Archive for December, 2010

ICTD Apologia

December 20, 2010

ICTD2010 in London was a lively four days. In just about every way, ICTD2010 was better than all of its predecessors. The papers were stronger, the poster session was better attended, more people (580!) participated, the demos/workshops were fun and interesting, and there was a social program!

At the event, the Jester heard a lot from participants, and below, he’ll channel his alter ego to offer the organizer’s perspective in response to frequent comments. Many of the comments were wholly positive, but because those are less interesting to talk about, the Jester focuses below on the somewhat critical. 

Comment: ICTD is an elitist academic conference.

Response: Guilty as charged, but not as implied. There are two issues here, but they aren’t as evil as hinted.

First, as Mike Best mentioned in a final session reflecting on the conference, ICTD is a research conference whose goal is to bring together researchers and others interested in research. That was why it was established, and why researchers continue to flock to the conference. People who aren’t professional researchers are much more than welcome, of course — the conference benefits tremendously from interaction with all ICT and development stakeholders, and the program seeks to involve them. Nevertheless, the conference’s primary goal is to host discussions about ICTD research (and not even necessarily ICT-4-D at that). That may mean that the conference is not for everyone, but that’s okay. Academic conferences are academic conferences. There are other ICT4D events which serve other purposes. 

Second, regarding elitism: Academia is elitist by nature. It seeks to sort research and scholars by quality. (Whether it does so successfully is another issue). Elitism isn’t bad in itself; many good systems are elitist in their ideal form. We want wise leaders to run our governments; we want smart engineers designing our technology; and we want good researchers occupying scarce academic positions. If you believe in meritocracy, you believe in elitism.

The problem is not with elitism, but with bad elitism. Bad elitism occurs when either (1) elite status is undeserved (e.g., by nepotism or birth), or (2) when the elite gain access to things that have nothing to do with their status (e.g., when rich people can be above the law). The conference itself tries to avoid both types of problems.

ICTD is open in that anyone — regardless of formal background — can submit papers, propose sessions, and attend the event. The paper review process is double blind, the academic standard by which reviewers don’t know who paper authors are and vice versa. In theory, papers are thus accepted on the basis of merit, not authorship. (And, in practice, ICTD has accepted papers by people who are not trained researchers.) Of course, papers are judged by standards of research, so professional researchers have an edge, but that often comes from the PhD, a 4+ year indentured servitude apprenticeship to learn research skills.

As to what authors get out of paper acceptance, their paper is published and they win the chance to present their work at the conference, both things that aren’t easy to abuse, and in any case don’t do much for anyone outside of academia. Elitist, yes, but not bad elitist.

Two final comments on this point: One, none of this justifies any sort of snobbishness on the part of researchers. Though researchers like to believe they’re special, it takes a lot more than research to make the world go round. (In any case, is arrogance ever justified?) Two, the conference celebrates research, so non-researchers might receive less attention, but please don’t begrudge the academics their day in the sun.

Comment: ICTD2010 should support more participation from Group X.

Response: The Jester hails the court of Royal Holloway: Tim Unwin, Dorothea Kleine, and the team that put ICTD2010 together accelerated the momentum begun in ICTD2009 to open up the conference to greater participation. There was a session entirely in Spanish. Multiple workshops offered chances for open discussion. Accommodation was made for a blind participant. Scholarships were provided to over 100 people with limited means to attend.

Of course, they couldn’t do everything. Conference organization, like development in general, is about synergies and compromises. Conference funds are limited (the conference tries to keep registration costs low, and sponsorship is not automatic); effort is limited (the organizers have full-time jobs); space is limited (a campus can only hold so many); and time is limited (the conference can’t go on forever). That means a dollar spent on a scholarship is a dollar not spent on a more accessible website. It means the effort spent to set up a Spanish session is effort not spent mentoring potential authors. It means a minute spent for Q&A is a minute not mingling at a coffee break.

The Jester can’t think of anyone at the conference who wouldn’t want to see more of everything — more authors from underrepresented groups, more chances for everyone to participate, more accommodation for other languages, etc. Asking for these things is easy. Agreeing that they should be done is also easy. Finding a way to make them work with the available resources is the hard part!

