Tag Archives: citizenship

Actively Reading: OLPC Critique

Critical thinking has been on my mind, recently. For one thing, I oriented an  “intro. to sociology” course I teach toward critical skills and methods. To me, it’s a very important part of university education, going much beyond media literacy.
And media literacy is something about which I care a great deal. Seems to me that several journalists have been giving up on trying to help the general population increase and enhance their own media literacy skills. It’s almost as if they were claiming they’re the only ones who can reach a significant level of media literacy. Of course, many of them seem unable to have a critical approach to their own work. I’m with Bourdieu on this one. And I make my problem with journalism known.
As a simple example, I couldn’t help but notice a number of problems with this CBC coverage of a new citizenship guidebook. My approach to this coverage is partly visible in short discussions I’ve had on Aardvark about bylines.
A bit over a week ago, I heard about something interesting related to “making technology work,” on WTP (a technology podcast for PRI/BBC/Discovery The World, a bit like Search Engine from bigger media outlets). It was a special forum discussion related to issues broader than simply finding the right tool for the right task. In fact, it sounded like it could become a broad discussion of issues and challenges going way beyond the troubleshooting/problem-solving approach favoured by some technology enthusiasts. Given my ethnographic background, my interest in geek culture, and my passion for social media, I thought I’d give it a try.
The first thing I noticed was a link to a critique of the OLPC project. I’ve personally been quite critical of that project, writing several blogposts about it. So I had to take a look.
And although I find the critical stance of this piece relatively useful (there was way too much groupthink with the original coverage of the OLPC), I couldn’t help but use my critical sense as I was reading this piece.
Which motivated me to do some Diigo annotations on it. For some reason, there are things that I wanted to highlight which aren’t working and I think I may have lost some annotations in the process. But the following is the result of a relatively simple reading of this piece. True to the draft aesthetics, I made no attempt to be thorough, clean, precise, or clear.
  • appealing
  • World Economic Forum
  • 50 percent of staff were being laid off and a major restructuring was under way
    • The dramatic version which sends the message: OLPC Inc. was in big trouble. (The fact that it’s allegedly a non-profit is relatively irrelevant.)
  • the project seems nearly dead in the water
    • A strong statement. Stronger than all those “beleaguered company” ones made about Apple in the mid90s before Jobs went back.
  • And that may be great news for children in the developing world.
    • Tadaa! Here’s the twist! The OLPC is dead, long live the Child!
  • lobbied national governments and international agencies
    • Right. The target was institutional. Kind of strange for a project which was billed as a way to get tools in the hands of individual children. And possibly one of the biggest downfalls of the project.
  • Negroponte and other techno-luminati
    • Oh, snap!
      It could sound relatively harmless an appellation. But the context and the piece’s tone make it sound like a rather deep insult.
  • Innovate
    • Ah, nice! Not “create” or “build.” But “innovate.” Which is something the project has been remarkably good at. It was able to achieve a number of engineering feats. Despite Negroponte’s repeated claims to the contrary, the OLPC project can be conceived as an engineering project. In fact, it’s probably the most efficient way to shed the most positive light on it. As an engineering project, it was rather successful. As an “education project” (as Negroponte kept calling it), it wasn’t that successful. In fact, it may have delayed a number of things which matter in terms of education.
  • take control of their education
    • Self-empowerment, at the individual level. In many ways, it sounds like a very Protestant ideal. And it’s clearly part of the neoliberal agenda (or the neoconservative one, actually). Yet it doesn’t sound strange at all. It sounds naturally good and pure.
  • technology optimists
    • Could be neutral in denotation but does connote a form of idealistic technological determinism.
  • Child
  • school attendance
    • “Children who aren’t in school can’t be learning anything, right?”
  • trending dramatically upward
    • Fascinating choice of words.
  • tens of millions of dollars
  • highly respected center
    • Formulas such as these are often a way to prevent any form of source criticism. Not sure Wikipedians would consider these “peacock terms,” but they don’t clearly represent a “neutral point of view.”
  • they don’t seem to be learning much
    • Nothing which can be measured with our tools, at least. Of course, nothing else matters. But still…
  • international science exam
    • Of course, these tend to be ideally suited for most learning contexts…
  • There’s no question that improving education in the developing world is necessary.
    • Although, there could be a question or two about this. Not politically expedient, perhaps. But still…
  • powerful argument
    • Tools in a rhetorical process.
  • instinctive appeal
    • Even the denotative sense is polarized.
  • precious little evidence
    • Switching to the “studies have shown” mode. In this mode, lack of proof is proof of lack, critical thinking is somewhat discouraged, and figures are significant by themselves.
  • circumstantial evidence
    • The jury isn’t out, on this one.
  • co-founder of J-PA
    • Did Esther co-write the article? Honest question.
  • the technology didn’t work any better than a normal classroom teacher
    • A very specific point. If the goal of tool use is to improve performance over “regular teaching,” it’s a particular view of technology. One which, itself, is going by the wayside. And which has been a large part of the OLPC worldview.
  • the goal is improving education for children in the developing world, there are plenty of better, and cheaper, alternatives.
    • A core belief, orienting the piece. Cost is central. The logic is one of “bang for the buck.”
  • the teachers simply weren’t using the computers
    • We’re touching on something, here. People have to actually use the computers for the “concept” to work. Funny that there’s rarely a lot of discussion on how that works. A specific version of “throwing money at a problem” is to “throw technology at” people.
  • few experimental studies to show a positive impact from the use of computers
    • Is the number of studies going one way or another the main issue, here? Can’t diverse studies look at different things and be understood as a way to describe a more complex reality than “technology is good and/or bad?”
  • substituting computers for teachers
    • Still oriented toward the “time to task” approach. But that’s good enough for cognitive science, which tends to be favourably viewed in educational fields.
  • supplement
