if you had helped out some Ethiopian-run project geared by locals to local needs, but let's just assume that that wasn't an option...since surely these guys would have sought out something like that if it was, right?
posted by Frowner at 7:21 AM on November 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


Also, what would the webcams have been used for if they had been active? To actually spy on the users? How do you know that these expensive electronic devices were being used by children? What form did data collection take? How do you measure learning if you have no direct contact with the population? This has so many holes in it that I absolutely can't take it at face value with a thin position paper from a conference and a breathless write-up in some tech blog.
posted by codacorolla at 7:21 AM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Granted, I'm a layman with at best an undergrad-level understanding of the forces at work, but I would like to shit on this project to show my visceral opposition to colonialism.
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:24 AM on November 1, 2012 [53 favorites]


The English language pre-loaded seems a bit er... colonial thinking?

My NGO employs over 1,000 staff in our Ethiopia office and our IT there are some of the best in our entire global organization. Doing some really forward thinking internal systems architecture design and whatnot in their spare time, which they have a lot of, because they are good at their jobs in the first place so they aren't constantly fighting fires.

Even they don't know how to program in Amharic.

Anyway, I think this is a net positive, even if it isn't being done perfectly yet or by the best people or with the most equal distribution or with the best accountability and tracking measures in place. We can tear it apart all we like - that's what we're good at here at Metafilter - but I strongly suspect we'll look back at this event years from now as a bellwether we didn't really understand in its own day.
posted by allkindsoftime at 7:29 AM on November 1, 2012 [30 favorites]


Interesting, but I have questions...

These kids had never seen an on/off switch, so presumably had never seen an electric device, so there must have been instructions on how to charge it with the solar charger, right? But the article says no instructions. Maybe it's possible that a kid could figure out that this connector fits here and this shiny bit needs to be in the sun...?

What exactly did the kid learn to do in 5 months that they're calling "hacking?" How did he 'figure out' that the device had a camera to enable when he'd presumably never seen a camera or a written word? It seems more likely that the kid was playing around with the prefs and toggled on the camera.

And yeah, how do you justify tracking/studying human beings without their consent? Is this any better than radio collars?

It'd be interesting to see a story written by a journalist about this, but I guess that's too much to ask in today's world.

Upon Google, here's a slightly less breathless article that states, among other things, that the adults in the village were taught how to use the chargers. There are more details in the comments, too, where someone involved posted that they worked closely with the Ethiopian Ministry of Education, and that these kids had certainly seen technology before.
posted by Huck500 at 7:31 AM on November 1, 2012 [55 favorites]


This article contains some weird-ass incredulity masquerading as admiration that smells of colonialism and just a little white privilege.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 7:32 AM on November 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


allkindsoftime - maybe all of the things they claim are true, and the project is unconditionally good, but the problem is that the process is bad. So when other folks try to do the same thing in a culturally sensitive manner, with proper external validation and so on, their work (or the individuals) are not recognized because the limelight has been snatched through a careless experiment that is not credible.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 7:34 AM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


So they conducted an experiment and remotely collected data from a population that they had no buy-in with, didn't make any efforts to co-design with, and never collected consent from?

And yeah, how do you justify tracking/studying human beings without their consent? Is this any better than radio collars?

Jesus, everyone doesn't work in academia and live and die by in IRB. And comparing computers to radio collars is ridiculous.
posted by nooneyouknow at 7:37 AM on November 1, 2012 [15 favorites]


Class lll violation of the Prime Directive. Someone is not policing!
posted by Phyllis Harmonic at 7:39 AM on November 1, 2012 [9 favorites]


Holy shit, this brought tears to my eyes. The ingenuity, curiosity, and latent capability of humans is simply amazing.

So, apparently, is the ability to just shit on that and nitpick and pull apart and criticize. Have fun guys, I'm going to be sitting over here with my awe.
posted by nTeleKy at 7:41 AM on November 1, 2012 [42 favorites]


Upon Google, here's a slightly less breathless article that states, among other things, that the adults in the village were taught how to use the chargers. There are more details in the comments, too.

Thanks, Huck500. That article and the comments (especially one from Ed McNierney) provide a lot more context about the experiment and how it was set up. Issues of consent were addressed about as well as they could be under the circumstances: "I'd also like to emphasize that the project began with the support and endorsement of the Ethiopian Ministry of Education, and the team has worked closely with the MoE and the adults in the villages to explain the project and recruit their support".
posted by rory at 7:41 AM on November 1, 2012 [10 favorites]


codacorolla: So they conducted an experiment and remotely collected data from a population that they had no buy-in with, didn't make any efforts to co-design with, and never collected consent from?

Foisting Western notions of "buy-in, co-design and consent" on a completely different culture seems a bit Colonialist to me. What are the conventions around social science experimentation in Wonchi and Wolonchete?
posted by Rock Steady at 7:42 AM on November 1, 2012 [8 favorites]


I'm pretty quick to knee-jerk about development projects and privilege and colonialism, but this seems kind of incredible. I'd suggest you separate the article from the project, for one thing - I expect that the implementers of the project know much more about the situation in these villages than this article suggests. For one thing, this article explains:
Ethiopian technicians had taught adults in the village to use. Once a week, a technician visits the villages and swaps out memory cards so that researchers can study how the machines were actually used."
Before you get all het up about things, do a little more research and see if it's worth the vitriol. It seems like, actually, they went about this in a pretty culturally sensitive, controlled, and replicable manner.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:42 AM on November 1, 2012 [14 favorites]


They'll be spamming like Nigerians in no time!

The distance between Lagos and Addis Ababa is equal to that between Moscow and Lisbon. But they're all pretty much the same, right?
posted by theodolite at 7:44 AM on November 1, 2012 [22 favorites]


Foisting Western notions of "buy-in, co-design and consent" on a completely different culture seems a bit Colonialist to me. What are the conventions around social science experimentation in Wonchi and Wolonchete?

Generally, when you want to experiment on somebody, you ask them first.

Although the other article does offer a bit more information, which makes it seem like there was consent gathered at some level.
posted by codacorolla at 7:44 AM on November 1, 2012


I wish some actual anthropologist or sociologist would write about this experiment. This article is the worst sort of self-congratulatory bullshit. I'm particularly offended by the way they set these Ethiopian folks up as some sort of isolated primitive society that has had the Fire of Knowledge brought to them by our Prometheus Tablets.

The article specifically asserts "the kids (and most of the adults) there have never seen a word. No books, no newspapers, no street signs, no labels on packaged foods or goods. Nothing." I'm very skeptical of that claim; seriously, not even text on a shirt? And even if it is factually true, the "few" adults who understand what writing is presumably had a lot to do with teaching the kids what to do with these things.
posted by Nelson at 7:49 AM on November 1, 2012 [11 favorites]


Upon reading Huck500's link, this seems a whole lot less colonial and problematic. However, I really want to know how these children are progressing. They are using the ABC song and one boy wrote "lion." These are anecdotes and actually tell us very little. The changing of the desktops is another thing- was this all done by a single enterprising student or was this taught to the rest?

This is encouraging, but is a press release, not actual information.

On preview, Nelson said it better than I.
posted by Hactar at 7:50 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


The article is indeed fairly patronizing (its criteria for success are without reference to local culture), and Nicholas Negroponte is a strongly divisive figure ("no human intervention" except, you know, the humans in the community), and the entire project is potentially very colonial depending on how it continues.

The fact of what they did in this round -- to look beyond hardware to software that could adapt to the user, the learner, the local environment and promote active engagement between people without an Authoritarian Mediator at the front of A Classroom -- that's nothing short of amazing. The pedagogy is revolutionary, and the fact that it worked for much of any learning is amazing.

They got out of the kids' way more than they ever have before. I encourage y'all to look at the PDF for that part of the story. Following links and googling the authors turns up a little more about their research methodology (which did eventually involve permission, and in-person data collection), but not much because it's still pretty new.

