Rumginae: Multiple Dilemmas (Part I)

Is it better or worse to deploy if you know that not all of the children can have a laptop?

“For a truly inclusive learning environment to be established in a school classroom, every child and the teacher must have a laptop. If only some have laptops, it creates a divide with negative impacts such as a demoralizing effect on those children and teachers that do not have them, and hinders community-building.”

(From: Further information with the regional context is available in the handout “One Laptop per Pacific Child: creating OLPC Oceania”, by Michael Hutak, Regional Director, Oceania, One Laptop per Child)

Saturation: As with vaccinations, digital saturation implies a commitment to maintaining these tools as part of primary education over time…without a digital divide.

(From: OLPC’s Five Founding Principles, available at http://wiki.laptop.org)

When I talked with the teachers at Rumginae Primary School in PNG, they were really struggling with this issue. Although all of the teachers had received laptops and a (two-day) training on them, only the 3rd and 4th grade class students (out of 3rd-8th grades at the school) were given laptops.

So:  To deploy or not to deploy if you know you can’t saturate?

If you KNOW you’re going to be creating a digital divide, where do you draw that line? Or should that line be drawn?

The teachers from Rumginae clearly identified the demoralizing effect that an incomplete deployment had on their staff and on their students. There was no clear plan for when or whether the school would be receiving additional laptops, and this was the FIRST question the school’s headmaster wanted to talk about with the person who brought me to their school.

There were a number of other issues the teachers discussed with me in Rumginae, and I’ll return to them in the next post. This one had them rather evenly divided—with about half of the teachers arguing that it would’ve been better not to have deployed at all, and about half arguing that they’re happy the laptops came to their school (although the former was argued more passionately).

At the Jim Taylor school in Kisap (the school I had previously visited), this question has (to date) been avoided, because the teachers have been told (promised?) that saturation-level laptops will be arriving in a few months, thus blanketing the second half of the school. They were reassured that everyone would be able to participate in a few short months.

But what happens if they don’t receive their laptops?

This same question, applied on a larger scale, led to the following questions: Is it better to deploy at just a very few pilot schools, but achieve saturation at those schools, keeping in mind that the situations at these specific schools may be quite particular (keeping in mind that human beings have chosen which schools would be included in the pilot project and that these were usually chosen for particular reasons—sometimes because of existing infrastructural capacity, sometimes for political reasons, the list of possibilities goes on and on…)

Or, is it better to spread out the pilot deployment to a number of schools, which not only spreads awareness of the project across a wider audience across the country and possibly allows more schools to be set up with the infrastructural necessities (electricity, connectivity) and provides more teachers with training?  PNG—so far—has opted for the second approach.

In other words, do we aim for perfection at a few pilots, which may not be replicable elsewhere? Or do we try to achieve maximum reach and spread, knowing that we may be creating even more divides?  Or, that spreading ourselves too thin (two-day training sessions??) may mean multiple failed pilots, instead of a few successful ones?

I don’t have answers to these questions, and certainly I’m not the first person to bring up or grapple with this issue—it’s one of the larger quandaries facing the OLPC program in general. However, I’ve been thinking about it from an academic point of view—“in theory”. Now I got to see, talk to, and hear about it from people dealing with the ramifications of this dilemma on a daily basis. There were strong feelings, passionately argued. These laptops are a BIG DEAL, and it’s far from ok to go about making decisions about them lightly, or based upon theory or logic or reasoning achieved from the comfort of one’s academic office—decisions regarding choices that will of necessity violate the core principles of the program, by the way, but I’m seeing violations of the core principles in nearly every deployment—because the complete technological ecosystem in which the project was dreamed up, is far from a reality in most all of the places the OLPC project is being tried out. When you can’t create this entire ecosystem, because of infrastructural, budgetary, and political constraints (among others), what gives? Where do you skimp? Which core principles are the least important—and therefore the least egregious to violate?

The pictures posted were meant to convey more images of the students productively using the laptops, but in fact, a number of them capture how it must be less than thrilling or inspiring to only be able to watch as your classmate “joyfully self-empowers”…

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About ljhosman

Laura Hosman is Assistant Professor at Arizona State University. She holds a dual position in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and in The Polytechnic School.
This entry was posted in OLPC, Pacific Islands, Papua New Guinea, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Rumginae: Multiple Dilemmas (Part I)

  1. Ian Thomson says:

    Hi Laura,
    You ask some very interesting questions and after 4 years working in the Pacific with OLPC, I still cant answer them. The only thing I can hope for is that each country makes its own decision in a well informed way. But then, often the decision makers cant grasp the full magnitude of OLPC before they try it out. Very often, decisions are made assuming that OLPC is “just an affordable computer” rather than a powerful change agent for better educational outcomes. And perhaps that is the only way decisions can be made, within the paradigm of the decision maker.
    Of the 9 country projects and some 30 schools with OLPCs in Oceania, I don’t think any decision to proceed has been made in the full knowledge of the potential of OLPC.

