Negroponte as The Music Man
by Sid Steward
Related link: http://laptop.media.mit.edu/faq.html
I hate to be a negative nancy, but all this press over the $100 laptop gets me thinking... and doubting. It is supposed to help schoolchildren, but where is the content? Where is the curriculum? What is it actually supposed to teach?
From the 11/14 Wall Street Journal:
"Software will include a word processor, a web browser, an email program and a programming system. Governments would decide how to use the machine in classrooms. 'We're going to give them general tools so they can make big changes [in curriculum] if they want to,' says Dr. Papert, who is a pioneer in using computers in education."
This sounds most uninspired, especially coming from such a pioneer. Basically, you're on your own -- there is no content, no curriculum. You get the HOWTOs, Info docs, man pages and other great, geek staples. You might get Alice in Wonderland and other PG stuff. But your $100 doesn't appear to include instructional material for children.
Of course there's the Web, where you can find everything from scripture to porn. It isn't really instructional, however. And it's not putting booksellers out of business. Why not? Booksellers don't sell books -- they sell quality content.
The laptop's FAQ waves its hands furiously trying to convince you of its value:
"In one Cambodian village where we have been working, there is no electricity, thus the laptop is, among other things, the brightest light source in the home."
A 500MHz flashlight? That is more useful than some of the pentium doorstops I have around here. Which brings me to recycling.
The laptop FAQ attacks the current practice of recycling old hardware into developing nations. But it doesn't answer: who is going to recycle these millions of laptops in a few years when they're junk? How much will that cost?
Finally, what is the advantage of 'one laptop per child' over '$100 in books per child,' or rather '$100 of school supplies per child.' The notion that "500MHz, 1GB, 1 Megapixel" is a magic formula for superior education and economic acceleration goes unquestioned, for some reason. To me, a laptop without content is like a book without words.
* Update *
I have been debating this with some folks, and I would like to clarify my position. I am not against accessible technology. However, I believe the 'one laptop per child' program is overlooking the hidden costs of: 1) training educators, 2) technical support, 3) educational content, 4) infrastructure, and 5) upgrades/disposal. Looking at this bigger picture, the $100 laptop seems like the easy part.
Given the Web, some folks believe all content is free -- they don't understand my ranting about content. Indeed, information is free... you can't copyright facts. Assembling relevant facts into a history book, however, takes skilled work. You can pay for this work, or somebody could do this for free, but it is work that must be done before you have a valuable history book.
So far, the $100 laptop sounds like a software development tool more than anything else. As a programmer, I use GNU/Linux every day -- I love gcc and emacs. Programming is a trade skill, however. It might leverage skills in Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic, but I don't think it is a substitute for general education.
Here We Go (Update)
"New Web Portal Connects People in Developing Countries to Course Materials from Universities Worldwide
"Hewlett Foundation Announces $900K Grant to African Virtual University for Teacher Training Program"
Other Issues (Update)
I just discovered this article by Lee Felsenstein via BoingBoing: Problems with the $100 laptop.
It articulates some thoughtful criticisms to OLPC's approach. Here are some excerpts:
Top down structure
... By marketing the idea to governments and large corporations, the OLPC project adopts a top-down structure. So far as can be seen, no studies are being done among the target user populations to verify the concepts of the hardware, software and cultural constructs. ...
This represents a particularly striking form of a command economy where a market economy is an absolute necessity. ... For this reason, among others, we can expect the OLPC laptops to gravitate toward other segments of the population, where money and influence may be available but where budgets are still tight enough to place standard laptops out of reach.
Hardware issues power generation
But what of the absence of reliable electrical power? OLPC statements refer to the hand-cranked generator included in each unit, having a ratio of 100:1 for operating time to crank time. For an optimistically low power drain of 1 watt this implies a 100 watt generator. ... This would tire a strong adult quite rapidly.
Hardware issues mesh networking
... Also, mesh networking depends upon most of the links being operational whenever connectivity is needed. Are we to assume that all of the OLPC laptops will be left running, especially when the effort of battery charging is considerable? ...
Infrastructure and alternatives
... It is sufficiently discomfiting to consider that the outcome of a massive project like OLPC may be a different form of commercial television for the developing countries. Worse yet would be the preemption of funding for many other projects designed under a community model. Future talk of computer systems for the developing world would meet the dismissive response that it's been tried and it failed.
Yet More Issues (Update)
Eduardo Villanueva Mansilla outlines his own concerns in: A sub-hundred dollar folly Here are some short excerpts:
The OLPC project starts the other way round: we have the tool, now change everything else to fit the tool. The few resources left will be used to adapt everything in the educational system to work with the tool, being software, adequate security measures or teacher training. And the original goals will be changed to fit the tool.
... Just one example: replacing books with the sub-hundred dollar computer could mean the end for local publishing houses, and that is certainly a very unfortunate unintended consequence. ...
I think at the very least the question needs to be asked:
and I am running 8 year old apples
As a teacher, I can appreciate what Mr. Negroponte is doing. I wish he would look in his own backyard first.