Being an educator and designer involved with software development, and active in the educational game/software/research community for the last 12 years, I can tell you that once this finds its way out of dubiously colonial experimentation, it's changing how your kids learn.
posted by peripatetron errant at 7:51 AM on November 1, 2012 [13 favorites]


The reach of simile is unconstrained by geography or culture, theo, which is part of its glory.
posted by Segundus at 7:53 AM on November 1, 2012


Let's not try to help anyone because we can't do it perfectly.
posted by chavenet at 7:54 AM on November 1, 2012 [21 favorites]


Huck500, thank you for that link. A few minutes' sleepy googling this morning didn't turn that up, and it's much less breathless.
posted by peripatetron errant at 7:56 AM on November 1, 2012


Oh man, peripatetron, I missed the whole "no human" part. Here's the actual quote
We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being.
No human being; just the subhuman primitives in the village.

(OK, I'm being uncharitable, maybe he meant to say "no human from OLPC being accompanied the tablets". But with Negroponte, it's hard to be certain. He means well, he really does, but his arrogance is breathtaking. He's be more offensive if he didn't devote most of his life to doing good things.)
posted by Nelson at 7:57 AM on November 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


I really don't know whether these kids are any good at "hacking", but I'm pretty certain that Negroponte is extremely good at promoting himself.
posted by Skeptic at 7:57 AM on November 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


In an interview after his talk, Negroponte said that while the early results are promising, reaching conclusions about whether children could learn to read this way would require more time. “If it gets funded, it would need to continue for another a year and a half to two years to come to a conclusion that the scientific community would accept,” Negroponte said. “We’d have to start with a new village and make a clean start.”

I'm somewhat worried that their reading levels may differ from those being taught to read by teachers and these kids will be looked down upon in the future. Not that I have any basis to for that fear, but this all seems very odd.

On the one hand, it's not surprising, because kids are built to learn. That's more or less their entire function, how they're wired, to learn as much and as quickly as they can. So yes, they learned to flip and switch and follow the programs and what not. Totally cool. But what's the next step here? Build a school? Hire a teacher? Or just more gawking at all the neat things kids can do?

but I strongly suspect we'll look back at this event years from now as a bellwether we didn't really understand in its own day

Great, Skynet is going to be built by Ethiopian kids. We'll have newer Terminator models politely getting out of the way for older models.

"No, no, honored T-800, by all means, take the first shot at the humans. Then we shall use their heads in a football match, oh yes."
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:02 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


No human being; just the subhuman primitives in the village.

Clearly, in context, it means: "We left no instructions, we left no human being." I think folks are being a bit hysterical about this sentence.
posted by not that girl at 8:03 AM on November 1, 2012 [14 favorites]


What, exactly, do you mean by folks?!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:06 AM on November 1, 2012 [15 favorites]


I think finding ways to be offended is just the MeFi way of interacting with an article.
posted by zscore at 8:11 AM on November 1, 2012 [46 favorites]


The lofty wording of OLPC's PR arm is always kind of off-putting in a white-man's-burden sort of way. I want to know why this didn't happen:

1. Mysterious box of tablets appears in village
2. Kids start playing with tablets
3. Adults confiscate tablets, go to regional hub city, sell tablets for pennies on the dollar
4. Proceeds used to buy desperately needed essentials
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:11 AM on November 1, 2012 [9 favorites]


So, apparently, is the ability to just shit on that and nitpick and pull apart and criticize.

What's missing here is context. OLPC has been around for a decade and a half and has made a lot of grandiose claims during that time. The independent evaluations of their impact have been less than stellar. So a report like this comes along, it's fair to greet it with skepticism.

My own anecdata is that I worked in educational technology for the better part of a decade and I find there's a lot of projection in the way most people approach education. Techies desperately want something like OLPC to be a magic bullet because it validates their worldview. The numbers don't tend to back that up yet.

Anyway, I really appreciate what OLPC is trying to do, and their heart is in the right place. I hope they succeed. I'm skeptical because they started from their own personal biases rather than data, and there are a lot of presumptions built into that. As long as they're not draining resources from other projects, though, I'm glad to see they're still doing their thing.
posted by phooky at 8:13 AM on November 1, 2012 [12 favorites]


I like this.

I do not like how people consider this some sort of 'experiment'. I see it more of a 'hold my beer, I want to try something' sort of thing in that nobody's trying to do anything with these results. The study really wasn't very scientific itself, since it didn't have a theory, or any premises really. It was just an observation.

Of course, if you want to go and say that the addition of these devices will have sociological impacts on the cultures they've been introduced to, you can. But remember, it's been done before.

Edit: to say that I'm aware that my link is a movie, and not a real-life-thing. But if something as simple as a soda bottle can theoretically have the same sort of impact, then really we're all sort of nitpicking here.
posted by Blue_Villain at 8:15 AM on November 1, 2012


I've worked with a lot of OLPC people, I'll try to get their opinion, but this is what I guess:

This has always been the holy grail of constructivist learning: just provide building blocks, computers, tools, etc. and the kids will figure out how to learn.

There are always issues with this approach (is OLPC the best use of money, is it colonial, etc.) but one of the biggest has always been with the theory. It may be that some kids figure out how to learn this way (the kids who grow up to be the sort of people to whom this sort of learning is appealing), and there are probably a lot of others - the vast majority - to whom this sort of learning doesn't work. It is why there always needs to be some discussion, debriefing, or teaching to make computer-based learning effective. It is why the Diamond Age's Young Lady's Illustrated Primer is the dream - because it acts as a sophisticated adaptive tutor, as well as a constructivist learning platform.

Some people are natural hackers - and this approach may work for them, and that is deserving of praise and wonder. But in the breathlessness of the article, and the often dubious claims of OLPC, make me wish that I could see more about who this works for, and why, and who gets left out....
posted by blahblahblah at 8:21 AM on November 1, 2012 [10 favorites]


You don't make people into good Americans by giving them tablets. Bibles is what they need; bibles and lots of guns, and leave em to it.
posted by Segundus at 8:21 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]



I'm pretty quick to knee-jerk about development projects and privilege and colonialism, but this seems kind of incredible. I'd suggest you separate the article from the project, for one thing - I expect that the implementers of the project know much more about the situation in these villages than this article suggests. For one thing, this article explains:

Ethiopian technicians had taught adults in the village to use. Once a week, a technician visits the villages and swaps out memory cards so that researchers can study how the machines were actually used."


So basically, this article is colonialist bullshit that pretends that white dudes airlifted in technology to a group of totally ignorant people, figured as "primitive" "never seen written words", etc, and pretends that they did this project with no involvement with actual Ethiopian NGOs, government, etc, and no involvement with village adults...basically, the article wants to posit Magical Exoticized African Children who do not need parents, a support system or any kind of social network to become proto-programmers....sort of a libertarian vision of social change.

And then it turns out that whoa, this was actually a project with Ethiopian input, the kids had support, the Ministry of Education is involved, that although we don't know the long-term outcome it wasn't actually some random colonialist nonsense...

I nominate the linked post for one of those "How Not To Write About Africa" stories that goes the rounds every once in a while.
posted by Frowner at 8:22 AM on November 1, 2012 [36 favorites]


I do not like how people consider this some sort of 'experiment'. I see it more of a 'hold my beer, I want to try something' sort of thing in that nobody's trying to do anything with these results. The study really wasn't very scientific itself, since it didn't have a theory, or any premises really. It was just an observation.

They're proposing an intervention, testing its results, and attempting to draw causality from their data. I'm going to be holding that beer for an awfully long time.
posted by codacorolla at 8:26 AM on November 1, 2012


[Folks, please use the edit feature just for typo corrections please.]
posted by jessamyn at 8:26 AM on November 1, 2012


But if something as simple as a soda bottle can theoretically have the same sort of impact, then really we're all sort of nitpicking here.

I think you're still confused about how movies work. The fact that your claim is similar to a movie plot doesn't actually lend any more weight to your claim. A movie plot isn't any closer to "being real" than other kinds of make-believe.

