Archive for the ‘education’ Category

Kooks and MOOCs

April 5, 2013

[The kind folks at Educational Technology Debate have posted a more sober, unjesterly version of this article.]

The other day, someone the Jester will call “Shabnam” mailed him the following question: Do you have any thoughts, for or against MOOCs? Thank you, Shabnam, for waking the Jester from a long slumber. As he shakes off cobwebs, the Jester can almost hear the squeaking of his creaky bones.

MOOCs – massively open online courses are all the rage these days! If it’s not MIT and Harvard deigning to grace the world with EdX, it’s Stanford celebrity professors exposing themselves on Udacity. Meanwhile, Bill Gates and others are going crazy over the Khan Academy. Perhaps most bizarre is the story of University of Virginia president, Teresa Sullivan, being ousted and then invited back within a couple of weeks. It seems some trustees were impatient with the pace at which she was initiating MOOC-ish offerings at the university.

Before the Jester jests about the impact of MOOCs, it will help to categorize MOOCs into three categories. The first type of MOOC is the MOOC as educational material. The Jester dubs them MOOC’EMs. These are MOOCs that consist almost solely of educational content placed online. They make no serious attempt to take attendance, administer proctored tests, provide call-in numbers for human tutors, give certified grades, or otherwise do anything that goes beyond providing just the educational material. (By “serious attempt,” the Jester does not mean issuing of printable certificates upon clicking the “Finish” button.) The content may be fancy – interactive simulations, educational games, adaptive problem sets, videos of uproariously entertaining professors giving lectures, etc. – but if no attempt is made to do anything other than provide this educational content, it is a MOOC’EM. One characteristic of the MOOC’EM is that proponents like to highlight how many gazillions of users have enrolled for the courses, while in fact, the actual number of people who have actually completed a course can be counted on one thumb. (By “completed,” the Jester does mean having randomly clicked on all the multiple-choice tests, the way he once passed an online driver’s education course.)

The second type of MOOC is the MOOC+ (pronounced MOOC-plus). As cleverly implied by the name, the MOOC+ is a MOOC’EM plus some elements. Those elements attempt to provide some aspects of the regular school experience beyond mere educational content. There may be real-time online chat with tutors. There may be some way to take proctored exams. There may be an office that issues certified transcripts of students who have taken courses. In any case, MOOC+s are an attempt to be more like a real school, with the content delivered as a MOOC, but other components, such as grading, or help from a real person (heaven forbid!), provided in a way that requires human administration. MOOC+s vary greatly in exactly what they offer, but most like to emphasize that they do more than just offer content online. They know that MOOC’EMs aren’t enough, so they’ll talk about the warm, fuzzy side of their work, such as how they have paid proctors remotely view recorded videos of online test takers to make sure they aren’t cheating. (The Jester is not making this up!)

The third type of MOOC is not really a MOOC at all. It is an OC – online course. These are real courses that are organized, taught, graded, and certified by real educators, but which just happen to use online channels to engage with students. They include regular distance-learning courses, and are rarely either “massive” or “open” in the sense that the material is offered free to the entire galaxy. One way to tell that a MOOC is an OC is that it will usually charge a hefty fee for a class – after all, someone has to pay for the teachers, the graders, the administrators, and the infrastructure.

The brilliance of the Jester’s classification into MOOC’EMs, MOOC+s, and OCs is that it simplifies the analysis. To wit, MOOC’EMs are useless; OCs are as good as the institution behind them; and MOOC+s will tend over time to become MOOC’EMs or OCs.

As always, it helps to keep in mind the Jester’s mantra: technology amplifies human intent and capacity. In education, human intent and capacity includes both pedagogical intent and capacity of teachers and administrators, and individual intent and capacity of students.

MOOC’EMs will certainly not solve any real problems in education. Why not? Because real problems in education require serious human effort, and MOOC’EMs, by definition, do not provide that. MOOC’EMs are just collections of educational material sitting online, and educational material sitting online is no better than educational material sitting in a textbook. As the Jester has implied in other guises, the real problems of education are not problems of educational content, but of student motivation. And student motivation is a problem that content alone, however entertaining and gamified cannot easily solve. (The Jester promises a future post on games and how they won’t save the world, either.)

