May 28, 2007

The One Laptop per Child project has got to be one of the most controversial topics in both education and technology. The little green wonder has been incessantly discussed and debated, at once glorified for its ideals and derided for a host of perceived shortcomings. "It doesn't run Windows" they say, (as if that's a bad thing - but I'll save that for another post,) followed by some errant declaration like, "most software runs on Windows - how can you deny these kids access to it?" On the technical side, there's the "what about technical support?" question and "who will repair them when they break?" A few of my favorites from the education arena have been, "who will teach the kids to use the machines?" and "who's going to train the teachers and provide the curriculum?" Then we step into the silly, like "what if the parents never let their kids use them?" and "what about all the bad things on the internet?" as well as ridiculous ones like "how will we protect these kids from Internet addiction?"

At the recent Red Hat Summit in San Diego, I had the opportunity to explore the device first hand, sit in on talks about it by the people who created it, and see videos and testimony of the device "in the wild." I slowly came to the realization that I and others like me, including Nicolas Negroponte himself, have been responding poorly to the critics. We've taken their questions head on, addressing each individually in an effort to sway their persistent determinations about the project without adequately addressing their fundamental misconception. We allow them to pull us down the path of discussing details rather than design, which is ultimately the source of their misapprehension.

What we are forgetting is that critics are bringing their world view with them, which is always jaded by personal/corporate experience. Anyone who has used a modern computer has had trouble with it, and will naturally be prone to assume that the OLPC experience will be no different. Their view of computing is highly structured and institutional, with layers of control coming in to play at every level. At the top there is the software company which exists to provide both software and support to the institution who is purchasing it. Next, there is the institution, who has purchased the software to meet some institutional goal or need and is providing the staff to support the software, as well as to seek support from the software company. Finally, at some point, the users gain access to the software, which in the end is painfully difficult to use because it was designed to meet the needs of the institution, largely forgetting the needs of the people who are actually using it. The traditional design is hierarchical, top-down, cumbered about by layers of control.

Consequently, Intel thinks the OLPC is about hardware, because that's what they do. Their response is to produce a low cost laptop - who cares about the software (although it is designed to run Windows.) Microsoft thinks it's all about software, reminding us in a round-about sort of way that their general purpose software is designed to be run and supported institutionally, which they believe is a requirement for success. Educators then come in and say that for any technology program to be successful, you need a carefully planned, structured (read hierarchical) program of tight curriculum, standards, and control. The fundamental assumption is that institutional control is required for learning. The problem is that each layer is self-serving, which, when coupled with the general purpose nature of the hardware and software, introduces complexity that ultimately perpetuates the need for the hierarchy itself. The hierarchy inevitably continues to grow in an effort to support itself, while the needs of the learner are "left behind" as an afterthought (pun intended.) We see much of this in western education technology programs, as machines become more and more locked down, access to content is more restricted, and learner generated content becomes more highly scrutinized, all in an effort to make the program easier to support by the institution - forget the lost learning potential.

The OLPC takes this model and flips it, creating a tool that is a "learner centric" design. The software AND hardware have been designed together, not to be general purpose per se, but to create an environment that promotes exploration and learning. The designers are passionate about creating a tool that can be used by any child, anywhere, without requiring complex hierarchies of control and support. The design includes innovative breakthroughs such as a screen that can be safely replaced by a child, is visible in bright sunlight, and requires 1/10th the power of a traditional screen. A 10-12 hour battery life, with a charging device that requires no electricity. A software design that enables the device to be learned and used easily by a child with no computer experience whatsoever. Hardware that is designed to withstand the rigors of nearly any environment, including up to a 4 foot drop, yet can be easily and safely disassembled for repairs. It's the whole solution, not merely its parts, that makes the OLPC a breakthrough opportunity for any nation's children.

It's also a viable solution, which can hardly be said of the alternatives. Since the target nations for the OLPC project are simply not equipped to provide the support structures necessary to effectively implement western-style, mainstream systems and software, either now or in the foreseeable future, the OLPC project makes a lot of sense. As I've already pointed out, the marginal costs to use/maintain the OLPC per machine are close to zero. If you want to see a lot of unused, laptop shaped bricks stacked in the corners of schoolhouses around the world (or under trees, as Mr. Negroponte so loves to point out,) provide them with a bunch of Windows based PCs that they are unable to support. Better yet, if you'd like to see one of these brick piles first hand, visit any school district who is attempting or has attempted to implement a one-to-one laptop program. I'd be happy to point a few out...

