Political support for OLPC brings new challenges to education in Mauritius

In 2010 the Labour Party of Mauritius adopted the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project as a national program in their National Election Manifesto. The Labour Party is a member of Alliance de l’Avenir, the coalition that won the 2010 general elections in Mauritius. Even the Alliance program (also available on Scribd) mentions the OLPC, first in the Executive Brief (page 9):

We will introduce the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program and each Lower IV student (16-17 years old) will get one laptop.

and then on page 41, in the ICT section:

We intend to bring a revolution in the way children are educated (in Mauritius). We are going to introduce the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program with the objective to transform how children are taught by giving them access to modern technological tools which will help them to better understand Information Technology.

I asked Avinash Meetoo, initiator and current PRO of the Linux User Group of Mauritius (LUGM), what the Alliance victory could mean for the OLPC and open education in general in Mauritius:

Stop: Avinash, what is the current status of the Mauritius education system?

Avinash: Quite bad, I'd say. In essence, the Mauritius primary education system is creating two classes of citizens. The Mauritius Ministry of Education practically acknowledged this in 2008. The major issue is that (at least) half of the born geniuses of the country are not being detected and are finding themselves lacking the basic skills because of bad teaching.

Stop: What has been done so far to address this problem?

Avinash: All Ministers of Education have tried to bring drastic changes over the years but without the expected success rate, mostly because of the reluctance of teachers (and, also, parents) to accept the proposals. You may find more details about this on the Ministry of Education website and, specifically, in the Education & Human Resources Strategy Plan (2008-2020).

Stop: How could the OLPC help?

Avinash: As I wrote in my blog on the Mauritius elections, the OLPC proposal, if implemented, has the potential to greatly contribute to the development of the country. Of course, it will require a change in the way teaching is done here.

Stop: At which level? Mentality or practical things like regulations, class logistics, teacher training and curricula?

Avinash: The way classes are done here is still "talk and chalk". Children lack opportunities to discuss and to create. So, having OLPCs here is somewhat useless if teachers are not trained to make children use their brains better. And this is tough as teachers are (notoriously) very reluctant to change in Mauritius.

Stop: Last year I saw that OLPC in Nepal is integrated in traditional teaching, with specific initiatives to prepare teachers to use it in the most effective way. Do you think that something of their work and methods could be reused in Mauritius?

Avinash: In a sense, the situation is quite different: Mauritius has less problems at the purely economic level and also, unlike Nepal, good Internet connectivity. So I can imagine that OLPC has less potential here than in a much poorer country. On the other hand, there are still a lot of poor families here.

Stop: What about the children of those families? Is OLPC adoption the only initiative from which they could use computers and Free Software for their education?

Avinash: No. LUGM, for example, will shortly participate in a project of the Mauritius e-Inclusion Foundation to deploy a number of refurbished PCs (bought cheaply from France) to kindergartens in poor zones of the island. The project is financed both from the Government and from the private sector, through the Corporate Social Responsibility arrangement which exists here. The role of LUGM will be to help in the installation of Linux and education software like GCompris or TuxPaint on the computers.