Friday, April 06, 2007

OLPC - irresistable force?

The tremendous positive potential in the deliberately designed intent of the OLPC project is shown by its core principles (worth reading in full) of child ownership, low aged, saturation, connection and free & open source. By "deliberately designed intent" I mean all of the hardware, software and educational & political intent of the project

Given where it has already got to it is very hard to see how the OLPC could fail although its positive effects can be slowed down. Some thoughts about that:

Some Governments won't buy it. eg. There were reports in November 2006 that the Thailand government had cancelled its OLPC order following the military coup there. Happily this decision now seems to have been reversed and OLPC testing is proceeding in Thailand according to a recent report.

Some adults will suppress it. This is bound to happen but given that it will initially be personally owned by the students, mobile and take home any successful suppression would have to be ridiculously authoritarian to reverse the designed intention. ie. taking the laptops away from the children and locking them up.

Some young learners won't like it or identify with it. This will be the case for some but others will like it a lot. In developed country terms it's much more like a mobile phone than a computer confined to a lab. The Indian hole in the wall experiment shows that impoverished children learn quite a lot about computers without any instruction at all.

Other alternative technologies will turn out to be more popular. Some people, such as Keith Devlin, think that mobile phones are the answer:
Forget the $100 laptop, which I think has garnered the support it has only because of the track record and charisma of its principal advocate (Nicholas Negroponte), the ubiquitous computing device that will soon be in every home on the planet is the mobile phone. Despite the obvious limitations of a small screen and minimal input capability, with well-crafted instructional materials it will provide the developing world with accessible education in the basic numerical and quantitative reasoning skills that will enable them to escape from the poverty trap by becoming economically self-sufficient.
Not sure about this last one.

It is quite hard to see how OLPC could not be successful although the quickness of uptake and degree of success will vary enormously in different regions depending on the attitudes and actions of the adults involved

There are also tremendous gains to be made in developed countries such as falling prices of laptops, increased usage of free and open source software by both developers and consumers, the example in parts of the developing world of a far superior model of computer usage in Schools and the penetration of an alternative user interface (Sugar) with a community metaphor replacing the desktop metaphor:
The mesh network is a permanent fixture of the laptop environment and is represented explicitly in the interface. A zoom is used to relate four discrete views, each of which caters to a particular set of goals: Home, Groups, Neighborhood, and Activity
All of these things represent a huge challenge to the suffocating effects of the Microsoft monopoly which increasingly is holding back innovation and development


Sylvia said...

Nice post.

The quote about the phone? oh please.

The problem is that he thinks it's about "instruction" - it's not a delivery system. What basic skills is he talking about, and what is the mysterious "well crafted" issue he's talking about?

There is always some vague hope that simply solving some interface problem will suddenly render instructional software useful.

Graham Wegner said...

Bill, the more I've become involved in high profile educational technologies like interactive whiteboards and proprietary software packages, the more I think that the OPLC idea is the way to go. What I think I could do with my class if they had laptops of this calibre combined with a decent, less restricted wireless web connection, in terms of meaningful tasks and connection to other classrooms to communicate and collaborate is not achievable at the moment with what is presently available. Maybe even if Australia doesn't buy into the scheme, its presence worldwide might drive the price of laptops with Linux OS down to attractive bulk purchase prices for schools. Thanks for the update - your blog is my regular source of the latest in the OPLC project.

Bill Kerr said...

hi sylvia,

thanks for the interpretation of Keith Devlin's mobile phone comment. Yes, it is up to him to provide more detail and I suspect you are right that he doesn't understand the full meaning of OLPC.

Sylvia said...

Here's what I really don't get--the whole Nicholas obsession. People like this Keith Devlin claim that the only reason the OLPC is gaining traction is because of his "charisma" and other people are equally ready to predict dire failure because he's "blunt" or a steamroller.

This can't all be true. Surely the ideas matter? (or is this just a symptom or our celebrity-obsessed culture).

Bill Kerr said...

Well, the project leaders opinions are important and do attract attention. The ideas are important but they are also embodied in people and that's impossible to differentiate in practice I think.

I've argued in comment 27 of this thread of OLPC news that negroponte is being distorted.