Saturday, January 19, 2008

Teemu talks nonsense about the OLPC

Thank you OLPC - Maybe now we may start to talk about education again by Teemu Leinonen

There is room for improved educational discussion about the OLPC but Teemu's critique is poorly researched nonsense

He says that the OLPC does not follow in the Doug Engelbart tradition but instead follows Papert's constructionism, which he equates with learning programming, which he sees as very limiting.

This is so wrong in every respect.

What is the Doug Engelbart tradition? Teemu correctly says network augmented human intelligence, which of course is quite consistent with the OLPC mesh networking and community user interface. It would be far more accurate to say that the OLPC is a manifestation of the Doug Engelbart dream and that the work of Papert (logo, constructionism) and Kay (dynabook, OOPs) have built on and enriched that original dream.

The OLPC comes with a few invaluable programming environments (etoys, turtle art and python) which of course is a vast improvement on current western commercial computers which come with no programming environments.

But to equate Papert's constructionism or the OLPC as preoccupied with programming to the exclusion of all else ("the OLPC seems to believe that learning programming is the key to all other learning") is ridiculous. Papert has developed learning theory far beyond that, eg. his theory of mathetics as outlined in The Children's Machine, with ideas such as (from my old essay Invitation to Immersion):
  • Play is OK
  • The emotional precedes the cognitive
  • Our knowledge is like our relationships with other people
  • Trust your intuition
  • Take risks!
  • Take your time
  • A good discussion promotes learning
Anyone who knows anything about Papert knows about his polemic against technocentrism. So when Teemu says, in bold, "The OPLC has a naive believe on computer technology (per se) as a silver bullet in education" he is refuting voices in his head, not anything that anyone working on OLPC believes in.

Other critiques:
Why Computers? by Tom Hoffman
Thank you OLPC, indeed - a comment to Teemu Leinonen by Ismael Peña-López

13 comments:

Tom Hoffman said...

Thanks for writing that. I didn't quite have the energy.

Isä said...

I think your contra-argument against my “nonsense” is poorly researched. :-) I do not remember Papert making references to Engelbart in any of his books (and I have read them several times). Please, correct me if I am wrong.

I see a difference in the Engelbart’s tradition or augmenting human intelligence and in the Papert’s “constructionism”. I don’t see how the later (Papert) would be building on the earlier one (Engelbart). For me significant in the Engelbart’s thinking is the idea of collective intelligence developing in a dialogue among humans, when Papert see building stuff (engineering) with a computer/software far more important. Largely only later, with the WWW, the Papert camp has realized the power of network.

In technology terms this means that Papert and OLPC are about PC when Engelbart was about timesharing. The difference comes back to the issue of "personal" or "shared". Which is also deeply philosophical question.

I consider the lack of educational vision in the OLPC as a technological determinism - the OPLC has a naive believe on computer technology (per se) as a silver bullet in education. There are very little ideas of how the children, their parents or teachers are expected to use the OLPC laptops. In OLPC own words the laptop is a “Trojan Horse”.

- Teemu Leinonen

Bill Kerr said...

hi Teemu,

You are persistently avoiding the mesh network and community user interface of the OLPC - the features congruent with Engelbart's vision.

I think the bridging features in the lineage come through alan kay who is on the OLPC board and was influenced strongly by both Papert and Engelbart in his dynabook vision. As far as I can tell the OLPC is the dynabook. Here is a quote from Kay's paper on the early history of Smalltalk :

"A month later, I finally visited Semour Papert, Wally Feurzig, Cynthia Solomon and some of the other original researchers who had built LOGO and were using it with children in the Lexington schools. Here were children doing real programming with a specially designed language and environment. As with Simulas leading to OOP, this encounter final hit me with what the destiny of personal computing really was going to be. Not a personal dynamic vehicle, as in Engelbart's metaphor opposed to the IBM "railroads", but something much more profound: a personal dynamic medium. With a vehicle on could wait until high school and give "drivers ed", but if it was a medium, it had to extend into the world of childhood."

ie. features (technical and philosophical) of Engelbart, Papert and Kay have been melded together over time and this is reflected in the OLPC design. The final product incorporates both networking for collective intelligence and also development of programming skills and construction of stuff. I would argue that you are imposing your values onto the OLPC in a one sided and unfair fashion (as well as disagreeing with your values about the potential of programming and constructionism). The OLPC is both personal and shared.

