June 27, 2014

New Paper: Green Machines and Constructionism

This week, a paper I wrote about the One Laptop Per Child project and recent studies of its deployments in Sub-Saharan Africa was published by InterActions, the UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies. Here's the abstract:

This article is an analysis and literature review of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program within the education sector, particularly the deployment of X-O laptops in the continent of Africa. While the project was created to address a specific issue - the digital divide - and undoubtedly had a significant impact in the field of technology, it has specific limitations: it reproduces a Western ideology of individualistic technology use and relies on a strict framework which fails to take local needs into consideration. Moreover, research on technology use in education, beyond X-O laptops, has focused mainly on developed countries. The article concludes that technology is not the panacea for education as envisioned by OLPC; moreover, its rigid mission goals and lack of independent studies ultimately hinder its aim of reducing the digital divide.

You can read the entire paper online here.

For more about how laptops are actually used in developing countries, the New York Times has an excellent video that documents a Peruvian village's four-year attempt to obtain electricity and Internet access.

[Photo by One Laptop Per Child / CC BY]

May 19, 2014

Teaching for the Test, Part II: The Inequality Industry

This is the second part of a series about Standardized Testing in the United States. The first part looked at the history of the SAT, and its origins in Army intelligence testing and scientific eugenics.

Source: College Board / New York Times

In between writing this series, the College Board announced a major overhaul of the SAT, in light of criticisms that the test measured knowledge of obscure and arcane vocabulary, gave high scores to inconhesive essays that used such vocabulary, and functioned more as a predictor of parents' income than intelligence. The New York Times has an in-depth report about the redesign; NPR has a story about how students that enroll in test-optional colleges (where the SAT or ACT is optional for admission) perform as well as students who take the tests - and that high school grades are often a better predictor of college success than performance on standardized exams.

In particular, the College Board will be collaborating with Khan Academy to provide test preparation for the new SAT, online and for free, as a direct response to the inequality of test preparation. I have some experience with the test prep industry as a teacher and tutor, and I eagerly look forward to the demise of these often deceptive and predatory businesses. Here's my story...

February 5, 2014

Mandela, Communist

A letter to the editor of the Washington Times:

Mandela’s ANC had a history of terrorism and brutality with the gruesome practice of necklacing, burning victims alive with a gasoline-filled tire around their bodies. It was used as a campaign weapon against rival blacks to achieve one-party rule. Mandela, as head of his party, cannot be exonerated from the vicious actions of his party henchmen. Mandela’s party campaigned hand-in-glove with the South African Communist Party, and any black who spoke out against communism was labeled a puppet of apartheid.

It's not ironic that this was published by the Washington Times, a conservative newspaper; what is ironic is that the same paper was mentioned in Nelson Mandela's memoir, which serves as the best retort to the above posthumous character attack...

Surveillance and Education

It's undeniable that the NSA files leaked by Edward Snowden had a profound impact on issues of privacy, surveillance, and espionage. It revealed not only that the NSA and the private contractor GCHQ were working with technology and phone companies to secretly obtain data and records from customers and foil encryption, but also were conducting surveillance within online games and using Angry Birds as an example of a "leaky" and exploitable mobile application.

In light of these leaks, the public was able to discuss a formerly unknown phenomena, which has a scope and scale previously unimaginable: that intelligence agencies had been able to expand their powers, since 9/11, to collect unprecedented amounts of data on U.S. citizens, foreign leaders, and residents of other countries. To find a needle in the haystack - present or potential terrorists - the NSA and its partners had mapped out the size and quality of every strand of hay, and set up procedures to ensure their knowledge of future haystacks - the NSA's effort to undermine online encryption.

Virginia Eubanks, writing in the American Prospect, deflates the astonishment about Snowden's leaks: according to her, the poor and working class had already been subjected to surveillance and digital monitoring, including the tracking of welfare benefits by way of Electronic Benefit Transfer cards (high-tech), stop-and-frisk in New York City (low-tech), and local law enforcement adopting surveillance and military tactics on a smaller scale.

Thus, it's no surprise surveillance and monitoring is an increasingly present part of education, affecting the daily life of students, notably the children of poor and working-class parents, and structuring how administrators and policymakers think about education.

January 28, 2014

Teaching for the Test, Part I: Eugenics, Morons, and Mass Intelligence Testing

As a non-credentialed teacher, I encountered a pretty competitive job market after returning to the United States. Not only was it difficult to find a position in education, it was hard to find one anywhere. After countless resumes were sent and cover letters drafted, a combination of desperation and boredom led me to discover a vast and profitable shadow economy: standardized test preparation.

I never took the SAT or ACT, because I had an unusual alternative schooling. However, I did take the GRE in order to apply for graduate school. Since I was used to being overdeveloped in some areas and underdeveloped in others, I decided to study for the exam. Resources were easy to find, and my only purchase was a book from a major company whose sole purpose is providing preparation material for standardized tests.

