Sunday, January 11, 2009

thoughts about OLPC cutbacks

Some thoughts about the OLPC project cutting back on 50% of their staff (refocusing on our mission)

When this happens the prophets of doom, such as wayan vota (olpc just got gutted) and arstechnia (OLPC downsizes ...) publish quickly and with a tendency to sensationalise and catastrophise. We are all familiar with this style of journalism.

This really is a 40 year story going back to when alan kay first envisaged the dynabook. We need to take a long term view. It is also a good time to revisit Walter Bender’s 23 questions which is another insightful way of viewing the big picture

The Surface Mission is to bring education to the children of the Developing world using the XO as a vehicle. This is a serious and realistic although a very hard to achieve goal.

The XO-1 has been a partial success. However, it did not achieve its initial (problematic) goal of selling to the Developing world governments in millions. Clearly, the stakeholders are not satisfied and cutbacks have now occurred. Also the 2008 give one, get one was a relative flop, with only 7% of the sales of the G1G1 in 2007 (source). But Negroponte keeps pushing forward. The dual screen XO-2 (article) may achieve the scaling that was hoped for but did not eventuate with XO-1.

Sugar, the new OS, has been a partial success. It is diverse, free (FLOSS) educational software with unique built in (when sugarized) collaboration features. But some / many aspects of Sugar are buggy and / or unfinished. There is still a lot of work to do.

All of this does spin off in multiple directions – Walter’s question categories are Computer Science, Engineering, Education, Economics and Social Sciences. There was some discussion about his 23 questions at OLPC_news (comments). It would be good to see more.

Different people bring different skills and expertise to the Project. Everyone who has been involved with it has been broadened and deepened in some way. No regrets. I'm not aware of anyone who has been involved who wishes that they hadn't been.

There may or may not be ultimate success. But there is ongoing partial success as the consciousness of every participant, adult or child, of the social possibilities of disruptive technology is increased.

One aspect is that the Projects are in more or less constant turmoil. I see this as inevitable.

We have cutting edge, complicated, disruptive technology – hardware and software.

We have a difficult, hard to answer social question: How best to help the impoverished children of the Developing world?

We have conflict between FLOSS and Proprietary pathways. Can FLOSS alone deliver the goods?

We have division between expert and non expert enthusiasts in different areas. Some fields demand democracy and transparency, eg. FLOSS. But even FLOSS has benevolent dictators as a concession to expertise. But in some other areas democracy is frankly a waste of time. For example, there is little point in Mary Lou Jepson consulting with non experts about the latest in screen technology. This can be extrapolated, more or less, to many other parts of the Development process.

We have conflict over the best methods to educate children. Constructionism is not well understood and is not the only path.

How much should local issues influence global development? (refer to the Bryan Berry thread on Its An Education Project)

How do hardware experts, software experts and educators work together effectively to produce a better product?

There is limited money and people to carry out this project. Even though a Keynsian approach – spend money on public works to increase employment - in economic crisis would suggest generous funding for this project. Sounds like a good idea but I doubt that it will happen.

We have entrenched, powerful interests who are threatened by these developments (Intel, Microsoft, educational bureaucracies, existing NGOs)

How could there not be continual turmoil?

At any rate, the XO / Sugar Labs projects continue to be excellent objects to think with and to act through. In the words of David Farning:
"I would like to offer a _heart_felt_ thanks to everyone at One Laptop Per Child who has made Sugar and the XO the products that they are today.

You still are at the forefront of a revolution in learning such as the world has not seen since the invention of the printing press.

But, this revolution, as with all revolutions, is hard to plan; there are no maps, there is no rule book, there is no gray bearded sage to guide your way"
The xo and sugar labs will continue to transform the world for the better. By just how much remains to be seen.

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