I would agree that more needs to be done in developing the educational potential of the OLPC - but not just along the lines you are suggesting. I would see this lack as more a practical question - how much can a small group do - than a philosophical stance. Simply put, the educational leaders of OLPC (Papert, Kay) are not technological determinists.

Isä said...

The mesh network and/or community user interface do not make OLPC congruent with Engelbart's vision. It is a very small but also very obvious step to the right direction. The possibility to see that you friends are near and using their OLPC, chat and draw with them is not really enhancing collective intelligence. The OLPC is lacking tools for computer supported collaborative work / learning (CSCW/CSCL), collaborative concept mapping, collaborative mind mapping, collaborative problem solving etc. I consider this track of research and usage of computers in education as part of the Engelbart’s heritage. It is true that in the OLPC there are some plans for “school server” with some CSCW/L kind of service, basically Web Server and maybe a Wiki, Moodle and some journal/blogging tool. However, the OLPC has put very little effort on to design and development the school server and have focused on to make a tool for building stuff.

You wrote: “I would argue that you are imposing your values onto the OLPC in a one sided and unfair fashion (as well as disagreeing with your values about the potential of programming and constructionism). The OLPC is both personal and shared.”

I am not sure getting “personal” in this kind of dialogue is a fair rhetoric trick, but well actually I am not sure if I really understand the paragraph at all. Anyway, I am very aware of my values and I think people all in all should be aware of their values. This makes it possible to change them. I also know that there is a conflict between my values and the values OLPC represents and imposes. I know that many people have a value / culture conflict with OLPC. So what is the unfair fashion? To impose values the way OLPC is doing or the way I am doing?

Bill Kerr said...

hi Teemu,

What is unfair?

That the OLPC has multipurpose features of which programming is one. And that you take that one feature that you don't like (and don't critique) to condemn the whole thing in an educational sense. That you failed to even mention the collaborative networking features of the OLPC that you were aware of. That you ridiculed an education project by calling it an engineering project just because it happened to contradict your educational values. That you called it technocentric and failed to mention that the educational leaders of the project have well established positions against technocentrism.

If your original piece had explained more clearly how your values were in contradiction with OLPC values - rather than just assuming that your values are the correct educational values - then it would be more conducive to less emotional dialogue

Tony Forster said...

Teemu makes an important comment

"a teacher came to talk with me. He said that he feels the idea of giving every child a laptop is very individualistic. He said that this is very much against the ways he and his students are use to think about school and the community. Because of this he was not willing to participate the whole OLC program"

The idea of individual ownership sits well with western values but may undermine the supportive network of kinship in other cultures where resources are owned by a community. There may be unexpected consequences from dropping large quantities of laptops and western values into traditional cultures.

Bill Kerr said...

hi tony,

I thought that point was well answered by Ismael Peña-López (see link in my original post)

Why not let the people choose between modernity and their current culture? How is it better for them not to have that choice? Yes,there will be disruption, I have no doubt. Modernity is by its nature disruptive.

Tony Forster said...

Thanks Bill
As you guessed, I had not read the Peña-López link. Having read it, I still have the same issues about individual ownership. It is not about the two choices which are based on western values, school or child ownership. There are other ways they could be owned, for example, by the family or the community, which could still give the multiplier effect

"it is the whole family that receives the computer, and not only the child, so there is — at least potentially — a multiplier effect. Considering that the project is intended to serve mainly rural, isolated areas, providing a household with such a tool makes sense to me"

You say "Why not let the people choose between modernity and their current culture?", I agree completely. Why not let them chose modernity, ie the learning that comes with computers, without having to accept an individual ownership model.

Bill Kerr said...

tony:
"Why not let them chose modernity, ie the learning that comes with computers, without having to accept an individual ownership model"

I suspect this issue is close to the core of Teemu's objection to the OLPC - it does have a core principle of child ownership:

"I wear my XO like my pair of shoes"

Sounds good to me

Strange, how in the west with all our individuality we still have or school computers locked up in labs - and how poorly that works

Papert has pointed out that one reason logo didn't work in schools is because the individual laptops were not there - and so the required immersion and sense of personal ownership did not happen

The deeper issue here is that the transition to modernity does involve a transition from collective thinking (herd mentality) to individuality (thinking for yourself). Should we see that as western imperialism imposing its individualistic values on third world village harmony? Or as part of the inevitable and healthy but disruptive transition to modernity? The Protestant reformation did represent a transition from a God mediated through the Priest to an individual more personal, God. That is a central part of modernity. Yes, I think these might the real issues Teemu is raising. Should we ask our spoilt youth in the west to share their mobile phones? That might be good for them, to practice the sharing ethos? But I lapse into ungracious sarcasm.