Another thing that's sort of depressing is the power of people's willingness to believe in magic solutions to big problems. It's like the alternative medicine of global development: one cure for every disease. Also, I've got this spinal readjustment treatment I can sell you.
posted by Nomyte at 8:27 AM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeah it is pretty obvious there is more to the story. The kids weren't taught but it seems the parents know what is going on.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:28 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Maybe some of y'all would have a more tolerant view of this if you think of it as big weird interactive art project. It seems to be about as close to that as to a science experiment.
posted by echo target at 8:33 AM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


And yeah, how do you justify tracking/studying human beings without their consent? Is this any better than radio collars?--Huck500

Do you use Google to do searches? Do you let your smartphone track where you are? (Do you use its GPS?)

We are all wearing radio collars these days.
posted by eye of newt at 8:41 AM on November 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


When I was a kid in Brunswick, GA, I was in our elementary school system's "gifted program." We didn't have computers in school. The one time I came in contact with an Apple II, I only got to use it for a few minutes, and it was a piece of software I didn't have much interest in, decided by the teacher. Another student got to use Rocky's Boots, and I was deeply envious.

If someone had outright given me a OLPC device, I probably would have exploded out of joy.
posted by JHarris at 8:42 AM on November 1, 2012 [8 favorites]


The gods must be crazy
posted by destro at 8:44 AM on November 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


Spoilers for The Diamond Age below.

It's funny that this is all inspired by The Diamond Age, because it's missing a crucial component of that book. For all the Illustrated Primer's artificial intelligence and computational power, in the end Nell's education and upbringing relied just as much (if not more) on Miranda, the ractor acting out all the roles in Nell's Primer. Miranda and Nell are as much mother and daughter as is possible when neither even knows who the other is. The other two girls who have Primers in the story grow up very differently, partially due to the relationship each forms with their invisible narrators. (They also have very different life experiences, but you should probably just read the novel if you don't know what I'm talking about.)

And when someone tries to recreate the Primer on a massive scale to educate hundred of abandoned Chinese infant girls, the effect is different—they all grow up to be resourceful, intelligent women like Nell, but they lack the independence Nell has. I wouldn't be surprised if Stephenson's ideas about Chinese versus Western culture plays into this characterization, but the in-story reason for why this happens is because the mass-produced version of the Primer relies not on an individual ractor, but on an automated, artificial narrator.

In other words, the technology without Miranda (or the other narrators) is not exactly useless, but not very useful if your goal is to raise a child. And much of that technology was built specifically for the purposes of educating a small child—there's interactive, adaptive story tech that still goes far beyond what's commercially available today. The tables the OLPC project dropped into that village? They have none of that. That doesn't mean the exercise isn't valuable, but it's definitely not going to create a new generation of Nells, or even a Mouse Army—at least, not the way Stephenson envisioned it happening.
posted by chrominance at 8:46 AM on November 1, 2012 [7 favorites]


And as long as we're on this techno-evangelism wave, let's look at another technology that has become amazingly pervasive in the benighted regions of the world just within the last 15 years: the cell phone.

Lots of people in developing and third-world nations own cell phones and can use them well. Even people in slums, people without much or any formal education, very poor and heavily marginalized populations.

Venture capitalists aren't airlifting cell phones to remote regions. We don't see a lot of entrepreneurs crowing about the magical potential of the cell phone, despite the fact that it took the world practically by storm. I suspect it's because the humble mobile phone doesn't have the techno-romance appeal of "kids! on the Internet! with computers!"

One can also add that despite their very rapid spread, cell phones seem to have done little to level social and economic inequality, which is something that magical computers always seem to be promising to do. And that's kind of the thing: we want a one-time final solution to all these humanitarian problems, "Give 'em a computer and we just might not ever need to give them anything again!"

The problem is that there are certain geopolitical, historical, economic, and agricultural constraints that don't go away because of computers. A nation full of highly educated individuals can still be resource-poor, or be dominated by the economic or political interests of a regional power. Or, heck, China, Russia, or the US might decide that a successful nation presents a challenge to their global interests and stage a coup or initiate a border conflict or cap gas exports or something.
posted by Nomyte at 8:48 AM on November 1, 2012 [13 favorites]


The one time I came in contact with an Apple II, I only got to use it for a few minutes, and it was a piece of software I didn't have much interest in, decided by the teacher

Yep, the teacher hovered over us constantly scolding that we were typing too hard and would break the computers.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:49 AM on November 1, 2012


they set them, still boxed, at the edge of the villages. And then they watched, via software and then visiting in person months later.

isn't this an analog of what the aliens are doing with all of us?
posted by philip-random at 8:56 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Eh, I expect the reasons people don't airlift cell phones into the developing world is because they're already widespread, and people have been doing amazing things with it across the developing for a while. Look at the origins of Grameen Bank and services like Mpesa. You can get a cheap phone in Cote d'Ivoire for the equivalent of maybe 10 dollars that will play and record video, store mp3, take pictures, and take calls from the middle of the rainforest because that is the infrastructure that's been developed.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:59 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I mainly came in to see how long it would take somebody to dump on this as a form of colonialism / white guilt / paternalistic thinking. Nailed it in two comments. You just keep on being you, Metafilter, you magnificent blue bastard.
posted by ga$money at 9:09 AM on November 1, 2012 [8 favorites]


Because you already knew that there could not possibly be any colonialism/paternalism about this project, and that got brought up in the discussion it's just, what, a wet blanket? Totally unjustified?

Frowner's comment seems right on to me: So basically, this article is colonialist bullshit that pretends that white dudes airlifted in technology to a group of totally ignorant people, figured as "primitive" "never seen written words", etc, and pretends that they did this project with no involvement with actual Ethiopian NGOs, government, etc, and no involvement with village adults...basically, the article wants to posit Magical Exoticized African Children who do not need parents, a support system or any kind of social network to become proto-programmers....sort of a libertarian vision of social change.
posted by rtha at 9:17 AM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Eh, I expect the reasons people don't airlift cell phones into the developing world is because they're already widespread, and people have been doing amazing things with it across the developing for a while.
Exactly.

Real game-changing technologies like cheap and widespread wireless communication are pulled into these communities by members who can see the need and use them as tools. They’ll happily pay for the service along the way and use it to build lasting economic benefits. Meanwhile, lab-grown techno-utopian laptops for children have to be secretly left at village edges by MIT missionary-elves who cheerily gloss over the agency of locals when telling the story. These villagers are not idiots, just connected on a delay; if the OLPC was worth anything they’d have imported it themselves by now.
posted by migurski at 9:19 AM on November 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


> Foisting Western notions of "buy-in, co-design and consent" on a completely different culture seems a bit Colonialist to me.

Expecting that those being used as subjects in an experiment give their consent isn't foisting Western notions on a different culture, it's asking the investigators to abide by the ethical standards of their own culture.
posted by Panjandrum at 9:23 AM on November 1, 2012


I'm disappointed by people dismissing criticism of this article as "Metafilter just likes to hate on things". I dislike that aspect of Metafilter as much as anyone, but there's actual substantive discussion here that's worth addressing.

Why does the criticism of the paternalism in this article matter? Because this kind of development project is important. I firmly believe information technology, particularly the Internet, can improve the lives of folks in the poorest and least developed nations. I have no problem if a bunch of rich Americans want to fund technology projects in villages that don't even have clean water; let different groups help in their way. Internet access is the 21st century literacy and I want that available to all people. I'm 100% OK with the goals of OLPC.

