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The world upside-down

“Do you know anything about these tablet-free schools where Silicon Valley executives send their kids? Is it the sign that technology is not THE solution to learning?”

I raised this question a few days ago in London at the launch of the Global EdTech Startup Award and started thinking once again about education, technology and equity.

At about the same moment, I read a UNICEF report that concluded that progress in increasing access to schooling has stalled worldwide – with 58 million primary school-aged children not in school. While the richest people on earth were looking for an alternative education model in the heart of the Sillicon Valley, hundreds of millions of parents at the bottom of the pyramid were figuring out how to give a good education to their children. Both have in common the same preoccupation for their children’s future. Both believe that “education is the answer”.

In words of Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo, authors of the fascinating book Poor Economics, “Parents, like everyone else, want schools to deliver what they understand to be an 'elite' education to their child.” Obviously the word “elite” has a different meaning for a Silicon Valley executive than for an Indian lower-caste family.

According to a 2011 NY Times article, high-tech giants’ top executives are sending their children to schools where not a computer is to be found and there are no screens at all. An easy conclusion can be reached: “computers and schools don’t mix.” (A little bit too easy if you consider that these kids are living constantly among screens at the very moment they leave the school…).

How can we explain that at the same time, these parents –through their companies – are providing schools in India and elsewhere with thousands of laptops as part of the project OLPC (One Laptop Per Child). What is bad for a rich American kid will be good for a poor Indian one?

Do we really have two opposite models? While the Waldorf School of the Peninsula “fosters the capacities needed for a successful, purposeful, and joyful life”, the Indian NGO Pratham aims to bring a low-cost, digital learning solution to 1000 low-income schools across 12 states of India, reaching over 50,000 children. Which one is a better school? Does it make sense to take technology out of the most technological part of the world and send it to the least technological one? Has the world gone upside-down?

For both Waldorf and Pratham, learning – not schooling - is the key. The former takes the tablets out of school because they are everywhere else in children’s lives while the latter take them into the school because they are nowhere else to be found and a fantastic tool to achieve ambitious learning goals. A question of balance…

I almost forgot to answer the introductory question: technology is not the solution if it is not accompanied by a change in pedagogy. This is the true challenge that all countries are facing. In the Silicon Valley and in India and in all countries that believe - wrongly - that a tablet will solve it all or that a tablet is useless.