None of this is to say that participants shouldn’t continue to lobby for their causes. That passion is essential! But, the Jester paraphrases John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what ICTD can do for you, ask what you can do for ICTD.” The more resources are poured into ICTD (including volunteer effort), the more ICTD can be.

Along these lines, the Jester applauds Shikoh Gitau’s announcement of a new African ICTD researchers group. If they collaborate, support each other, learn from each other, and seek out mentors as needed, the Jester is certain that more papers by African researchers will appear in future ICTDs. They may even find groups willing to sponsor their efforts and future participation. All good!

For anyone interested in contributing to ICTD2012, incidentally, contact the next host: Michael Best at Georgia Tech [mikeb (at)].

Comment: Paper quality was mixed.

Response: Sometimes, this comment is actually about what different disciplines value. More about that in the next comment below. But, sometimes, this comment is really about quality.

And, it’s true. ICTD as a research field is still young, and still maturing. Getting the best research to be submitted to the conference remains a challenge, and the process of evaluating submitted research is still a work in progress. ICTD has come far, but it still has a way to go.

This is one reason, by the way, why the Jester doesn’t yet support going to an annual conference (it is currently held once every 18 months), or to a multi-track conference that accepts more papers. We’re not yet bursting with quality papers, so it seems worthwhile to let quality catch up to quantity.

Comment: There are too many papers that are like X; there are too few that are like Y.

Response: When it isn’t about quality, these comments come from those who want ICTD to suit their personal temperaments more. But, that wouldn’t be ICTD! The comments are proof that there is unresolved tension in the community, and the Jester firmly believes that tension generates creative, interdisciplinary discussion. The conference will have failed if participants leave without being challenged.

The Jester himself is befuddled by the philosophical frameworks that underlie some scholarship. But, as he bounces back and forth between trying to understand them and railing at their incomprehensibility, he continues to want to see them represented and to be an active part of the conversation. Surely, once every 18 months, we can all sit and listen to each other, even if we disagree. Speaking of which…

Comment: It’s nice that the paper session is single track.
Comment: It would be nice if the paper session were multi-track, with multiple talks going on at once.

Response: The Jester firmly believes that the paper session should remain single track (at least for the time being). ICTD is designed to force different disciplines to rub shoulders with other disciplines, and it wants to encourage a single community. Both purposes are met best with a single track. The problem with multiple tracks is that it becomes easier for technologists to avoid social science papers, qualitative researchers to avoid quantitative presentations, etc. Of course, no one really has to attend anything, but with a single track, it’s more likely that the community will have a common basis of discussion.

Comment: By forcing publication of papers, you’re leaving out papers from fields that only value journal publications.

Response: This is a good point that has been raised before. One possibility would be to have a separate curatorial process for a subset of papers that have already been published in journals to be presented in plenaries. Anyway, it’s worth thinking about for ICTD2012.

Question: Why did ICTD2012 go to Atlanta?

Response: Georgia Tech was the only university to make a formal bid in response to a circulated call for hosts. Luckily, they fit all of the criteria for running ICTD, and the Jester is sure they’ll be fantastic hosts.

Personally, the Jester would love to see the conference go to a new continent, and he encourages groups to think about bidding for 2013. A good bid would be led by a research institution (preferably a university) with strong commitment to ICTD research. The key organizers should be known for their ICTD research. The institution should have excellent logistical and administrative capacity. The program committee chair would be very preferably someone with intimate experience of the paper-review process for previous ICTDs. Not all the organizers need to be at the same location (in fact, it’s probably best if they’re not). If interested, keep an eye on the yet-to-be-formed ICTD2012 website after Sept. 2011 or so, when calls for hosts will be announced.

But for now, look forward to ICTD2012!

Brave Confession from Azim Premji Foundation

December 17, 2010

Here’s an amazing, courageous, honest revelation from the Azim Premji Foundation:, among the world’s largest and most dedicated technology and education non-profits. They do their work in India (so, note qualifications around that fact). Many thanks to @gkjohn for forwarding this article.

For anyone in technology and education, it’s worth reading in its entirety, but here are some excerpts…

Over a four-year period, we at the Azim Premji Foundation produced the largest single library of digital learning resources (DLR) in India for children… After 5 years, when we took stock at a fundamental level, we realized that the whole thing was at best a qualified failure.