It's only some "educational leaders", who see themselves as the "sensitive" gatekeepers, who come up with this nonsense IMO. The people will choose individual ownership if they are given the chance - a chance that Teemu wants deny them, in the name of freedom. How perverse.

Daniel Dennett has a great paper about this, Postmodernism and Truth , please read this link, Tony!

Isä said...

Mr Bill Kerr,

You wrote: "you take that one feature that you don't like (and don't critique) to condemn the whole thing in an educational sense."

Please, have a look what is there in the OLPC laptop: 7 programming environments, 16 software libraries, web browser, RSS reader, word processor, audio and video recorder, drawing tool, a simple music making tool, and some basic communication tools. The OLPC laptop is not very good tool for collaborative knowledge building, collaborative concept mapping, collaborative problem solving etc.

You wrote: "…you failed to even mention the collaborative networking features of the OLPC that you were aware of."

I think not mentioning "networking features" in a case of a computer is like talking about features of a car without mentioning that there are wheels in it, too. Having a network and an UI to see that your schoolmates are around, draw and chat with them is pretty lame tool for collaborative learning.

You wrote: "…you ridiculed an education project by calling it an engineering project just because it happened to contradict your educational values"

I am not ridiculing anyone. Education and educational technology is my profession and I take it very seriously. Just by having a look of the OLPC wiki/website and the official project news I am claiming that the project is an engineering project (that is just called education project). Some clever computer scientist could make simple content analyses of the content in the OPLC wiki/website to show how much content is there about technology and how much about education. This has nothing to do with values.

You wrote: "you called it technocentric and failed to mention that the educational leaders of the project have well established positions against technocentrism"

It is true that the educational leaders of the project have presented sometimes, somewhere their worry about the possible technocentrism in educational technology projects. Well, words are cheap - like they say. Also from the OLPC wiki/website/news I do not find any line pointing out the issue.

You wrote: "If your original piece had explained more clearly how your values were in contradiction with OLPC values - rather than just assuming that your values are the correct educational values - then it would be more conducive to less emotional dialogue"

The conflict of values between me and the OLPC is very well explained in my original post. They are the points written in bold. I see those points - and the values they represent - critical in any educational project, and it looks that OLPC has failed in those.

Your claim of me being responsible of making this discussion emotional is very interesting. I can tell you that I have worked hard to keep this constructive and professional. I would propose you to go back and review your posts in this discussion.

- Teemu Leinonen

Tony Forster said...

Bill
I do not believe in the "Noble Savage". I do not believe that freedom or individual rights are only relative terms without any absolute merit.

But I do believe that social structures are an important part of how society works and that we should exercise some care if we are to unravel existing supports faster than we create new ones.

Bill Kerr said...

Teemu:
"Your claim of me being responsible of making this discussion emotional is very interesting. I can tell you that I have worked hard to keep this constructive and professional. I would propose you to go back and review your posts in this discussion"

I agree with you that my initial comment on Tom Hoffman's blog was speculative, unfair and unwarranted. Clearly you are not anti-American because you admire Doug Engelbart

At any rate my off the top of my head response was not conducive to reasoned argument and you have been restrained and principled in your responses

I apologise for unfair comments and am sorry for any hurt they may have caused

Bill Kerr said...

It seems clear to me that Teemu is arguing that individual ownership of an OLPC and the learning of programming (inter alia) is not the way to go for the third world

This argument may be advanced from the perspective of learning theory (activities more focused on sharing are better) or cultural sensitivity (individualism will undermine the culture)

Certainly these are educational issues that could be discussed more. I haven't looked at Teemu's educational philosophy and his third world educational solutions closely - and how this ties in with Doug Engelbart's viewpoint.

However, it still does seem to me to be a case of educational and cultural guardians denying the right of third world children to learn programming - through their sincere advocacy of better learning models and / or cultural sensitivity. I reject progressivism which denies the rights of the disadvantaged - in this case the right to learn programming by denying the environment required (individual ownership)

The argument that "If it's too disruptive to the existing way of life then don't do it" sounds sensitive and culturally in tune. We have similar arguments in Australia about aboriginal issues and I support Noel Pearson's insistence that the only way forward for his people is to join the real economy as quickly as possible. The people in Australia who oppose this the most strongly are middle class progressivists, the welfare bureaucracy, the educational guardians who are more interested in looking after their own rights than the rights of the most disadvantaged people.