Finally and most importantly, the model is designed around communities and sharing. The same philosophy that generates knowledge breakthroughs on the web, innovative software advances in open-source, and rapid community and cultural development are built in to the OLPC at every level. What happens in a nation whose children are asking others from around the world, "Do you have what we need? How can I get what we need? How do I do that thing that will get us what we need?" What does it mean to a culture when children begin to share ideas and content? Are they, in fact, creating culture based on a new world view that was previously unavailable to them? What impact will millions of children with video cameras in their laptops have on international diplomacy? What affect will reliable access to information for every family have on a village, a society, or even a nation? The results are easy to predict - all we need to do is look to the evolution of western society in the age of the read/write web for answers. The learners will become actively engaged in building knowledge, driving change, and creating culture.

In my opinion, what we have failed to stress is the viability of the solution. We've been so bogged down answering questions about reliability, availability, price, performance, implementation, etc. that we've lost sight of what makes the OLPC a solution that can work. The learner is the goal - not the teacher, institution, or government, but the learner. And empowering the learner always has, and always will, generate more knowledge, skill, and ability than any institution or government can provide.


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  1. I have been watching the presentation of Classmate PC, basically they sound like they want to build methods of control rather than methods of freedom. Classmate PC has been demonstrated in Chile and they have many videos up in youtube talking about it, by the way they talk, they think that Classmate PC is a One Laptop Per Student rather than Child. This is a big difference.OLPC is about giving raw, free technology to a massive amount of potential talent. This is not about using the computer to help in school, this is about helping them learn without school. School will just be the gateway to distribute this technology, but the learning wont be happening on the classroom. Kids will get online and will engage on their own thing, regardless if it's technology, writing, communication, research, etc.Some kids will learn Python and help others to build their own thing, they will go online and download what other kids or adults build to enhace their OLPC and will trick out to the point that it will become so unreconizable to the original state, that in the end, they will completely OWN the technology.Classmate PC runs windows, and is builted like a corporate workstation, with proprietary software that do one specific task and that it can't be expanded unless M$, Intel, or corporations decided to sell it. They are creating future workstation users, and consumers of technology as opposed to creators of technology.Look at the stage of office suite apps, --- you mean you can't create a simple letter because you don't have Microsoft Word??? You mean you can't draw a diagram because you don't have Visio??Is like saying that you can't eat because you don't have a fork, or even worst a special brand of fork.Kids are like human beings, they think and they will use their hand to eat if they don't have a fork. While most adults are like vegetables that will die even if the water source was just 1 mts away from them.

  2. I did try to read all of the article, Jim, it seemed interesting.
    However, have you considered a colour scheme of, perhaps, cream on white to make the text impossible to read, rather than just difficult.
    What is wrong with black on white?

  3. I agree quite strongly with the basic thesis of this article, however I would like to push it just a little bit further than perhaps you were willing to. I do have an earned Ph.D. and therefore, I have spent most of my life around academic environments. In general I have found such envionments to be more than a little bit suppressive, an unfortunate trait that reached its peak in high school, relaxed a bit in college, only to be reinforced once again in graduate school. So long as the physical and emotional safety of the child who owns one of these computers are the only restrictions on its use, ownership of the computer will stimulate the imagination of a child more than any teacher ever could. In addition, the joy of using one of them in a safe, but unsuppressed environment will take a child to thoughts and heights of learning that no teacher would ever dare to tread, but only if it is recognized that the child needs to own the computer, not the controllers of the computer, the child. By their nature these computers will be a greater stimulus of free thought and creativity than were any of the blank pieces of paper that I was ever given.

  4. Great article, but I must say I used "zap colors" to turn text black on white:

  5. Damn skippy, Jim!

  6. FWLIW, I did bug Jason Matusow with a related issue, namely that of releasing the source trees of their obsolete OSes, development tools, and office productivity suites, to the Universities of developing countries, under the Microsoft Community License, so they could maintain the mostly obsolete computers that get dumped or donated on/to them from the West. He misunderstood me - what I was suggesting was that Microsoft should become part of the solution of trusting these people to develop their own skills, by giving them the opportunity to fix the many and varied problems with Microsoft's software.

    Microsoft being Microsoft, I doubt anyone in Microsoft employment will understand ...

  7. Great article, but it is preaching to the believers ... for the most part. What this author, or other interested promoters, needs to do is translate this article in the language of the prospective recipient nations nations and sent to the politicians of said nations. Right now these nations are being danced by the "smoke and mirrors" crowd who most immediate objective is to scuttle the "OLPC" because they did not think of it first or support the concept, and now that there are a prospect of millions of these systems being purchased they want a piece of the action!

  8. Overall, right on. I would note, however, that I don't think there is anything that could have been done to make the advocacy more effective. Most people just can't imagine a fundamentally different kind of computing environment, particularly the social aspects of it. They won't get it until it is done and they see it and use it.