The Jester has worked with APF. It should be noted that they did a lot more than just produce software. They looked after computer labs, they did evaluations, they ran exploratory projects. They know what they’re talking about, and being the foundation of an IT magnate, they would probably liked to have seen the computers have impact.

[T]here was practically no impact in a sustained, systemic manner on learning.

[T]he limited numbers of schools with computers have a [sic] very poor uptime […] [A]t best 30%, driven both by poor electricity supply and the inability to fix technical glitches. Let’s not even discuss Internet availability.

[We] find that innumerable people inside and outside the education system think of technology (always meaning ICT) as something between a panacea and “the-most-important-solution”. A number of them are in influential positions, and these misconceived notions can have a significantly detrimental effect on the national effort to improve educational quality.

At its best, the fascination with ICT as a solution distracts from the real issues. At its worst, ICT is suggested as substitute to solving the real problems, for example, “why bother about teachers, when ICT can be the teacher”. This perspective is lethal.

In the past few months, we happened to meet education leaders from Finland and from the province of Ontario in Canada—two regions with outstanding school systems. Across two continents, they said the same thing – “not a dollar will we invest in ICT, every dollar that we have will go to teacher and school leader capacity building”.

 If everyone were as brave as APF, we w ouldn’t need William Easterly.

Random Musings on ICTD2010

December 17, 2010

Here are some miscellaneous Jester thoughts on ICTD2010…

Tim Unwin, Dorothea Kleine, and their team at Royal Holloway were terrific hosts. The Jester wishes them several weeks of good sleep.

Egham isn’t London, but it was nice to have everything on a quiet campus.

Research papers have come a long way since ICTD2006, but there’s still room for improvement.

More papers were open about failures of various kinds, and it’s good that the program committee is becoming comfortable accepting these papers. In addition to the lessons to be gained, it creates a healthier atmosphere for researchers.

Tim Berners-Lee’s keynote was predictable, but his response to a question about WikiLeaks was right on: Societies benefit from making information publicly avaiable, but there are also cases for keeping information private. There is no rule to decide these cases, so we need a reliable way to arbitrate between them when the issues collide.

Geoff Walsham’s keynote provided a nice (and jest-filled!) review of what might be considered ICTD consensus… that technology by itself doesn’t solve development problems; that the focus of ICT4D should be on “D”; that multidisciplinarity is important; and that there are some promising directions in ICT4D.

The paper that the Jester found most intriguing was one by Julian May. It’s main finding was that the poorest mobile phone owners in some parts of Africa see wealth gains and appear to do so at a higher rate than the slightly less poor. Methodological strengths outweighed weaknesses, and the analysis was convincing. The Jester expects the results to hold up under more scrutiny. May was also admirably careful in bounding his nuanced claims. The main finding pokes a hole in the Jester’s amplification theory (because the poorest mobile owners benefit more than those slightly less poor). It’s not a big hole, but broader findings along these lines could enlarge the hole enough to force the Jester to reformulate or even retract some of his theories. But, it would be a good thing for the world, if mobiles really delivered in that way. Alas, it seems unlikely. As even May quipped, “This doesn’t mean the poor can tweet themselves out of poverty.”

The Jester was impressed with the number of young participants from all over the world who were willing to speak up at the conference. No research community thrives without that energy, confidence, and willingness to question the status quo. Go, go, go!

It was a somersault-worthy experience to run into people familiar with the Jester’s blog! The Jester is very grateful. And, he is forced to accept the usefulness of technology for some people. (Dang!)

There was lots of positive energy, and on the whole, participants seemed to enjoy the conference. Of course, there was some grumbling, too. Those points will be addressed in the next post.

