Laptops and high-quality education for every child - Part 2

Achieve high-quality education at a national scale Part 1 of this essay emphasized providing all children with a high-quality education as their basic human right, and the role of connected laptops as the best tool to enable it.

Achieve high-quality education at a national scale

Part 1 of this essay emphasized providing all children with a high-quality education as their basic human right, and the role of connected laptops as the best tool to enable it.

As digital inclusion expands, the practical question becomes: how do we go from the current educational system to one that provides the highest-quality learning experience for every child in the country? How can whole families benefit and the whole community become the site for learning?

Incremental change is insufficient

It is generally accepted that education in Rwanda needs real transformation in order to meet the goals of Rwanda vision 2020. There are on average 50 pupils for every teacher.

The teachers themselves typically have received minimal education. There are not quality text books for every child for every subject.

A 10 percent yearly improvement is typically viewed as spectacular, yet it would be woefully inadequate. If 10 percent annual improvement were achieved only in the student-teacher ratio, it would take 7 years to achieve preferred ratios.

However, the cost of implementation would require twice as many teachers and classrooms, at a huge cost. This does not even take into account the issues of quality, materials, training, etc.

Naturally, achieving better student-teacher ratios is desirable, but as a means for overall systemic transformation it is thoroughly insufficient.

Textbooks are another salient example where incremental improvement would fall short. In most countries texts are often obsolete, not of the highest quality, and not readily available in all subjects for all children. 

The texts are created and produced outside the country. The cost of purchase and distribution is high. Rather than incrementally distributing more texts, by providing digitized materials to all children on their connected laptops, one not only diminishes the overall costs dramatically, one also upgrades the quality and relevance of the materials.

Moreover, more locally created materials can be produced and provided. The needs to bring Rwanda to existing international norms are daunting. Rather than struggle to incrementally improve, the best strategy is to jump ahead.

The mathematics of computer usage in schools

When thinking of bringing computers to schools, the first tendency is to try to maximize access: how to give every child a chance to touch a computer. The underlying principle of equity is noble.

However, if the overall goal is high-quality education for all, then what must be maximized is not immediate, low-impact access for the most children in the fastest time, but the best initial actions that enable the greatest transformation of quality for all children in the shortest time.

If there are 1200 children in a school, and 12 computers in the school laboratory; and there are 5 hours in the school day; then on average each child will have 3 minutes of access to a computer per day.

Creating labs of 12 computers for every school will cost millions of dollars. However, the impact of 3 minutes per day for children will be minimal.

The essential school disciplines of reading, writing, mathematics, science, history, and language will not be able to utilize the computers in meaningful ways with so little access.

Minimal access deprives the system of advances in its core subjects. Even doubling, tripling, or quadrupling the access by adding a few more computers per school will not make the necessary impact.

The point is not that computers cannot be valuable: it is that low-density access occurring only in schools is the wrong model to enable the required development.

The experience of labs in other countries demonstrates this. While there are clear benefits to children gaining some access to computers, one witnesses neither the systemic transformation nor the individual development at national scales.

Saturation, Spread and Systemic Change

A child spends about 4 hours per day in class. That means they have about 12 waking hours outside of school. When children take their laptops home with them, they spend many more hours reading and writing; researching; helping their families; and participating in rich activities.

They have an entry to mathematical and computational thinking. They become citizens of the modern world. The more time- and cost-effective path to systemic transformation and quality education for all children is to concentrate district by district, enabling true reform, and growing from success. As the first districts lead, the subsequent districts will learn faster. 

With saturation and laptops going with children into their homes and communities, Rwanda will lead the world in developing an educational system for the 21st century.

Part 3 of this essay will outline the types of educational activities with connected laptops that will help move Rwanda to the forefront of modern education.

The author is the OLPC Vice President of Learning and Head of the new Laptops and Learning Center in Kigali

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