Sunday, June 7, 2009

Laptops and Appropriate Technology

I have been giving a lot of thought lately to the term, “appropriate technology.” The term became a buzz word a while back in the realm of development and foreign aid. The principal behind it being that developing countries should be given technology that will mesh with their lifestyle and current state of development. Proponents of the theory would argue against giving undeveloped areas medical or educational aid which relied too heavily on electricity or consistent access to technology. This could include anything from x-ray machines to computer based learning tools.
Several years ago during a service project in India I saw remote villages that had benefited greatly from low tech borehole wells. The wells have no electronic parts and can be easily fixed with basic hand tools. They represent a project that would fall under the classification appropriate technology. Projects like this, and those that focus on soil reclamation and improved farming practices have provided significant improvement in peoples lives in a sustainable fashion. In the same village where I had seen the boreholes, I also saw the remnants of a failed electrification project. Several years back a centralized solar system had been installed to power basic electronic devices such as radios and lamps. After 6 months the battery had died, and without access to new acid or the electronics knowledge necessary, the equipment had been dismantled and was being used decoratively in the chief’s house. Ironically, I was visiting the village with a team from college who were installing a solar lighting system. At the time I secretly wondered whether our equipment would eventually be used aesthetically, but the time and effort I had invested in the project made it easy to ignore such thoughts. A year later I heard rumors that the solar systems were still in use, but to subsequent news I have not been privy. Overall, the experience lead me to question the practicality of technological projects in remote areas.
After returning home I began reading about the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) movement. The organization was started by an MIT professor who wanted to bring computing to the children of the 3rd world. His idea was that by building a rugged laptop aimed at children, you would create a tech savvy population ready to utilize the technology necessary for development. The website featured many idyllic photos of children typing away on custom green laptops in the shadow of thatched mud huts. Aside from wanting to play with the laptops, which were admittedly pretty cool, I was skeptical. I simply could not imagine the laptops succeeding in places like the village I had visited in India. I thought the project was bound to confirm that those boring appropriate technology people were right.
Fast forward several years to today. I start the day as normal. This means waking up to no power and no water. That fine, I am prepared for this now and quickly wash down the bread I had baked the night before with the water I had presciently set aside. I journey to school where, in the half hour before classes start, I quickly outline my lectures for the day. In form 1 we are starting acids and bases, this means two things: first, an excursion to the supply room, and second, that I will end the day with acid burns from lack of protective equipment. Although the school is woefully ill equipped for labs, a smattering of grants and donations over the years has left the school with some surprising equipment. Recently, during an afternoon of snooping, I found a cabinet full of chemicals (most improperly labeled), a brand new electronic scale (without batteries), and a water deionizer (wrong type of plug). Luckily for me, though unfortunate for the students, the stash remains untouched, locked away in a room which the other teachers seem nervous to enter for fear they might break something. My sense of entitlement, fostered by a childhood and adolescent in America, leaves me with no such trepidation, and I frequently hunt down the keys and go searching for something to spice up my next lesson.
I have made it a goal to do at least one lab per class per week. Sometimes the lab is basic; last week I rigged up a water-alcohol solution over a candle to illustrate the principals of distillation. After some of the stunts I pulled in COOL Science (a science outreach club at Colorado College), the stuff I do now seems down right lamb. Amazingly though, the students are always a great audience. During the distillation demo I actually got cheers when the water started to boil. I know these kids cook at home so boiling water shouldn’t be too exciting. Perhaps it is because these kids never get demos at school. Except for a sedimentation demo I once saw a teacher do (he ingeniously used sand and a coke bottle), I have never seen another teacher do a demo. This is a shame, since with some improvising and a little ingenuity our basic supplies can make some passable educational demos.
Today I was hoping to find anything labeled acid or base, and if I’m lucky, something with a chemical formula and a stated concentration. I was in the back of the room, trying to hold my breath because I had just accidentally kicked a box full of unlabeled white powder, when I saw a box of with a green cord protruding. Through a crack in the box I saw a green bevel and I was filled with disbelief. Yes!; it was a box with 15 pristine OLPC green laptops. The first thing I did, after doing a kick ass acid-base demo with color changing indicators, was spend the day playing with the laptops.
The laptops got some things very right and some things very wrong. A linux variant is used which is smart, since due to the proliferation of pirated software in Malawi, every computer expends half its energy following the instructions of viruses and spyware. Another smart idea is the mesh network, which automatically creates an adhoc network between all OLPC laptops in range. This is great for doing activities and lessons between the computers. A feature which allows two people to work on the same document is quite fun. Jes and I’s collaboration quickly digressed into an exchange of dirty words that ended with a small food fight. Still, I think the feature holds promise for those who show a little more maturity. The biggest drawback of the laptops is that they are designed for primary school aged children. This is a problem for two reasons. First, young children in Malawi rank slightly above a goat in the social order, so are very unlikely to ever get their hands on the laptop. Second, the games and applications that come preloaded are of limited practical use for the secondary students or adults who are likely to have access to the laptop.
Access is the key issue here. I found the laptops buried in a supply room and judging from the dust on the box, they had been there for a while. I conspicuity took two laptops to the teacher room and started running loud attention grabbing programs. Within minutes every teacher was huddled behind my desk, taking excitedly about the laptops. Most teachers had never seen the laptops before and expressed disbelief that I had found them in the supply room. This is nothing new, I often hear the head science teacher exclaim, “oh, we had that did we,” when I return from the supply room with some scientific contraption. Some veteran teachers (teachers who have been here more than 1 year), recalled with nostalgia when the laptops had arrived, but seemed unaware they still existed. Apparently after a short foray, they were stored away for safe keeping with every other useful item the school owns.
