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MIT's Michel DeGraff on Expanding Access to Education in Haiti

Sep 01, 2011

Dr. Michel DeGraff is a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In two of his current projects, he's working with MIT colleagues to improve access to education in Haiti. Education Insider News Blog recently spoke to him about the challenges that Haitian schools face, and how he and his colleagues at MIT hope to overcome them.

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By Megan Driscoll

Dr. Michel DeGraff MIT Haiti Initiative

Dr. Michel DeGraff was born and raised in Haiti and came to the United States to study computer science and math. After turning his attention to linguistics, and more recently to language-related issues in education, Dr. DeGraff began exploring the effects of language choice on the Haitian school system and how promoting Haitian Creole as language of instruction could help more students gain access to quality education in Haiti.

Education-Portal.com: How did you become interested in studying and teaching linguistics?

Dr. Michel DeGraff: It's an unscripted story. In college I never thought about linguistics as a career. I earned my bachelor's degree at the City College of New York in math and computer science. Then I had an internship at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey. At Bell Labs, I was writing computer programs for linguists and researchers studying artificial intelligence - the goal was to teach human languages to computers. In fact, the computers taught me about my own language.

I grew up in Haiti and Haitian Creole was my primary language - like it is for almost every Haitian. But as a middle-class kid I had to use French in school, even though French is spoken, alongside Creole, by ten percent of the population at the most. Haitian students are told from a very young age that they have to learn French at all costs in order to succeed, and that Creole is just a lesser variety of French and is best left outside the classroom.

But as I was developing language-processing software for computers, it occurred to me that, like other languages, Haitian Creole does have a very complex set of rules. And this got me interested in the study of Language with a capital 'L'- not just teaching languages to computers, but trying to understand the way language works in the human mind.

So I went back to school for my Ph.D. in computational linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. My work focused mostly on the structures of Haitian Creole. Little by little I realized that it was a genuine language and that there's no linguistic structural reason to consider it inferior to any other language. This led me to wonder why I never thought of it as my first language, and why we still hear that some languages like Haitian Creole are primitive while others like French are advanced.

EP: What has your research in linguistics taught you about the education system in Haiti?

MD: My work showed me that the idea that Haitian Creole is 'primitive' is empirically untrue and, moreover, politically motivated. Haiti was colonized by the French, and language there has always been used as a means to concentrate power in the hands of the few to the detriment of the many.

To this day, the vast majority of Haitians are born in communities where they're exposed to only Haitian Creole, which is the language that they'll spend their entire lives speaking. Even though Creole is now officially the national language and one of the two official languages (with French), French is still the primary language of instruction, of exams, of administration, of the justice system and so on. As a result, the only children who can succeed are those born into a certain amount of privilege and in families where French is spoken or that can afford the few good schools.

The rest of the kids by and large are being handicapped from the very first years of school because they're being taught to read and write and do math and science in a language that's foreign to them. This prevents them from flourishing because they're constantly struggling to overcome this language barrier. For most of these kids, 'education' becomes a struggle to learn some ineffective approximation of French, and the opportunity to actually learn contents outside of French is reduced to almost zero. Because of this linguistic barrier, the best they can do is to memorize with little understanding textbooks, formulas, problem sets and so on, with the hope that they can recite their answers at the State's official exams, most of which are in French.

EP: Do you see the language issue as the greatest challenge that Haitian schools are facing?

MD: I see the linguistic issue as just one aspect of the political challenge that's been blocking Haiti's development for the past two centuries. This challenge comes down to the brutal competition for the country's resources and opportunities. The language problem is a reflection of the fact that the majority of the population has always been kept from the means of attaining success and power. The priority given to French over Creole in schools, in administration, in courts and so on is one reflex of this grab for power - one efficient tool for the reproduction of a larger complex of social and economic inequities.

