Friday, November 19, 2010

Technology Enthusiast's Missionary Zeal

Believe me, as I read about Paul Kim's inspiring goal to save the world, one mobile hand-held device at a time, I teared up a little. I mean, seriously, who can resist short videos with moving music and images of smiling, appreciative multi-cultural kids? Kim's Seeds of Empowerment project, in particular, impressed me, as it involves kids creating their own stories, communicating about their own lives (with the help of technology of course.) But there is always the tiny part of me that has to push back a little in the face of over-riding optimism: "this MUST be an AMAZING thing for these kids."

It's the same, part of me that took a class on Language Change a few semesters ago, the class that highlighted the importance of preserving indigenous cultures, of being careful about what we "bring" in the name of God, technology, or globalization. We had many conversations in this class, about how good intentions (I want people to go to heaven) could lead to less positive results (dissolution of families, languages, culture, indigenous religions.) I think this is complicated territory, and before we sweep in with our technology saviors of the world, we've got to think long and hard about the consequences of their entrance into these "poor children's" lives. Here are some issues I've got:

1. Kim, Miranda, & Olaciregui (2007) make a strong case for the opposition our illiterate "poorest of the poor" face in today's society. These children are described as attending the worst schools, with the worst teachers, with the least educated parents, with the worst living conditions (they may be hungry or sleep deprived). In essence, they are solidly described from a deficit model. There is no mention of the potential resourcefulness or funds of knowledge they might possess that our rich techno-savvy kids may lack.

2. I get the feeling that little thought has gone into how the home life might be affected by handing out this hand-held devices, although I could be wrong. For instance, how do this poor illiterate parents react when their child, who used to come home and help with chores, is now absorbed 24/7 in some educational game or other. This reminds me of an entire two years of my brother's life (from age 8-age 10) when we rarely had a social interaction. He either had his face in a Gameboy, in a video game magazine, or playing Super Ninetendo. Of course, the educational games featured in Kim's device have a lot more to offer than, say, Super Mario Brothers, but the take-away is the same. Electronic devices seduce us and draw our attention away from face to face interactions (or chores.)

3. How about the impact on culture at large? Although Kim et al. speak eloquently about knowing their audience in designing educational software, it is difficult to measure all of the cultural norms/assumptions that might mismatch this new culture.

My real feeling on the subject? This is a good thing. Students feel empowered. They gain access to resources. The intention is absolutely pure and good and noble. I just hope hope hope that the consequences measure up to the intended effects . . .


  1. My thoughts exactly. You bring up some very good points that traditionally haven't been considered with outreach programs to third world countries (i.e. asking communities "what do you need?" instead of telling them "you need this," and thinking of ways indigenous people can be empowered in a sustained way, building on existing cultural strengths). It'll be interesting to get Kim's take on this in our class discussion.

  2. I totally agree with you about the inspiring, admiring and altruistic work of Paul Kim, Julie. Just like you, I didn’t know either that mobile devices could be used in such as humanitarian way. Perhaps we always have associated the term “mobile learning” with those expensive devices that come with blows and whistles such as iPhones or tablet PCs, but we’re forgetting that even inexpensive mp3 players or small game-like devices like the TeacherMate portable device can also be utilized for mobile learning.

    Moreover, I think that additional benefits of having poor illiterate children using mobile devices to learn to read, is that (1) they are also becoming aware of using technology and (2) they are cultivating the habit of becoming self learners which is really important. Something that got me little bit disappointed is that the price of the TeacherMate device is $100, that is, twice as much as originally indicated in Dr. Kim’s paper… I guess its price has double due to its popularity or probably it’s possible to get them at a better price when they are used for research purposes. I did contact the company that sells them to find out if I can take a look at one of these devices to explore the possibility of conducting some studies in Mexico.

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