But development projects only succeed with intellectual honesty. This breathless article vapidly repeats Negroponte's own narrative, that he is Prometheus bringing the tools of knowledge to the primitives. But that's arrogant bullshit. The real story is no doubt far more interesting. Without understanding, say, the role of adults in helping the kids use the tablets no one will learn anything about how this kind of technology intervention can work. Instead we just get some bullshit self-aggrandizement wholly uneducated by 100 years of sociology and anthropology.
posted by Nelson at 9:28 AM on November 1, 2012 [13 favorites]


Techies desperately want something like OLPC to be a magic bullet because it validates their worldview. The numbers don't tend to back that up yet

Ignoring the terrible way that the article is written and framed, I think the fact that kids who otherwise would not have access to expensive computer equipment are able to hack is about all I expected or wanted OLPC to be. It obviously is not going to fix the huge structural problems that make it worse to grow up as a poor kid in a poor country than it is to grow up as a rich kid in a rich country. It might not even be an especially efficient or effective way of providing general education to those kids. But as someone whose life was fundamentally changed and made better by having access to computers growing up I am all for handing out computers to any kids anywhere and letting them do whatever on them. I would probably feel the same way about handing out skateboards if skateboarding had changed my life instead.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:28 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


The road to hell is not paved with good intentions. It's paved with cynicism.
posted by srboisvert at 9:28 AM on November 1, 2012 [8 favorites]


You should see the articles about the Ethiopian kids who dropped off boxes of reality on the edges of the Media Lab campus and then gathered round web cams giggling as yet another professor is captivated by the endless potential of the human spirit.
posted by fullerine at 9:31 AM on November 1, 2012 [13 favorites]


What exactly did the kid learn to do in 5 months that they're calling "hacking?" How did he 'figure out' that the device had a camera to enable when he'd presumably never seen a camera or a written word? It seems more likely that the kid was playing around with the prefs and toggled on the camera.

Yeah, the "hacking" part is what makes me most skeptical about this whole thing. How exactly did it happen? Did they turn on some preference? Did they use some software created by someone else, ala a jailbreak? (If they had internet access at all, though I assume they didn't) I'm quite certain no one dived into the source code and hacked the kernel, though. Especially since I assume the tablets didn't come with full hardware and software documentation.
posted by ymgve at 9:33 AM on November 1, 2012


I'm just glad we're dropping things on brown people that don't explode.
posted by mecran01 at 9:41 AM on November 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


I'm disappointed by people dismissing criticism of this article as "Metafilter just likes to hate on things". I dislike that aspect of Metafilter as much as anyone, but there's actual substantive discussion here that's worth addressing.


Metafilter does like to hate on things. But…In this case I’m not hating, I simply don’t believe this story as presented. Set aside the weirdness of the language, colonialism, etc, and admiring the good intentions and charity; I don’t think this is a true story.
posted by bongo_x at 9:43 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


> I think the fact that kids who otherwise would not have access to expensive computer equipment are able to hack is about all I expected or wanted OLPC to be.

Except the OLPC crew continually frames the project as a literacy campaign at its core, but doesn't appear to be running any comparisons to other methods of improving literacy. That's its flaw, that the method was decided upon a priori and thus anything other than a total failure thereby "proves" the method because there is no comparable project. OLPC may be patting themselves on the back for seeing evidence of literacy in the children, and good for them, but all they've proven is that doing something is better than doing nothing.
posted by Panjandrum at 9:44 AM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm just glad we're dropping things on brown people that don't explode.

Just give it time.
posted by ymgve at 9:46 AM on November 1, 2012


I see this more as a kind of proof-of-concept/experiment to verify that formal training is probably not nearly as important as many people think it is, and that "good uses of resources" may well be best directed to, eg, building more stuff rather than worrying as much about extensive training in using said cool stuff.

Given that that would contradict pretty much every lesson learned in development work over the last six decades, I think you can color me skeptical on this one.
posted by Forktine at 9:50 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the "hacking" part is what makes me most skeptical about this whole thing. How exactly did it happen? Did they turn on some preference? Did they use some software created by someone else, ala a jailbreak?

The better article linked by Huck500 above explains it in slightly more detail. Basically they were running custom software to lock down the system settings and the kids were able to figure out how to circumvent that security. Which at least in my opinion counts as hacking even if they didn't actually modify the firmware or anything.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:52 AM on November 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


My two year old nephew figured out an iPad pretty much instantly. I let some poor Mayan kids in the guatemalan highlands play with my iPad for thirty minutes and came back to see 100 funhouse pictures they took of themselves with the Photobooth filters.

I have absolutely no doubt that everything in this story is true. Kids are learning machines.
posted by empath at 9:53 AM on November 1, 2012 [13 favorites]


Look, if you're one of those people who's constantly scanning the horizon for new things to be offended about, I'm sure you'll find this project deeply offensive. I could imagine some of you trekking out to the Ethiopian desert to take the laptops back from the children. And as they cry and beg for them back, you'd wag your index finger at them and be all like, "No, no, no, no, no, it's just too colonial!" I bet you give out bags of carrots to trick-or-treaters.

Meanwhile, to everyone who still has some joy left in their souls, this project comes across as completely, totally fucking awesome! I mean, they're basically giving underprivileged children the coolest fucking toys ever! Best case scenario : the kids learn things! Worst case scenario : you're still giving the kids the coolest fucking toys ever! Dear god, my first computer was an Apple IIc. It barely had graphics. These laptops can basically do anything, and have the potential to tap into a literal world of knowledge. And you look me in the eyes and tell me that isn't completely, totally, unbelievably fucking awesome? Psssshht.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:59 AM on November 1, 2012 [8 favorites]


ah crap.

Colonial schlamonial. It beats the hell out of cutting their hair and telling them that their culture sucks. Odds are some of these guys are going to have a better idea.

Interface w/therestoftheworld. What could go wrong? The thing is, the future is already out of control, thank goodness. The new paradigms are lurking in the shadows. This is where we get told that the sun no longer evolves around the earth. Might as well get used to it.
posted by mule98J at 10:03 AM on November 1, 2012


There's a big difference between a toy (even a really good educational toy that teaches problem-solving within a limited domain) and a technology on which one can do genuinely useful tinkering and learn to seek out new problems.

But the difference isn't inherent. It's contextual.

In the US, in the 1940s, radio was a place for real tinkering. Lots of techies in that era grew up tinkering with tube or crystal radios — Feynmann writes about earning money as a kid by replacing blown vacuum tubes in his neighbors radio sets. Every engineer I've met above a certain age has at least a passing familiarity with ham radio. It was, for a whole generation of future programmers and engineers and scientists, the ideal playground for learning how to do experiments — not just for acquiring "problem-solving skills" but for things like learning how to spot an interesting problem in the first place.

And what made it that way was, it was genuinely useful and important in people's lives. You could find interesting problems just by talking to people: "Gee, I wish I got better reception here" — "Huh, yeah, that's interesting, I wonder what's causing that."

Now radio isn't like that. People buy new ones instead of fixing them. They're not crucial for most people. And anyway, you can get good robust solutions out of the box for most problems, for cheap enough that it's not really worth tinkering. Young engineers aren't doing ham radio. And if they did, it wouldn't be as educational for them, because they'd have less incentive to seek out problems of their own accord. You can do the projects in a book, but that's not flexing your scientific muscles in the same way, because it's solving a puzzle that someone else set you rather than finding your own puzzle out in the world.

Now in the US it's computers. And so it's tempting to see computers as the universal best training ground for scientists and engineers, the same way we would have seen ham radio back in the 40s. But in the rapidly-developing part of Guatemala where I work, the Future Engineers and Future Scientists of the community aren't really interested in computers. There are computers around. And kids are getting taught to use them, in the hopes that they'll move to the city and get white-collar jobs. But where I'm seeing the most actual interest and innovation and tinkering activity is (a) cell phones, (b) small engine repair, (c) sound systems. These are technologies that fill the same niche as radio in the US in the 40s, and personal computers in the US today: they're ubiquitous, they're relatively cheap, they're important, they're fully integrated into people's daily lives, they afford endless small practical problems waiting to be solved, and if you get good at it you can put food on your family's table by selling a useful service to your neighbors.

I don't know what that technology is in rural Ethiopia. Sounds like they're off the electric grid, so maybe not cell phones or amplified sound — though if they've got cell phone towers around, bringing in cell phones with a solar charging system seems like a no-brainer for an NGO looking to help people and spark kids' curiosity. Otherwise, I dunno. (Bicycles? For Japan, after World War II, it was bicycles...)