This goes all the way back to the history of Haiti as a French colony in the 17th and 18th centuries. And even after we got rid of the French in 1803, an elite class of Haitians rose to take the colonizers' place. Language is one of the means that wealthy Haitians have used to exclude the impoverished majority of the people - the moun an deyò, as they're known in Creole, or 'people on the outside the towns.' And the moun an deyò are by and large kept outside any opportunity for socio-economic development.

It is this exclusion that's the greatest challenge Haitian schools face, and to overcome it they need to open up resources for a much greater number of students. In order to accomplish that, it will be necessary to use Haitian Creole as a building block so that academic materials can be, in principle, accessible to students from all over Haiti in the only language that they all speak. Haitian Creole is thus an indispensable linguistic tool for quality education to become accessible to all Haitians, not just the wealthy and those who can speak French.

EP: Last fall you co-chaired a symposium at MIT aimed at utilizing MIT's resources to help rebuild the educational system in Haiti. What actions does MIT plan to take in Haiti as a result of this conference?

MD: Yes, I co-chaired the MIT Haiti Symposium on October 21-22, 2010, at MIT with my friend and colleague Dr. Vijay Kumar, who's Senior Associate Dean and Director of MIT's Office of Educational Technology and Innovation (OEIT). And it was such an exciting experience for us all, a group of MIT faculty and staff and our Haitian partners, to work with Vijay's superlative OEIT team on this MIT Haiti initiative. And we joined hands with Michèle Pierre-Louis of the Foundation for Knowledge and Liberty (FOKAL) in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. By serendipity, Michèle was on a fellowship at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government at that time. FOKAL is at the forefront of efforts to democratize knowledge in Haiti. FOKAL has a network of libraries, and is one of the few organizations in Haiti that's seriously including the moun an deyò in their efforts to provide educational opportunities.

We hope to use our partnership with FOKAL as a hub to bring open online resources to Haiti. This will include mirror sites for OpenCourseWare (OCW) as well as training programs for faculty and students: it's not enough to just offer online resources, you need to ensure that students and faculty are trained to use them effectively. In addition to OCW, the MIT Haiti Initiative is also planning to offer Haitian academics language processing tools such as Lecture Browser which include automatic translation, transcription and annotation software to make the contents of video lectures more accessible to audiences around the world. For some examples of that, see the demo.

Meanwhile, OCW is already making an impact in Haiti. For example, Haitian entrepreneurs have used OCW materials to develop solar-powered street lights for some of Haiti's poorest communities. Another highlight of MIT-based online resources that are being planned for use in Haiti is iLabs, an Internet-based platform that allows researchers to access MIT-based and other labs anytime from anywhere. Through iLabs, Haitian students and teachers can perform experiments even if they don't have the physical resources locally. They send their work via the Internet to be processed in MIT's labs or labs at other institutions, then they get their results back online. The iLabs motto is 'If you can't come to the lab… the lab will come to you!' Here too the goal is to democratize access to educational opportunities. The idea behind programs like iLab is to help share some of MIT's resources with students who might not have access to the same kind of infrastructure that we have here at MIT. One extra benefit is that students in Haiti would be able to learn interactively via online collaboration with scholars in institutions across the world

EP: What other educational technologies from MIT do you think will be helpful in rebuilding the Haitian education system?

MD: Another program that's included in our FOKAL-MIT initiative is BLOSSOMS (Blended Learning Open Source Science or Math Studies). This site offers videos that instructors can use to promote hands-on interactive learning in concert with their traditional classroom teaching. That's why they're called 'blended.' In the same vein, the 'STAR' component of the MIT Haiti Initiative ('STAR' stands for 'Software Tools for Academics and Researchers') provides online tools for hands-on interaction with complex models in biology, chemistry, computation and so on.

These pedagogical tools are particularly important for Haiti because they encourage the kind of interactive learning that's too rare in the Haitian classroom. This goes back to the language issue. Since students in Haiti have to study in French, which is a foreign language to them, they're forced to 'learn' by rote memorization rather than understanding. In this tradition, there's very little classroom interaction.

