The impact of laptops in education

By Antonio M. Battro, OLPC’s Chief Education Officer

As stated by the Millennium Goals of the United Nations, it is our duty and responsibility to provide a good education for all children. The purpose is to provide at least elementary schooling to every child in the world by the year 2015.

Education is essentially about universal values of truth, beauty and good. These values are embodied in historical times. We must recognize that today a new artificial environment interacts with our planet: the digital environment. The sad fact is that while many of us live in the digital era, many more are excluded. The digital divide is one of the greatest obstacles to overcome in contemporary education, especially in poor communities.

An isolated school without computers and connectivity to the Internet is incompatible current educational requirements. But of course, technology is not sufficient. Technology may have an impact on education only if constructive dialogue is occurring among teachers, students and their families. Moreover, digital technology should be in the hands of children at an early age for them to learn the new digital language as a second language. And it must be mobile (laptops or netbooks, instead of PCs) because children learn in many kinds of settings, not only in the classroom.

Some economists have tried to measure the educational impact of digital technologies, but they have reported conflicting results (cf. Computers at Home: Educational Hope vs. Teenage Reality, by Randall Stross, New York Times, July 9, 2010). For instance, children using computers at school and at home have attained good computer skills while their grades in mathematics and language declined. The more so if they live in low income households. These results need clarification.

First, it is important to understand that time is needed to produce a cognitive transformation in a student. It is possible that some of the reported failures are biased because academic performance was evaluated too soon. Any evaluation must factor in the time span of an entire cohort, which is the basic unit in education. The time cannot be abridged; it requires the entire development of the young mind, from childhood to adolescence, some 10 years since the child enters first grade when most of the connections of the developing brain are made. Many cognitive capacities may be latent for years before they are expressed. Currently, tests are frequently done in static and conventional cross sections during the school year instead of in longitudinal studies of individual cognitive dynamics.

Second, in the digital era we can use digital tools for assessment (e.g., online monitoring of the student activities) but we still need new methodologies to obtain robust results. In particular, traditional statistical comparisons between experimental and control groups (as reported in the quoted studies) are not possible when the digital divide disappears and the entire population of students and teachers of a region or country has full access to the digital environment at school and at home. In that case, the control groups disappear and all students have been “vaccinated.” We must invent new methods of evaluation for the digital era.

Third, scale creates phenomenon. We need to change from microscopes to telescopes in order to encompass the wide spectrum of natural phenomena at different scales. The same is true in education…

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Young brains and computers: facts and myths

A post by new contributor Antonio Battro, OLPC’s Chief Education Officer

Recently, there has been much debate about whether computers, video games and electronic gadgets are helpful or harmful to the cognitive development of children. Some naysayers point to a study that says that multi-tasking degrades cognitive performance. The proponents assert that new digital technologies provide new opportunities for creativity and collaboration. This debate is also being played out in ministries of education, universities and classrooms all around the world. The outcome will have a major impact on the education and development of our children.

New disciplines coming from the neurocognitive sciences are changing our theory and practice of education and shaping the new field of neuroeducation. At the same time, new communication and information technologies are changing the way we teach and learn. Millions of children and teachers of the world are sharing and shaping a new neurocognitive digital environment. This formidable transformation has opened a debate that often mixes facts with myths. One of the most disruptive “neuromyths” is that early introduction of computing can harm the brain development of a young child and cause “attention damage.” Some even argue that computing in schools should be introduced only to older children. These are myths that we must replace with facts.

One of the amazing facts is that first and second languages are processed in the same cortical regions of the brain when the second language is learned early in life. Otherwise, the second language is shifted to different circuits of the cortex. In a sense, when humans use a computer and share the same digital environment they are using a second language, or “digitalese.” Postponing the new linguistic skills needed in a digital world contradicts scientific findings in neurolinguistics.
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