Anyway, it seems to me that the lesson here isn't "computers are the Right Way to teach kids to tinker" but "kids sure do like to tinker with things, and will surprise you with their aptitude for it." My hunch is that bringing in any sort of gadget that afforded this sort of tinkering would have had a similar result — and that bringing in tinker-able gadgets that were of immediate value to the community might have had better results, by giving a stronger incentive to seek out and solve problems.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:11 AM on November 1, 2012 [30 favorites]


t seems like, actually, they went about this in a pretty culturally sensitive, controlled, and replicable manner.

Glad to hear that and I'm willing to be cautiously optimistic about it. But just based on the way the experiment was described in the first article I read about it, I wondered if the tablets booted up with the opening notes of Also sprach Zarathustra.
posted by fuse theorem at 10:11 AM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


(Tl;dr: the problem here isn't "these guys have a colonial mindset and their very goals are offensive." It's "these guys have made a simple logical error; they're not pursuing their goals in the best way." They've fallen into the trap — which crops up in schools here in the US too, FWIW — of thinking that Computers Are Inherently Educational, instead of recognizing that tools are educational, and that computers don't always count as tools.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:17 AM on November 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


This isn't just about the kind of blindered "colonial" mindset that assumes progress in developing countries is making them into variably hued Western societies, it is also very fundamentally about whether this project has any merit:

- What are its actual goals?
- What percentage of children are meeting those goals and how quickly?
- How effectively does this program meet its goals compared to other programs?
- Is this program cost-effective compared to other programs?
- What are the long term effects, if any, of the program?

These questions don't even address what happens when the tablets suffer a software or hardware problem.

I don't see this kind of introspective evaluation from the OLPC group; they appear to think that just dropping the tablets off is progress enough. They just kind of hand-wave away criticisms that instead of dropping "the coolest fucking toys ever" they could be dropping much larger amounts of antibiotics and mosquito nets, using the money to build schools & libraries, implement Safe Water System programs, or doing a dozen other things that have been proven to have measurable benefit and are cost-effective and scalable.
posted by Panjandrum at 10:23 AM on November 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


For people who actually want to learn.

Does Metafilter even try anymore? At least one consolation is that most of the jokers here who prattle on about colonialism probably waste more time watching reality tv or what-not than actually invest their time and energy in helping world's unfortunate -- but battle on ye armchair yahoos!
posted by Shit Parade at 10:32 AM on November 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


I work in a rural village in Africa, and all the time we see people/orgs who just show up, dump a bunch of computers at the local school or whatever, and then leave. I'm sure somewhere those people write these shiny project reports about "X number of computers delivered to impoverished communities!" but I've seen what happens to physical resources dumped in by outsiders who haven't really worked to figure out what the local people are interested in, or ensured that people are trained or even feel local ownership over the project.

Best case scenario, the computers are used until they break -- at that point since no one really knows how to fix them, or feels any ownership for them since they were just sorta dropped off by outsiders, they end up dumped in some closet.

I don't get why people are acting like those of us pointing out how these projects can be problematic, are like, shitting on everything that's good in the world. I'm not even talking about colonialism. There are plenty of really awesome projects out there that can affirm your faith in humankind. Just from my personal experience I'm pretty skeptical of the breathless nature of this article.

If the project was indeed better-planned than the article makes it appear, it does raise some questions about why the article (press release?) portrays the project as something it's not.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:39 AM on November 1, 2012 [14 favorites]


nebulawindphone, I think you've seized on an important question for the entire OLPC project here (which I'm in no way affiliated with, other than watching its successes and trainwrecks). What I found fascinating about this particular project, though, is the question of whether software could reasonably adapt to the user, and whether it could mostly bootstrap basic curricula as well as its own usage.

The question is, in the realm of software and computers as well as in many other fields, how you bootstrap self-directed learning. I think that is a valid question regardless of whether computers are ultimately the best end for these people in this place at this time - or other people/places/times.

The OLPC project are committed to figuring out the computer version of that question, and this is an important step. Questioning the premise of OLPC itself, while very useful, isn't going to help us learn from this article, project. But it is a very good question to ask.
posted by peripatetron errant at 10:43 AM on November 1, 2012


I spent my commute thinking about this thread and Laptops, Generally, and how unintentionally worldview-bound Negroponte’s underlying assumptions are. My first laptop was a G3 Powerbook in 2000, and I still had a desktop computer for a few years after that until I went 100% mobile in 2003 onwards. Today in my office, everyone has laptops even if they don’t use them as mobile devices. On transit, though, I see a lot more tab and pad devices: smartphones, Kindles, iPads, etc.

The laptop has an assumed network of technologies and affordances that are a perfect fit for an urban knowledge work experience wrapped around it, from AC wall power to WiFi networking. Even here in SF, though, I see parts of that network breaking down: cafe owners covering up power outlets to discourage table squatting, or offering the internet password only on purchase of food & bev. Laptops are being replaced by devices that have their own network connections and charge from USB. Customizing a device becomes less important when your work and communication actually happens on a remote server.

The “L” in OLPC is on the wrong side of this shift, enshrining a mid-2000’s technoutopian mindset into a supposedly humanitarian project. It responds to environmental constraints by digging a trench around the central laptop concept: no power grid? Add a hand-crank. No network? Try a wireless mesh. No operating system literacy? Bake a new one from scratch. I’ve never heard of anyone from the project ask whether perhaps the laptop itself might be an inappropriate way to deliver on the educational goal, and it forces me to conclude that education is an excuse for developing a technology project, rather than the other way around. We’ve been here before.

I’ve never been to MIT, but if it’s anything like Stanford where I spend a bunch of time then I imagine that it’s well populated by the kinds of people whose lives were deeply touched by technology, who have considerable means thanks to the economic relevance of their education, yet lack basic sensitivity to contexts outside their own. nebulawindphone describes the shift away from general purpose computing devices to general purpose communication devices like cell phones, and it’s clear to me that Africa has decided where it wants to focus: villagers choose to support a massive, home-grown mobile communication industry but they’ll wait for the white knights of MIT to come to them with their green plastic computers.
posted by migurski at 10:49 AM on November 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


If they could find a way to teach the straw men in this thread then you'd have a mouse army.

The article was shit, Negroponte god bless 'im is about as culturally nuanced as Dawkins is a feminist and when there's a multi-century history of exploiting the ever-loving fuck out of a populous then perhaps it's best to keep one eye on your blind spot when engaging with them.

But you know, it's great you learned about sprites once.
posted by fullerine at 10:50 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is more than just some philanthropic effort to get technology to kids in Ethiopia, it's a research project that purports to draw conclusions about the best way to use technology to teach children. My issue with it is that I don't know their methods, their stated limitations, the data that they collected, or the process by which they contacted the population that they're studying. If you want to draw conclusions that are as radical as 'kids only need computers to learn' then you better explicitly detail how you came to those conclusions.

This is aside from the contextual knowledge about OLPC's weird political leanings.

Although I guess I should probably I apologize to anyone's day that I've ruined by being skeptical of a radical claim in a poorly written blog post about a project with very little actual information released about it.
posted by codacorolla at 10:53 AM on November 1, 2012


What if you take the colonialism aspect out of the story? Suppose the computer were delivered by time machine to a typical 1950s American school, and the students discovered the same things that the Ethiopian students discovered. How do you react to the story?

If it's "What these kids accomplished is awesome", why can't you feel the same about the actual story? Maybe it's actually patronizing to the Ethiopian students if you hate because of the possible colonialism aspect.
posted by ShooBoo at 11:05 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


nebulawindphone, I think you've seized on an important question for the entire OLPC project here (which I'm in no way affiliated with, other than watching its successes and trainwrecks). What I found fascinating about this particular project, though, is the question of whether software could reasonably adapt to the user, and whether it could mostly bootstrap basic curricula as well as its own usage.

Fair point, peripatetron. I suppose this might just be a framing issue. OLPC seem to think of themselves as a humanitarian organization. They present themselves as a humanitarian organization. AFAICT they seek funding like they're a humanitarian organization.

