Now that things have settled among people in Peru regarding OLPC and media attention have gone other directions I would like to elaborate a bit on my views and my personal experiences on this project here in Peru. I’m writing this in English since I consider important that people outside our country have the chance to understand a bit more what’s going on here. Eventually I’ll manage to write some proposals in Spanish.
Last August I had the opportunity to visit some OLPC schools in Arequipa together with my wonderful friend Anita Chan, antropologist and Stanford’s professor who is writing a book regarding these issues. We choosed Arequipa due logistics and the city itself, one of the spots I like most in my country, but most important because those schools didn’t got any kind of attention. We thought Arahuay, as being the first one, has got lots of attention and we’ll probably won’t see anything new nor relevant to get more feedback from the field.
Our intention was basically to see and understand how the inclusion of the XO laptops is impacting the school environment and learning process, thus teachers and students. I have to say that for me it was also a learning experience. Adapting myself to a non-technologist mindset for seeing things was challenging and key for discovering and understanding the complexity of this. Most of us, techies, are so excited with the idea of technology solving all our problems that we use to forget that there are other factors to consider, I’ve learned this from Anita.
Arequipa is a region which, as many others in my country, extends from the Pacific Ocean to the andean valleys, geography here is very diverse and poses challenges to communication. The Ministry of Education have deployed OLPC’s XO in schools of Atiquipa, Choco, Machahuay, Mollendo, Huaynacotas, Pampamarca, Sayla, Tauría and Toro. Common factor on those towns is their poverty, complicated transportation and accesibility, one-teacher multi-grade schools with no more than two classrooms per school, and lack of connectivity (i.e. Internet). Getting from Arequipa to most of those towns takes about 12 to 14 hours average, some even 20.
Officials at Arequipa’s Ministry of Education Regional Office where so kind and excited to talk to us, share information and concerns and also helped us to set a itinerary. They seem very enthusiast about the project and besides all the problems, on which I’ll elaborate on later, there’s a feeling that this is something that is worth doing it and that the targeted population is the right one, who have been always left aside from such social programs.
A complicated start
Teachers and kids at the School IE 41050 Virgen de Lourdes – Islay where very enthusiast of having us there, but as long as Anita’s interview was ongoing things didn’t appear that good. Ministry officials, in Arequipa, told us that for most of the towns the teacher and mayor themselves where the ones who went the city and took the machines to their towns on their own using horses at some point of their journey, as they normally do. They also showed their concern about the lack of communication with those OLPC schools as they don’t have chance, more than once per year, for gathering the teachers and exchange feedback. Lack of budget for this project is also a concern. Some of the officials try to visit the schools that are near or when traveling for other duties of their jobs, on their own budget. Most schools have been never been visited by a Ministry official, nor media, almost nobody from “the city”.
We found the kids at the school as they were ready for a demo of their abilities using the XO machines, officials and teachers have encouraged them to do so and look nice to us. The two teachers also showed enthusiasm and, while briefly answering the questions, made their best effort to demonstrate that things are going well and by using the laptops they had more proficiency regarding teacher-student interaction and learning process. As time advanced and savvy Anita asked the same questions again while I hanged with the kids, the outcome was different.
While conversation continued a handful of issues appeared. Teachers argued that, by having the XO’s, they had to take office of the logistics duties which complicated their labor since they had to dedicate additional hours, that could be used for academics, with no extra payment –deduced by their implicit complain. Only one of the teachers attended the training Ministry offered and they asked for additional training. Lack of XO skills was confirmed this when one of them told us that she uses a USB pendrive to copy an activity developed in class to the other students’ machines so they can see it. She didn’t knew about the mesh network. I could notice that most kids were just playing with the XO in the same way they do with their toys outside the classroom, which happened once they lost interest or when having no clue on what to do. Later, I figured out that although most kids were very interested about games, they even asked me if I had some for install, and they managed to find some such eToys, Sugar’s language was English so they had no idea of what to do next, even the ones that can read, of course. I had to act as personal software-translator for them and guide one on the game then the others followed. Inquiring the students about their activities and how they use the XO on their daily work confirmed that most of them were clueless about it.
Ministry officials in Arequipa told us that for them is complicated to keep track on the project’s schools. Although they are the direct responsibles for the project, most of the time the Ministry of Education conducted activities, such technical visits, without notifying them so there is no feedback. “Ministry sends people directly to the towns, they do their job then immediately return to Lima, never stop by here”, complained an official.
A silent change
Probably for most of us the concept of ownership is something we almost born with, for those kids it was something they have learned with the XO. When they were given the machines they didn’t carry them home, they left them at school. This led to confusion and struggle for parts such chargers. They hadn’t adopted to the fact that it was a property of them. Before the Ministry choose the school for the OLPC project students were usually found hanging out on streets after class since their parents were at work. By having the XO’s they have transformed this in a reason to keep them busy and at home, were they can show the machine to their friends and family members. Parents also are committed with the project and together with the teachers have established a protocol to keep them informed of any kind of issue regarding the machine. In this school there wasn’t any kind of attempt of robbery or kid’s abuse to steal the machine. Teachers have instructed students to carry the machine inside their backpack and to report any kind of incident, such lost, immediately.
For these people having the XO has also brought something else than the sole machine. They have become a center of attention. They feel that they are in direct contact with Lima, which is seen as the country’s ruling center, in a way they are comfortable with and prefer over Arequipa’s intermediation. After long time being left aside, they finally are on the spotlight where people like us, ministry officials, the ministry himself, technicians and in more or less degree -depending the town-, people interested on their progress often visit them. We then understand why they all were looking so enthusiast about the project at the beginning. They were trying to look as they were doing good in order to receive more attention. I couldn’t figure this out until later discussions with Anita.
By interacting with the kids I’ve learned very interesting things. I’ve found very talented kids that besides their social conditions have all the potential to learn and take advantage of this tool. In this particular school, those kids, digital natives, are not unaware of technology in fact, ironically, they have an old broken PC in classroom from a previous program and are also familiar with mobile phones. I’ve also noted that some are more advanced than others and share their findings with the young ones, which is a good thing in a multi-grade classroom. Kids feel very stimulated when playing games on the machine and achieving something.
A paradigm for a particular world
Although there has been a lot of discussion regarding the potential benefits of the constructivist model, on which even theorists have differences (Philosophy of Education: An Anthology, Randall Curren, 2007) I hold the opinion that our kids should be the priority. By this I mean that the current deployment have clearly shown their problems, which are not from the project itself, nor the software, nor the people who is volunteering but a vast amount of problems the Peruvian education and society have been accumulating from years without solution to date. However, our mission as Peruvian citizens, and now I call international community, should not be pointing people to blame for, or trying to tag as evil others. We should establish a way to help those teachers, to connect them for sharing experiences and knowledge, to conform groups of volunteers to frequently visit those towns and act as feedback agents who also can mentor teachers on taking advantage of the XO and give feedback to the developer community.
My advice for people interested on this to be successful is to help those schools, to gather and build a community of supporters which can also act as society’s part on this ministry’s venture, since they will not have the resources to properly conduct this and our geography is very particular. But more importantly because it should be on our interest, as society, to foster new generations of good citizens who are agents of change and fight sordid ideas which are poisoning young people minds in our country. For people who doesn’t like the project I do encourage you on focus on your personal interests and move on, let others do their best on what they believe is good and will make a difference. I’m very concerned by the fact that most people is interested on depicting the project without considering all the implicates of it. They seem to forget that the more they struggle for the more those kids are not taking any advantage of the technology available and the more we, a developing country, will be wasting money.