[iDC] learning ecologies

elana langer elana.langer at gmail.com
Fri Apr 16 22:58:02 UTC 2010

Technological innovations in the education sector have been largely
viewed as a partial solution for supporting the revitalization of
struggling economies and communities. But how much do these
technologies actually change the lives of community members, and what
is really involved in accomplishing that change? The XO laptops, for
example, are seen as a tool for  providing access to information that
enables the members of these communities to compete in today’s global
society. However, the actual implementation and introduction of these
innovative technologies are often fraught with problems. In order to
make a tool meaningful, there are countless conditions that need to be
in place. Innovation might need to lie in collectively breaking the
silence that surrounds both challenges and the barriers to fixing
those problems.

The culture of innovation, in my experience, often mirrors the one of
commerce. In addition to the hardware, the idea and promise of the new
technologies need to be "sold" in order to get them tested and adopted
into educational systems. But the culture of learning is a tougher
"sell" than the technology itself. No institution, Minister of
Education, President, or Principal is particilarily interested in
hearing the following pitch, "Hi there, we have this device that might
increase learning, we aren't really sure how it will go, but we are
really excited to figure out what is possible together with you. It'll
probably take a lot of investment of your time and financial
resources, we are gonna make a bunch of mistakes, but we believe the
outcome is gonna be awesome - you interested?"  In many cases,
ungrounded optimism and faith is essential to alleviate anxiety about
trying something new. A fine starting point - if it was just that. The
problem comes in when you have to prove what a success everything is -
it is in that environment that actual learning and development is
compromised. Even when data is produced, it can feel as if it's there
to justify an investment and not expose what is really going on. It
would be wonderful to imagine a culture of learning and exchange
between NGOs and governments, addressing failure openly and
collaboratively trying to find a solution. Too often competition
amongst NGOs trying to "innovate" can be aggressive and

How do we actually use technologies to develop opportunities for
learning in disenfranchised environments? Can a new technology
actually innovate the institution into which it is placed? I will give
an example I have seen several times, of how technology has been
introduced in the developing world. During a monitoring and evaluation
trip I attended in western mongolia, I walked into a computer lab that
was donated by one of the major NGOs.  In that transformed classroom,
approximately 30 computers, totally powered down, sat on tables around
the room. Student seated on benches at those tables, struggling to
find space around the big cumbersome object to lay their notebooks
flat on the desk, and complete their own work. The classroom teacher
explained that the computers were donated almost a year prior to my
visit, but without software, connectivity or training. She also
explained that she did not have any use for them, but was eager to
learn. The computers were intended for an english language lab. The
teacher of the class seemed frustrated but there was no solution being
sought out by the principal, local government, or funding agency. In
the same town, more initiatives were being launched, without regard
for the current challenge.  How can we learn about our learning
methods and be open about our failure and problem in order to
positively effect change? Can we sell that idea internally and abroad?

The challenge of integrating technology is not unique to the
developing world. US teachers worry about having their class meet
federally mandated educational standards.  Without proper support, the
teachers don't  feel prepared to successfully integrate the technology
into the classroom while reaching their mandated goals.  instead of
offering a unique opportunity for educators, learners and
institutions, too often computers, the XO or desktops are simply
replacing analog teaching if they even get integrated into the class
at all.

There is much to say on this issue, however one thing to bear in mind
is that the culture of exposing problems and discussing them is itself
a tricky business. When are we never not being evaluated and how do we
create an institution  where failure is celebrated as an opportunity
to learn? What does that institution look like? Is it on this list?
Does someone on this list know?

I do want to give a nod to mobile active for their failfaire
conference. I find that type of open sharing of failure to be truly

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