Thank you OLPC, indeed — a comment to Teemu Leinonen

Teemu Leinonen posted on Monday at FLOSSE Posse both an acknowledgment and a critique to the One Laptop per Child project: Thank you OLPC – Maybe now we may start to talk about education again.

While I’m no unconditional defender of the OLPC initiative — i.e. there are things I like, things I don’t, so I still don’t have a strong position for or against — I believe there are some statements Leinonen makes in his post that, IMHO, are not absolutely fair with the project.

I share most of his arguments but I don’t agree with some of them:

On one hand, I don’t think the project pretends that children “own” (in the sense of exclusive ownership he talks about) a computer. I honestly think is a matter of identifying the main user. Actually, the reason — I guess — behind giving the child a laptop and not giving it to the school is so he can take it home. By doing this, it is the whole family that receives the computer, and not only the child, so there is — at least potentially — a multiplier effect. Considering that the project is intended to serve mainly rural, isolated areas, providing a household with such a tool makes sense to me. I personally find the point that in general children do not own things quite excessive.

A second derivative (critique) of assigning not an institution but an individual — the child — the computer is that it goes against all values that foster sharing, community building and so. I would fully agree with such a critique if the XO computer had not a strong bet on mesh networking. I absolutely believe this does make a difference. By mesh networking sharing is boosted to the maximum — at least potentially, of course — and what could be seen as an individual tool becomes a networking node with many implications, including educational implications in both the field of knowledge and values.

Thus, the knowledge exchange that can take place in such an open and collaborative network is only enhanced by the huge amount of content embedded in the computer by default. Besides the fact that, as the software, this content can be localized — and this is a (soft) countercritique to the project’s (supposed lack of) sensibility towards different cultures and traditions — by bringing such content home, at least two things happen: the first one, as stated before, the whole family benefits from having that laptop home and not at the school; the second one is that that content stays with the student. If this student lives away from the school and spends there little time — specially compared to developed countries — it is not trivial that the more time he has access to content, the better. And just a remainder: if he is connected with other students wirelessly, the sense of “classroom” still exists, even if virtual.

There’s a last statement on Leinonen’s article that caught me by surprise and might be due to my ignorance on the project: the OLPC seems to believe that learning programming is the key to all other learning. I must confess it’s the first time I read this argument. If it were true, I’d be sharing most of the criticism around it. Nevertheless, I’d rather add some clarifications about this issue. Regardless if coding is a key issue in one’s education, digital literacy absolutely is. And besides my own thoughts on how literacy will evolve in the future closely tied to digital literacy until they both become “just” literacy, evidence shows that skilled individuals — and this includes by large digital literacy — will have it much better to work and socialize in a Network Society. Just in economic terms, employability and productivity will rely very much in digital skills in a world where ICT-based services will be the locomotive of development, above all in emerging economies.

I want to insist that I share and find most of Leinonen’s critiques really relevant, but I also believe that most of the buzz around the One Laptop per Child project has taken place in geek environments, thus shifting the debate towards technological aspects, and hence infringing a technological bias to the project that, in its origin — and this is my own, personal opinion — the project had not.

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2008) “Thank you OLPC, indeed — a comment to Teemu Leinonen” In ICTlogy, #52, January 2008. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
Retrieved month dd, yyyy from http://ictlogy.net/review/?p=678

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10 Comments to “Thank you OLPC, indeed — a comment to Teemu Leinonen” »

  1. Found your site from Teemu’s – and I have to say I’d agree with your points :)

    From what I’ve seen, the collaborative nature of the mesh network should, in fact, foster shared work in the classroom – and indeed at home, if classmates (or those in different classes) live nearby/in the same house.