A week has passed now, and I have dutifully charge two laptops every night and delivered them to the teacher’s room every morning. After years of doing fundraising projects, I have a pet peeve for donor dollars going to waste. Someone shelled out a lot of money for the laptops, and until now, they might have invested in Chrysler for all the good it’s doing. Slowly the teachers have been cracking the green lids of the laptops and trying them out. Throughout the week, several teachers have asked whether they could take the laptops home. I made it clear that the computers did not belong to me, and encouraged them to check one out from the school. This is something the teachers are entirely free to do, but the moment I suggest entering the stockroom their interest fades. I don’t get it; the administration does nothing to discourage teachers from using supplies. The principal even mentioned she wished the teachers would better utilize the resources we do have. I got the first sign that my plan was working today when the computer teacher asked if he could use the laptops in class to illustrate networking. Because they don’t have MS Office he can’t use them in his normal lessons, so it might just be Jes and I for a while.
I took the laptops into my form 1 classes today as a treat for completing their physical science course work. After a stampede to the front of the room, the students were putting the term childproof to the test. I hadn’t until today appreciated the vocabulary that has evolved with the assimilation of the computer into everyday life. A quick instruction to use the mouse left kids furtively looking to the corners of the room for rodents. An instruction to click a button had half the class pushing on the screen. One kid sat in front of the computer, hands folded in his lab, giving verbal commands to no avail. Big cheers erupted when the students realized that moving their finger on the front of the laptop moved the curser. I honestly think moving the curser around would have amused most the class for the entire period. Needless to say the laptops were a big hit. I don’t think they can ever be used for education purposes, but as an introduction to computers use they are invaluable.
At the end of the day I am still asking myself if the computers are worth the money spent on them. The cost of the laptops was about $2300, enough to pay the tuition for 23 students for a year. Jes and I plan on using them occasionally, but I suspect that after we leave they will be relegated back to the stockroom. The computer teacher may use them to illustrate networking, but without commercial software, he can’t use them regularly in his classes. I am afraid that in the case of MCV the tech project has failed. In many ways the OPLC laptops at MCV illustrate why high-tech projects are so risky. The computer required charging, a difficult proposition with intermittent power, no converters, few plugs, and no power strips. The laptop design also failed to accommodate the population to which they were given. These inconveniences, combined with a lack of prerequisite computer knowledge, doomed the project and wasted thousands of dollars. This example would seem to demonstrate why appropriate technology should be embraced and high-tech projects dismissed. However, living in Malawi I have been exposed to a perspective which also should be given credence.
Please, for a moment, put yourself in the shoes of a Malawian. If someone gave you a choice between a textbook and a laptop, what would you choose? The answer is simple, you would choose the laptop. It is more interesting, more novel, and unequivocally cooler. The Malawians’ choice, and their motivations, would be the same. Malawians want they same things as you or I. They want a developed economy, cars, computers, and advanced medical care.
The problem with appropriate technology is that you are giving people what they need, without advancing them towards a lifestyle that they want. You are making a judgment about what is best for the person. I think that Malawians should have a voice in the aid they receive. It is not the place of the 1st world to tell the 3rd that they should be happy with better crop yield and fresh water while forgoing the technological amenities we enjoy. In developed countries, I have noticed a tendency to idealize rural or village life. In magazines like Natural Geographic, large vibrant pictures of thatched huts and traditional garb convey a quant lifestyle. The subsistence lifestyle may be quaint, but it also has some very serious drawbacks. If people want to continue living traditionally, let them. However, those who desire a more modern life should also be supported.
A developed lifestyle doesn’t come from bore-hole wells; it comes from more radical investments in technology. Without crazy projects like OLPC, a computer movement will never begin, and people will be trapped in a way of life with inherent disadvantages. A perfect example is illustrated in the book, Mountains Beyond Mountains. In Peru’s peasant populations, Paul Farmer treated multi-drug resistant tuberculosis with state-of-the-art medication, often spending tens of thousands of dollars per patient. At the time, the therapy was considered too expensive and impossible without access to 1st world medical facilities. Nearly all of Farmer’s patients responded to treatment, creating a paradigm shift in the field of tuberculosis care. The expensive drugs were certified for 3rd world application causing use to rise and prices to plummet. Farmer took a large risk and it paid off big. A similar but smaller risk was taken with the laptops at MCV. In the case of the laptops no benefit was realized, which begs the question, should the risk have been taken. It is impossible to answer such as question because one never knows what the outcome will be. All that is known for certain is that if enough projects are attempted, eventually one will succeed.
This is not an argument for high tech aid any more than it is an argument for appropriate technology. I personally think the two models of assistance need to go hand in hand. Dollar for dollar, the low tech stuff will always work better. I still believe the basics: food, water, health, and shelter need to come first. I am still skeptical of projects like OLPC. However, I also realize that the lifestyles people want will never transpire without higher risk projects. I believe that hardnosed pragmatism needs to be tempered with an acknowledgement of what people want from their lives. If people want development, and they do, the higher risk ventures are needed. Many projects like OLPC’s and Farmer’s will fail, but sometimes they will succeed, and when they do, they will do more to advance people’s quality of life than appropriate technology ever could.

