the children's machine 08.25.2006, 7:27 AM
posted by ben vershbow
Why is it that the publicity images of these machines are always like this? Ghostly showroom white and all the kids crammed inside. What might it mean? I get the feeling that we're looking at the developers' fantasy. All this well-intentioned industry and aspiration poured into these little day-glo machines. But totally decontextualized, in a vacuum.
This ealier one was supposed to show poor, brown hands reaching for the stars, but it looked more to me like children sinking in quicksand.
Indian Education Secretary Sudeep Banerjee, explaining last month why his country would not be placing an order for Negroponte's machines, put it more bluntly. He called the laptops "pedagogically suspect."
An exhange in the comments below made me want to clarify my position here. Bleak humor aside, I really hope that the laptop project succeeds. From the little I've heard, it appears that the developers have some really interesting ideas about the kind of software that'll go into these things.
Dan, still reeling from three days of Wikimania earlier this month, as well as other meetings concerning OLPC, relayed the fact that the word processing software being bundled into the laptops will all be wiki-based, putting the focus on student collaboration over mesh networks. This may not sound like such a big deal, but just take a moment to ponder the implications of having all class writing assignments being carried out wikis. The different sorts of skills and attitudes that collaborating on everything might nurture. There a million things that could go wrong with the One Laptop Per Child project, but you can't accuse its developers of lacking bold ideas about education.
Still, I'm skeptical that those ideas will connect successfully to real classroom situations. For instance, we're not really hearing anything about teacher training. One hopes that community groups will spring into action to help develop and implement new pedagogical strategies that put the Children's Machines to good use. But can we count on this happening? I'm afraid this might be the fatal gap in this otherwise brilliant project.
joe on August 25, 2006 8:42 AM:
I note that your presentation of the material here is as lush as any post on your site. Attractive graphic presentation is a good thing. That these graphics are attractive to Western eyes and might sell or build support for the project is not a bad thing to me. I don't understand why it is suspect.
Do you have a post somewhere that articulates your thoughts on the project? Even if a developer's fantasy, it's a better fantasy than most. I think it's a worthy goal, a good project, a fine ambition, and I wish them well.
ben vershbow on August 25, 2006 11:15 AM:
This post from last November, written around the last big name change (from $100 laptop to OLPC), goes a little further into it.
Don't mistake my irreverence for a desire for the enterprise to fail. As you know, I often take the contrarian view on these popular initiatives (Google's business with libraries, for example) to keep the debate healthy. But I'm with you on all you say -- "a worthy goal, a good project, a fine ambition" -- and I do actually wish them well. A great deal of passion, vision, and ingenuity has gone into this endeavor, and it looks like they've put together a beautiful, rugged little machine.
My critique is aimed at the disconnect I see (and the words of the Indian Education Secretary should really be heeded on this) between concept and implementation. It's an enormously complicated situation on the ground and we're not hearing nearly enough about how these tools will be incorporated into a pedagogical context. The earlier critique I link to above focuses on the dearth of discussion about actual software for the Children's Machine -- at that time, all they were talking about was the hardware, the container. We're hearing more about software now, which, as they've promised from the beginning, will all be open source -- another laudable dimension of the project. I made some more supportive comments to that effect in this recent post about wikis in China (OLPC is mentioned toward the end).
I still fear, however, that his could be a fiasco. A well-intentioned, heartbreaking fiasco.
wayan on August 25, 2006 5:41 PM:
I love your "fits six kids inside" comment. As I've said before, and I still beleive, OLPC is all about marketing: http://www.olpcnews.com/commentary/olpc_news/olpc_is_all_about_ma.html
sol gaitan on August 28, 2006 4:43 PM:
The OLPC describes the 2B1 as "an open-source machine: free software gives children the opportunity to fully own the machine in every sense. While we don't expect every child to become a programmer, we don't want any ceiling imposed on those children who choose to modify their machines. We are using open document formats for much the same reason: transparency is empowering. The children--and their teachers--will have the freedom to reshape, reinvent, and reapply their software, hardware, and content.
The user interface is specially designed to support collaborative learning and teaching: every activity comes with a support network of teachers and children, so learning need not be an isolated, lonely endeavor."
This seems to me like a process where pedagogical thought is moving along with the machine. A project like this will have detractors like the Indian Education Secretary Sudeep Banerjee for whom "giving a computer to every single child is pedagogically suspect. It may actually be detrimental to the growth of the creative and analytical abilities of the child." As Ben says: "This may not sound like such a big deal, but just take a moment to ponder the implications of having all class writing assignments being carried out wikis. The different sorts of skills and attitudes that collaborating on everything might nurture. There a million things that could go wrong with the One Laptop Per Child project, but you can't accuse its developers of lacking bold ideas about education." Skepticism aside, this project invites thoughts on pedagogy that go beyond education theory and along with the Institute's endeavors.
Just fresh from 5 weeks in South America, my enthusiasm for Negroponte's project is enormous. In places like the Amazon where postmodernity meets hunting and gathering, where every motor launch pilot carries a cellphone, where young indigenous people dance to their traditional music as well as to hip hop; the potential of the 2B1 invites optimism. And, let's remember something, US$100 sounds cheap to us, not to a Colombian head of family making the minimum salary of US$150 a month. Those little machines mean a connection not only to the world, but also to children's creativity, and that of other children in towns where the only means of transportation are the rivers that crisscross the jungle. Well aware of the difficulties but also of the rewards of teaching using technology, I do hope the "network of teachers" that will support this project will be trained to meet not only the pedagogical but the technical obstacles that no doubt will arise