    I’ve also not seen before the argument about programming; I’ve got the emulated version of Sugar installed on my laptop & while I can’t test the collaborative nature of it, I have been having a play with the other tools. The nearest to programming that I’ve found is Logo …

    I’ve also taught in the majority world, so while in many ways I can see that $180 or whatever they currently cost would buy a lot of books/ paper (most of the schools I worked in didn’t have enough of either to go round), the fact that a slngle laptop could hold all the books you’d need over the course of the 7 or 8 years most kids in the majority world spend in school, suddenly makes the economics work a little better. (Not to mention the fact their realtives can also read the text books if they want to)

  2. Hi Ismael and thank you for commenting my post.

    About owning things: Owning and sharing are culturally very loaded concepts. Many people do not care to share things, especially, if it is good for the whole. Consider here libraries, museums, public transportation, public space, and public toilets. For many people, also those things that are shared makes living worth of living. So, why couldn’t we share laptops? I think the whole ICT in education should be thought much more from the infrastructure point of view with the idea of everybody should have a right to access ICT when ever they need to. In transportation, everyone’s right to move is in most parts of the world solved with public mass transportation. What is OLPC offering? I am claiming they are offering latops (private cars) not ICT in education solution (public transportation).

    About mesh networking. Mesh network is very good idea, definitely the best idea in the OLPC, but strong bet on it seems to cause problems, too. If I have got it right, to work well the mesh network needs many laptops around – the more the better. Because of this OLPC have not been willing to sell the device in small quantities. The mesh network is one kind of “shared infrastructure” build by the people, but I believe that Wimax, Meraki, FON, 2.5/3G mobile networks etc. will take care of this the network infrastructure issue before the OLPC laptops are in the field. However, my main point was that “the OPLC has a naive believe on computer technology (per se) as a silver bullet in education”. The OLPC – maybe you too – seems to rely on the technological determinism that things will happen automatically as soon as the technology is in there. However, a neighborhood, town, village with OLPCs and mesh network does not become automatically knowledge exchange and open and collaborative network. I also assume that the mobile phones and networks among the people (and children) are already fulfilling the people’s basic knowledge exchange needs also in the poor neighborhoods. With the OLPC one should do more than fulfilling the basic communication and knowledge exchange needs. The lack of ideas about this “more”, or almost ignorance to thing about, it make it look, at least for me, that OLPC believes that the computer technology per se is the “silver bullet”. Because I do not believe that I was making the call for educational visions.

    Programming and laptops. I agree. This part of my post is the most rantish one. However, if you look with what software OLPC laptop comes with you may better understand this argument. See the list of software components: http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Software_components . What is in there? 7 programming environments, 16 software libraries, web browser, RSS reader and word processor, audio and video recorder, drawing tool, and some basic communication tools. It looks for me that the programming tools are pretty central in the laptop – almost like they are thought to be the “educational applications” of the device. There is nothing for brainstorming, concept mapping, or knowledge building. I fully agree with you the importance of literacy / digital literacy. Because of this I would love to see simple computer applications for children to learn writing and same time get the skills of reading. I have wrote about this earlier in the Flosse Posse: http://flosse.dicole.org/?item=do-not-localize-make-your-own

  3. Teemu,

    On your first point, I strongly agree that access should not be based on ownership. And maybe a telecenter near the kid plus access at school would be better than carrying a laptop to and fro. Don’t know. This is one of the aspects, as I said at the beginning of my pust, that remain unclear to me. Is it the XO a quick, flexible answer to the lack of telecenters? Is it a short-sighted, expensive, exclusively individual solution? Is it both? Mmm…

    I’m neither clear in my opinion about mesh networking: I really don’t know whether the laptop or wireless suppliers will come first. So far, commercial initiatives have shown poor interest in e.g. Sub-Saharan Africa because of expected lack of profit.

    What I’m decidedly not is a technological determinist and this is one of the points I share with you. To be clear: if the laptop is not wrapped around accompanying measures — i.e. a pedagogical strategy — it will highly probably fail. Is it to blame the OLPC Project for not providing such pedagogical strategy along with the device? Maybe. Have they tried? I think so. Have they succeeded in doing it? Maybe not. As I said in my post, most of the buzz has taken place in geek environments, so the project has shifted — at least in the debate — towards the techie arena crowding out educators, and this has made to good to the project. And this point is strongly related to the “coding-biased” content of the laptop, I think.

    BTW, I agree that is better to create than to localize. But can they? What if, in the impasse of having the optimum they apply the second best of localization?

    As I’ve already said several times, I’ve met people and known projects with so different perspectives and points of view that I have still to decide what I’ll sum up in the following question: is it worth it to adopt second bests before we get the optimum, or is it a waste of resources and time and actually they blindfold us not letting us see beyond those second bests?