2009 PISA Results: Basics, Basics, Basics

December 10, 2010

The most interesting session at WISE (apart from the panel the Jester was on, of course) was a lunch-time session announcing the recent PISA results. The Jester is a big fan of the Programme for International Student Assessment, which is likely to endure as the the primary yardstick for education for some time to come. (The New York Times has an article that provides more background and discusses the results. The complete results and the analysis are here:

Several notable facts from the 2009 results…

  • Shanghai came in first in overall performance, followed by South Korea and Finland. (Officially, China is only a partial participant with a couple of its cities involved, so technically South Korea was the top country.)
  • In addition to having high scores on PISA, the top three countries tend to have little disparity in performance among students and less correlation of performance with household economic status.
  • Increasingly, school performance is decorrelated with either national per-capita GDP or with educational spending per student.
  • Shanghai has an interesting program where they give principals of good schools a raise and a transfer to less performing schools, with the mandate to improve them. They’re allowed to take along with them few teachers from their old school.
  • Accountability and autonomy of schools has an interesting, if unsurprising, interaction: Schools with autonomy do better if the larger school system has a lot of accountability. Schools with autonomy do poorer, if the larger school system has little accountability.
  • African countries are mostly not participating in PISA yet.

Relevant to ICT4D, with the exception of South Korea, the top-performing schools limit their use of technology. Neither Shanghai nor Finland have one-to-one PC programs, though in both, schools tend to have computer classrooms. Also, the analysis from PISA of what makes a good school system are common sense and very basic — a culture that values education and the profession of teaching, policies that consistently empower and reward good educators, high standards of achievement for all students, regardless of background, etc. Notably, technology does not emerge as a key element of a strong educational system. One of the summary documents notes, “the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers and principals, since student learning is ultimately the product of what goes on in classrooms.”

When will we learn?

How OLPC is like MasterCard

December 8, 2010

MasterCard has an advertising campaign that the Jester finds ingenious. They all go something like this: “Water glass: $5” (shot of cute kid turning off water while dad brushes teeth at sink); “energy saving bulb: $4” (cute kid recommends power-saving bulb at store); “reusable bag: $2” (cute kid returns plastic bag at cash register); “helping dad become a better man: priceless” (mom looks on approvingly as dad appears to sigh reluctantly). The tagline is… “There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else there’s MasterCard.”

This is sheer brilliance. Here’s a product — the credit card — that is all about debt, rampant consumerism, and extraction of interest payments, and the ad turns it completely around. Though the script says, “there are some things that money can’t buy,” the message they’re sending is “actually, you can buy them with MasterCard.” The sequence leading up to the priceless things — usually a precious emotional moment with a loved one — is usually stuff that you can buy, and in the ads, they’re carefully sequenced to set the stage for the emotional moment. The tagline is also a deft feat of doublespeak. An association is made that links the things money can’t buy with MasterCard. They say nothing logically incorrect. Yet, the implications are deceptive. If you watch these ads without the logical filters of your frontal cortex, you walk away with a warm, fuzzy feeling and an urgent desire to fill out a credit-card application form.

The Jester has a conspiracy theory that Nicholas Negroponte wrote these ads for MasterCard. His fingerprints are all over these ads! Feel-good imagery, platitudes you can’t disagree with, and juxtaposed associations that give the illusion of a tightly constructed logic despite the absence of one.

In this post, the Jester deconstructs Negroponte’s seductive rhetoric. Many others have critiqued the OLPC project (for example, and, but this post specifically deconstructs the rhetoric itself. The Jester feels no compunction using Negroponte as an example and a target, since he is the most visible of PC pushers, the least open to criticism (and therefore, beyond change through constructive engagement), and extreme in his stance.

The Jester also recognizes the futility of trying to persuade technology-for-education champions who do what they do because of deep-seated pathologies beliefs that are unlikely to change with any amount of rational discussion. This post is instead dedicated to (1) educational decision-makers who are considering OLPC (or computers for schools) and (2) people working for non-technological basics in schools, and who need ammunition to fight the seductive rhetoric of technology pushers. The points are made primarily for primary and secondary education in international development, though the arguments often apply beyond. So, without further ado…

  • Negroponte Point 1: Children are innate learners. 
  • Jester Counterpoint: Even innate learners need good adult guidance.

Discussion: Hear the MasterCard music in the background? Of course, children are innate learners! Who will disagree? But, being an innate learner is one thing, bootstrapping any significant part of primary and secondary education without good adult guidance is another thing entirely.

The rhetorical trap here is to go from “innate learners” to self-contained learners who only need the right materials to learn. No sane parent would send a kid to a school where the pedagogy is to leave children in a room unsupervised with laptops all day and nothing else. Yet, plenty of good parents will send a kid to a school with top-notch teachers and no computers. Competent adult supervision – i.e., teachers – is a critical component, and cannot be replaced by technology. If that is missing, providing it is the first order of business, contra Negroponte.