Wait, Mr. Jester, what about that rare student who has a lot of self-motivation? Yes, it’s true that the rare student who has the curious combination of…

  • good access to the Internet, but not access to good textbooks,
  • good Internet skills, but an inability to find good educational content online apart from MOOCs, and
  • good motivation, but no motivation to scavenge the plentiful educational content already available on the Internet in non-MOOC form,

might very well benefit from MOOCs. But, that student is so rare that she (the Jester has verified that she is a she) can also be counted on one thumb.

At the other end, there are OCs. According to the Jester’s Law of Amplification, an OC amplifies the pedagogical intent and capacity of the institution running it. And, there is always an institution running an OC, because OCs are real schools first, online gimmicks second. OCs will certainly allow schools to reach a larger set of students, and the clever bits of technology used to run them are likely to lower some costs so that someone in the system will benefit from greater revenue or lower prices. Cost is the OC’s best selling point, but the cost reduction will be scalar – each student will cost some non-trivial amount that will likely not shrink below an order of magnitude of regular tuition.

Also, OCs will never quite be as good as the real thing. At physical schools, warm bodies can engage in lively face-to-face discussion; feel the responsibility to attendance and assignments that physical classes impose; get a boost from the camaraderie of shared struggle; create long-lasting friendships that become valuable social networks; etc. As a result, there will always be a place for the physical school – and here, the Jester will predict that however popular MOOCs become, and however many experiments there may be to replace real schools with MOOCs, physical schools will not only survive, they will (continue to) prevail. At the very least, the world’s elites will always pay good money to hoard the best social capital for themselves.

And then there are MOOC+s. MOOC+s are where the most interesting action will be, but they are inherently unstable. They will tend to slide down to MOOC’EMs or climb up to OCs over time. MOOC+s will have to charge someone for the plus that they provide. And whomever gets stuck with the bill will demand the two critical parts of formal education which are, of course, real learning by students and certifiable sorting of students. So over the long run, MOOC+s will either get paid to deliver the full package, or forego pay and the plus components that bump them above MOOC’EMs. (Half-clever readers will imagine that ad revenue is a viable possibility; yes, and let’s also poster our physical classrooms with junk food ads to generate revenue for public schools.)

The best test of MOOCs (or of any educational concept, for that matter) is to see where their strongest proponents send their children. The Jester wagers that anyone making good income off of MOOCs will send their own kids to the best physical school they can afford (or otherwise ensure that qualified adults are deeply involved). At best, MOOCs will serve as a supplement.

Ultimately, the Jester expects that MOOCs will come and mostly go, like television-for-education came and mostly went. In a few years, there will be some other techno-fad driving today’s MOOC fans into a tizzy. Meanwhile, the world of the future might have a few more people learning online, but very quickly a new equilibrium will be reached, and things won’t be all that different from today: students from underprivileged backgrounds will continue to lose the educational race; parents with means will ensure the best (non-MOOC) education for their kids; and most students won’t learn that much more or less than they learn today.

…unless, of course, we make the hard social and political decisions to pay for excellent adult guidance in education for everyone, by which the Jester does NOT mean buying every charter-school student a laptop loaded with Khan Academy videos and educational video games.

The Beginning of the End?

January 18, 2011

The Jester thanks his alter ego’s high school computer science teacher, Mr. Ron Dirkse, for forwarding him the following story from the New York Times: In Florida, Virtual Classrooms with No Teachers. The story relates the experience of some secondary school students in the Miami-Dade Public School system (generally considered very good — the Jester has firsthand experience!), who found to their surprise that they were enrolled in classes equipped with PCs for online, self-paced, distance education, and no teachers. Apparently, there are 7000 students enrolled in these “e-learning labs.”

If there’s consolation for the Jester, it’s that the story is careful to note that the labs are not completely supervision-free, and it also emphasizes the potential downsides of the program (including its use as a cost-reduction strategy!):

“A ‘facilitator’ is in the room to make sure students progress. That person also deals with any technical problems.”