  4. Hi Ismael,

    Two short comments:

    You wrote: “So far, commercial initiatives have shown poor interest in e.g. Sub-Saharan Africa because of expected lack of profit.”

    I think this is not true anymore. Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the areas with the fastest growth in telecommunication investments. The reason is simple: mobile networks are cheap to build and maintain, and there are already special products and services designed for poor people.

    “I agree that is better to create than to localize. But can they?”

    Why they could not? :-)

    – Teemu

  5. Hi Teemu,

    I guess we both agree in most things but the only difference is the short run.

    Yep, there’s an increasing interest and investment in telecommunications in Sub-Saharan Africa and, of course, it’s potentially easy to localize content.

    The question is: right now? or in some months? or in a few years?

    If the answer is “not right now”, which is the one I would give, this is where I think projects like the OLPC can bridge, enhance or accelerate the change.

    :)

    Best,

    Ismael

  6. Pingback: OLPC: ¿Proyecto Educativo o Tecnológico? « tilt!

  7. Hi Ismael and Teemu,
    Great discussion! I would like to add a few points to it.

    >>“the OPLC has a naive believe on computer technology (per se) as a silver bullet in education”
    I agree that OLPC has somewhat failed to put enough attention to putting educational material into the laptop. Generally it is seen that ICTs are most useful when tied directly to the curriculum. Just like Ismael said “if the laptop is not wrapped around accompanying measures — i.e. a pedagogical strategy — it will highly probably fail. Is it to blame the OLPC Project for not providing such pedagogical strategy along with the device?” No, OLPC is trying to put its laptop on the hands of kids around the world, and it is not an easy task to create educational strategy that satisfies the population that is global. Having said that it is a lack of vision on OLPC ‘s part to put less effort on this, and i guess tied to this is the fact that “ most of the buzz (about OLPC) has taken place in geek environments”. The implementation and the understanding of how this project will enhance the teaching-learning environment is probably the most important, but the less regarded aspect of OLPC.
    I believe when OLPC becomes more about education, and less about the gadget and the development of applications that come with it, we will see some positive effects on actual learning process. But is it OLPC ‘s fault ? Shouldn’t we take it as a means to what we want to achieve. I am a member of a group ( OLE Nepal http://www.olenepal.org) working to create open source digital educational materials that is actually tied to the curriculum set by the government. Our work currently revolves around the OLPC laptop. We want to make sure that the laptop will deliver educational materials, and will be used for more than just chat, and paint. I guess any cheap laptop would do, but I like the fact that OLPC has the vision of the infrastructure and the network to go with its laptop. The good thing about OLPC is that it has open-source backbone, and it becomes easier for us to both create and localize.
    Feel free to checkout our activities, blog and forum to see what we are doing.

    BTW, I am an avid reader of your blogs, and find it very insightful.

    Best,
    Sulochan

  8. Hi Sulochan, thanks for the insights. Is great to have some practical perspective from someone hands on with the device :)

    I wonder if there is an educational community not just creating content for the OLPC, but sharing methodologies built around it so other people can se the applied use of the idea.

  9. Regarding Teemu’s remarks. The programming environments and the libraries at
    http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Software_components are of course not for the final users.

    Those are for people like me, who know how to program and who would be able to come up with educational software in our free time, coding till late at night, because we believe in creating things, rather than talking.

    And that doesn’t mean it naturally leads to a technocracy or so. Although in e.g. Afghanistan a lot of people would go for it, if in only was an option! Instead of creating all kind of dedicated educational software (from a western mindset) enclosure of internet is way more important.

    It should be easier for a teacher to earn money over the internet. How can I easily define an assignment, and how can I pay someone in a developmental country online? Something like micro-finance in combination with internet will do incredibly much. And this laptop is an enabler for that.

    Bill Gates had also only the vision to have a PC on every desk.

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About Me

    I am Ismael Peña-López.

    I am professor at the School of Law and Political Science of the Open University of Catalonia, and researcher at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute and the eLearn Center of that university. During 2014 I am also the director of the Open Innovation project at Fundació Jaume Bofill.