    Perhaps an appropriate analogy is replacing horses with cars. We are still kicking the tires of the car and listening to the motor tick over. Haven’t got around to reorganising our lives to drive to the supermarket yet.

  2. Lawrence Stephens says:

    Dear Laura,

    What a dilemma you present us with. Should we have simply devoted our full attention to one or two schools, fully saturated only those schools and continued to support only them into the long term future? Or should we have made efforts to show a larger number of schools how they can benefit from the program and set them up to be able to expand their coverage as they learn the value of the program and seek additional funding support elsewhere?

    Papua New Guinea Sustainable Development Program was introduced to OLPC as something to which we could validly contribute. We did not realise what a tough task we were accepting.

    We are a company which endeavours to work with partners in introducing sustainable development to PNG. Part of sustainability involves those receiving funding support being involved in the process of taking the program into the future. It is they who need to be involved in identifying funding sources and preparing for future expansion of the program.

    We chose to set up schools in a variety of locations with laptops for each teacher and all students in at least one or two grades. When other funding agencies with interest in education become involved these schools will already have the wireless net-working, solar power supplies, wiring, school server and other equipment needed to connect each new class to the system.

    Rumginae is a good example of a school which can readily obtain funds from other sources. We have encouraged them and each of the schools to use additional funding sources they can tap. The Jim Taylor School is another example of a school which has demonstrated capacity for identifying funding support for projects. We want to see the schools take ownership of the program, value it and use initiative and imagination in making sure that every child has a laptop.

    As other funding partners become involved more people will appreciate the value of this program and we fully expect to see the 13 schools we are working in saturated, with programs to cater for new students each year. A nation wide program needs much more than PNGSDP and we hope others will join us quickly.

    Lawrence Stephens
    PNGSDP – Port Moresby

  3. Michael Hutak says:

    Hi Laura, I have been following your diary with interest and your insightful contribution to discourse on OLPC in the region has been most welcome. On this post can I say at the outset, perhaps predictably, that I don’t share your skepticism. It may well be that you are taking snapshots of a glass half empty on its way to overflowing. We will need to come back in ten years to find out.

    I do know that no ICT implementation, or educational innovation for that matter, comes without challenges, whether it be conducted on Manhattan or in the PNG highlands. And I have confidence that the people of these communities will work through their issues and get it right on their own terms, with or without the benefit of our daily scorecard on how they’re doing.

    However, the issues you raise on saturation are important. OLPC’s position has always been that not adhering to the saturation principle does risk putting a project outside the scope and design of the program. Because OLPC is a dedicated one-to-one approach, only providing laptops to some classes and not others does carry new (but at least predictable) challenges, and when people have taken this path we always alert them to those issues and the need to factor them in to their expectations.

    This is why in the Pacific we have also been advocating that a thorough process of community consultation begins BEFORE projects are rolled out; that it includes the whole community, and makes everyone who will be affected aware of what is coming, what it may mean to the community as a whole and how it can benefit not just the children but the wider community. On this point, we have been careful in the Pacific to reframe the core principle of child ownership as child custodianship — when the child takes possession of the laptop it is their responsibility to look after it on behalf of the whole community and, as is customary in many Pacific cultures, be prepared to share it freely with family members, peers, elders and the broader collective.

    We have been advocating these regional guidelines from the outset. You can find them here:

    http://www.box.net/shared/4vbfn6qy11

    Guidance can only go so far. Every school and project is different and every administration develops its own unique approach, as is their right and prerogative. It is not ideal that some kids are looking over others’ shoulders but the managers of the PNGSDP project are aware of the issues and in their judgment it was better to go wide in the first phase than deep. There are many reasons as to why they chose this model that may be elusive to us but obvious to them. In any event, in my experience they are ethical, committed people who know their communities’ needs intimately and who genuinely aspire to give all their children equitable access to knowledge, skills and opportunity.

    They have our full support and we are working closely with them to attract the resources they need to fill the glass.

    cheers

    Michael Hutak,
    OLPC Regional Director, Oceania

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