“None of them want to be there,” [one student] said, “and for virtual education you have to be really self-motivated. This was not something they chose to do, and it’s a really bad situation to be put in because it is not your choice.” (Emphasis added by the Jester)

“The way our state is dealing with class size is nearly criminal,” said Chris Kirchner, an English teacher at Coral Reef Senior High School in Miami. “They’re standardizing in the worst possible way, which is evident in virtual classes.” … “I think there should be learning on the computer,” Ms. Kirchner said. “That part is from 2:30 p.m. on. The first part of the day should be for learning with people.”

“There is no doubt that blended learning can be as effective and often more effective than a classroom,” said Mr. Moore, who is also editor of The American Journal of Distance Education. He said, however, that research and his experiences had shown that proper design and teacher instruction within the classroom were necessary. A facilitator who only monitors student progress and technical issues within virtual labs would not be categorized as part of a blended-learning model, he said. Other variables include “the maturity and sophistication of the student,” he said.

“Despite some complaints about the virtual teaching method, administrators said e-learning labs were here to stay.”


ICT is to Education as a Treadmill is to Fitness

January 18, 2011

It’s heartwarming to see the passionate debate over at Educational Technology Debate, ensuing from Toyama’s post, “There are no technology shortcuts to good education.” The Jester also would like to acknowledge Stephen Downes, who wrote an articulate point by point rebuttal to Toyama’s article. (The Jester notes, though, that Downes seems to be coming from the perspective of rich-world tertiary education, which is exactly what Toyama wasn’t writing about. Incidentally, if anyone would like to be a Guest Jester and rebut Downes, the Jester would be delighted to cede the stage).

Although the Jester is slowly coming to the conclusion that there is little point in trying to convince people who are pro-technology otherwise, he will give it another shot here, and respond to the main classes of responses that were received.

Throughout, the Jester will use an analogy for ICT in education (which he hit upon while out for a jog in the chilly north end of the Bay Area): ICT is to education as exercise technology is to fitness. The parallels are as follows…

  • Fitness only happens when the person does the work (at least with current technology – electrical ab stimulators notwithstanding!).
  • Education only happens when the learner does the work (at least with current technology – we don’t yet have the kung-fu teaching machine from the Matrix).
  • Thus, the key challenge of exercise is the motivation of the person.
  • Thus, the key challenge of education is the motivation of the learner.
  • Children are naturally dynamic and want to exercise, but most still need good guidance and coaching if they are going to become good athletes.
  • Children are naturally curious and want to learn, but most still need good guidance and coaching if they are going to become good thinkers.
  • Treadmills may provide some initial motivation, but their novelty quickly wears off.
  • Computers may provide some initial motivation, but their novelty quickly wears off.
  • The Jester concedes that occasionally a treadmill is the inspiration for someone to stick to a tight exercise regimen for the long term. But, these people will continue to exercise even without the treadmill.
  • The Jester concedes that occasionally a computer is the inspiration for a child to seek out further learning for the long term. But, these children will continue to exercise even without the treadmill.
  • Treadmills may be convenient; they can do some things that help with exercise; and they could certainly be part of a good exercise program. But, there are plenty of low-cost alternatives for exercise that hold up well against treadmills (and other exercise machines).
  • Computers may be convenient; they can do some things that help with education; and they could certainly be part of a good teaching program. But, there are plenty of low-cost alternatives for education that hold up well against computer (and other ICT).
  • If someone is terribly out of shape and as their doctor, you could pay for either a treadmill or a personal trainer, you would pay for the personal trainer. A good personal trainer can coach someone into shape with little technology, while there is no guarantee that the person would actually use the treadmill.
  • If someone is behind in their education and as their administrator, you could pay for either a computer or a good tutor, you would pay for the tutor. A good tutor can coach someone into learning with little technology, while there is no guarantee that a student would make productive use of the computer.
  • Where large numbers of people are out of shape, what you need is to enroll them in an exercise program with good personal trainers.
  • Where large numbers of children are not learning, what you need is to put them in a school with good teachers.  