    • Kept thinking about the well-known Hawthorne effect. In this case, the very idea that providing students with supplementary “care” can be seen as an obvious approach which is most often discussed in the field instead of at the higher levels of decision-making.
  • The OLPC concept has been pioneered in a number of school districts in the United States over the last decade
    • From a 2005 project targeting “countries with inconsistent power grids,” we get to a relatively long series of initiatives in individual school districts in the USofA since last century. Telescoping geographical and temporal scales. And, more importantly, assigning the exact same “concept” to diverse projects.
  • Negroponte has explicitly derided
    • Not the only thing Negroponte derides. He’s been a professional derider for a while, now.
      Negroponte’s personality is part of the subtext of any OLPC-related piece. It’d be interesting to analyse him in view of the “mercurial CEO” type which fascinates a number of people.
  • It must be said
    • Acknowledging the fact that there is more to the situation than what this piece is pushing.
  • academic
    • In this context, “academic” can have a variety of connotations, many of which are relatively negative.
  • teachers limited access to the computers
    • Typically, teachers have relatively little control in terms of students’ access to computers so it sounds likely that the phrase should have read “had limited access.” But, then again, maybe teachers in Hollow’s research were in fact limiting access to computers, which would be a very interesting point to bring and discuss. In fact, part of what is missing in many of those pieces about technology and learning is what access really implies. Typically, most discussions on the subject have to do with time spent alone with such a tool, hence the “one…per child” part of the OLPC approach. But it’s hard to tell if there has been any thought about the benefits of group access to tools or limited access to such tools.
      To go even further, there’s a broad critique of the OLPC approach, left unaddressed in this piece, about the emphasis on individual ownership of tools. In the US, it’s usually not ok for neighbours to ask about using others’ lawnmowers and ladders. It’s unsurprising that pushing individual ownership would seem logical to those who design projects from the US.
  • had not been adequately trained
    • In the OLPC context, it has been made as a case for the dark side of constructionism. The OLPC project might have been a learning project, but it wasn’t a teaching one. Some explicit comments from project members were doing little to dispel the notion that constructivism isn’t about getting rid of teachers. Even documentation for the OLPC XO contained precious little which could help teachers. Teachers weren’t the target audience. Children and governments were.
  • not silver bullets
    • Acknowledging, in an oblique way, that the situation is more complex.
  • surveys of students
    • With a clear Hawthorne effect.
  • parents rolling their eyes
    • Interesting appeal to parenting experience. Even more than teachers, they’re absent from many of these projects. Not a new pattern. Literacy projects often forget parents and the implications in terms of a generation gap. But what is perhaps more striking is that parents are also invisible in coverage of many of these issues. Contrary to “our” children, children in “those poor countries over there” are “ours to care for,” through development projects, adoptions, future immigration, etc.
  • evaluation of an OLPC project in Haiti
    • Sounds more like a pilot project than like field research. But maybe it’s more insightful.
  • Repeated calls and e-mails to OLPC and Negroponte seeking comment on OLPC did not receive a response
    • Such statements are “standard procedure” for journalists. But what is striking about this one is where it’s placed in the piece. Not only is it near the end of the argumentation but it’s in a series of comments about alternative views on the OLPC project. Whether or not it was done on purpose, the effect that we get is that there are two main voices, pro and con. Those on the con side can only have arguments in the same line of thought (about the project’s cost and “efficacy,” with possible comments about management). Those on the pro side are put in a defensive position.
      In such cases, responsiveness is often key. Though Negroponte has been an effective marketer of his pet project, the fact that he explicitly refuses to respond to criticisms and critiques makes for an even more constrained offense/defense game.
  • ironic
    • Strong words, in such a context. Because it’s not the situation which is ironic. It’s a lack of action in a very specific domain.
  • the Third World
    • Interesting that the antiquated “Third World” expression comes in two contexts: the alleged target of the OLPC project (with little discussion as to what was meant by that relationship) and as the J-PAL field of expertise.
  • a leader in
    • Peacock terms or J-PAL are on the Miller-McCune lovelist?
  • There are
    • This is where the piece switches. We’re not talking about the OLPC, anymore. We reduce OLPC to a single goal, which has allegedly not been met, and propose that there are better ways to achieve this goal. Easy and efficient technique, but there still seems to be something missing.
  • etting children in developing countries into school and helping them learn more while they are there
    • A more specific goal than it might seem, at first blush.
      For a very simple example: how about homeschooling?
  • proven successful
    • “We have proof!”
  • cheap
    • One might have expected “inexpensive,” here, instead of “cheap.” But, still, the emphasis is on cost.
  • deworming
    • Sounds a little bit surprising a switch from computer tech to public health.
  • 50 cents per child per year
  • $4 per student per year
  • 30 percent increase in lifetime earnings
  • technology-based approaches to improving student learning in the developing world
    • Coming back to technology, to an extent, but almost in passing. Technology, here, can still be a saviour. The issue would be to find the key technology to solve that one problem (student learning in the developing world needs calls for improvement). Rather limited in scope, depth, insight.
  • show more promise than one laptop per child
    • Perhaps the comment most directly related to opinions. “Showing promise” is closer to “instinctive appeal” but, in this case, it’s a positive. We don’t need to apply critical thinking to something which shows promise. It’s undeniably good. Right?
  • the J-PAL co-founder
    • There we are!
  • $2.20
  • Remedial education
  • A study in Kenya
    • Reference needed.
  • it didn’t matter
    • Sounds like a bold statement, as it’s not expressly linked to the scope of the study. It probably did matter. Just not in terms of what was measured. Mattering has to do with significance in general, not just with statistical significance.
  • expensive
    • Cost/benefits are apparently the only two “factors” to consider.
  • quarter of the cost
  • cheaper
  • $2 per month
  • $3 per month
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Planting Landmines

