While I was visiting Patukae, the grade 6 students were taking a nation-wide exam. In order to ensure fairness, teachers from each school had to travel to a neighboring school to administer the exams–and stay there overnight. This was a two-day process, and as a result of it, everything was just a bit out-of-the-ordinary during my visit. I was fortunate to observe the students using their laptops in class, but I was observing them on a day where they weren’t necessarily having their normal lessons.
The middle level students were using the XOs to do math problems (above and below).
The youngest students (below) were using the Talk function on the XOs, which pronounces words that they type in to the laptop in English—a very popular program for the younger students in both the Solomon Islands and PNG.
The oldest students (4th and 5th grade, I believe), were practicing their typing skills—copying what their teacher had written on the board. He was looking out to make sure that they were using correct punctuation, and paying close attention to detail.
These were not the most innovative or revelatory uses of the XOs that I was to witness on this trip, but as I explained previously, it was an unusual day for the students—in fact, it could have been a day off from classes for them, but for the fact that they knew a special visitor was coming.
The most amazing and wonderful part of the day for me came after observing the students: it was the opportunity I had to talk with a group of these children’s parents (pictured above). The principal of the Patukae schools had announced my visit to the families of the Patukae primary school students, and I was very honored that about 20 of them showed up to talk with me, on an early Monday afternoon.
I was expecting that it would be a bit difficult to break the ice, so I asked each parent to tell me their names, how many children they had in school, and how many laptops were in their household. This certainly broke the ice!
My next question to them was how their children were using the laptops. The parents noted a number of ways, including painting, playing games—useful games, learning spelling, speaking, pronunciation, writing, taking photos of people and nature, and telling stories with these pictures, and chatting with their classmates. However, once one parent pointed out how much the child is teaching them about how to use computers, many others chimed in, giving personal stories or anecdotes to illustrate the same point: one child taught his parent how to do word processing; another taught a parent how to do research. None of these parents had seen a computer before, they told me, let alone had used one before the advent of this laptop program, and now they were all learning about computers from their kids—this was a real change from what they were expecting!
In general, the parents had an extremely positive view of the laptops, with many expressing their belief that their children’s education has been improved in quality because of the technology, that they’re learning faster and are more interested in learning because of the laptops, that they have skills they would never have without the laptops, that their children are learning how to work together in groups, to teach others (including both their parents and other children), and to disseminate knowledge generally, and that the benefits from the laptops have spread to the families that have them. It came up multiple times that the students are now excited and interested in going to school every day since the laptops were introduced. AND, the parents are quite happy when their children are doing homework at home on the XOs—something not the case prior to them having laptops.
A few of the parents were also teachers at the secondary school, and one of these parents pointed out that he can use the XO for word processing, and for doing research to enhance his own teaching—a real example of where the benefits are accruing to a wider circle than just to the primary students. Another parent mentioned that he had used the XO to talk with relatives in Australia and New Caledonia. The parents even suggested that the program would be better named OLPF (One Laptop per Family) than One Laptop per Child! This was further expounded upon by a number of parents who pointed out that the entire community was excited about the laptops, in support of them, and more in support of education in general because of them. Because the principal and the school had done such a fine job of involving the parents in this project from the beginning, and seeking their input on the project, community input on educational subjects in general had gone up. They said that the OLPC project here in Patukae has brought the students together, has brought parents together, and has brought the community together.
The parents were so enthusiastic to tell me these things, that after a while, language ceased to be a barrier. Even those who could speak only the local language, Marovo, or pidgin English, ended up chiming in, sharing their opinion with me. I could get most of the pidgin (thanks to learning some key words while in PNG) and the Marovo was translated for me by the primary school teachers.
I asked them what they would like to see in the future for this project. Their main concern was about charging: the first and overwhelmingly expressed response was that they’d like to have more generators to charge them (although someone pointed out that solar charging would be better). They’d like to raise funds to purchase a generator, or get one donated. And they’d like to raise money to improve school facilities. They pointed out that the battery charge doesn’t last long enough, and that the keyboard was too soft—the children tear it far too often. They would also like the keyboard to have a light, as they can no longer use it once it gets too dark (and nightfall is about 6pm near the equator!) One grandparent pointed out that in areas where children have to take canoes to school across bodies of water, there is a real concern for children dropping the laptops in the water. She suggested that having a waterproof case for the laptops would be invaluable and greatly appreciated. Clearly these parents had done a lot of thinking about what they liked and didn’t like so much, regarding the laptops, which sprang from their clear and enthusiastic involvement with the program. This made a lasting impression on me.
The parents were all very thankful for the primary school teachers, and believed that they’re doing their best with the laptops (and I can attest to their efforts!)
Finally, the parents kept emphasizing to me that they wanted the program to continue. They didn’t want to see it come to an end, and I knew that this was a very real concern for them, as the future of this particular program is very much in doubt, which raises another thorny OLPC-related “big issue”—what happens when a pilot program seems to be going very well, but the higher-up powers-that-be change their minds about priorities, either jeopardizing or canceling the program? These parents were clearly petitioning me to do whatever I could, speak to whomever possible, make the case far and wide, for the continuation of this project. They were grateful, supportive, involved, positive, enthusiastic…and so I’m pleading their case here.
Unfortunately, after speaking with the ICT Outreach coordinator at the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), it appears to me that the decision of whether to continue supporting this program (or not) resides somewhere around the top of the Ministry of Education in The Solomon Islands, and also somewhere around the advisors from Australia to this Ministry, who provide quite a bit of the funding. So, once again, this is where politics enters the picture—never too hard to find if we do just a bit of scratching of the surface.
I don’t necessarily think that Patukae needs to continue down the OLPC route. I do, however, think that once technology is introduced, there’s no going back to the state of things before, and there needs to be a technology-in-the-schools program that continues in Patukae. The specific hardware, the operating system, the bright-color of the laptops—these things are negotiable. But this community, this school, these kids have now experienced a technology-in-education project that has changed their lives, and I’m confident they’ll figure out a way to continue going forward with it, even if their government (or key funders) aren’t leading the way.