After a few weeks, approaching the test turned into a game. I was roleplaying, and I upgraded my states by memorizing arcane and useless words, figuring out shortcuts to solving multiple choice math problems, and drilling on essay prompts. I didn't care about the test reflecting my natural intelligence or learned abilities from college. My score would represent the amount of time and effort I committed to cracking the test. I wanted a high score.

June 12, 2013

A Portuguese Palestine: the attempt to build Zion in Angola

Angolans themselves were well aware of plans to populate their colony with Jews. The coastal capital of Benguela, with its grand Portuguese architecture and eucalyptus-lined boulevards, was home to an elite who welcomed the prospect of Jews thronging to the province. A series of articles penned by Angola’s foremost writer of the day, native-son Augosto Bastos (1872-1936), ran in the weekly Jornal de Benguela for more than a year. He reassured readers that Jewish colonists would not threaten Portuguese sovereignty because they would not have ‘cannons or an army behind them’. Later he urged Portuguese lawmakers to alter the terms of the colonisation bill so that it would be more attractive to the Jews. Bastos hailed the impending arrival of Gregory and Martin, believing that they ‘would soon be convinced’ that there was no place better than the Benguela Plateau to establish a home for ‘the persecuted [Jews] in Russia’.

May 20, 2012

The Postcolonial

"The empire gave its colonies real, tangible benefits. Wherever the British ruled, they erected a light, relatively inexpensive form of government that was not corrupt, was stable, and was favourable to outside investors." Nick Llyod, defending the legacy of British colonialism 
"What saves us is efficiency - the devotion to efficiency." Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

The liberation has past. Independence still reigns but the moment of transition, and of struggle, age into the history books. Banners of protest have long been stored away, and anthems, fresh and vibrant as they were introduced, revert to droll phrases echoed by schoolchildren stationed around a flagpole in the dull morning light. The colony is no more, the commonwealth has dissipated, but what of the young nation state? What legacy has it inherited, and like any inheritor, what will it do with the spoils it has received?

March 3, 2012

Boys' Day (Ifishimu)

We are the original badasses.

This is the ending thought to today, boys' day. I began the morning with porridge as my host father yolked the cattle and brought them to the field. I continued work on a garden fence, an only partially haphazard combine of logs, sticks, straw, twine, and nails. I am the original construction worker. Steven helps me, holding up sticks as I tie them together. I am able to set a few poles before my palms are demolished by the Iron Age tool I borrowed, its hilt constructed from coarse wood.

Steven, on his own, starts peeling and slicing sweet potatoes and "Irish" potatoes. Before I know it, he starts making french fries, submerging the pieces in hot oil. We eat them, a respite from work.

More boys come, another Steven as well. As they play, I wander around with the hoe, looking for ideas. A tree is teeming with caterpillars. Black, furry, and yellow spotted with coarse white spines. I confirm with the boys that these are edible, and I ask them to show me how to cook them. Here is their recipe:
  • Pluck the caterpillars (ifishimu) from tree branches. Climb the tree if necessary.
  • Squeeze ingested plant juices from them. Discard.
  • Boil the limp masses until the water is finished.
  • Fry with oil. Add desired species, and serve with appropriate relishes.
We make a movie about this (see above). We are the original lords of the flies. I invent work to do so I can have some respite.

This was boys' day.

February 25, 2012

Peace Corps: For and Against

A year in.

Three hundred and sixty five passes of the sun; four cyclical seasons: rain, cold, dry, and then rain again; and other measurements: forests that have changed color week by week, the births and deaths in the village that occurred within this time frame, the endless iterations of sitting on my porch at the end of each completed day.

It's time for some evaluation. A halfway point summary, a review perhaps, of the organization under whose banner I labor.

I joined Peace Corps for the opportunity to live in a community I otherwise would never have known existed. I was motivated by the theory that to help people you must live with them, eat with them, learn their language, and involve yourself in their social situation. I was swayed by the image of the Peace Corps volunteer, knee deep in a ditch, helping the world.

December 2, 2011

Amasuku, Bush Fruit

This marks the last post to this blog this year. In a few days I will be on a plane, heading to a vacation in Portugal, and will return in the new year. It's been a strange and interesting year, although it's seemed both longer and shorter than that, as if I stepped into a time vortex (and when I have to calculate time differences in order to make world-spanning phone calls, I feel as if I am). I want to thank all of my readers, family and friends who have made their voices louder so I can hear them, as far away as I am.

My last video for the year, it's about bush fruit. The kids, Bwalya, Lazslo, and Steven, are becoming emerging actors, and it's difficult to keep them out of the periphery of the camera lens. Look forward to more from them.

Merry old year and happy new one.

November 6, 2011

Another brief update

Welcome, November. The year has progressed exceptionally fast, and I have found myself in the midst of a variety of projects. As much as this blog has become a gallery of journal entries, a behind the scenes and in between the lines of the pleasures and vulgarities of Peace Corps service, this is more of an update of what takes place on the main stage, what occupies my day. So more lucidity, less metaphor.