Could Computers Be the Answer to Peace? Ask Kids from Karabakh!

Michele Borba May 6, 2013 Comments Off on Could Computers Be the Answer to Peace? Ask Kids from Karabakh!

How the One Laptop per Child project, NUR and children in a land far away called Karabakh may teach us the secret to positive social change for developing countries and even peaceful coexistence

I’ve been a teacher, writer and researcher for over thirty years and like many, I’m haunted knowing that millions of children in our world will never receive an education or even walk into a classroom. I’ve pondered again and again how we can give poverty-stricken kids-especially those living in the remotest of areas where teachers, textbooks, classrooms or even running water don’t exist-a chance for a more hopeful future.

I found the answer, and ironically, it came from children in a country half way around the world in a place called Karabakh. The visit changed my life.

The One Laptop per Child Project (OLPC)

I made the 22 hour trip (and then six hour convoy ride) to meet Karabakh‘s Prime Minister, tour the schools and visit with these wonderful children and their teachers. I was invited by  NUR (New Educational Strategy (Nor Usumnakan Rasmavariutum), an amazing project within the Fruitfull Foundation, an Armenian NGO created by the Argentinean-Armenian businessman, Eduardo Eurnekian. Mr. Sebastian Duval, director of the project asked me if I’d like to see their educational efforts in Karabakh. There wasn’t much hesitation on part.

I accepted in my role as the Goodwill Ambassador for the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project,  a nonprofit organization that oversees the creation of affordable educational devices (or laptops) for kids’ use in the developing world. The OLPC goal is to transform education by providing every child with access to a connected laptop computer.

The XO laptop is made from durable plastic so it can withstand tough weather conditions (think “Sahara Desert”), is childproof, and has instant connectivity.

The XO also comes equipped with curriculum in a child’s native language–29 languages and counting–and was specially designed for the children of Karabakh with a keyboard equipped in both Armenian and Latin alphabet.

The XO was created by some of the world’s most brilliant minds at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge and supports how kids learn best. It retails for about $185 and is given by OLPC to each child to bring home and keep.

A core OLPC principle is that in order to achieve meaningful educational improvement, each child should own a laptop so no one is left out. (I couldn’t agree more-I’ve witnessed many children in remote areas teaching their parents how to use a computer! It’s always a stirring sight.)

As of 2012 there are over 3 million XO laptops delivered to children in developing regions of the world including Rwanda, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Peru, Afghanistan, India, Ethiopia and South Africa.

Laptops to Karabakh!

Laptop deployments to Karabakh began just over a year ago with Fruitfull Foundation overseeing the distribution as well as teacher training. The laptops were generously funded by Mr. Eduardo Eurnekian, who gave 5000 laptops to all schools in the Karabakh cities of Stepanakert, Shushi and Karin’tak. His goal is to improve these children’s learning experiences by introducing technology in the classrooms, their schools and to their families so that eventually have every child in the region is equipped with an XO. I love Mr. Eurnekian’s vision for children:

“The world community sees Nagorno Karabakh within the context of war and regional conflict. People fail to take note of the children who are born and live there. These children are entitled to the universal right of education and access to information.

Through NUR, I intend to bridge the gap and give the children of Nagorno Karabakh the opportunity to receive the best education the world has to offer.”

 ~ Eduardo Eurnekian

Karabakh’s Unique Technology Challenge

Each XO deployment is always remarkable and has special challenges, but the Karabakh experience has to be among the most unique. The region’s history, location, and present-day circumstances all make the laptop deployment fascinating.

The success-as well as  the amazing response of the children and teachers-provides important and often overlooked lessons about the power of technology that we can all learn from.

To help you understand these special children and why the OLPC project is so special, I ask you to step into the shoes of the kids of Karabakh.

Imagine you are a child living in a country with it’s own flag, President, Prime Minister, post office, passport stamp, and standing Army, but you are not recognized as a nation by most of the world. That unique region is called Republic of the Mountainous Nagorno Karabakh.

Because your country is not recognized by the United Nations, you or your classmates do not receive crucial international health and benefits-as do most other world children-from organizations such as the World Health Organization, UNICEF, USAID, IREX, FLEX

Next, imagine what it is like living as a child in that region where there is a constant threat of war.Every waking day for these children is a “fear factor.”  Military convoys are all around you, your community is war-torn with bullet holes which still cover walls of your homes, churches, hospitals, and neighborhood.

Though you are currently in a ceasefire with neighboring, Azerbaijan, you recognize that your area is still vulnerable to attack. The constant visual presence of your army in your streets reminds you that your world is not safe.

Also imagine terror from another realm: the HALO Foundation is on the scene to remove hundreds of active landmines that surround your home, school or town. Since 2000, HALO Nagorno Karabakh safely located and destroyed over 50,0oo landmines and cluster munitions. Hundreds of more explosives remain.

Imagine that you go to school each day and as you walk into your building the first images you see are walls lined with photos honoring those killed in the war. Many of those photos are of your classmates.

Technology-especially computers-are novel and even a bit frightening to you. Your parents (still cognizant of living under Soviet mentality) fear there are special chips inside the device that track your every move.

Your connectivity to other children around the world is minimal. In fact, 90 percent of you and your peers lack connectivity to the outside world via computer. You basically  live in “technological isolation.” Television stations and news are also monitored.

Peace for your country is your hope. Conflict talks still continue but top international agencies-Amnesty International, Council of Europe, European Union, OSCE-warn that your region may well be the next place for armed conflict in Eurasian space. Threat of war is your daily reality. Just imagine!

And also imagine if you continue to live in a small, isolated, no-peace region unrecognized by the world and unable to benefit from the international experience. Education would continue to be a rote memory system. Your source of information would be limited and filtered.

