4.25.2008

Laptops and Students - To Be OR Not To Be -

... That is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune...

Gentle Reader, kindly peruse the previous two postings before tackling this one. They will give you some background knowledge that should put you in a frame of mind to accept this particular bit of opinion. It *is* opinion of course since it is not backed up by research.

Probably the most important thing to recognize when comparing the XO or One Lapotop Per Child (OLPC) and the U S district based projects is the nature of the combination of network and resources.

Not just the hardware. The rest is a lot more important.

The whole thing is a huge tool and people, especially kids, will figure out how to use it. Yes, they will hack it.

If you ask Nicholas Negroponte if he thinks the kids in Peru will hack any of his systems, he will say "I sure hope so!" It will be disappointing if they don't.

1. This huge tool must be transparent to use. This means that the tool becomes irrelevant, like a pencil or a pen. The fact is that it is largely transparent to students, but not to everyone else.

2. The tool exists as a cloud of resources to be used at will. It is not time or location dependent. So when it doesn't fit into a particular frame of reference, just forget about trying to make it fit. The tool, by its nature, works.

If changing the location of an activity is important, consider that everyone involved in using the tool can and will leave the location at will.

If changing the tool itself is important, consider that everyone involved can and will repurpose the tool literally in a few seconds. (If you can supervise children with scissors, you can supervise a class of technology users. That may sound challenging, but art teachers do it every day with very few fatalities.)

Finally, think of the scope of the community involved and the connections available.

In the U S, proxy filters are common. In Finland, Sweden, and Denmark I hear the children are expected to behave themselves without nanny software. Granted, Finland has very high test scores in Math and Science.

In order to control and guide students who have this kind of power, the environment has to be carefully curtailed in certain ways without stifling creativity and access in an unreasonable way.

Consider the typical situation envisioned by the OLPC program. It is a compact community having few members with no preexisting Internet access. The school provides a satellite uplink and lesson resources. The student's laptops create a mesh network that presents the same face to the users no matter whether they are inside the school building or outside.

This means that instead of being cut off from the school environment when the day is done, the school follows the child home and provides a community with teacher support and peer support.

Let me mention one of the criticisms that OLPC communities have. Spouses of teachers complain that their time at home is absorbed by students. After letting that sink in, consider that one of the hallmarks of a high quality education is long periods spent with professors.

Let me close this by quoting from Seymour Papert's article about Bode Miller
Consider a simple incident: a 3-year-old goes to a shelf, pulls off a cassette and loads it into the VCR. People are wrong to be amazed at the technological capacity of the child. Getting dressed and playing with many traditional toys are actually more complicated than working a VCR or even clicking a computer program into life. What is remarkable is that the child is able to make a decision to spend the next half hour immersed in a topic of choice...

That children are learning to find independent ways into knowledge is wonderful and necessary. But it poses a challenge for parents and indeed for the way we think about school. In the past school had to provide knowledge. In the future schooling -- and parenting -- will have to be about developing the ability and the judgment necessary to use knowledge wisely and critically.
I hope the link with what I said earlier is obvious. Students will figure out how to use technology better than their elders.

The OLCP project is designed to support precisely the parts of networked community that are useful to discovery and education. This means the XO laptop is designed precisely to be a particular subtype of tool for a reason that the majority of technology projects in the US are evidently blind to it.

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