Platforms like BLOSSOMS and STAR encourage teachers to offer hands-on, collaborative and creative projects. But once again, returning to the issue of the native language in Haiti, Haitian Creole is an essential building block that must be incorporated in these tools. Otherwise the majority of Haitian students will not be able to effectively participate. Therefore one key component of the MIT Haiti Initiative will involve the production of online resources (for example, BLOSSOMS videos) by Haitian faculty and students in Haitian Creole, in collaboration with their MIT counterparts. That way, the language of the interface, unlike French in Haiti, will not be a barrier to universal access. For some proof-of-concept examples, please visit the MIT Haiti Initiative website.

EP: Do you believe that open educational resources (OER) can be harnessed to improve the education system in Haiti and other nations that are either still developing or struggling to recover from a crisis? In what ways?

MD: New technology and OER are certainly crucial to this process. For example, when I was growing up in Haiti in the 1960s and 70s, it was very difficult to even get a landline phone. Now when I travel in Haiti, almost every adult I see has a cell phone, even the poorest citizens. And people who are barely literate are sending text messages on their cell phones and some of them are even carrying out banking transactions on their cell phones. This phenomenon demonstrates how technology can expand access to resources for even the most impoverished populations.

Historically, schools in Haiti have never worked toward educating the majority, the 'moun an deyò.' Open educational resources and the technologies that increase access to them promise to reach so many more students than the traditional schools.

EP: Lack of technology infrastructure is something that often prevents OER from reaching the people who need it most, but as you noted, more and more people in Haiti now have cell phones. Do you think that taking open education to mobile phones is the next step toward increasing access to education?

MD: Absolutely. In fact, I was recently at a conference organized by Haiti's Ministry of Education and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). The main topic was ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) for education. My own presentation was about a pilot project funded by the National Science Foundation that I'm working on in a small mountain village called Matènwa in La Gonave, an island off the main island in Haiti. For this project, we're helping kids at the school Lekòl Kominotè Matènwa develop math skills through the use of computer games in Haitian Creole, and the results have been amazing. Never before have I seen kids in Haiti show that much joy while learning, and we can really see the learning happening even as the kids and the teachers are having fun playing. This learning-while-playing paradigm is a radical idea in Haiti, where teaching has traditionally been top-down and oppressive - most students have no other choice but to memorize French texts that they and their teachers seem to barely understand.

But of course the problem with projects like this is that the equipment is very expensive. In my project, what we've used are MacBook laptops. Laptops are prohibitively expensive by Haitian standards. So after my talk, one of the conference participants who runs a software company pointed out that the next step would be to develop similar games for tablets and then eventually smart phones and cellphones. Tablets, smartphones and cellphones are certainly more affordable than laptops.

EP: What is your and the MIT-FOKAL alliance's next step in working toward recovery of Haitian education?

MD: Getting funding is, of course, the necessary first step. Besides that, we need to expand our alliances with other organizations inside the country. FOKAL is the hub, but it's important to have as many other groups on board as possible in order to get strong local investment in the initiative.

Fortunately, there was immense enthusiasm for the project from the Haitian higher-education leaders that were at the symposium. This enthusiasm has lasted, and one of the main engineering schools in Haiti, the Faculté des Sciences of the State University of Haiti, has offered to host our first OCW mirror sites. They've also expressed interest in moving forward with the MIT-Haiti partnership.

Other groups that are already partnering with MIT include the Université Caraïbes, which has helped us in co-producing the Haitian Creole subtitles for an OCW video lecture on advanced calculus.

EP: Finally, I'd like to offer you the opportunity to share anything you'd like about your work with the Haitian education system.

MD: Well, the task ahead is immense, but with all the goodwill and resources now pouring into Haiti, now is an unique opportunity to do something that can help make 'education for all' a reality in Haiti, at last - with 'all' taken in its most inclusive (and challenging!) sense. A tall order, but as the Haitian saying goes, men anpil, chay pa lou, that is, 'many hands lighten the load.'

Read about some of the exciting developments in OCW from MIT's Curt Newton.

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