The ever-thoughtful Carl Dyke graciously provided me with this expression as a way to talk about edubloggers might call “lifelong learning.” Part of teaching is about exposing students to some notions which may have radical effects later on in their lives. This is especially true for us in social sciences as some of the things we discuss not only go against the grain of some well-ingrained notions but also connect with very intimate ideas people may hold.

I think the example we were using was the construction of ideas about Nation-States/Countries, Citizenship, and Democracy. Lots of people (and, clearly, most of our students) assume that the ideas we have about States and governance are continuous and even equivalent with those held by any group at any point of history. Simply put, national identity is taken as a “natural” idea. Which makes it hard for some people to discuss such issues in a historical perspective. This is one reason I enjoyed Appiah’s “Golden Nugget” idea so much (not to mention that his talk was quite entertaining). It’s a way to put the very notion of “Civilization” in perspective (without using an evolutionary model). Carl also provided me with references to Eugen Weber and to the Taviani Brothers’ Padre Padrone. We could even use scene 3 of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (video). All of these things are, in my mind, landmines. Actually, “mind landmines” or, erm, “landminds.” (Should I get a trademark?)

Of course, literature on nationalism (Benedict Anderson, Terence Ranger, Eric Hobsbawm, etc.) can also be used. Personally, I tend to like work on similar subjects by ethnographers like Regina Bendix and Kelly Askew.

Those “landminds” are only triggered when people start really looking into issues lying underneath society and politics. But when they explode, these landminds can be quite transformative. As per the deadly effects of the explosives from which they’re inspired, these landminds destroy some apparently strong intellectual models.

So, although I see landmines as a major problem, I do see part of my work as “planting landminds.”

Much less positive than the usual “planting the seeds of knowledge” metaphors, but also much more powerful.


Another Point for Wikipedia: Rousseau’s Citizenship

Compare the following two articles on Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau — Britannica Online Encyclopedia
Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

At the onset of the first entry, Rousseau is described unequivocally as a “French philosopher.” In the second entry, Rousseau is first described through his contributions to philosophy, literature, and music. The beginning of the biography section of that second entry contains a clear, straightforward, and useful statement about Rousseau’s citizenship. As this Wikipedia entry explains, and is clear in Rousseau’s work, the well-known French-speaking thinker considered himself a citizen of Geneva throughout his life (which ended during the Old Swiss Confederacy, before Geneva became a Canton of Switzerland). While Rousseau’s connections to France are clearly mentioned, nowhere in the body of this Wikipedia article is Rousseau himself called “French.” The article has been classified in diverse Wikipedia categories which do contain the word “French,” but this association is fairly indirect. Though it may sound like the same thing, there’s a huge difference between putting Rousseau in a list of “French philosophers” or “French memoirists” and describing Rousseau as a “French philosopher.” In fact, Rousseau is also listed among “Swiss educationists” and “Swiss music theorists.” These classifications aren’t  inaccurate as classifications. They wouldn’t be very precise as descriptions.