  9. I disagree. The point I'm trying to make is that we need to focus on the solution when advocating the project. For example, rather than saying the Intel Classmate is not a solution, we respond with, "they're trying to undercut the project!" Basically, we go on the attack based on motives, etc. The Classmate isn't bad because of the motivation, it's bad because it won't be as effective in the target environment, due to design, philosophy, function, and support requirements.

  10. Your own arrogance amazes and disturbs me. Your assertion that the people who BUILT the modern world are ignorant, or stupid, or malfeasant is astounding. Do you honestly beleive that you and the OLPC group are the only ones with the answer? That kind of arrogance is exactly what makes this project a short-term fad. I expect that you will produce one or two million units that will recieve fine press, but will be nothing but "bricks" as you call them five years from now.
    You discount and forget the thousands of people who came before, who built an entire industry around cooperation and the ability to determine what people need. Microsoft and Intel, for all of their faults, show a fraction of the arrogance that this blog post displays. So many things about this project that COULD be wonderful have been destroyed by egos like yours and Negroponte's
    I downloaded the OLPC "LiveCd," and I have to say, it cemented my opinion of the project. I encourage all to do the same. I set my kids, 3, 8 and 12, to see if they could figure it out. It took them less than five minutes to get so frustrated that they gave up. There are so many things WRONG with the interface that I wouldn't know where to start. Do youselves a favor - take a look at the modern game console UI. Even a 3 year old can figure that one out.

  11. I don't believe that it is the only answer, simply the best of the choices. It's not about ego, it's about form, function, and practicality. Coming from an education environment that manages thousands of machines, I can say with great confidence that the Windows model and required support structure simply will not work in the target countries. The amount of support and training required is simply too great, and for minimal gains. Maximum flexibility creates maximum complexity, which reduces usability and increases support requirements. By focusing on function, rather than features, the OLPC becomes a usable tool that has a chance of being effective in an environment with minimal support.Could Microsoft and Intel create an effective solution as well? Absolutely, but they need to actually cooperate, as you suggest, and work together to develop a complete and potentially effective solution, with complete consideration for the environment at hand. Thus far, there has been no such coordination or effort. Intel built a nice platform, and stuck a stock Windows embedded on it. Zero consideration for the learner, ie a focus on what WE can do, not on what THEY can do. This is and has been the fundamental flaw in both companies' (especially Microsoft's) approach for all their products, not just the OLPC. And it is the primary reason why the walls they have built around their business are beginning to crack...

  12. The OLPC project is doomed to failure because there is too much evangelism and not enough listening to thoughtful non-industry commentary. In ecology, there is no such thing as one cow. In social ecology, especially in developing countries, there is no such thing as one child. The cult of the individual is a Western phenomenon.
    In developing countries, children are part of the family economic unit. If the OLPC is successful, it will be co-opted by the parents. If not, it will be a pile of bricks in a locked school closet at best, or perhaps a backup hut light. I had the chance to play with an OLPC and its interface. Utterly unworkable. It's a great shame. The OLPC concept is very powerful. The implementation seems almost deliberately designed to poison the well for anyone else to play with the idea in the future.
    Ask the children -- and parents -- and teachers and administrators -- what they need. Then give them what they need. If you design according to your individualistic, highly Westernized ideals, you will get a brick.

  13. I've already commented about similar views. It seems that many forget that OLPC is an education thing, not a computer thing. I do agree that many choices made by the development team are arguable, but still they do something that noone else did before them.Besides, who said that what they do should be "the real" computer?

  14. I have trouble with those who claim to have "played with the interface" and found it to be unusable. What seems to be missing is the fact the the interface was designed to run on the laptop, and the laptop only, so of course many things won't work right. More importantly, the live CD that is out is an incomplete "technology preview," and not what's actually on them today. So basically what we're saying is, "I played with the alpha release, and it was buggy. How can that be?" Seems pretty silly to me. You have to actually use one of the current laptops to see the real potential. And the developers are listening - to the kids - as they pilot them in Nigeria and other areas as we speak.I think it would do everyone some good to meet some of those who are working on the project. It's hard to conclude that their motivation is anything but the kids they are trying to reach. The videos in the link below are not from 60 minutes, they are in a Red Hat Magazine article about the 60 minutes interview.

  15. OLPC was determined from the start to reverse the business model: to distribute at once the first XO build by the millions! I'd say that this is daydreaming.But wait, what about the success of the eee PC? Well, that's an old PC with an affordable price tag. And it used software made by those who would buy them: mainstream Linux.
    Negroponte and Co. are fooling the world in broad daylight, preaching open source values with their proprietary XO machine.
    -- 3rd world nobody

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