Using this analogy, the Jester now clarifies some points on Toyama’s behalf:

First, as Toyama tried to emphasize, the admonition against overenthusiastic use of ICT in schools is directed mainly at primary and secondary schools, where students’ motivation and direction are (for the most part) not dependable for good education. On the other hand, by tertiary levels, many students have the motivation and direction to study on their own, and the power of certain ICTs can certainly help, just as college students with an exercise habit can benefit from a well-stocked gym.

Second, much of the challenge in education, particularly in publicly funded developing-world education, is remedial in nature… and not just for the students, but for the entire school system. Effectively, what you have are couch potatoes languishing under the poor guidance of uncaring coaches. It might require a Herculean effort to turn all stakeholders – athlete-to-bes, coaches, managers, fans – around, but without doing so, no amount of fancy exercise equipment will make a contribution. Having said that, school systems where good education is happening could certainly benefit from ICT, just as a healthy athletic program would benefit from treadmills and weight machines.

Many respondents repeated variations of the need for “21st century skills” by which they meant capacity to use high technology. Yes, the world is full of technology, but there is a huge difference between being able to use a technology and being able to do meaningful things with the technology. The former requires technology to learn, but the latter requires mature thinking skills. The former is easy to learn; the latter is difficult, and therefore requires attention in school. Athletes today use state-of-the-art technology when they compete – “technology is everywhere!” – but while the technology gives them a boost, their real advantage is years of training, often in low-tech circumstances. Many Kenyan marathon runners, for example, grow up training barefoot. Does every child have to run with Nike Air technology to become a world-class runner? It might even be argued that learning how to run without the technology makes one a superior competitor when the technology is available.

Some people noted that ICT can extend education beyond the classroom. This is true for motivated, self-directed children, but those are few and far between at the primary and secondary levels, especially when they have never experienced a good educational environment. It’s like saying that couch potatoes without a habit of exercise will suddenly exercise more if you put a treadmill in their living room. The Jester guesses that most such treadmills are dramatically underused.

Finally, a class of respondents talked about the opportunity cost of NOT providing ICT in education for the future of the country. As Mike Trucano noted at the World Bank blog, this is a line of argument that inspires fear in the hearts of education ministers. Unfortunately, it’s misplaced without showing that ICT can really make a big impact. In economics, “opportunity cost” means the best alternative to the purchase in question. So, the opportunity cost of ICT in education is what you could do with the ICT budget if you spent it on something else in education. The Jester asserts (as did Toyama), that there is a lot, and a lot that is proven in rigorous studies to be impactful.

Educational Technology Debate

January 6, 2011

The Jester wishes he had been the one to write this superb article in Educational Technology Debate (ETD) by Kentaro Toyama! It’s really unfair that a person should have such insight and be a candidate for Brad Pitt’s long-lost more handsome half-brother. The full article, titled “There are no technology shortcuts in education,” is worth reading (incidentally, the Jester applauds the folks at ETD, who have provided a great platform for discussion about technology in education), but here are some juicy excerpts…

“Quality primary and secondary education is a multi-year commitment whose single bottleneck is the sustained motivation of the student to climb an intellectual Everest.”

“While computers appear to engage students (which is exactly their appeal), the engagement swings between uselessly fleeting at best and addictively distractive at worst.”

“With respect to sustaining directed motivation, even the much-maligned rote-focused drill-sergeant disciplinarian is superior to any electronic multimedia carnival.”

“…efforts to fix broken schools with technology or to substitute for missing teachers with technology invariably fail.”

“We need to distinguish between the need to learn the tools of modern life (easy to pick up, and getting easier by the day, thanks to better technology!) and learning the critical thinking skills that make a person productive in an information economy (hard to learn, and not really any easier with information technology).”

“If education only required an interactive, adaptive, constructivist, student-centered, EFotM medium, then the combination of an Erector Set and an encyclopedia ought to be sufficient for education.”

“In India, a typical text book costs 7.5-25 rupees, or 15-50 cents.”