If what they're actually doing is some sort of crosscultural fieldwork on UI design and human-computer interaction — well, okay, that's actually a really cool research project, and I would love to see it done. But in that case let's see a control group and some statistics, or at least some more solid ethnography. "We performed an intervention and watched for heartwarming events" is not a good methodology for evaluation. "Heartwarming events occurred" is not an experimental result.

From here it looks like this wasn't great development work and it wasn't great field research either. Maybe I'm underestimating them. The publication linked in the article looks like it was written before they started sending these off to Ethiopia, and it doesn't really talk at all about evaluation. If it turns out they were doing well-thought-out evaluation all along, and got some useful results out of the whole thing, then hey, good for them. But right now it really looks like they're half-assing a research program that deserves to be approached with the whole ass.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:10 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


The whole concept of 'consent' is what I personally find objectionable here. The fact that one would expect it would imply that there is a hierarchy in place, as in the higher party would be required to obtain consent from the lower party. That is the same sort of 'informed consent' that we use in the medical field, where the physician 'knows more' than the patient, and it is the responsibility of the physician to inform the patient as best possible.

I do not know a better way to explain this phrasing of 'consent', or any other dichotomy where two very different cultures are in play.

In this scenario it's that hierarchy that I find problematic.

Quite possibly because the term 'consent' comes pre-loaded with additional meaning. But without that additional meaning the term consent loses any meaning entirely.
posted by Blue_Villain at 11:19 AM on November 1, 2012


Some people are natural hackers - and this approach may work for them, and that is deserving of praise and wonder.

You know, I'm thinking that this is probably how Negroponte learned, and probably how many geeks learn. But we all know that geeks are a pretty small overall fraction of the population.

It seems to me that if you give kids this kind of thing, some of them will indeed be able to bootstrap themselves to a higher level. And, in turn, they may be able to teach their friends and other people, and may eventually become experts in transmitting learning.

Obviously, civilization has done this before, but why bootstrap the whole thing? What about all those people who aren't quite smart enough to do it this way? And what about the people who aren't even vaguely smart enough? Their lives will end up impoverished because they didn't have the help they needed, when they needed it. Education during childhood is far better than education in adulthood.

It seems to me, in other words, that this a tool, one that can work for some children, but relying on it as the only tool is going to move the bar in poor countries a lot slower than it otherwise would. There's a lot of people there, so there will be many brilliant hackers, but that's such a small overall percentage that it seems foolish to focus so much energy and attention just on them.

As Occupy would say, this program is for the 1%, but what about the other 99?
posted by Malor at 11:28 AM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Can we get a link to the village?
I'm really hoping one of the Ethiopian kids will jump into the thread here and give us their view on this post.
posted by DaddyNewt at 11:31 AM on November 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


The whole concept of 'consent' is what I personally find objectionable here. The fact that one would expect it would imply that there is a hierarchy in place, as in the higher party would be required to obtain consent from the lower party. That is the same sort of 'informed consent' that we use in the medical field, where the physician 'knows more' than the patient, and it is the responsibility of the physician to inform the patient as best possible.

This is possibly getting off-topic, but I think you can frame research ethics in a way that doesn't assume this sort of hierarchy. (Hell, I think you can frame medical ethics in a symmetrical way.)

How about this: if I'm an experimenter and you're a participant in my experiment, then neither of us should violate the other one's consent. I shouldn't slip you drugs without telling you what they do. You also shouldn't slip me drugs without telling me what they do — not that there are many people out there who get their jollies by secretly drugging physicians, but, you know, if someone did then that would be Bad. I shouldn't tape-record our conversations without permission. You shouldn't tape-record me without permission. I shouldn't lie to you; you shouldn't lie to me.

The reason we have IRBs isn't because researchers are Godlike Creatures who have Special Responsibilities to go along with their Great Powers. It's because researchers often end up in situations where they're especially tempted to abdicate the normal ethical responsibilities that we all have to each other as humans and as equals.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:37 AM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Blue_Villian, in this case the "informed consent" aspect has less to do with the medical model of explaining risks/benefits, than it does with informing the subjects of the project about their responsibilities as actors in it.

Putting aside the "air-dropping laptops into rural Ethiopia" aspect for moment, OLCP does not appear to be doing a good job in general at working with the teachers and schools that make up the bulk their sites. Even literature from their own wiki indicates that some teachers have felt that the laptops create more work for them, not less, or that they thought they would be receiving some compensation. Conveying what will be required of subjects and what benefits or support they will receive from participating are very basic aspects of obtaining informed consent in socio-behavioral work.

As for the "air-drop" model, that would simply be an abrogation of the villager's basic right to NOT take part, though the involvement of the Ministry of Education and actual visits by technicians seems to mitigate that.
posted by Panjandrum at 11:38 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nothing about us without us is maybe a thing the OLPC people should think about when doing and writing about their projects.
posted by rtha at 11:55 AM on November 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


Shit Parade, assuming you are one of those people who want to learn, you should look over (and into) the study links provided on that page. They don't address the Ethiopian site, focusing almost entirely on 1:1 classroom learning with training on the use of laptops being provided. The reports also do not really address the general concerns that many have voiced here about there being far more efficacious and cost-effective ways of achieving what OLPC purports to achieve.

If you browse through the Outcome Monitoring and especially the Impact Assessment reports, you can see that comparisons to alternatives are non-existent, and that criticisms of the project are mostly ignored. Their outcome measures look at improvement in quantitative data as compared to non-intervention control groups, proving once again that doing something outperforms doing nothing, and that's when improvements actually occur. Several of the reports indicate no, or mixed, benefit.
posted by Panjandrum at 11:58 AM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


The whole concept of 'consent' is what I personally find objectionable here. The fact that one would expect it would imply that there is a hierarchy in place, as in the higher party would be required to obtain consent from the lower party. That is the same sort of 'informed consent' that we use in the medical field, where the physician 'knows more' than the patient, and it is the responsibility of the physician to inform the patient as best possible.

What? Both parties have equal requirements for consent. The OLPC folks are inherently demonstrating that they consent because they're actively initiating the study. If a couple of villages worth of rural Ethiopians showed up in Cambridge MA, demanding that they be provided free computers and have their usage tracked and analyzed, then it would be the Media Lab people who would have to demonstrate consent.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 12:00 PM on November 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


drop laptops from helicopters

As God is my witness, I thought laptops could fly.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 12:12 PM on November 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


they set them, still boxed, at the edge of the villages. And then they watched, via software and then visiting in person months later.

isn't this an analog of what the aliens are doing with all of us?


More like, isn't this what AOL did with all those free CDs they used to send out?
posted by chavenet at 1:19 PM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Issues of consent were addressed about as well as they could be under the circumstances: "I'd also like to emphasize that the project began with the support and endorsement of the Ethiopian Ministry of Education, and the team has worked closely with the MoE and the adults in the villages to explain the project and recruit their support".

Scenes from the Ethiopian dictatorship:
Bruton of the Atlantic Council says that violence against democracy activists, such as the police crackdown that killed nearly 200 people after the country's rigged 2005 elections, is "a deliberate and longstanding policy, and I don't see anything to suggest that [the government] will suddenly have a change of heart." Right now, Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is in charge of the country, with a powerful military, and the party's still-intact central committee lurking somewhere in the background.

