Negroponte as The Music Man

by Sid Steward

Related link:

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)


Free Online 'Open Content' Initiatives Announced

"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. ...

Distribution problems

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. ...


2005-11-17 11:25:09
I think at the very least the question needs to be asked:

Are there more important things that $100 could buy a child in developing nations?

2005-11-19 20:05:27
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.

In United States there is the No Child Left Behind Act. The essence of it is, every child will have a laptop by the end of 2006. If I am not mistaken one state has already filed a law suite, and others are discovering they are going in the hole trying to get in compliance with this act.

I often wonder if the any of the idiots who came up with this had kids. If they did, 10 to 1 they didn't let their kid go at the keyboards. Chances are they stood over their child and wouldn't be suprised if they didn't keep their own fingers on the mouse and keys. They don't want their computer damaged, but lets put them in classrooms with teachers who need training.

By the way, NCLB does not allocate any funds for training teachers how to use the computer, only for software and curriculum.

The designers of NCLB must figure teachers have plenty of time to teach kids how to use laptops, though they aren't taught. As a result, computers get damanged, files lost, keyboards and mouse pads go nuts.

Therefore, just picture a class of 24 students, all with a laptop, no mouse, and a teacher who doesn't know how to trouble shoot the simplest problem.

To add salt to injury, I am now trying to revive an apple computer lab, so the cart of 13 laptops can be used by other teachers in our school of 600 students. The apples can't be upgraded. They take a few minutes to connect to the internet. I need to download java, active X and realplayer and can't. The fustrating part is here is Mr. Negroponte dishing out computers to other contries, while I am a teacher who knows how to intergrate and teach technology and science but I am limited because there isn't money available to provide even 1 quality workstation in my classroom. Consequently, students use my personal computer.

Perseverence is the game. I will get the 20 or so apple computers to run. My 125 students will experience being part of the Jason Expeditions this year. But, if Mr. Negroponte has a few spare quality units sitting about, we sure could use them.