“Certainly, a humanoid robot indistinguishable from a good teacher could work wonders!”

Toyama has previously written articles that question the value of technology in development (for example, see this Boston Review forum), but he has rarely expressed so much anti-technology sentiment. The Jester thinks that this might be because technology in education is particularly hard to get right and more likely to distract from core efforts towards better teaching and administration. Education also has a longer history of technology failures, whereas, for example, agriculture and healthcare often benefit in tangible ways from technology.

What makes education different? The Jester believes it has to do with the fact that education is so much a social process, where the critical magic happens in the ongoing relationship between learner and the teacher (or parent or guide or mentor or whomever). The magic isn’t about information or knowledge or skill. It’s about inspiration, motivation, encouragement, scolding, etc., all of which involve a social, emotional element, that human beings (even when misguided) can generate far better than any technology on the horizon. Education is very unlike a vaccine, which works automatically after injection.

There are occasional self-taught geniuses, and they seem like counterexamples to the social nature of good education, but they are rare and still likely to have been raised in environments with motivational influences, however fleeting. One nod from a coolly distant father might be all it takes to make a kid work alone for months on a project, but in a poor educational environment, even that timely nod is missing (or lost in other noise)… and critically can’t be replaced by technology.

The question the Jester has for Toyama, though, is whether this kind of rational cornering of dissenters ultimately works to sway them. Among readers, only a very small minority are likely to be persuaded by an opposing view.

Some recent research by Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer, for example, suggests that dire messages about climate change (this will be relevant… stay with the Jester here) can cause some people to shove their heads underground in denial, because the implicit threat to one’s foundational beliefs is so unnerving. A similar phenomenon might happen with people who are already so vested in technology for education, that their own livelihoods or reputations depend on its perceived success. As Upton Sinclair noted, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.” What is the best way to change their minds? The Jester, for once, is stumped. Any ideas?

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.

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!

What We’d Like to Hear from OLPC

November 12, 2010

For the next few posts, the Jester will address both public and private discussions ensuing the Boston Review’s forum essays on “Can Technology End Poverty?“.

Nicholas Negroponte’s response went up first. At first, the Jester was going to do a point-by-point repartee, but after the second paragraph, he realized it would take too long and sound too much like his Mad Lib post. So, instead, the Jester uses his ventriloquist skills and puts words into Negroponte’s mouth: What we’d like to hear from OLPC…

– – – – – – – – – –

Laptops Work… but Is That Education?
Nicholas Jesterponte

It’s great that such an important topic is being discussed with this lead article (and by such a handsome, intelligent guy to boot). It put to words some unease I had been having about things recently.

When I started One Laptop per Child (OLPC) in 2004, I said that owning a connected laptop would help eliminate poverty through education, especially for the 70 million children who have no access whatsoever to schools. It’s hard for me to let go of this belief.

But, what I have learned after several years of feedback from governments, educators, and critics, as well as our own experiences in several countries, is that the operative word here is “help.” You actually need a lot more than laptops to change the face of education in the world. You need dedicated teachers, good administrators, involved parents, and committed politicians. Any technology needs to be integrated into the curriculum, and you need to train teachers in their use. On an ongoing basis. Of course, you need great students, too, but I find all young children are remarkable in their capacity to learn.

Kentaro Toyama is coming from a place that I refused to acknowledge at first. In fact, the acronym, OLPC, shows where we were coming from back then. Any name of the form OXPY ought to ring alarm bells. Is the intent simply to provide every Y with technology X, or do we really want to see meaningful development outcomes? The name implies that our mission was mass disseminate technology, not real education. I’ve kept the name, but more because it’s a known brand. For me, it serves as a reminder of our early missteps.

For example, one of my initial hopes was to get India hooked on OLPC. But although I was traveling to India five to six times in those days, they didn’t go for the 1 million laptop deal I presented to them. At first, I couldn’t believe it! Laptops are a wonderful way for all children to learn learning through independent interaction and exploration. How could they not get that? It seemed so obvious to me. Maine had a great laptop program that did really well, and I had so many brilliant friends at MIT who grew up tinkering with computers.

