10 September 2009 ~ 5 Comments

OLPC: The $100 laptop DOES have potential

When I first read this post by Alanna Shaikh, I was too busy to write, so I passed it on internally to all those at PEPY, because I know that so many of us would disagree with her. I can’t see the comments on the page, because maybe they have been hidden, but supposedly there are many others who felt the same way, including a post by Nicholas Negroponte.  I hope they will be republished soon, so that we can all see them.  (Oh!  I found the reply by NN – “Wait and see.”  Rock on Nicholas!)

I would have agreed with Alanna at some points a few years ago. Many of our current staff or visiting donors did, before they arrived here. The post is clearly written from someone who is looking at this idea “computers in the developing world” from a theorist standpoint, reading the media available to her written in her developed country of choice, and who has not had much (or any?) interactions with these computers in the areas where they were designed to be used.  In effect, she’s saying bananas don’t taste good and are of no use to humans when eating those she bought in her local 7-11, having never tried one off the vine in Honduras.

I understand where she is coming from, I have shared her opinions in the past, and still share her opinions when it comes to what appears to me to be wasted non-applicable technologies being introduced in a non-sustainable way.   I see where she is coming from, but I still think she is very wrong. Perhaps if she were here, her opinions would be different. She and I might agree that buying computers and solar is surely not “sustainable” for Cambodia, that teacher training or support to get increased government action to improve education would be better uses of money. We might agree that the computer is in its nascent stages and there is a lot to be improved. We might agree that a great TEACHER is the best way for kids to learn, and a green machine can’t replace that. But if she came her, she might change her opinion that these green things can’t, won’t and aren’t changing the world because indeed, they already have.

Here is a reply I wrote to this blog but since the replys don’t seem to be showing, I’m putting it here:

Note: For anyone using XOs out there: we had someone come in and do a research project on our XO program who helped to match the Cambodian curriculum with XO programs and come up with learning ideas. If you want to learn more about this, contact us at PEPY www.pepyride.org

I think this is a very myopic view on the potential for change OLPC has started. If you had looked at the Apple2e computer I used when I was a kid maybe you would have only seen the basic programs I was using and not see what is possible today. We use the OLPC laptops in Cambodia and when I look at them in use, I see my Apple2e. It’s very basic now in some ways, but that’s the point. It’s opensource. The people in the places that are using these can, will and are developing better and better programs for it.

I have been to the schools the Negropontes sponsor in Cambodia, which was our impetus to apply for laptops through the give-one-get-one program. Spend a day in one of their schools, and I guarantee you will change your mind, at least in terms of the potential for change, based on these tools.

If there was no word “laptop” in the name, they would have gotten a lot less press, but naming it a “learning tool” would have been a more correct choice and perhaps saved them a lot of criticism. It’s not a “laptop” meant to replace what you and I are working on. It is a tool for kids to guide them through their own learning – when their teachers don’t show up, when there is a huge differentiation between levels in one class, when there are too many students for one-on-one instruction.

I don’t agree with Nicholas Negroponte that any child can pick one up and know how to fix the inside. I do agree with Alanna that, for the best learning environment, you need a great teacher or ideally facilitator, but that is the same for anything you are learning. I have seen in our students and the other OLPC programs we work with in Cambodia, that these tools are inspiring children to lead themselves into areas of education that they are not given access to in their normal government classes.

The word “lesson plan” is evil in the constructivism world of Papert followers and the child-led learning model of OLPC. No “how-to” guide is not an accident but was planned. I agree with Alanna that for most people, who have been spoon-fed their knowledge all their lives, they are not capable of making the leap and learning on their own. In a place like Cambodia some of the most educated young people I know are used to that: they teach themselves all they want to learn via the internet. We have found those people make great facilitators for the program and we don’t follow all constructivist methodologies in our classroom, in fact we brought a researcher in to observe and analyze lessons our teachers had developed and to turn those into “lesson plans” (gasp!).

If you really believe “But it’s not going to change the world, or even affect it all that much.” you have not made all of the connections to all of the ways it already HAS changed the word. It has some of the newest technologies in environmentally friendly parts, screen visibility in bright light, battery life, mesh-technologies, etc etc… and all of those things are ALREADY changing the world as others take them and continue to improve upon them.

Here in Cambodia, there are groups of young Cambodians who meet regularly to translate OLPC programs into Khmer. The new versions we just got have Khmer script and we are now using Scratch in Khmer as well. Walk into a classroom where we work and see older students teaching younger students how to read Khmer via the animated Khmer testing program they designed themselves, and you will change your mind a bit. Talk to our computer teachers, young Cambodians who taught themselves how to use the XOs, and yes, they will tell you there is a lot they don’t understand, but they are effecting change. You can’t see that from your office, but I can see it here. It’s just the start! Each new version of the XO we get is better and better and will continue to be.

If you want to learn more about what we are doing with Scratch on the XOs or about the “lesson plans” our team developed to match the Khmer curriculum, contact us at PEPY www.pepyride.org

  • Wayan @ OLPC News

    I love your reply! Might you share it with our readership as a Guest Post on OLPC News? Unlike the UN Dispatch we welcome reader invovement.

  • http://www.pepyride.org Daniela Papi

    of course :-)

  • http://olpcnews.com Wayan @ OLPC News


    I have your reply coming up as a Guest Post at 3pm Eastern Time. I’ve also succeeded in having your comment (and everyone else’s) on UN Dispatch’s article to be published here: http://www.undispatch.com/node/8867

  • cheap computers

    It’s just the start! Each new version of the XO we get is better and better and will continue to be.