75 comments:

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  2. This is a great read. I relate to much of what you are sharing and focused my research in design around these topics of high tech/low tech/appropriate tech. The research is early beginnings but your blog post is support for things I've often wondered (especially after working in a remote area where computers and internet weren't an option) and how do you get at the other questions you are posing here (what do people need/want and how can it be realized realistically).

    Thanks for this. If you have interest my blog is here: http://oliveisgreen.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
  3. I really enjoyed this post. Thanks for adding a unique narrative to the ongoing debate over technology (especially in Africa).

    You have to have these injections of *crazy* ideas or else the status quo will be maintained. It's about pushing the edges and taking risks from time-to-time. Not just in this aid space, but in business as well.

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  4. This is a great post that adds a lot of useful context to the OLPC "failure" -- thanks for sharing!

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  5. "First, young children in Malawi rank slightly above a goat in the social order, so are very unlikely to ever get their hands on the laptop."

    I do not agree with this statement.

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  6. I am dissatisfied with your decision not to use the laptops due to inconveniences which you overcame. Why not have the students, the intended users, the ones responsible for overcoming the inconveniences since they will be the users? If energy is expensive, I can see why the school might not want them in common usage, but it's worth finding out whether or not that is an issue.
    Is it not possible to use Firefox on them? If that is the case, since you have access to the internet, why not email the OLPC team to inquire if it's possible to put new software on. Or if you're at a secondary school, suggest passing them down to the primary school.

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  7. I really enjoyed reading this perspective on technology. I am planning on being in Lilongwe later this summer to deploy a new malnutrition alert system (cellphone based) in conjunction with UNICEF and a new NGO, I'd be interested in hearing more about your experiences in Africa and Malawi in particular.

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  8. not sure you saw, but Tim'o'Reilly re-tweeted you. This means a lot of people will read your text! Congrats.Shorten it and submit it to the official OLPC blog (www.olpcnews.com). An interesting point, I had not heard in the OLPC debate before was your argument for Linux (the virus argument).