Zenawi ruled Ethiopia partly through empowering his own ethnic group -- the Tigaray -- while marginalizing other communities, such as the Ogaden and the Amhara, says Bruton. "The major ethnic groups feel they've been deprived of their legitimate participation in governance because of the Tigrayan dominance of the political and economic aspects of the country," she explains. In such a charged and uncertain atmosphere, she adds, an outbreak of violence or lawlessness could be possible.
The more interesting language issue is that the tablets were also in Amharic in a non-Amharic speaking village. Good thing they had approval from the Ministry of Truth Education... that makes everything all better.
posted by ennui.bz at 2:12 PM on November 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


The irony of people shitting on critical thinking skills in a thread about access to educational tools is killing me.
posted by speicus at 2:15 PM on November 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


The road to hell is not paved with good intentions. It's paved with cynicism.

the compound of asphalt they're using actually requires both earnest (yet ultimately ignorant) good intentions and cyncism; the two do mix rather well
posted by philip-random at 2:36 PM on November 1, 2012


This is awesome. I plan to replicate it by getting some goats, leaving them tied up in food-poor areas of North American cities (but only ones where there are lots of vacant plots), and videoing people as they learn to look after their goats. Then I will write triumphantly and patronizingly about what a great idea this was and how this is the key to solving nutrition problems in American cities. Of course, some people will just look at the goat think 'WTF?' because they've never seen a goat but that's really their problem. Also I will have proved some point about goats and how they don't need a user's manual and that's what is important.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 2:40 PM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's nice that they've found something to do with all those unsold Xooms, though, isn't it?
posted by Grangousier at 3:02 PM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


The lofty wording of OLPC's PR arm is always kind of off-putting in a white-man's-burden sort of way. I want to know why this didn't happen:

1. Mysterious box of tablets appears in village
2. Kids start playing with tablets
3. Adults confiscate tablets, go to regional hub city, sell tablets for pennies on the dollar
4. Proceeds used to buy desperately needed essentials


I'm not meaning to pick on your here, or deny that this kind of thing can indeed be a problem with some development projects. However the answer to your question could be summed up as: Contrary to every image of Africa you see in the West, it is not just some hardscrabble shithole made of up a thorntree, 30 goats, and a starving horde of children and desperate adults.

Like anywhere else in the world, Africa is home to a huge diversity of communities with different levels of stability, community, etc, and in many of those places people actually have "Desperately needed essentials" and are really looking for things that aren't essential to increase their quality of life.

I quite enjoyed a BBC doco from a couple of years back, Welcome to Lagos, which was filmed predominantly in Lagos' slums. I enjoyed the way it went beyond the stereotypical images - people fossicking through piles of rubbish, for example - to actually flesh out the lives that make those snapshots.

You can watch the first ep here.

I note the series was not without controversy, predominantly from wealthy, and/or expat Nigerians. Make of that what you will.
posted by smoke at 5:06 PM on November 1, 2012 [6 favorites]


A telling comment above noted that teachers in schools where computers are put in feel that they create more work, not less. And that's absolutely true. How can we get kids computer-literate without completely over-burdening the adult teachers? Who, in turn, may be just as computer illiterate as the kids?

What's happened very, very often in Kenya is that computer labs will be set up, but kept under lock and key, barely ever used because of some combination of a) the adults may have no idea how to use the machines, and need to maintain authority by not revealing their ignorance, and b) fear that the expensive computers will get broken by the students.

In those circumstances, radically different approaches are necessary. And something along the lines of just giving tablets to the kids gives a way to minimize work load for the teachers, while giving the students the kind of unfettered access that's necessary to really learn to get GOOD with computers. Fettered access doesn't really work: I'm working with university students right now who showed up with yahoo.com email addresses but no idea how to point a web browser at yahoo.com. This is because their prior computer use has been either tightly controlled in school or in expensive (to them) cyber cafes, where every minute counts. New approaches are necessary.

Up above, we had someone complaining that mosquito nets are probably a better use of money, and someone else complaining that the study wasn't data-driven. You know what else isn't data-driven? Most of Africa. And this is because most African countries aren't producing scientists. At the university I'm working at in western Kenya, the most competitive maths degree is for Actuarial Science; everyone knows it's where the money is. Meanwhile, pure maths gets the worst students. (This is somewhat inverse of what happens in the US, where pure maths gets some of the brightest, and actuarial science isn't so much a degree program as what you do when you master-out of a phd program and decide you need to make a salary.) Now, an interesting data point: There is exactly one accredited actuary in Kenya, in spite of the fact that this university and others are pumping out hundreds of actuarial science undergrads every year.

This speaks to a near-total failure in the country's ability to create scientists. The scientists that do manage to make it do so after Herculean effort in defiance of the circumstances that conspire to make everyone else non-scientists. Often, they skip out of the country to pursue a more productive life. But a few stick around and do some real good. Currently most of the data collection and science is happening through foreign NGO's, who choose the questions they're interested in, maybe with-or-without some kind of collaborative methodology. We need to get the language and tools of science into the hands of more local people, to help them better identify and address problems. Because they've got the local knowledge and connection to make things work in ways that the foreign NGO's simply cannot.

Yeah, it's a shitty article written by people who should probably cry themselves to sleep over the sheer shine of the shit that they've produced, with a slightly better 'experiment' behind it. But the experiment's at least getting at a fundamental problem, one which handing out mosquito nets will never really solve. Even if only one kid in a hundred has that hacker persona and really runs with the tools, it will make the project worth it, I think. On the scale of this project, that would be about ten kids getting some baseline skills to really kick some ass down the line. Even better, they're in a small area and would be able to encourage and support one another. But, yeah, that's something to actually measure as an outcome...
posted by kaibutsu at 5:47 PM on November 1, 2012 [9 favorites]


Negroponte is a Lord of Poverty.
posted by infini at 6:44 PM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


They've been doing this in India since 1999. They call it the Hole in the Wall programme, because the first computer they offered to illiterate slum-dwelling kids was a Windows PC that was, literally, a hole in the wall. The lead dude has also given TED talks on this.

My favourite part of the story: the kids in the original 'experiment' (hate calling it that, but that's what the HiWEL folks themselves call it) called the spinning hour-glass icon in Windows as a dumroo (with all its godly connections). And oh, that the kids figured out how to type English letters even when the organizers did not provide a keyboard. (You go to Windows character map > copy characters > paste in (what was then called) Write/ Notepad)

Which brings me to the other bit about OLPC, and indeed, the MIT Media Lab in general: they showboat a huuuuuuuuge amount.
posted by the cydonian at 6:51 PM on November 1, 2012


I think this is really cool.
posted by Otherwise at 6:58 PM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't buy the "Digerati" viewpoint of computers. When I "wore a younger man's clothes" we had a notion that making knowledge available would level the playing field between the educational "haves" and "have-nots." Idealistic, I know, and hence uncool, but the idea was that you didn't have to be a hacker to use a computer, and especially to use it to learn, even to learn programming. I still have that idea but Alan Kay found with Smalltalk and his Dynabook project 40 years ago, that it's hard, in part because he couldn't find a way to bootstrap learning.

Now this comes along - and Nicholas Negroponte, for all you can find flaws with him, has been at this a long time - and OPLC shows that maybe, just maybe, you can bootstrap learning. Well, I'm not ready to sell my house and buy non-existent stock in OLPC, but I think this is more promising than I've seen in a long time and if it proves out, it could change the way we teach here as well as the rest of the world.

So you all can go shit on it all you want. I'm going to hope they've got something and if they have, you can go to hell!
posted by BillW at 7:14 PM on November 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


drop laptops from helicopters to isolated villages'

related.
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 7:28 PM on November 1, 2012


migurski, you did see that they're not using the classic laptops in this, but tablets, right?
posted by peripatetron errant at 8:08 PM on November 1, 2012


If I use the best yardstick for measuring this ethically, namely how would I feel if this was done to me, I would unreservedly say it was a great positive good. I can't imagine how ecstatic I would have been to have access to a tablet during my childhood if it occurred before I became computer literate. At that age or even now, I couldn't possibly care less about informed consent/IRB issues.

How can people object to learning? You learn every moment you're on this planet. When you stop learning, might as well start shoveling the dirt overtop yer glum mug. And it's not a point of what they're learning being good or bad for them, you learn good and bad all the time. Real life doesn't let you choose to only learn good things. I wish to hell I hadn't learned so much about meth addiction but hey, now that I know it, I can hopefully redirect it to more positive directions.