Surprise! It turns out that India isn’t Maine and that MIT professors are a little atypical. Indian government schools are an eye-opener. I’ve seen schools where class meets under a tree and students do arithmetic in the dirt. I’ve seen schools where most of the teachers don’t show up. I’ve seen schools that have no toilets for the children, and so then, the girls don’t show up. And that’s even though you can build a decent toilet for $300 there. When I saw these things, I started to wonder a bit about the appropriateness of a $188 laptop.

In fact, I later learned that Indian public spending on primary education is between $70-$200 per student per year, and that most of it goes to teacher salaries. How could we then ask that they then pay $188 per laptop? (And, the $188 doesn’t include incidental costs that are bound to come up, like those of maintenance and teacher training.) Even at $1 per week, OLPC is pretty expensive! As Toyama notes, many private schools in India only charge $1 a month.

In retrospect, I feel glad that India didn’t spend $188 million or more on our laptops. I’m not sure I would have wanted that on my conscience.

At this point, we have over 2 million laptops out there, but I’m glad to report that most are in countries that are wealthier than India on average. Peru’s per capita GDP is around $4500 (they have 300,000 laptops) and Uruguay’s around $10,000 (400,000 laptops). They also each spend more of their per capita GDP on each primary school student. I’m a little worried that Peru wasn’t quite ready for us, but Uruguay is likely to be OLPC’s star country.

Uruguay, first of all, starts with a great educational system. Literacy is high, at over 98%. The commitment to education is strong. As soon as they decided to try laptops for all of their students, they were able to get Internet connectivity to 98% of their schools! Phenomenal. (In contrast, less than 10% of Peru’s schools have managed connectivity.) They’ve invested in great teacher training and they have strategies to develop relevant content. The teacher training programs are sophisticated with support teachers, master teachers, and ongoing teacher meetings.

I’ll admit even in Uruguay, all is not rosy. Between 25% and 35% of the laptops are effectively out of service at any given time, and maintenance is hard to do at a national scale. Also, we really need to do an evaluation there, to understand exactly what kind of impact OLPC has had beyond the anecdotal stories that my team loves to tell me about. And, that’s not even beginning to address questions of cost-effectiveness.

So, what have I learned from all of this? If you’re a country, you need a good educational system in place and a budget that isn’t overwhelmed by the $188-per-student cost, before you should even think about OLPC. And, if you’ve got those things, you’ll need to think still harder. Remember that in addition to the first batch of hardware, you’ll need to invest in teacher training, connectivity, curriculum development, maintenance, replacement costs, and oh, did I mention teacher training? All of these things can add up. (Note to self: We should check back on Uruguay to see how much the entire program is actually costing them.) After all that, if you’re still interested, by all means, call me… I have some laptops to sell you, as well as some tips for best results. Among them: start small, and scale gradually. If it’s really worth it, you’ll get to a million eventually.

How do you eliminate poverty? The answer is simple: education. How do you provide education? The answer is less simple. I no longer believe that just a laptop per child will do it. Being a technologist, I can’t get it out of my head that somehow laptops ought to help. But over the years, I’ve come to appreciate that education is a deep, complex, social challenge, and that if OLPC is going to play a role, it will be in a support role, not as the main actor.

One thing I can say for sure: OLPC has been a great education… for me.

Myth 6: Technology counteracts “rich getting richer.”

November 7, 2010

Just in time for Myth 6, Nicholas Kristof, the patron journalist of international development wrote an article about inequality in America. As we all know, inequality is increasing. Kristof does a slick lead in, in which a statistic that sounds remarkably like that of many developing countries turns out to be one for the United States: The richest 1% of Americans make nearly a quarter of the country’s income (while 10% of the  country is unemployed and 14% is in poverty).

Striking, but what does this have to do with the Jester? Well, as he already illustrated in a previous post, the growing inequality in America is co-occuring with its golden age of innovation and technology. As Kristof notes, 80% of the gains in wealth between 1980 and 2005 went to the richest 1%, and that was the same period of time when the Internet, Windows, cell phones, Google, and iPods all went mainstream. Is this what techno-utopians mean when they say that ICT democratizes and that it levels the playing field?

