Case #7: One Laptop Per Child in Ghana on the way to Mitra’s Minimally Invasive Education
By Oriane Boutinard Rouelle

The Minimally Invasive Education theory claims that in the absence of formal teaching or supervision, children will teach themselves out of curiosity and potentially teach each other, by peer interest[1].

Dr Sugata Mitra, Chief Scientist at NIIT University, came up with the Minimally Invasive Education after literally digging a “a hole in a wall” in an urban slum of New Delhi in 1999, and leaving there an Internet-connected PC for a few days. He soon found out, thanks to a hidden camera filming, that with no supervision whatsoever, children started to play around with the computer, to learn its functioning and to use it to go online and teach each other.

He deducted from his observations that in the absence of teachers’ inputs, “an environment that stimulates curiosity can cause learning through self-instruction and peer-shared knowledge[2]”. For him, “kids are not empty vessels who need to be sat down in a room and filled with curricular content”[3]. On the contrary, children from the slums learnt without assistance or directions essentially because of learning stations that required very little inputs/no inputs at all from teachers. Mitra’s pedagogic method is built on learning environments likely to generate an “adequate level of motivation to induce learning in groups of children, with minimal, or no, intervention by a teacher”[4] – rather fostering children’s natural curiosity and collaborative desires.

Ed McNierney, One Laptop’s Per Child's CTO believes this is key to OLPC’s success. When talking about how kids had customized their desktops after a few days of using their laptops, he says: "the fact they worked around it was clearly the kind of creativity, the kind of inquiry, the kind of discovery that we think is essential to learning." But this major argument behind OLPC’s philosophy - that any learning environment provides an adequate level of curiosity and can cause learning among groups of children - is highly questionable.

In Ghana, the Constitution guarantees as a fundamental right the access to equal educational opportunities and facilities and as recalled by the International Monetary Fund, “the single most crucial key to the attainment of economic success is the educational quality of a nation’s work force”[5]. Yet, primary and secondary education ratings are terribly low: 60% adult literacy rate, 40% of persons
over age 6 without any formal education – with enrollments of 24% at the junior secondary level and 6% at the senior secondary level[6] and crucial to these issues are the facts that many children are needed at home to perform subsistence chores and the overall lack of availability of materials and resources – textbooks are still not issued in a 1:1 ratio, for instance.

In this context, ICT4AD policy’s mission to “transform Ghana into an information-rich, knowledge-based and technology-driven high income economy and society” using ICT as the “main engine for an accelerated and sustainable economic and social growth”[7] sounds a bit illusionary. Besides, the cost of a full OLPC implementation of 3-4 million primary school children in Ghana has been proven to be up to 1 billion USD, not to mention maintenance[8].

Our conclusion is thus moderate. Of course, this amount of money, if spent in other ways – from teachers’ training, school facilities and equipment to curriculum – could have tremendous impact. But the OLPC project has the advantage of being ready now, not after a new generation of teachers has been trained and is ready to go. And because pilot projects are too recent for any conclusive long-term results, the OLPC project could avoid moving Ghana further back in its quest toward improving education, if funds are made available. Now whether this massive investment would not be better utilized elsewhere and who exactly would pay for such programs are for Ghanaians to decide and we need to be careful to avoid falling into techno-centrism.

This belief argues that technologic devices have the power to change practices and impose change in deterministic ways, whereas the computer future could result from many other decisions of individual human beings, not necessarily determined by the nature of this technology. In the context of computers in education, this school of thought makes particular sense as recalled by Papert, for whom a machine should not be thought about as having an effect but as an opportunity offered to us by the device’s presence to “rethink what learning is all about, to rethink education”[9]. This argument stipulates that it is not the mere introduction of technology that will change anything in schools in itself.

In the light of the techno-centric belief, OLPC’s language sounds very seducing. But policy makers should not fall into the trap of thinking about technology as if it will cause an effect such as taking learners “beyond instruction”[10]. Equipment is not the only element that should come into play. There might be much more efficient ways than donating computers to help improve education.

Western countries are wrong to keep pushing for technologies in developing countries while telling them that they “ought to accept these technologies (that) they ought to have more personal computers (…) They ought to do this and they ought to do that”[11]. Somehow, OLPC’s design mirrors this bias toward individualism and confuses populations rather than making them take advantage of the technology.

[5] Ghana: Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper, International Monetary Fund, June 15 2006
[6]Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook 2006: Status of the world's nations
[7]The Ghana ICT for accelerated development (ICT4AD) policy
[8] One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Project and Its Applicability to Ghana, Suzanne Fox Buchele
[9]A Critique of Technocentrism in Thinking About the School of the Future, Seymour Papert
[11]A Blurry Vision: Reconsidering the Failure of the One Laptop Per Child Initiative
Namank Shah

Read Case #8: Gyan Vani and DD-Gyan Darshan in India