Some people can’t shake the belief that children just need to be left alone with the right educational aids to learn everything they need. But, if everyone were such self-sufficient educational bootstrappers, why not simply hand out Erector Sets? (What is “programming,” after all, but virtual engineering?) And, if you take that argument further, children shouldn’t need anything beyond mud, sticks, and stones to learn. Those materials are enough for serious creative design, peer learning, and complex engineering.

  • Negroponte Point 2: A laptop is the perfect complement for an innate learner.
  • Jester Counterpoint: A laptop is a very versatile educational toy. Like any toy, children can learn from it or not. For the long haul, what matters is, again, good adult guidance.

Discussion: Believers of computers for education believe in its capacity as a universal machine. There is no better technology for storing, processing, displaying, and allowing interaction with information. So far, so good.Negroponte adds a further point that programming a computer is like teaching (it). (The Jester disagrees, but let’s suppose this is also true for the sake of argument.) Combined with the cliche about teaching being the best way to learn something, all this suggests that computers are the best tool for learning. This is yet another sleight of hand, with MasterCard elegance.

The underlying issue is that education requires prolonged  motivation, either internally generated or externally inspired. Children have a lot of internal curiosity, true, but that requires good adult guidance to keep alive for the long haul required for a good education. Today’s technology cannot provide that motivation. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that learning is a social process that thrives due to human encouragement, approval, guidance, direction, etc., and all preferably from adults who are caring, educated, and attentive.

As for “teaching” laptops through programming, programming does require deep understanding, but how does a child acquire that deep understanding in the first place? The Jester would venture that in the history of computers in education, no child left alone with a computer has ever gone from being able to count to doing polynomial algebra. It’s not that software couldn’t be written to guide a student through this process. It’s that adult guidance, approval, and support is still necessary. (If any software comes close to doing this, it’s probably software developed by Carnegie Learning. But, they are so conscious of the need for good adult supervision, that they won’t sell software without the right pedagogical framework in place.)

To suggest that a laptop is enough for a child to learn the substantial content of formal education is basically to say that every child has within themselves the capacity to rediscover the significant portions of math, literature, history, science, etc., that took centuries, if not millennia of the world’s greatest thinkers to discover. With or without a laptop and the Internet, this is a great stretch of imagination.

  • Negroponte Point 3: Education isn’t about drilling and rote learning. It’s about creativity and social interaction with peers. Laptops transform rank-and-file classrooms into creative learning environments.
  • Jester Counterpoint: Educational quality ranges from (1) very bad, to (2) decent education possibly by rote, to (3) superior education that raises brilliant, creative, self-motivated lifelong learners. Each of these steps requires an upgrading to a stronger school system, with better teachers and better administrators. Superficial appearances of jumping from (1) to (3) with technology are illusory.

Discussion: More MasterCard fluff. If there’s a kernel of truth here, it’s that if you do introduce a bunch of laptops into a classroom, you’ll immediately get a lot of laughing children and what appears to be constructive chaos. That’s beautiful to see when you do short-term drop-in visits to classrooms, but in the long run, someone has to settle the class down and teach long division. Real education requires ongoing discipline, and by that the Jester doesn’t mean knuckle-raps-with-a-ruler discipline, but the kind where students are consistently encouraged and cajoled to learn even the subjects they aren’t naturally drawn to and in the process learn self-control and perserverance. Again, for most children, this requires good adult supervision.

Among liberal elites, there’s often a great emphasis on creativity and “critical thinking”. But, these folks are arguing about getting from (2) to (3). Even that leap requires better adult supervision, not more technology, but in the rush to get to (3), it’s pointless to go for what looks superficially to be (3) when the reality is often stuck in (1).

A related point is that (2) can get you quite far. This point gets deep into pedagogy, and education research hasn’t yet figured it all out, so the Jester will rely on examples. Japan has an educational system that is based on rote learning, which the Jester has personal experience with. Even advanced mathematics is learned by rote, where students do a lot of memorization and learn how to solve problems by learning algorithms for specific patterns of problems.

