JBittencourt's Blog

The Challenges of OLPC Scale Implementation in Rwanda

by on Jul.16, 2010, under Educação, English, featured, Formações, OLPC, Reflexões

This week Silvia and I ran in Kigali a training for 300 teachers and principals of 150 school. It was a very nice 5 days workshop where we mixed some talks with lots of hands on with the XOs. The methodology was slightly different from what we usually do. Yet we continue to work under the principle of “practicing what we preach”, this time we introduced the XO to the teachers through some classroom simulations. Our trainers acted as teachers giving a lesson from the curriculum and taught the activities at the same time. The objective was to create a mindset among teachers that the XO is being introduced as a tool to learning and not as a “tool to teach about”. We also tried to introduced some  ideas of “simultaneous dramaturgy” from Augusto Boal in order to foster some discussion about normal classrooms situations teachers will face in their classrooms with the XOs. In a first impression, it was a very nice training, for sure the best we did in Rwanda for far (see more in http://www.gc4ll.org ). However, when I was reflecting regarding the training, some inevitable reflections about our overall strategy in Rwanda came to my mind.

Rwanda has about 43.000 teachers in primary schools.  If we decided to replicate this training with the remaining teachers of the country, also in batches of 300, it would took us a little bit more than 2.9 years without a single stop week.

This number really made me reflect regarding our strategy for making the laptop initiative a success. It is obvious that 1 week of training is by far insufficient to prepare a teacher to use the XO inside their classroom. In the Rwanda context, I may say that not even 6 months of continuous training would prepare most teachers. Most of them aren’t professional teachers, usually only having completed the secondary school as a criteria to teach in primary. Therefore there isn’t a formal understanding of pedagogy or learning. They just reproduce the way they were taught.

So, how to make the OLPC project successful in Rwanda with such a challenge in teachers capacity building?

The common sense answer would be to increase the number of parallel trainings. Although, there is always the constraints of financial resources and qualified people to run such workshops. This last one, the human resources, are a particular issue in Rwanda. There is no academic tradition in the country neither on progressive education nor on computers and learning. This force us, and NGOs with similar objectives, to work with people from scratch in all senses of their development.

Even when we talk about developed countries, this model of training a small group of people that in their turn train another group of people and so on, has failed. Cascading trainings has proven to decrease quality along the chain. The first and second levels might be good, but by the seventh iteration most of the principles have got lost remaining only the skeleton of the original ideas.

Such conditions are at the same time discourage the project implementation and justify it. They discourage because the challenges are so big that might turn an effective implementation of the project impossible. Therefore, the investment in other areas would become a higher priority before the country become able to implement the laptop initiative.  They justify it because the laptop initiative might be one of the strategies that will allow Rwanda to overcome the gap between its archaic educational system and other countries in development. Incremental improvement in the country’s educational system and the copying of obsolete educational models won’t be enough for the country to create a knowledge based society, as they intend to.

This is where the work of David Cavallo in models of growth really bring us some light to reflect over this question (full paper available here) . He uses Kuhn’s ideas regarding the history of science to understand how new ideas (paradigms) emerge and replace old ideas as the accepted “scientific truth”. Cavallo brings this ideas to reflect which elements do we need to have in place in order to allow growth of the project without totally sacrificing quality.

He borrows from Kuhn’s that the elements necessary to make a paradigm to succeed are : exemplars, models and symbolic expression. As Cavallo defines himself :

“Exemplars stand for the canonical examples of the new paradigm. Models provide a way of thinking about what one should expect to happen, what behaviours are paradigmatic. Symbolic expressions (or, for our purposes, the language of description) serve an explicatory purpose.”

This can help us to understand the way we operate our Growth Strategy in Rwanda. A large part of our work is to create OLPC Model Schools, that will be centers were the laptops integration into the school can serve as reference for the society in general and other schools in particular. Teachers should be able to come to those places and witness with their own eyes what their peers are doing. This will help to make the society to understand that laptops aren’t a tool to teaching computer skills, but are really an “object to think with“, something that qualitatively changes the way we learn.

