Is “Let Them Have Pentiums” More Practical than “Let Them Eat Cake”?

Last week in another course, we had the privilege of hosting a young guest speaker, Rastraraj Bhandari, who described his experiences as a teacher among the rural villages he visited in his home country of Nepal. The stories he shared made me think about Paul Attewell’s article, “The First and Second Digital Divides.” More than fourteen years after Attewell’s article was written, many of the digital divides he discussed still exist. Rastraraj explained, for example, that many villages still lack fast and stable internet connectively. Even in places with computer equipment, the ratio between computer and student was close to 1-to-20.

Adding to this dilemma, much of the equipment was out of date or in disrepair. In one of the villages Rastraraj visited, all the computers were broken. When he opened up a computer to see what was wrong, he found quite a few broken pencils lodged inside, probably inserted through the CD drive, severing wires and damaging the motherboard. Most of these rural villages had no one properly trained to fix the computers or even to serve as knowledgeable instructors to show the children how to use properly use them. And available teachers were often not the best; sometimes, because of the existing caste system, they could not even interact with some of their students!

Rastraraj shared his views about how the government has blindly accepted the western educational tradition. This same government would rely heavily on the use of standardized testing to determine who would have the opportunity to continue their education in different tracks, mainly focused on STEM education. This method basically creates additional disadvantages for the poor as compared with their more affluent peers. The strong focus and singular drive necessary to pass these tests, a potential ticket out of poverty, are so critical that privileged groups just have more resource to utilize.

Having access to computer equipment is important, but as Attewell points out, how the equipment is used and the available resource support are just as important. The children from poorer villages do not have enough teachers or educated parents available to provide the guidance and engagement to ensure that their students use the resources properly. Rastraraj explained how in one village, students would take three physical breaks during the school day just to go into the fields to chase away monkeys who would eat or otherwise destroy the local crops. This story is a bit extreme, but such life realities do exist! Providing access to technology, therefore, does not fully address “cyber segregation,” especially for the most disadvantaged.

From the short readings this week concerning peer review, I was secretly hoping the articles would denounce this practice and sentence it to a quick painful death. The consensus, from my take, is that there are benefits especially in specific contexts and within the conditions laid out in Debbie Morrison’s blog post titled “Why and When Peer Grading is Effective for Open and Online Learning.” Now don’t get me wrong, I still have reservations and feelings of dread because I immediately think about obstacles such as language barriers, cultural differences, non-constructive “nice nice” feedback (because you don’t want to come off as a jerk), insufficient knowledge, lack of peer review practice, and so forth. However, I do recognize the value of the collective, crowd sourcing, and community collaborations. After all, in most work environments, teamwork and collaboration are the norm (or should be). Plus, peer review is an activity of Connectivism that we read about in session 3.

The exercise of having to do peer reviews this week did make me want to stare blankly at the chalkboard and whisper “really?” What was funny is that I really appreciated the feedback I received. It showed me perspectives and things I missed or thought I had vocalized, but in fact had not communicated adequately. The feedback sparked ideas. I might have gained more than I was able to offer to my fellow classmates on the exercise. Still, I like to tell myself it was the learning process that was more important than the actual feedback I gave (my classmates might disagree). Maybe the medicine was not as bad as I had thought after all.

Interesting article “The Wrath Against Khan: Why Some Educators Are Questioning Khan Academy” by Audrey Watters posted back on July 9, 2011.

I’m not sure how I can get back the hours spent on Khan this week. The exercise was interesting. I can appreciate the flashcard drills, the sly popular culture inclusions of Hogwarts characters and references of Legolas to help frame problem-solving questions, or the whole gamification of learning math. I did manage to get the dragon avatar I wanted, though the whole process did make me think of Chantek the orangutan alongside me as I performed the Skinner praise and reward thing for those virtual badges.

There is instant feedback for correct/wrong answers and a mission progress bar. “Hints” are available if desired and the occasional video pop-up along with a cheerful, yet annoying, background tune. Still, I found the experience very cold and alienating, like something was missing. I am not sure if I was really learning, or just going through some neat review tool of lessons learned a LONG time ago. The interaction made me wonder if this platform was ideal for an individual, who has no prior exposure to the content, to really learn the material (yes, it’s simple math, but still). There is no community for this particular “World of Math” module. No collaboration or “live” communication with anyone that I can easily find unless I invited a classmate through the “add a coach” checklist. Plus, after 15 minutes or so on the platform, I have to sheepishly admit that I was less focused on the content and more interested in accumulating reward points. Was it just me and this particular “World of Math” module?