Now, you could criticize the system and say that it suppresses creativity and autonomy, and those critiques would be partially valid. But, you simply could not say that the Japanese educational system is a failure on the whole. Japan’s literacy rate is among the highest in the world (higher, certainly than the United States); it’s the third largest economy in the world even after a prolonged recession (and #1 and #2 have much larger populations); and life expectancy there is generally in the top two (competing with Iceland). If that kind of education could be delivered worldwide, we’d wipe out illiteracy in a generation.

The Chinese and Indian educational systems are also based on rote learning. Of course, not everyone is getting a quality rote education, but those who do often end up in U.S. universities, and many casually outdo their American peers.

The Jester’s own hypothesis is that the most critical aspects of education aren’t the knowledge gained. They’re actually the meta-lessons children learn when they’re put in an environment in which they have daily opportunities to learn that effort leads to reward. 12 years of individual experience with a system that rewards you when you inject effort can lead to a firm belief in effort when you grow up. The alternative is to grow up believing that luck is the critical element to success, as children of poorer families apparently did in the 1960’s Coleman Report. The right meta-lesson can be learned even in a rote learning environment, as long as, again, it has good adult supervision.
In short, a good rote education is far, far better than no education or a bad education, and it cannot be replaced with a non-human pedagogical alternative. To believe that a quality education can be replaced by a laptop is to believe that the hours we spent on our own education away from PCs wasunimportant. Very unlikely.

  • Negroponte Point 4: OLPC only costs a dollar a week per child.
  • Jester Counterpoint: A dollar a week is already expensive for most developing countries. And, in any case, the total cost of technology is multiples of the cost of hardware. A good rule of thumb is that total cost is 10 times the cost over the lifetime of the hardware.

Discussion: MasterCard, MasterCard, MasterCard. First, if a dollar a week sounds cheap to you, you haven’t spent enough time in the developing world. The Indian government spends no more than $200 per child per year on education, and most of it goes to teachers’ salaries. Government schools often lack toilets, walls, and even buildings. And, this is all in a country where tax revenue is doing quite well, relatively speaking. Plenty of less developed countries spend less than the dollar a week per child on education, so OLPC is effectively saying, “get rid of your schools, just distribute laptops.”

Second, a dollar a week for a laptop is likely an underestimate for the total cost of ownership. This suggests that a $188 laptop would last four years, and require no other expense. Who is paying for electricity and connectivity? Curriculum integration and teaching training? And, what about maintenance? In Uruguay, where OLPCs have been distributed to all of the countries children, they find that as much as 30% of the laptops are out of commission at any given time and waiting to be repaired or replaced, and this in the first year of the program. Unless they’re replaced (which incurs a cost), 30% a year means that in four years, only 20-25% of the laptops will remain. There’s some funny math here. (For more, see The Jester thanks Wayan Vota for the pointer.)

  • Negroponte Point 5: Rich kids have laptops, why should poor kids be denied?
  • Jester Counterpoint: Rich kids are driven to school in Mercedes Benzes, why should poor kids be denied?

Discussion: By now, you should be able to see the MasterCard doublespeak. This again sounds great out of context, but in a context where the poor kids are also missing nutrition, vaccines, clean water, etc., this rhetoric makes no sense. Rich kids have a lot of things that poor kids don’t. Among those things, which should be prioritized?

Definitely not laptops.

  • Negroponte Point 6: 2 million OLPC laptops have been sold.
  • Jester Counterpoint: Billions of cigarettes have been sold.

Discussion: Economists call this the “market test” fallacy. Just because a lot of suckers have bought a product doesn’t mean it’s good for development. Cigarettes and alcohol are best sellers, but it’s not clear that the developing world should buy more of them.

The subtler point is that educators often rush to buy technology, because it seems everyone else is doing it, too. Gosh, educators should be the first to recognize and deflect bad peer pressure when they see it.

  • Negroponte Point 7: It’s not worth doing, if the impact has to be measured.
  • Groucho Marx Counterpoint: “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”

Discussion: Negroponte said this in a panel, in response to an audience challenge to have J-PAL do a randomized controlled trial of OLPC. The Jester believes Negroponte meant that unless something has a huge uncontested benefit, there’s no point in doing it. But, this is MasterCard hogwash of the highest order. The benefit of laptops in schools and at home is actively debated. Research results are consistently mixed and often negative. This puts it in a category where evaluation becomes necessary. No chance of Negroponte dropping OLPC because of that, though.

