Computers as reading prostheses

by Antonio M. Battro, Chief Education Officer, OLPC

Children can learn a new common and universal language that we may call “digitalese”. Even before speaking, infants can perform with the computer many interesting actions by pressing a key. This elementary action, the “click option” – to click or not to click- is the consequence of a conscious choice made at the cortical level of the brain. The remarkable ability of our brain to make simple choices and make predictions about the outcomes of an action is the basis of the acquisition of a universal “second language” by any kid in the world with access to a computer, the so-called “digital natives”. In a sense we are witnessing the unfolding of a new “digital intelligence” (Battro & Denham, 2007).

Children learn to speak any language without the help of a grammar, just by hearing how others speak in their community, and they also learn to communicate with a computer -and via the computer with other people- when they share the same digital environment just by peer-to-peer interaction. This is why “saturation” is a central principle of the OLPC program. It is a matter of scale. We need a large numbers of participants in different cultures to enhance the diversity of strategies for teaching and learning.

It may take some time to find the best spontaneous strategies to learn how to read and write with the help of a computer but we already have some hints about successful prosthetic devices in education. For instance, nobody will deny that the cochlear implants have changed the life of a deaf person. Today the implanted deaf person can hear not only environmental sounds but understand language as well and early implants in deaf infants is increasing the formidable success of those neuro-prostheses. We can expect similar neurocognitive breakthroughs in reading and writing soon thanks to the “prosthetic” use of a computer at a very large scale.

As a matter of fact, many children using the OLPC platform since early ages (another basic OLPC principle) learn to type before they learn to write with paper and pen! In a sense we are witnessing something that educators didn’t predict. In most schools the explicit or implicit rule is to learn handwriting before typing and children start with the difficult analog skills needed to draw a letter, a word or a sentence (by a continuous and precise hand movement) before they are allowed to use a keyboard, a much simpler digital skill (a simple discrete action). The alternative is to start with the digital skills before “going analog” but for many educators and parents this strategy is considered a “forbidden experiment”. However it happens that nowadays in many places children enjoy the right to use a laptop not only at school but at home, and the once forbidden experiment is happily and spontaneously performed. In the “expanded school” of a digital environment children don’t need a pen and paper to write.

In this sense, we should also experiment with spontaneous reading using a computer. OLPC will start now to deliver XO laptops with special software to remote communities with no schools where children and adults are lacking reading, writing or number skills. An inspiration was the famous “hole in the wall” experiment done in India with illiterate children who spontaneously started to read while sharing an unsupervised computer, what Sugata Mitra calls “minimally invasive education”.
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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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