As a dual Swiss/Canadian citizen myself, I easily react to this type of imprecision, especially in formal contexts.

The Encyclopædia Britannica carries quite a bit of prestige and one would expect such issues as citizenship to be treated with caution. Seeing Rousseau mentioned in the “On This Day” bulletin, I accessed the Britannica entry on Rousseau via a single click. The first word of this entry was “French,” which did seem quite inappropriate, to me. In fact, I hoped that the rest of the entry would contain an explanation of this choice. Maybe I had missed the fact that Rousseau became a naturalized French citizen, at some point. Or maybe they just mean “French-speaker.” Or the descriptor was meant as a connection to philosophical trends associated with France…

Nope! Nothing like that.

Instead, a narrative on Rousseau’s life with lots of anecdotes, a few links to other entries, and some “peacock terms.” But no explanation of what is meant by “French philosopher.” This isn’t about accuracy as an absolute. The description could be accurate if it had been explained. But it wasn’t. Oh, there are some mentions of Rousseau’s “rights as a citizen” of Geneva, in connection with The Social Contract. But these statements are rather confusing, especially in the artificial context of an encyclopedia entry.

The Britannica entry was written by the late British economist Maurice Cranston. Given the fact that Cranston died in 1993, one is led to believe that the Britannica entry on Rousseau has been left unmodified in the past 15 years. The Wikipedia version has been modified hundreds of time in the last year. Now, many of these modifications were probably trivial, some are likely to have been inappropriate, and (without looking at the details of the changes) there’s no guarantee that the current version is the best possible one. The point here isn’t about the rate of change. It’s about the opportunities for modifying an encyclopedia entry. One would think that, during the last fifteen years, the brilliant people at Britannica may have had the time to include a clarification as to Rousseau’s citizenship. In fact, one might expect that a good deal of research on Rousseau’s work has happened in the meantime and it would make sense to say that the Britannica entry on the scholar could integrate some elements of that research.

Notice that I’m not, in fact, talking about factual accuracy as an abstract concept. I’m referring to the effects of encyclopedia entries on people’s understanding. In my mind, the Wikipedia entry on Jean-Jacques Rousseau makes it easy for readers to exercise their critical thinking. The Britannica entry on the same person makes it sound as though everything which could be said about Jean-Jacques Rousseau can be contained in a single narrative.

My guess is, Rousseau and his «Encyclopédistes» friends would probably prefer Wikipedia over Britannica.

But that’s just a guess.


Higher Education in a New Era

Thanks to a comment by Jay, a series of edifying articles in Washington Monthly about the current state of U.S. higher education, appearing in the September 2006 issue of that magazine.

I do tend to disagree with several dimensions of the approach taken by Washington Monthly, including the apparent enthusiasm for the “client-based approach to higher education” favoured by several institutions and bemoaned by its main actors. But I do appreciate the fact that such a conversation finally takes place. The blog post which prompted Jay’s comment was about Canadian universities but “don’t get me started” about the state of higher education in the United States.

According to its mission statement, Washington Monthly seeks to provide insight on politics and government in (the United States of) America. As such, it focuses on the potential ramifications of higher education for governmental (mostly U.S. federal) politics. Doing so, it seems to obey at least some of the Berlin Principles on Ranking of Higher Education Institutions, especially with regards to section A on Purposes and Goals of Rankings. (PDF version of principles.)

One thing that these articles avoids is blaming students for most of the problems. In my experience, today’s higher education students usually display impressive potential but are often inadequately prepared for college and university life. The fault might be put on “The System,” the parents, the diverse schools, or the governments. It’s quite unlikely that today’s students are inherently flawed as compared to previous generations and I’m frequently impressed by students of any age, social background, or local origin.

An article from the January/February 2002 issue of Washington Monthly also provides some insight in the financial dimension of higher education in the United States. The situation might have changed in the last four years, though it sounds somewhat unlikely that it may have greatly improved.

This coverage might be too journalistic and U.S.-specific but these are, IMHO, important pieces of the full puzzle of higher education in an interconnected world. These articles should contribute to a larger conversation on education. That conversation may also involve issues discussed in Daniel Golden’s Price of Admission book (as explained on the Colbert Report). Radio Open Source has also been broadcasting (and podcasting) shows on university leadership, academia, and education requirements, among several relevant topics.

It would be important to connect these issues with the broader scene of higher education around the world. Even in the cosmopolitan world of academia, not enough people get the benefit of experiencing more than a single educational system and a very small proportion of people gets to experience more than two. It is common for anthropologists to talk about “taking a step back” and “looking at the forest for the trees.” Higher education is no place for mental near-sightedness.

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