“I’d Like to Give the World a Phone …”

Loyal readers of Eduflack know two things. First, I am passionate about education technology and its ability to transform the learning process for students. Second, I am a proud adoptive father, and never miss the opportunity to talk about (or write, as one can read in my book, Dadprovement) our family’s experiences bringing our children home from Guatemala.

For most who have no idea, last month Guatemala elected a new president, as elections were coming up and the previously elected president is currently sitting in a jail cell. I won’t go into the politics of the nation, the military, non-military rule that is prevalent, or any other such things. Let’s just say a new president was elected. His previous career was as an actor. And his famous role was playing a moron who gets elected president (yes, you can’t make this up).

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales earned more than two-thirds of the vote in an October runoff. He now sits in the big chair in Guatemala City. And one of his first official actions was to make some new education policy.

As background, Guatemala is an incredibly poor country (so much so that citizens sneak into Mexico illegally to do the unwanted jobs there). Education is not compulsory. Far too many of the nation’s citizens receive no formal education, whether it be because of access or finances or cultural prioritization.

So how do we address this? One could start with strong early childhood education programs. There are countless other ways to begin, most of which cost money. So President Morales decided he would think outside the box?

His plan? Free cell phones for all students. He’d pay for it by letting all of the cellphone companies paint their logos on school walls, assuming they donate the phones to the kids in question.

To summarize. We have schools ill-equipped to integrate phones into classes that already have 60 or 70 students in them. We haven’t prepared teachers for how to make use of these phones. And we are sending little kids out into communities where their new piece of technology makes them prime targets for robbery. All under a belief that if you give a kid a phone, she will learn (or for the cynic, that a phone can replace actual teaching.)

Don’t worry, teachers, President Morales has a plan for you too. While attending public school isn’t required, the Morales administration is convinced that attendance and teacher absenteeism is a big issue. So future plans include tagging teachers with GPS trackers to ensure they are showing up for their jobs.

This is why so many people think policymaking should be left in the hands of real professionals.

On the phones, I don’t doubt Morales’ sincerity in thinking if he can get kids tech, it will improve their learning. But delivering the hardware is the last step in a solid edtech plan, not the first thing out of the shoot. And as you are asking teachers to change their instructional practice, insulting them by demanding they be tracked doesn’t seem to be the wisest of strategies.

And yes, I realize some will suggest this is just another example of how the anti-teacher, corporatization of public education model of reform in the United States is being exported around the globe. Before you do, let’s not. I don’t think American education reformers are setting their sights on the Guatemalan education market. Heck, even the cellphone companies that may be painting their logos on school walls soon are largely local (it isn’t Verizon and AT&T you see much down there).

But it does speak to the danger of reform for reform’s sake. If one truly wants to improve education in a country like Guatemala, is it more valuable to have books or cell phones? Is there more benefit to content-based professional development of teacher GPS tracking? And is it more valuable to think through plans rather than announce the first thing that pops into your head when asked about education?

No matter how well meaning, we can’t close achievement and opportunity gaps by simply providing a child a cell phone that they may not have a month into the term.

One thought on ““I’d Like to Give the World a Phone …”

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