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Today was the second day of the conference and a whole bunch of big-shots joined us at “Prime Holdings,” a small convention-center type location at the heart of Kigali. The President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, was there – so there were lots of extra preparations on the OLPC side. Everyone really did an amazing job making sure that the flowers, the banners, and the security passed muster for the various government ministries and offices.

Miguel Brechner, head of the government organization that manages OLPC in Uruguay, was there along with Guy-Serge Pompilus who has the same function in Haiti. They both gave beautiful presentations about what large-scale national deployments, with high government commitment, look like. I’ll cover Uruguay briefly in its own post tomorrow. Nicholas Negroponte, CEO of OLPC, led a sort of panel with these guys that also included David Cavallo, whom I mentioned in the first post.

Let’s go back a bit. Yesterday, at the first day of the conference, we heard from each team about the specifics of their deployments across Africa – about their partner NGO’s/government orgs, about the schools and communities they will be focusing on over the summer, and about the constraints imposed by the schools/officials/regulations/logistics in their deployment.

I was extremely heartened by the extent to which these teams were already organized coming into the conference. Most have had team-members living and working in the deployment communities. A number of the corps teams present at the conference boast one or more team members from partner universities in the deployment country. In addition, all the teams have been in constant contact with the organizations they’ll be partnering with on the ground and, by virtue of this, have a realistic vision for how the next 2.5 months (and how long-term sustainability of the project will play out).

Now back to today’s gala: President Kagame emphasized that technology and technology-competent citizens are Rwanda’s greatest resource. Only 15 years ago, Rwanda was torn asunder by tribal conflict that took the lives of nearly 20% of the population and scarred many more. Yet, Kagame emphasized (and my limited experience here with attitudes on the “Rwandan Street” confirms) that the Rwandan people are extremely forward thinking and are concerned with how to bring the country up to speed in the world economy, and far less with what has passed. This came as a huge surprise to me given the magnitude of the 1994 massacres (as well as the decades of tribal and local tension preceding those massacres).

The Rector of KIST (similar to University President in the American system) also talked about how Rwanda is committed to education, and not necessarily in the same way that most other countries are committed. Rwanda has a population of about 10M and 40% are under 15. The government here has recognized that so-called “ICT” (Information Communications Technology) competence will be the mainstay of Rwanda’s economy over the next generation. The government and institutions of higher learning are pouring huge amounts of their foreign aid and education budgets into ICT programs at all levels of learning. But OLPC isn’t just filling a niche (“ICT for young people”) either. The Rector described how the teaching and learning approach of OLPC represents an opportunity for young Rwandans from every quarter to take a stake in their own learning in various fields and to motivate self-starting participation in the international economy.

David and Nicholas focused on the OLPC learning ethos and dropped some learning benchmarks on us, demonstrating OLPC’s success. For example, at a school in Uruguay OLPC deployments correlated with a sustained increase in enrollment (primary students deciding to come back to school) and  retention (primary schools students deciding to go to secondary school). I can’t quite remember the stats, but I seem to remember that retention more than doubled after the first year.  And, highlighting the importance of the OLPC learning ethos, David mentioned an older study on Chinese Language literacy, which showed that when students  choose their own vocab lists and reading exercises, they learn three times as many characters in a year. And that’s *without* a computer or internet access. I can only imagine what will happen to literacy stats when children have ultimate access to reading resources and opportunities via ebooks and online exploration. Finally, Nicholas and David both discussed how counter-intuitive it is to have structured curricula and lesson plans and how, in practice, this often obviates student exploration.

More on this in future posts!

After about a month of juggling potential travel dates and potential international olpc locations (am I teaching in Lebanon, learning in Rwanda, observing in Uruguay?), it looks like I’m going to Rwanda this friday to meet up with the OLPCorps for a two-week conference. OLPC has selected selected top applicant teams and individuals from colleges around the US, Africa, Europe, and Asia to deploy as part of the “Corps” program, wherin each team selects a deployment location in Africa, and is aided with OLPC training, 100 XO laptops, and a stipend. The teams will deploy all over Africa and each team has ongoing relationships with NGO’s, government officials and ministers, and OLPC staff on the ground in their deployment country. A few teams have been living in their deployment locations for weeks or months prior to the OLPCorps conference and training in Kigali, Rwanda which is to start on June 8.

My role in all this will be to learn some of the technical aspects of deploying the technology (upgrading prior-version software, managing large numbers of laptops, teaching local orgazations/individuals technical tasks, working with college corps and interns) and to observe the “learning team” in action. The learning team is led by David Cavallo of OLPC, who has just opened the Center for Laptops and Learning at Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST, cute acrynymn no?) and is in charge of the international project of formulating and exploring pedagogical approach around the OLPC mission and XO laptops. The Center for Laptops and Learning will be the world headquarters for this work and so I feel very lucky to see the center in it’s early stages.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with David Cavallo in Cambridge prior to his departure a few weeks ago – the meeting absolutely blew me away. This was the meeting when David and I were feeling out how and whether I might be of use to OLPC and we really jibed. I talked about my experience teaching for MATCH School: I only found success when I departed from a rigid curriculum, using advanced topics (calculus and shakespeare in my remedial math and english classes, respectively) to motivate real student awe and personal investment, eventually leading to a kind of self-motivated competence that projected back on the remedial topics in addition to the new advanced ones. We talked a bit about how the laptop is the malleable “proteus” machine for learning. We talked a bit about the organic learning inherent in constructionalism vs. the numbing and demonstrably unsuccessful alternative so popular in the US (and everywhere, really) today. Read “Mindstorms” by Seymour Papert. Read” The Book of Learning and Forgetting” by Frank Smith.

Without gushing too much…the conversation felt like coming home. Despite my brief forays into pedagogical analysis and teaching, I’ve never really made it a point to hang out with people who challenge the over-structured-super-standardized-“education hegemony.” It is wonderful to finally be working together in an environment where everyone speaks the same language. To finally be able to work in an organization like OLPC with a group of people like David Cavallo (Kigali), Barbara Barry (Cambridge), and the rest of the learning team (all over the world) is a Godsend – an opportunity to adopt a learning “monk” stance, as Barbara calls it, and really open myself to some mentorship and some new adventures in curiosity.

All this, and I get to work on implementation too. My project will be starting new deployments and aiding recent deployments in the Middle East, both from logistical and from teaching/learning perspectives. My immediate project will be managing the deployment of several thousand laptops in Palestine (most likely at West Bank schools for the time being, as Israel is not letting laptops into Gaza schools) and I will continue work with Lebanon (UNRRA schools) and other Middle East deployments at the beginning of the 2009-2010 school year.

I. Am. Very. Excited.

AHHHH!