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Computers for Learning: Charisma that Fails to Disrupt?

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Jeremy Roschelle

Learning technology often bursts into our awareness with powerful promises to personalize learning, to accelerate progress, to scale powerful learning to everyone. Too often, learning technology fails to deliver. Why? Recently, I read two books addressing this dilemma, both of which are grounded in strong empirical research traditions.

The first book is "The Charisma Machine" by Morgan G. Ames, who conducted an ethnography of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) in South America in 2009-2010. Dr. Ames spent extensive time in schools and towns in Paraguay as the OLPC "XO" laptop rolled out and slowly fell into disuse. Some of the reasons for declining use were mundane: the XO laptops were underpowered, the trackpad was hard to use, and necessary software wasn’t available. The laptops were designed to survive a fall when closed, but students often carried them open in order to use the video camera. Once broken, the laptops could not be repaired locally. The mesh networking rarely worked and internet connections were poor. 

Despite these mundane problems, the choice to feature "charisma" in the book title points to the deeper lessons that can be learned by reading this book. These lessons generalize beyond the particular missteps of OLPC program. Charisma connotes unusual attractiveness that commands devotion, and also suggests the ability to distort reality such that obvious downsides become hidden from view.  Reading this book made me realize how many technologies for education are constructed as charismatic, implying "don’t anticipate difficulties based on what you already know, because this new technology will be a complete game changer!"  This  charismatic portrayal can facilitate rapid initial adoption but rarely translates into lasting change.

As Dr. Ames documents, the particular charisma of OLPC was to universalize the appeal and possibilities of an MIT-style, open-software, hacker culture — and the downfall of the XO laptop in South America was in large part due to how tiny a percentage of local teachers or learners were enticed to engage in this sort of community.  Dr. Ames searched and could find only 40 students in Paraguay who were using the XO in ways imagined by OLPC, a low yield on 10,000 laptops that were purchased and distributed. And yet, the apparent failure on the ground was slow to become apparent to key decision makers.

In a dramatic section of the book, Dr. Ames explores how OLPC leaders and the local Paraguay Educa implementation team maintained the charismatic illusion for each other. Dr. Ames reports her first-hand observations of how the local team organized (e.g. stage managed) a visit by OLPC leader Walter Bender to a local school, which was later heralded as evidence the program was working. The locals brought in children from other schools who fit the OLPC vision because so few students in the actual school were using XO laptops as intended.  While Bender lectures to the handpicked children in English with long pauses for third-party translation, some students "…listened to Bender, with Turtle Art opened but untouched on their laptops, but from the back of the room, I could see that a few had open web browsers instead." The visitors then leave for lunch, where "the conversation revolved around using Turtle Art as the solution for any need." The visit, as reported by Dr. Ames, was managed to preserve the charismatic vision of the project. 

This and other conversations reported in the book failed to grasp into what was most needed in Paraguay and never materialized sufficiently: support for teachers. The charismatic vision made teachers less important. OLPC projected an illusion that the power of the technology was so great that just putting it into the hands of children would be enough to revolutionize learning at scale. This didn’t happen. When Ames found children who were using the XO laptop as intended, enlightened teachers or parents were close at hand; conversely where social support was slight, little transformative learning occurred.

(I also recommend the documentary movie Web. This documentary, also about OLPC, makes similar points and poignantly juxtaposes the disparate meanings of "friend" among social media pioneers and Peruvian children.)

The second book is "Failure to Disrupt" by Justin Reich. Dr. Reich’s book picks up in the decade after OLPC and asks why several broad types of "disruptive" technologies failed to disrupt.  These technologies also oozed charisma. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) would make an elite education available to everyone, everywhere.  Personalized or adaptive technologies would disrupt the one-size-fits-all classroom by providing every learner with their unique needs. Games would powerfully motivate this generation of learners.

In most cases, each charismatic technology met one or more of four downfalls, with Dr. Reich carefully articulates: (1) the tendency of complex schools to domesticate innovations, rather than be disrupted by them (2) that schools and students who already had advantages are best able to use novel technologies, which tends to diminish equity (3) that routine assessment fails to measure important learning outcomes and (4) that data, if not handled very carefully, can backfire on innovators — it is dangerous, potentially "toxic" tool.

Reading these books led me to reflect on a key differences between learning technologies that capture the public imagination and learning technologies which accumulate research evidence to support their effectiveness. Charismatic technologists often spin stories how individual learners will accelerate without much support from teachers, parents or fellow students; effective technologies understand that learning is social and most regularly happens in communities. Charismatic technologies dramatically simplify adoption and implementation (in Ames’ book, OLPC sometimes envisions air-dropping laptops into remote villages); effective technologies understand that leveraging technology for learning at scale is an organizational change problem with essential infrastructural needs. Charismatic technologies often portray their approach as teacher-proof or teacher-aloof. As such, teachers are acknowledged as important but teachers' own learning needs are minimized.  The research literature, on the other hand, consistently finds that technology must solve problems as experienced by the teacher, that teachers need communities to support their own learning, and that a "shift of ownership" from developers to teachers is essential to achieving learning impacts at scale. 

Technology can improve learning at scale, but charismatic story telling about learning technology distorts the conditions for success and overlooks the common points of failure.

Jeremy Roschelle is Executive Director of Learning Sciences Research at Digital Promise and a Fellow of the International Society of the Learning Sciences.


Ken Kahn

I have troubles reconciling these descriptions of OLPC with my experience. While I was in West Papua (the Indonesian part of New Guinea) for 2 months I arranged for OLPC laptops to be given to a local school (the school had no computers and only one teacher had any computer experience). The mesh network worked very well and was very popular. Yes, the trackpads had stopped working on these old laptops but it was easy to get cheap computer mice instead. After a few weeks the kids were asked to teach a new batch of kids to use the laptops and I was very impressed with how well they did. And that included many apps including three programming tools. Here's the blog I kept

I have several friends that worked for OLPC and what I've heard from them is that it worked well in some countries and failed badly in others. My impression is that this was because it was the national governments that were in charge and some had very restrictive top-down ideas of how to introduce computers to schools and others didn't.

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