Maybe Negroponte isn't the best people person or is too egotistical for a front man but I don't see that as a valid reason to shit on this project. I wish them all the best.
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 1:04 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


From the MIT article:

The experiment is being done in two isolated rural villages with about 20 first-grade-aged children each, about 50 miles from Addis Ababa... Children there had never previously seen printed materials, road signs, or even packaging that had words on them, Negroponte said.

I don't know much about Ethiopia, but it strikes me as improbable that people who live 50 miles from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, a city of three million people, would never have seen any writing at all. Like Nelson said above, not even t-shirts? Or vehicles of any kind? Ever?
posted by zippy at 1:41 AM on November 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


If this teaches them English I wonder what the Academie Francaise is planning to do by way of retaliation? If they dump a box of Larousses and a stack of garlic on the edge of a village will they come back a week later to find the kids reading Corneille and making 246 different kinds of cheese?
posted by Segundus at 2:01 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well the gods are crazy...
posted by rhythmicahly at 3:17 AM on November 2, 2012


I wonder if they also dropped the white man's burden out of the helicopters too?

This is really interesting but it just seems a little like the people are being culturally infected or something. It's the same experiment as sticking some DNA into a cell. Did the cell use it? Wow! It's making the proteins!! How incredible! But just because you can perform this experiment, should you? Just what is the OLPC project spreading here besides laptops?

Perhaps there is a message somewhere in the operating system: "Do you like your personal tablet? Well there's more where that came from. Leave your village and come join us in The Global North... We've been waiting for you!"

All critical concerns aside, it is pretty amazing, both that the kids figured that stuff out and that any of us doubted they were capable of it in the first place.
posted by rhythmicahly at 3:35 AM on November 2, 2012


I do not like how people consider this some sort of 'experiment'. I see it more of a 'hold my beer, I want to try something' sort of thing.

OED: experiment, n: 1. a. The action of trying anything, or putting it to proof; a test, trial.

The word doesn't have to mean mice in a maze.

The notion of an "experiment" in a social science setting, particularly in an educational research setting, has different implications than in a scientific or medical setting. Setting up a control can be difficult, so you might have to devise other ways of measuring the impact of a trial. You have to address ethical concerns that wouldn't apply in experiments with non-living subjects, which can constrain what you can do.

Gaining participant consent is paramount, but can be difficult when you're trying to explore what happens when the subjects don't know what it's all about. That's often the case when working with young children, where the idea of "informed consent" is shaky even if the design of your particular experiment does allow you to talk to them about it. So you seek the consent of parents and guardians. In areas like health and education, you'll need to secure the permission of relevant authorities. It also makes sense to involve people in your project who have extensive experience of working on similar problems in similar settings.

So for this kind of experiment, you might attempt to secure agreement and buy-in from the adults of the village and the relevant government authorities (who may not be the government authorities you would like to be there, but they're the only ones there are), and involve people with experience in the area, like the founder of the Hole in the Wall project and the director of the Tufts University Center for Reading and Language Research. Which they did.
posted by rory at 3:46 AM on November 2, 2012


Just because you can perform this experiment, should you? Just what is the OLPC project spreading here besides laptops? Perhaps there is a message somewhere in the operating system: "Do you like your personal tablet? Well there's more where that came from. Leave your village and come join us in The Global North... We've been waiting for you!"

Yeah, how dare the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and other conduits of global media pump my impressionable head full of visions of a world beyond rural Tasmania, encouraging me to visit and then move to cities, states and countries thousands of miles away. I could have been perfectly content staying put, like people in my town always did a generation or two before me. (And that's true: it was a nice place, and I could have been perfectly content. Ignorance is bliss.)

Leaving the OLPC experiment aside, what would these kids have been learning about if their village wasn't 10 miles and 3.000 feet above the nearest school? Another of the comments on Huck500's link gives a sense of it:

I have a 'funny' story lost in the woods with some fifth graders from one of those villages with no electricity in ethiopia. I was trying to get my car, which we left somewhere down the path, when I met a small group of children coming from school. Their homes where, as usual, like 3-4 miles from the place but they had good access. While walking with them we were talking in quite a good English (they learn it at school, but not as the first language) about their classes and they showed me the book of 'computing' with drawings of PCs and their parts, basic programming stuff, etc. They knew the theory very well, but they had never seen a computer and there was no electricity in their village.

So, all the "cultural infection" with visions of a better life without any actual hands-on learning that could lead to it. They get to stay in their village, but with a greater sense of what they're missing out on.
posted by rory at 4:07 AM on November 2, 2012


I was really curious about the villages mentioned in the MIT article, in part because I was a bit incredulous about the claim of no previous exposure to printed materials, so I did some research.

The article names one of the villages as Wolonchete. I couldn't find it on a map; well, maybe it's really obscure, or maybe Wolonchete is a typo.

I think I may have found the place, and I think the name as given in the MIT article is a typo.

If someone could help me confirm this is really the same village, I would appreciate it.

From the OLPC's site, the village name appears to be Wolenchite, as used in the file name for data collection from the village.

So, what is Wolenchite like?

A website for the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia's claims they have a branch in Wolenchite.

The Wikipedia article on Welenchiti (also known as Wolenchite) says:

"[it] is a town in east-central Ethiopia. Located in the Misraq (East) Shewa Zone of the Oromia Region ... 1436 meters above sea level. It is the administrative center of Boset woreda. [It] is served by a railway station on the Addis Ababa - Djibouti Railway. The town also holds a Saturday livestock market."

"home to one of the 66 congregations of the Emmanuel church" and has "a gas station"

"Based on figures from the Central Statistical Agency in 2005, Welenchiti has an estimated total population of 20,984"

This seems really at odds with the article's portrayal of the village Wolonchete. The place that appears to be the same has a train station, at least one gas station and church, and a bank.

I know nothing about the area, or whether the place named in the article is the same as the place I found searching the internet. If someone with knowledge of the area could take a look and comment, I'd appreciate it.
posted by zippy at 12:56 PM on November 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


By the way, photos on the OLPC site suggest a less developed location than the one described in the Wikipedia article. Is Wolenchite/Wolonchete the nearest town or the village itself?
posted by zippy at 1:37 PM on November 2, 2012


The photos also show that this wasn't "kids given boxes to open" but "adults from outside the village came, set things up, opened the boxes, put the tablets in cases, and distributed them to the kids."
posted by zippy at 1:39 PM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


To resolve some of the mystery, some of the comments on the MIT article are pretty good. Scroll all the way down to see them.

An educator who visited Wonchi/Wenchi has positive things to say about the project, but also writes:

"As a teacher, who has just visited the Wenchi area with his class, I am also not sure that all the assertions made in this presentation are correct. Yes, there is not much exposure to print in the area, yet tourist buses and local co-ops/shops visibly display signs and print."

Someone involved in the project comments on the choice of language as well as location (apologies for the cut 'n' paste, but Tech Review doesn't make it easy to link to comments, and this one's really informative):

... the project began with the support and endorsement of the Ethiopian Ministry of Education, and the team has worked closely with the MoE and the adults in the villages to explain the project and recruit their support. The choice of English as the language was encouraged by the MoE, but realistically the use of local languages would not have been practical. All the programs originally distributed on the tablets were existing, commercial, off-the-shelf literacy applications - and there are none of those applications written in Oromo, the local language in both communities.

The choice of hardware and infrastructure was intended to support the experiment, not as a recommended large-scale deployment approach. And the villages chosen aren't utterly remote, due to the experiment's needs. In order to monitor the progress by collecting data weekly, each village needed to be within a day's round-trip travel from Addis Ababa. And the intent of finding illiterate villages was to ensure the children were teaching themselves without the assistance of literate adults. Although there are certainly people who pass through each village with cell phones, and some of those people may be literate, the adult community in each village is indeed entirely illiterate and is not in a position to be helping the children learn to read on an ongoing basis (outside of simply encouraging them).

There was certainly no English spoken in either village, and the MoE confirmed that the children do not attend school; in one of the villages there is a school nominally available, but it is about 10 miles away and 3,000 feet lower - it is completely impractical, and none of the children attend it.

posted by zippy at 1:10 AM on November 4, 2012


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