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Spending, Learning, Wasting

By Adamantios Koumpis / April 2010

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Spending, Learning, Wasting

April 20, 2010

A lot can be said about human nature and how it bears upon the success of initiatives to promote and support learning by individuals. A philosopher might emphasize self-interest and the individualistic nature of human beings. An economist might emphasize utility and the need to compete for resources. A sociologist might look at the desire for status or the need to compete for a mate.

Whatever way you look at it, the bottom line remains the same: people will learn when they want to, and only with reasonable anticipation of some sort of personal gain. In all other cases the entire initiative is destined to fail.

Well-intended investments in initiatives to support learning and e-learning, whether in Greece, Guatemala or Ghana, will have zero impact on the people they are supposed to benefit, if those people have not recognized and accepted their need to learn.

Training for Training's Sake
In my home country, Greece, dozens of learning initiatives provide financial incentives to those who follow their training course. Typically, the trainee enrolls for a series of seminars on the use of productivity tools, such as Microsoft Office. Thousands of hours are dedicated to seminars on subjects such as the use of Microsoft Word or equivalent document-editing program.

In return for attending the seminar, trainees receive a payment. The amount they receive is usually very small, and by the end of the course they will have gained no greater proficiency than the ability to create a basic document containing textual variations and clever elaborations of one theme: "Hello Word!!!"

These well-intended initiatives are not born out of real need. They are not funded by enthusiastic trainees willing to pay a fair price in exchange for a valuable lesson. In most cases they are financed by the European Commission via programs of national and regional governments dreamed up out of bureaucratic necessity to spend available funds.

What goes for Greece also goes for the rest of the world, especially for interventions in places such as Africa and Latin America. Interventions that rely on the state to coerce through subsidy the motivation of the people, are as commonplace as they are futile.

Going back to the sociologist mentioned above, could you imagine an Orwellian or Huxleian state where the state itself subsidizes notions like lust for its citizens? Would there be space for love? Or even for a sustainable well-run love industry?

Learning by Coercion
The role of the state is to watch and provide support where there is substance. Too many states sustain learning innovation projects that rely on coercion, indeed corruption of the will of the people, for it is a form of corruption to pay someone to profitably engage in futile activities that do neither nor edify. It is perverse to do so in the face of the many projects and initiatives that create real value without access to state funding.

Learning is a very private matter. The state should make clear to its people from an early age, the advantages of learning. It should provide basic (and by that I don't mean primitive) access to learning infrastructures. It should avoid engaging in activities that conflict with, frustrate or negate its efforts to help those who seek improvement through learning.

In Greece, we had elections a few months ago. The conservative party lost with a large margin of about 10 percent. I do not think that politics is relevant to this web site, but human incompetence may well be.

Drawing heavily upon the financial resources of the European Commission, that is upon the financial resources of the rest of the member states of Europe, the old administration implemented a project intended to provide all new-entrants to high-school with a free computer. High school students' needs were studied, and a minimum specification for this computer was drawn up. Although the specification could easily have been met by netbooks selling for a price in the range of �250 to �400, the government generously gave each child a coupon for �450. What resulted was nearly all consumer electronic shops, computer shops and super markets offered netbooks bundled with extras, such as printers and digital cameras, as well as special offers on the purchase of other goods such as dishwashers, hairdryers, diapers, spaghetti, and cereal.

There's no doubt that this initiative was launched with the best of intentions. The goal of enabling all children entering high school to one their own netbook and access what we used to call the "information highway" is laudable and absolutely worthwhile.

However, the implementation has been disastrous, if not also devastating. I will not go into obvious questions as to why the scheme did not consider collaborating with the hardware providers of the One Laptop Per Child movement. This would have reached the goal of the program at a much lower cost. This has no doubt been avoided for the usual populist reasons such as helping the local market get some access to cash.

Now What?
The issue I want to focus on is what happens now to the 126,000 children who own a new computer. This new computer will be under their absolute ownership. Many will already have access to at least one computer at home. Some others, fewer I suppose, would not have had access and could benefit greatly from such as gift.

Whatever the case, all of them will need to do something with their new tool.

The Ministry is now supposed to provide electronic versions of school text books, which means students will receive their conventional printed books along with PDF versions which they can view on their new machines, a strange, useless, and costly redundancy.

This reflects a mindset of ICT innovation projects in the 1980s or the 1990s. It's 20 or 30 years behind! People willingly experience and readily experiment with innovations that touch upon their personal lives. They are open minded in their embrace of change and utilize new things to reinvent the way they live, creating new lifestyle trends. Yet they approach technology reluctantly, awkwardly or inconveniently when it affects their professional life and institutional practices.

So, what is it that makes people apt in learning when they set themselves an autonomous learning goal, usually related to personal areas of interest such as cooking, advanced sexual technique, gardening or whatever else? And why do they exhibit suboptimal learning behavior when the learning context is provided by someone else, by government, school, the boss for example?

About the Author
Adamantios Koumpis is head of the Research Programmes Division of ALTEC Software S.A., which he founded in 1996 as independent division of what was then Unisoft S.A. He holds a PhD from the University of Kingston in the U.K., as well as a degree in computer science from the University of Crete in Greece.


  • Sun, 05 Dec 2010
    Post by Jayne Tiedemann

    Great example of using technology for responsive,compassionate and inclusive education for students with the very real condition of school phobia.