The dilemmas faced by Rumginae Primary School are not unique to them. The challenges I’m bringing up are not meant to single out either their school, or Papua New Guinea’s OLPC deployments in particular. They are issues likely grappled with by many, if not most, if not all OLPC deployments, and they’re challenges I’ll be facing, and trying to address, as I work on the Haiti OLPC project.
Since I had a half hour on my hands to wait for the teachers before I got to talk with them during their lunch break, I took a look at the laptops that were charging in the corner. More specifically, I turned one on and started to surf the available content. Since I had been asked to help with natural disaster preparedness on the project I’d soon be starting with Haiti, I took a look whether there was any natural disaster preparedness information on these XOs.
Indeed there was! There were entire encyclopedias as well; SPC had also developed some content about the environment, and some other content that (I believe) was developed specifically for the Pacific Islands. I’m sorry that I didn’t take notes about what was on the laptops, because I’m having a difficult time remembering now, but it was clear that a considerable amount of thought and research had gone into what to put on the server, which made it available to all of the XO laptops at the school. And, it was all in English.
Now, for Papua New Guinea, where English is to be the language of instruction starting with the primary schools (grade 3), this is a positive feature. However, I started thinking about Haiti, and wondered whether any of this type of information would be available in Creole. But that was just the beginning….
When the teachers came in and started talking with me, one concern that came up rather quickly was that the content on the laptops came mainly from UK- or US-based sources. (Do we really need the Encyclopedia Brittanica on our laptops in Papua New Guinea?) I have to admit that I had been thinking this while surfing on my own, but to have it brought up as one of the first thoughts, by one of the teachers, it made me realize that it’s more important, more urgent, than I had been giving this topic credit for.
So; appropriate language is a necessary but insufficient condition for contextual appropriateness! Context, relevance, local language, and local knowledge, among many other things, are all essential components. But how to develop that with severely limited resources?
By now, the Divine Word University in PNG, and the great many number of technological programs they have, had been brought up to me a number of times. I hadn’t known about this school before my visit, but it was more than on my radar by this point. I suggested—what if you could work in collaboration with the Divine Word University to have local scholars working on developing appropriate content?
This seemed to be a generally well-received idea, but making it a reality will be another story. And the same will be true in my case, as I was already thinking about how to involve my university’s students to be able to develop local content in Haiti—but in local collaboration with these sites I was visiting in the South Pacific.
This topic was fresh in my mind, because the night before, David Leeming and I had talked about the possibility for me to keep in touch with, involve on a longer term, and thus collaborate with the schools I was going to visit in the Solomon Islands in a few days—since they were connected to the Internet, and this would be among the realm of possibilities. I immediately thought of content development: my university students should be able to help with that, since that was one of the things we were specifically asked to help with, and being in touch with multiple projects; multiple locales where they’ve been struggling with not having locally relevant content for a few years now, suddenly seemed an exciting prospect.
And so my mind started racing forward to consider how to make this happen.
I remain excited about starting this global-level, internet-enabled collaboration, but I have since done a bit of reflection about some of the constraints. For example: there’s a reason that there’s not an Encyclopedia Papua New Guinea, and it has nothing to do with these laptops. (And the presence of these laptops isn’t going to create the impetus for the spontaneous realization of one, either.) For that matter, it turns out that the school curriculum, at least at the primary level, and at least at the countries I’m aware of in the South Pacific, is developed by the regional (socio-economically and politically “developed”) powerhouses Australia and New Zealand.
In general, I heard positive things about these curricula, but there was frustration that none of these materials were available on-line or digitally. And I remain convinced, even though I haven’t investigated whether it’s true, that it would not be difficult for these materials to be made available electronically. Somewhere, they exist in digital format, because it’s rather impossible to print things nowadays without having a digital version. Even copyrights could be changed to allow for digital formats, to allow for the official educational curricula that the teachers are charged with teaching, to be available to them on their computers, as well as in printed, paper/book form.
However, I’ve also been made aware that there’s a great deal of hesitation, if not antagonism from Australia and New Zealand, about the OLPC projects. I have a lot more investigating to do about this particular topic, but a preliminary comment I have is that abandoning pilot projects will absolutely, positively lead to the self-fulfilling prophecy of failure that those looking to find shortcomings, insufficiencies, or other reasons for rejecting the OLPC project are seeking. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The projects in PNG were brand new, and certainly not facing this issue of project abandonment—that was to become much more salient in the Solomon Islands—where we’re just about to head off to…