But you share one common cord with children everywhere in the world: You know that education will provide you with a brighter future. A better education would provide you with the tools you need to pave your life.

And now you are given a laptop that just might be the answer to your hopes and dreams.

Computers Can Offer A New Educational and World Mindset

I spent many hours trying to understand these kids’ perspectives and view of life, but my wildest dreams would never have matched my up-close and personal experience of being on the scene. I arrived in the region to meet resilient, uber-polite, wonderful children who were so grateful to have visitors from “so far away.” I realized that OLPC and NUR had introduced a completely new educational mindset to these children and access to a whole new world view-the possibility of peace, not war.

Each and every child was also so eager to tell about their “very own” laptop. They were so excited to share the computer programs and curriculum as well as the books they were reading “inside the glass.” And like every kid I’ve ever met with an XO any place in the world, they had to show me how the camera and music programs worked. (What is it about a kid and a camera anyway?)

But of course, an enthusiasm for technology can only take kids so far. Their teachers are always the key to success. Training the teacher in technology was crucial for sustainability.An eight-member training team first flew to Montevideo, Uruguay at the Ceibal headquarters to learn from their deployment experiences. Uruguay is the first country in the world to implement OLPC at the state level. Every child has an XO. (When I visited Uruguay I discovered in more impoverished areas there are more laptops in homes than beds!)

Teachers received an intensive three-week training by the NUR team based on the “train the trainer” approach. Three weeks of daily eight hour of on-site training was given to 178 teachers in addition to a six-week virtual course to incorporate further updates on the different programs to be used with the students. Intensive training was also given to IT teachers as well as chess instructors and music teachers. A specially- designed training course for the Pedagogical Institutes of NK was also created.

The NUR trainer group led by the amazing lead trainer, Constanza Roulet, understood the “on the ground” realities and immediately revamped every training lesson. The trainer team admitted they had to revamp most of their initial trainings based on a unique need of these teachers.Most teacher had never seen a computer let alone know how to turn one on. Many even feared the new technology or were ready to retire. The trainers quickly found that helping teachers “overcome fears and build a comfort level about computers” was a crucial first step. Their training approach utilized the “think outside the box” method.

One of many fabulous Karabakh teachers I had the honor to observe integrating lessons with computer technology

Ms. Roulet also provided a lesson we should all use in teacher trainings: “Start where the learner is. Find out their needs and adapt those trainers so teachers feel competent and succeed.” (We use that model for our students-but I fear we fail too often to use it with our teachers).

At the end of the first day of training the team realized they had to start from scratch–even drawing a keyboard on the blackboard and teaching the use and function of each key. From that moment on trainers realized each and every workshop had to be adapted so teachers realized how to use a computer, record their voices, take pictures and even find cooking recipes on the Internet (a revolutionary concept!). Training also included the requirement for each teacher to register in an eight-week mandatory virtual course coached by Roulet’s team.

I observed several teachers who clearly benefited from those trainers and had already learned ways to integrate computer use into daily lessons as well as help their students engage in collaborative learning. Teachers shared how the computers were changing their teaching: “It’s more fun to teach,” said one. “My students are more engaged.” “The children are so excited about their computers.”

Kids and computers – there’s just an instant ease and connection.

I asked one teacher about her hopes for her students. “I want my students to receive the best education. Computers will help expand their knowledge and their view of their world. I also so want them to know what’s it’s like to live in a world of peace,” she said. “Most of these kids have never known what it’s like to live in real peace.”

How we all share the same hopes for these children–all our children.

My Karabakh experience left me incredibly hopefully about these children’s future. It’s a big reason why the NUR/OLPC project in Karabakh should be watched closely. If successful, it can become the model many other regions in the world can look to and copy. Their example might prove what we all long to know: bringing education in the digital age to developing regions can be the way to ensure that children have access to information and education that they deserve. That formula remains one of the best ways to lift kids out of poverty and improve their lives.

Meanwhile, there are lessons we can learn from the committed, compassionate people at NUR who are trying to change kids’ dreams into reality and grant the children of Karabakh the opportunity to receive the best education that the world can offer.

                  Six Lessons from Karabakh

1. Every child is entitled to the universal right to education and access to information. A computer can be an affordable educational device for kids’ use in the developing world as well as the potential to lift more kids out of the vicious cycle of poverty.

2. Don’t use a cookie-cutter approach for implementation. Learn the culture and honor it. Then tailor implementation to the unique needs of the culture and their “on-the-ground” realities.

3. Discover the special concerns of the teachers about technology. Begin at their level. Meet their needs. Effective ongoing training is the key to sustainability as well as the best way to assure implementation.

4. Global connectivity is crucial to our children’s future as well peacekeeping. It also is a way to expose children to different perspectives and help them develop more tolerant world views.

5. Computers can be the means to change children’s mindsets of their world

6. Technology can be the tool to create positive social impact and cultural change.  

Our best hope for peace may well be with our children. We need to open this young generations’ eyes to other cultures, races, creeds. We can use technology to connect children to one another and help them gain new perspectives as well as alter prejudices. The Internet can be a way to build “peaceful bridges that create tolerance.” And when it comes to a place called Karabakh computers may do something even more powerful: they just might be the solution that helps change these children’s fixed mindset of a war-torn life to a life of peace.

For these children’s sake-and for the millions of children worldwide who will never receive an education and live in fear and uncertainty, let’s hope!

The drawing by a Karabakh student showing the dream of a peaceful world-just one of many seen on school walls.

Peace Karabakh! And thank you!

 

Michele Borba, Ed.D.

Follow me on twitter @micheleborba or my blog feed Dr. Borba’ Reality Check.