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  9. Very interesting article!
    Living in Uruguay, I have seen OLPC laptops misused and also very well used in many different places of the country.
    What really makes the difference is how many teachers, parents and social actors like you take in their hands the challenge to make something useful of them.

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  10. Jesse,

    As Phillip suggested, I'd love to have this as a Guest Post on OLPC News. I think your experience will be repeated many times in the coming years as the initial excitement over OLPC wanes and XO laptops are buried in school storerooms.

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  11. When I was growing up, most people did not have computers, even though they were plentiful. Now they are everywhere. What happened? Are we in the west some kind of super human that we managed to get this very complex technology to be part of our everyday lives? In the past 30 years, did someone invent a stable electricity grid for us to plug this otherwise innaccessible technology into?
    Of course not. I think what happened is the same as what happens with any technology: we see something novel and we play with it for a while. It inspires our thoughts. We think "of what use could this possibly be to anyone?" and then we proceed to answer that question. For most, the answer will be "no use whatsoever" but for some it will be something nobody has thought of yet.
    I've never lived in a thatch hut, so I can't say whether the OLPC will make one "thatchier".

    What I know is that I wasn't born with the knowledge or desire to be computer literate. I was inspired to it. I opened my life to it, wondering about how I could use this tool. This happened slowly over years of exposure. It was an organic process, not a university course.
    I think the primary factor for allowing my natural human-ness to embrace this technology was the presence of the technology.
    As to games that are juvenile, Pong today is laughably simple, yet when I was a child I remember it capturing my father's imagination (he was very much an adult at the time).
    I guess I'm saying that, in addition to letting the people decide what they want, not just what they need, let's let them decide what inspires them and what doesn't. We can't inspire for them, we can only make available to them some sources of inspiration and then hope for the best.
    Thanks for this great post. It was a wonderful read.

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  12. A healthy amount of skepticism is good. I hope that the laptops' lasting effect will be that they can open the world to students. Consider how a picture in a book inspired one Malawian student to make an electric windmill ( http://www.afrigadget.com/2007/06/25/williams-windmill/ ) and now think of each laptop's capacity for a hundred books.

    I'm working with a laptop-using school in the USA to make programs and lesson plans. If you could add a program to your students' XO, what would it be?

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  13. I recall also younger years of creating lab demos, in my case as TA in a University in Bolivia. Nowadays involved with XO and such other platforms to make big things happen. Best to you, don't give up.

    BTW, great acid-base experiments can be done safely at home using some dark berry juice in water (in the US the ideal is blueberries), or dark color flower petals crushed, and using soap as a base and lemon juice as an acid. Kids can then do their own experiments, at home, which would be a great step beyond having the Visitor From Another Planet be the owner of science lab...

    Yes, we do often curse at the XO jumping cursor.

    Yamaplos

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  14. My careful reading took me to a deeper level than first impression (superficial one). Thanks for word from Malawi. We will be going on June 30 to Kenya to join someone there who grew up in Malawi. Our risk is to take a hundred XO systems, in our case TO the primary school, where one year ago we delivered six of them and trained for two weeks three or four of the primary school teachers.

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  15. Nice reporting on your understanding of inspiration, culture and technology. I plan to utilize your insights for a Public Health class tonight at Univ Mass Medical school.
    Keep on blogging.
    LEF

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  16. Hi. I'm Richard Smith. One of the hardware guys at OLPC. Thanks for some of your feedback. I've got a few questions.

    Whats your power source? You mention you don't have any power in the morning but and that you charge the laptops every night. Do you have grid power but only at night or some sort of off grid power like solar?

    You also mention that that the design "failed to accommodate the population to which then were given..."

    Can you be more specific? Are you referring to the fact that there is no power in the classroom or about the fact that a "mouse" is completely new concept?

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    İçgüdülerinizin sesini duymayı öğrenin. Biriyle tanıştığınızda, bir ilişkiye adım attığınızda, eğer bir şeyler yanlış gidiyorsa, kalbinizden bir ses size sürekli bağırır. Ancak sizin bunu duymak istemeniz gerekir. Erteleyerek, “yok canım” diyerek, bahaneler üreterek ancak hayal kırıklığına doğru ilerlersiniz. İçgüdüleriniz doğruyu görür ve bilir, ona güvenmeyi öğrenin.

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