Too cool, part 16: Now this is smart

A few years ago, a friend of mine told me about his young son, then three years old. It turns out the sprog was not only playing games on his folks’ computer, he had figured out how to install new ones on his own. This was not a child prodigy, and he wasn’t reading at the time – he’d learned it intuitively, by watching what his parents did and noticing how user interfaces were constructed.

Impresses as I was by that, it’s not half as impressive as an experiment in two villages in Ethiopia. As part of an educational program called One Laptop Per Child, nearly a thousand tablet PCs were deposited, still boxed, within the villages; no instructions, no demonstrations, no explanations. Just some specialized learning software and a solar charging interface. Bear in mind that not only had no one in the villages ever used a computer of any sort, they hadn’t even seen a written word.

Don’t let me spoil it all – take the time, right now, and read the source article. It’s fabulous.

One of the most interesting lessons in the program is how much we’ve built an infrastructure around our learning methods, and how little this might actually be necessary. Learning doesn’t require any real structure – we do it all the time, whether we’re intending to or not. What might be necessary is presenting the challenge, and the sense of accomplishment. One might also realize that these kids probably networked and cooperated in their accomplishments better than 99% of classrooms in existence, perhaps because they weren’t expected to perform some task set by adults, but because this was their own task – quite possibly assisted by the thought that they were being sneaky. We know how well this works sometimes – we were kids once.

Of course, some questions arise from the method in Ethiopia, which is admittedly just an initial experiment. Isn’t this expensive? Is there a high damage rate to the tablets? How sustainable is it? And how does one determine the program’s usefulness? But compare all of those questions against the typical classroom structure that we envision schools are made of, with a salaried teacher per certain number of kids, and the concept of progressing at a more-or-less fixed rate, and even the idea that the kids are competing for the teacher’s approval in the form of grades and praise. While these might work very well for our own circumstances, they’re much more difficult to implement in remote areas. Are you ready to go teach, even for a year, someplace without even electricity? Tablets really aren’t very expensive, and require far less maintenance that people do.

I have taught myself how to operate most of the software that I’ve ever used; this is not bragging, but a reflection of both the interfaces that they’re designed with, and my desire to use them. Because of this, I’ve had to teach the use of numerous packages to many people that I’ve worked with. Some picked things up quickly, and even taught me a few shortcuts. Others, however, almost literally fought with it, and with me. They liked their old ways of doing things, and had issues not just with technology, but with the idea that their employer was pushing something on them. Their learning was blocked not (necessarily) by my structure or the complication of the software, but by their own attitudes towards the task. Which makes me wonder now how I might have been able to motivate them better, with a change in my attitude.

I have several programs on the burner for schools right now, revolving around photography and arthropods – now I’m inclined to see how I might be able to incorporate some form of this structure within them, and how well that will work. This could be very interesting – not to mention a challenge ;-)

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