Lines of marginalisation in an One Laptop per Child project

Paper presented at the combined 4S / EAAST conference in Copenhagen in 2012.

Lars Bo Andersen
Conference paper
Lines of marginalisation in an One Laptop per Child project

Girls looking in

I am interested in Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and processes of social and political change. This has lead me to study a development project in Nigeria using laptops from the MIT associated One Laptop per Child (OLPC) organisation.

While having been criticised for the opposite1, I hold that ANT is a powerful vehicle for analytical engagement with those who are somehow caught along lines of marginalisation – those who somehow are disadvantageously positioned in what has stabilised around them.

When someone are oppressed or impoverished we tend to ask: Who or what agency are keeping them along such tragic lines? And, vice versa, what are the means through which escape is possible?

There are different ways of answering these questions: different ways of segmenting2 oppressive agencies and different ways segmenting empowering ones.

One famous attempt by MIT researchers to segment agencies of oppression along with means of empowerment resulted in OLPC. OLPC are concerned with two agencies of oppression: The first is the force of digital technology currently changing the world, creating new opportunities and new marginalisations. The second is the stifling rote-learning pedagogy practised at most poor children's schools. To counter these agencies OLPC wants to empower every (poor) child with a laptop for constructivist, self-guided learning which, at the same time, also constitutes an uplink to the global information society.

It is perhaps no surprise that OLPC has been criticised for technological determinism (see e.g. Warschauer & Ames, 2010). However, blaming failure on determinism is not much different from praising technology for success. While scrutinising the technological conceptions of MIT researchers is indeed a worthwhile endeavour, there is no certainty that it will bring me any closer to understanding the agencies at play in Nigeria.

Doubting the OLPC segmentation, I could turn to the academic corpus of post-colonialism for suggestions on which agencies are at play in marginalisations. Reading works within this tradition, one is tempted to identify Western ways of relating as principal oppressive force (Easterly, 2007; Escobar, 1995; Ferguson, 1994). And this would include development as a special way of relating.

I sympathise with post-colonialism for its ability to disrupt the confidence and comfort we take in knowing that development is a neutral way of doing good. But at the same time I argue that attributing oppressive agency to Western ways of relating is a rather rigid segmentarity of development and, in the words of Latour, an a priori “purification” of a hybrid entanglement (Latour, 1993). How can we be sure that Western relations are not transformed and translated the moment they touch ground?

ANT, I think, is promising because it deals explicitly with the transformative movements, the lines of flights, running through black boxes and segmentarities. And while ANT has been accused of bias towards fact-builders and managers, the processes of translation, the lines of flight, are much more multi-directed, multi-ended, and ambiguous than this. They can be creative, disruptive, oppressive and empowering, all at the same time, and they always hold potential for mutation.

In the Nigerian OLPC project there are two groups of actors disadvantageous positioned in what has stabilised around them. The first group consist of the poorest children whose parents could not cope with an increase in school fees. The second group also consist of children, but these are the new middle class students which filled the empty seats. So let us examine the translations along which they now are positioned.

Back when OLPC first became famous a rather colourful group of Danish businessmen, pedagogical researchers, and Christian missionaries caught on to the idea. For various reasons they all wanted to work with technology in Nigeria and OLPC presented a good opportunity.

The Danes made many changes to the OLPC concept. The first thing they did was to do away with the MIT theories of learning—which focus on computers rather than teachers—and centred the pedagogical philosophy on teachers instead. If teachers can be convinced to stop teaching by rote, if teachers can be convinced to translate the curriculum into more open ended activities, if teachers will do workshops with the children – then, and only then, can laptops empower, the Danes thought.

Meanwhile, the Nigerians were also involved in translations. To them it was OK that the Danes wanted to introduce a more student centred pedagogy because this, they said, was what they were already doing – although in quite different ways from what the Danes had in mind. What was new to the Nigerians, and what they really sought after, was a material basis for learning about computers and IT. To the Nigerians, having laptops with Internet connection was not only an abstract bridge over a digital divide. It was also a concrete way to acquire IT-literacy which is not only quite prestigious but can also aid you in getting office jobs.

Danes and Nigerians thus came together in bringing 100 laptops to a small provincial school. And at this point, because of these translations, the first group of children, the ones with the poorest parents went into a position of marginalisation.

The school had long had problems paying salaries. But with the OLPC project, the it is now a passage point for acquiring IT-literacy. In this new empowered position, school management decided to raise tuition so as to be able to pay salary on time as well as to maintain technical running costs. A new set of teachers were hired, young and motivated, and with many new students enrolling every day the project had been giving a solid foundation.

In the background, however, some students disappeared. The poorer parents, which included some of the teachers, could not meet the new tuition and withdrew their children to the neighbouring public school. While beneficial for some, the translation of laptops as bringers of IT-literacy positioned these children rather unfavourably.

At first everything went well, that is except from the perspective of the poor children, but with time many of the teachers became increasingly challenged with doing laptop based lessons. The ideas of the Danish researchers were hard to put into practice and teachers gradually returned to their old, and as we remember, equally student centred methods of rote learning and strict physical discipline – the result being that laptops no longer had a natural place inside class. They take too long to get up and running, they steal away attention from the teacher, and they excite the children so that they wont sit still and be quiet. Without much trouble, the teachers thus sidestepped the Danish translations and secreted the laptops from their own construction of student centred learning.

Fearing theft, breakage, and moral decay through pornography, school management has strongly resisted any unsupervised use of laptops. If children wants to use laptops, they need a teacher to unlock the computer room and monitor them while they use them. No teacher, no laptop. And with teachers unable to make the laptops beneficial for their teaching the new students are not in a much better position to benefit from the laptops than their former classmates across the street.

So these are the lines, the translations, running through the project and positioning children out of reach of the laptops they so desire to use. As we have seen there are multiple agencies at work in the paradoxical marginalisation of those the project was out to empower. There are theories of digital divides, there are jobs in offices, there are attempts at pedagogical transformation, there are multiple technical breakdowns which I haven’t talked about, and there is no trust that children will not steal or break what is given to them.

Of course the situation in Nigeria is not durable. When children are so positioned parents complain, evaluations turn out critical, and project managers wonder what do to. I have described the current state of the project as a limbo. Everything is in an impasse with not much happening, but there have been, and there will be, various attempts at rebirth through transformation. The strongest attempt to break the limbo is perhaps various plans to utilise the laptops in a commercial cybercafe where students have free access after school. Such a transformation might make the project translatable again for both Danes and Nigerians, it might provide new students with an opportunity to learn and play with the laptops.

The reason why the laptops have not empowered the children is thus not that the determinism of OLPC is naïve, it is not that the Danes had imperialist ways of relating, and neither is it that Nigerians have an impossible culture (the Nigerian factor). Rather it is because none of the lines, none of the translations running through the project, constituting the laptops and their relations have been working to the benefit of students. However, it remains to be seen if there is any more mutational potential in them.

1 See e.g. (Star, 1991; Wajcman, 2000).

2 I use segmentarity in the deleuzian sense as the division of a phenomenon to get a grip on it (Deleuze & Guattari, 2005, chap. 9).


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