  • Negroponte Point 8: Laptops are like vaccines, vaccinating children against ignorance.
  • Jester Counterpoint: Global telecommunication is like a vaccine, vaccinating the world against hatred and war. (Not quite, right?)

Discussion: Sounds great, but laptops are not vaccines against ignorance. Just because someone famous says it doesn’t make it true. It would be nice if we could inoculate children against ignorance, but that’s a shortcut we will probably never find.

Vaccines are an amazing technology, and laptops are simply not their equal for the purpose of education. It takes a vaccine from days to months to work, and it requires no effort on the part of the child. A good education requires one to two decades, and there is simply no evidence that a child alone with a laptop, even with other laptop-encumbered peers, will learn what we expect of a well-educated adult.

  • Negroponte Point 9: Kids teach their parents to read with the laptops. The laptops change classroom dynamics so that teachers are learning from the kids.
  • Jester Counterpoint: Hitler was an effective leader. Hitler loved his dog.

Response: A few heart-warming anecdotes aren’t enough to demonstrate net total value. In fact, for every positive anecdote about OLPC, there are plenty of negative ones. There are stories of piles of OLPC laptops gathering dust, or being stolen, or breaking and remaining unrepaired, or threatening teachers who then confiscate the laptops, etc. Computers overall are known to be distracting in the classroom, unless they are carefully integrated into curriculum. Given that there is a cost to laptops, the laptops have to show significant positive benefit to make sense. The evidence that exists is consistently neutral or mixed. 

One response to this is that anecdotes can be verified or countered with an experimental trial. Why not measure the effect laptops have on parental literacy? Why not see what students learn more or less of after a year with the laptops? If children in Afghanistan learned more with a laptop than with an equivalent cost used to run a school, that would instantly silence critics, the Jester included.

Unfortunately, the real issue isn’t evidence. It’s the human propensity to emphasize isolated stories over dry statistics. As P.T. Barnum said, you can fool some of the people all of the time. The capacity for reasoning is a flimsy structure compared the human affinity for narrative.

The solution for *that*, of course, is a good education. Unfortunately, it’s not enough for education ministers to have their own laptops, to give themselves the education required to think critically about laptops.
In a future post… The four things that computers are good for in education, and why none of them should be a first priority for poorly run schools and schools with limited budgets.

Did the Jester leave out any other points to counter?

Ideas Matter: Can Technology Solve Global Poverty?

December 3, 2010

On December 2, 2010, there was a panel discussion titled “Can Technology Solve Global Poverty?” in Cambridge, MA, hosted jointly by the Boston Review and the MIT Political Science Department. (The Jester appreciates the platform provided by the Boston Review — thanks to editors-in-chief Josh Cohen and Deb Chasman!) The panelists were Kentaro Toyama, Nicholas Negroponte, Rachel Glennerster, and José Gómez-Márquez, and moderation was handled expertly by Archon Fung. Brief bios of the panelists are all available here:; a video of the event should appear there soon, as well.

There was some drama on stage, but the panelists’ views were nothing new for people who follow this space. So, just a quick summary…

– Toyama: Technology magnifies human and institutional intent and capacity. In international development, technology is rarely a solution by itself. (Geez, this guy is a human broken record!)

– Negroponte: Laptops transforms education for children. Anyone who can’t see this needs a therapist!

– Glennerster: Look for whatever solutions work in international development, technology or otherwise. Then do randomized control trials (RCTs) of them to verify effectiveness.

– Gómez-Márquez: We need to design technologies and systems so that they will work in a hostile environment.

Overall, the Jester couldn’t have agreed more with Toyama, but there were some things that Toyama didn’t do well. For example, he didn’t clarify that he was talking mostly of ICT up front (although the Jester increasingly believes the amplification thesis applies beyond ICT and beyond international development). He also came  off as anti-technology, or anti-ICT4D, which is not quite true. He’s just pro-foundational-investments-in-human-capacity-that-rarely-require-much-technology.

Glennerster and Gómez-Márquez both held extremely reasonable positions about technology, namely that sometimes they can be helpful. The only problem with extremely reasonable positions is that while they are invariably true, they provide no additional insight.