As the Jester is fond (too fond?) of saying, technology is a magnifier of human intent and capacity. And, in America, there is little or no intent to address inequality , and there is a woefully uneven distribution of capacity. That means there’s an uneven distribution of nutrition, education, capital, social capital, etc. If you then sprinkle an even layer of technology on top, it magnifies the unevenness, and voila! The rich get richer; the powerful, more powerful.

Of course, the sprinkling isn’t even — rich people have more technology, which only worsens the effect. This latter problem is what’s called the “digital divide” and people are always trying to bridge it or close it. In ICT4D, there are constant calls for access: Bytes for all! The Internet for everyone! Cheap SMS for billions! But, leveling the playing field doesn’t solve the underlying problem: There are vast differences between the players. You can level the playing field all you want, but Babe Ruth is still going to hit more homers than the Jester.

Try the following thought experiment: You and an involuntarily poor farmer from the remote village of your choice are both asked to raise as much money as possible for whatever charitable cause you wish. To accomplish, this, you are given free, unfettered access to an e-mail account and an Internet-connected PC (or, if either of you prefer, a mobile phone with a data plan), and only that. Given a fixed amount of time, say, one week, who would be able to raise more money? [The Jester interrupts this program to give you time to think, and to link to a TV sitcom he’s become enamored of: Outsourced, about an American manager who runs a call center in India. And, now, back to our scheduled programming…] Clearly, you would. And why? You’re literate, accustomed to e-mail, able to write convincing messages, embedded in a wealthy social network, capable of organizing people, etc. In short, you have far greater capacity. Since the technology is exactly the same, the cause for the different outcomes lies not in the technology, but in the people. (Incidentally, sociologist Richard Florida does a brisk analysis of how social media is primarily augmenting the rich and educated in America.)

There are only two ways to handle this situation. The first is to apply technology progressively. If you could somehow provide the technology only to the poor and leave the rich without, then conceivably over time, the gap would close. There are problems with this approach, however. Philosophically, we’d then have to restrict the freedom of wealthy people, which the Jester finds difficult to advocate for. In practice, this is impossible — you can’t exactly keep the Internet and mobile phones out of the hands of the wealthy. And, finally, it’s not at all clear that even this would really change things. Imagine if the thought experiment above were conducted with the farmer having e-mail, and your having access only to paper, pen, and the postal service. The Jester still wagers that you’d raise more money.

The second way is to invest dramatically in the capabilities of the poor farmer. Education, “soft skills,” organizational skills, interaction with other social circles, etc. And, if that seems futile because adults don’t learn quickly, then invest in the farmer’s children for the next generation. The point is to direct attention to increasing the capacity of the less capable. The Jester agrees with Amartya Sen’s capability approach. Unfortunately for ICT4D-ers, this way doesn’t really require technology. There are plenty of very cheap things the world can do to improve the state of education, such as deworming. (For those who argue we should then use more technology in education, the Jester would like nothing more than to slap you awake into the real world, but instead recommends tuning in when he confronts the Grand Poobah of that view on a panel. The short response is that good schools can sometimes make positive use of technology, but bad schools inevitably do not. You can’t fix a bad educational system with technology, any more than you can fix a failing business with more PCs!)

Going back to St. Nicholas, the Jester isn’t saying that technology is the primary reason why inequality is increasing in America. It’s unlikely. There are plenty of other mechanisms by which the rich get richer: an accelerating meritocracy, an increasingly efficient capitalism, and better schools for the children of the educated. But wait, those things don’t seem like bad things! That’s, however, only because we include in our idea of “merit” qualities that we really shouldn’t ascribe credit for — a good education, a solid work ethic, healthy ambition. If you went to a bad school in a poor neighborhood, the odds are against you that you’d have emerged with those characteristics. The only way to counteract rich-getting-richer phenomenon is progressive policy. And, that is a problem not of technology, but of political will, i.e., human intent.