In those schools, we also develop the models and the symbolic expressions. The models are prototypic behaviors of the paradigm, elements that help teachers to understand how a classroom with laptops works in a constructionist reference, to understand the principles and their implementations. We do this development inside the schools by example. Our team conduct many different activities directly with the students, specially through summer camps and after-school clubs. By doing that, we invite teachers and school managers to participate and witness the way we work with children and what they might accomplish: we create references.

We also create such references during teachers trainings, when we try to apply the same principles we  advocate for children with them. This doesn’t mean to infantilize the teachers treating them like children. It means to understand what are their differences and interests, but don’t deviate from what we believe. We use to say that “what we do is more important than what we say”. The way we work during our trainings is more important than the content of the training itself. We many times saw teachers acting the same way we did during the trainings. For this reason the way we implement our teachers trainings is really planed and though.

Lastly, during our training and also the direct action at schools, we try to introduce to teachers a language about learning, symbolic expressions  that will help us to discuss new ideas differentiating them from the old ones. Such discussion can’t happen only in abstract terms, they need to be grounded in a concrete experience, and again the work at schools serve as base to build upon.

The major problem with the Model Schools approach, is really how to spread what happens inside a model school to the remaining of the school system. There are definitively constraints regarding the number of people we can use and the effort those use in each school.

In this case, it is where saturation is an important concept. When we have a saturated school, we usually see a phenomena where older students teach the younger ones what they have learned. We saw this happening in Porto Alegre when we taught eToys to older students and all of a sudden, most of kids in the school knew to do something in this activity.  The same thing is expected to happen when you have saturated schools, what happens in one can migrates to the other ones.

In the case of Rwanda, where saturation of whole villages and communities wasn’t possible, the Media , either conventional or social,  is the biggest chance of success. Particularly in this country, radio and SMS play a really important role in peoples life. Alongside with the Rwanda Government, we are developing some programs to take advantage of the popularity of those medias to foster the development of schools and communities. More than just to bring awareness of the project to the population, it is to use them as means to help the development of teachers and schools.

We know before hand that repeating a training like the one from last week isn’t going to be the norm. Quite the contrary, when we grow the project we will face more and more the lack of resources to do proper development and support of people. However, we do believe that technology allows new ways of thinking in training and development that weren’t possible in the past. We also believe that we need to continue with new strategies that go beyond the teachers training and engage students and the whole community in powerful learning experiences, that are, after all, the way to change people perception about learning and about themselves.


2 Comments for this entry

  • miguel martin

    Estimado Juliano…
    siempre sigo lo que escribes sobre la experiencia en Rwanda y me quedo muy contento con el trabajo que hacen tu y Silvia. El desafio es evidentemente muy grande y eso lo hace mas interesante!
    Sobre el entrenamiento de profesores a distancia creo que potenciar la radio como elemento de capacitacion podria ser interesante. Algo similar a lo que ha realizado radio ECCA en Canarias para que la educacion alcance a miles de personas que no tenian otro medio.
    Te paso el link http://www.radioecca.org/index.htm
    fuerte abrazo

  • Denise Lee


    Thank you for this blog post and the work you are doing to advance technology in the classroom in Rwanda. I am part of a team of Columbia University graduate students examining the Rwandan governments prioritization of ICT in education as a backbone to achieving its goal of creating a prosperous knowledge-based economy. Obviously the government sees a lot of potential for One Laptop Per Child in achieving this goal. Given the challenges you discuss above and the physical infrastructure challenges I was hoping you might be able to discuss how equitable the implementation of OLPC is (both within schools and regions). It seems that education in Rwanda represents a powerful opportunity to strengthen and unify, fostering state-building, stability, and long term development but, there is a lot of potential for ICTs in education to fail to reach their full potential and potentially reinforce division if the software, hardware, and training isn’t properly taken up or equitably distributed. I am particularly interested in how you believe radio and SMS can foster the development of schools and communities and build on the OLPC model.

    Please let me know if you might have time to discuss the above.

    Kind regards,


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