Toyama’s core thesis primarily leads to arguments against (1) the indiscriminate spreading of technology without a full understanding of impact, (2) any hype around technologies potential that ignores the necessary human or institutional requirements for success, and (3) ignoring of opportunity costs when cheaper solutions abound. There is nothing wrong with cost-effective technology being used in the right way to amplify existing positive intent and capacity, as the Jester recommends for ICT4D-ers.

Of these, Point (3) on opportunity costs was discussed on the panel. (Everyone except for Negroponte appeared to agree with (1) and (2).) The Jester fully agrees with Toyama’s point about opportunity costs. When presented with multiple ways to solve similar problems, which should you choose? One slogan often goes, “It’s not either/or, do all of them!” This is an approach that might appeal to the United Nations, where participation and consensus is the goal, but the reality is that funds allocated to international development are always limited. If you “only” have a budget of $100 million for a million students, you can’t both buy them all computers and do meaningful teacher training. You have to choose how to allocate the budget.

That choice often, though not always, comes down to a simple question — Which intervention provides more bang for the buck? Unfortunately, ICT rarely comes in on the cheaper side, particularly in low-labor-cost environments (note to self: Jester, hurry up and get to Myth 9: “Automated is always cheaper and better”). Negroponte seemed excited to reveal that OLPC only costs a dollar a week per child, but as Toyama and Glennerster both responded, there are interventions that cost 100 times less, with known and significant educational benefits, and even a dollar a week is too much for countries that barely spend that much total on education per child. (Actually, the Jester even doubts Negroponte’s dollar a week number — note to self: hurry up and get to Myth 8: “Hardware and software are a one-time cost”!)

Glennerster and Gómez-Márquez were both very persuasive in the importance of designing interventions well, so that they work even in hostile environments. Toyama had difficulty responding to this point, although he should have done better considering that he used to make similar remarks himself. Gómez-Márquez, in particular, made an intriguing comment that you could design things so that they work even under adversarial conditions. This sounds fantastic in theory, but in reality, someone somewhere in the system must have the intent to solve the the problem, for any technology to work (this is similar to what computer security people say about computer security). It might be a minister, an NGO leader, a local entrepreneur, a group of mothers, or some combination, but every technology requires positive human capacity behind it to activate.  (In a post-panel conversation, Gómez-Márquez acknowledged this point.) Gómez-Márquez talked about identifying what might be called “champions” in a given environment, and then providing them with the right tools. Toyama would undoubtedly agree with this approach (the Jester agrees, too) — it means that the technology is amplifying the champions’ intent and capacity. ICT4D projects whose stated intent is to identify and amplify champions make perfect sense.

Glennerster brought up the topic of vaccines, which are a theoretical pebble in the Jester’s pointy shoes. Such technologies do pose a partial counterexample to the theory of technology as amplifier, because at the least, they don’t amplify negative intent (unless, the Jester supposes, some of them can turn to poisons when not used as indicated). But, even vaccines are subject to bad institutional capacity, and they are certainly not immune (ha ha — the Jester should be punished for every pun he sheds) to the amplification thesis. In the end, vaccines are regularly and routinely distributed unequally, which is exactly why yellow fever still exists in the developing world, despite the technological existence of reliable vaccines. Disproportionately, it’s poorer countries that continue to have these problems and it’s usually because the vaccine supply chain is not in order.

Of course, none of this says that we shouldn’t develop the technology — the Jester so far hasn’t suggested that PCs or mobile phones should be uninvented. (Not yet, anyway!)

Finally, the Jester came away with new appreciation for Negroponte’s persuasiveness, if not his logic. Although Negroponte lost his cool at times (and perhaps did more to hurt his own cause than to advance it), he does genuinely appear to believe 100% in the power of laptops alone to radically transform children’s education for the better. And possibly as a result, his tone, if not his rational argument, is incredibly seductive. The Jester found himself nodding along hypnotized, while Negroponte compared laptops to vaccines and suggested that nothing that required experimental evaluation was worth doing.

These last points will be addressed in the Jester’s next post. The Jester passed on commenting on Negroponte in a previous post, but it seems necessary.  Negroponte’s salesmanship requires repeat doses of a rational antidote!