Friday, April 06, 2007

Ethan Zuckerman on OLPC

Developing countries authority Ethan Zuckerman (founder of Geekcorps) has written a couple of informative critical articles about OLPC. I'm supplying some extracts focusing on social issues but it's preferable to read the originals in full, since his informed commentary ranges widely over both technical. educational and social / political issues. If you read the first article then check out reply 9 in the comments, from SJ Klein.

In describing my enthusiasm for and concerns about the project to both people working on the laptop and people critiquing it, I’ve flippantly offered an observation: there’s been roughly ten times as much thought about the hardware as about the software, and roughly ten times as much thought about software as about the challenges of rolling this device out to schools around the world ...

Hearing the ambitions for arming students with powerful, programmable learning devices, my skepticism comes to the surface. Not because I think the machine is not up to the task - instead, I suspect schools are likely to fall short. In much of the world - and, unfortunately, too often in the US as well - schools favor discipline, control and rote learning over creativity, self-directed learning and collaboration. No matter how you slice it, the laptop is a deeply subversive creature, likely to undercut the authority of teachers who don’t figure out how to master the device as quickly as their students. Like everyone else who’s worked in IT and international development, I’ve got nightmare stories about computers locked in rooms so no one will break them. It’s too easy for me to imagine teachers threatened by the laptop ordering students to put them away and watch the blackboard

Walter and crew aren’t unaware of these issues. He points out that the machine is a laptop precisely so students can take it home and learn with it in spite of their teachers. To encourage teachers to experiment and get comfortable with the devices, it will be easy to undo changes to system configuration, and to reset the machine to a stable distribution

But really taking advantage of the potential of the laptop requires changing the entire ecosystem of education in the developing world, a process that’s going to require more time than the year or two after laptops are distributed… and the efforts of people other than very bright MIT professors. The scale and scope of this project means that a large portion of the questions I most want to ask - how will this be used in the classroom? will teachers accept it? how will kids cope if machines break or get stolen? what happens when people use machines to do decidedly antisocial things? or creative and entrepreneurial things? - are really hard to answer until the machine is out in the field. I wonder out loud if it would make sense to do a small pilot before the project goes further - Jim points out that the current plan to distribute five million laptops in five nations next year is a pilot - when you’re talking about building and distributing more than two billion devices, a few million is just a toe dipped into the water

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