Ian Bicking: the old part of his blog

Nonlinearlearningnonlinearinternet comment 000

Just to be clear - I am very excited about this project and its potential, and I would like to believe that I am contributing constructively to its positive impact. There are plenty of very wise and experienced people who I respect immensely who have claimed that OLPC is one of the most important and trans formative projects happening right now. Other people I know seem to be hedging their optimism (cautiously optimistic?), holding their cards close waiting to see how the early phases of this project pan out. But I think you are onto something important with the idea that what is needed here is a leap of faith, not cynicism. This could be the most appropriate response to the skeptics.

As for concrete suggestions, I think that educational schools should be jumping at the opportunity to engage this project, and should already be running graduate seminars arguing about and designing OLPC applications. Conferences and panels should be assembled, and people - educators, developers, students, parents - should be imagining and asking themselves what they would want this tool to be used for. Organizations should be independently seeking out their own funding sources, for their own projects around the laptop, not relying on OLPC for permission, blessing, or authority. And, of course, the spirit and tradition of free culture permits and encourages just this. Anyone can get involved. There is no "they", just a "we" that needs to will these changes into existence.

If all goes according to the OLPC plan, the laptop may become a vital communications channel, separate from the internet. I can imagine educational materials deployed to the laptop, in situations where the intenet has not yet reached the target audience. Since the laptop supports USB devices, and also automatically creates a mesh, a single thumbnail drive could provide the content for an entire village. I can imagine a proliferation of thumbnail curriculum that rivals PSP cartridges on NYC subways.

And remember, children have families, and families have communities... What about OLPC after-hours? Educational content for adults? Aids education, malaria prevention, farming techniques, or any of the millenium project objectives.

If this device does make it out as far and wide as everyone hopes, it will also be present in the refugee camps, and around after the next natural disaster strikes. We can/should be developing applications to help in those situations as well, as katrina taught us IT can really help in these horrible situations.

These are some of the ideas I have been thinking about to help transform my faith into a reality. But I am trying to remain cognizant of the fact that throughout human history we have looked to technology expectantly, almost as a savior, necessarily bringing with it freedom, democracy, and equality. How can we be sure that our faith is not a blind faith? That our optimism is well placed, and not naive and giddy?

Sincere and authentic hard work, paved with good intentions might get us pretty far, and besides, what more can we ever hope to achieve?

Comment on Re: literacy, etc
by Jonah

Comments:

Organizations should be independently seeking out their own funding sources, for their own projects around the laptop, not relying on OLPC for permission, blessing, or authority.

Absolutely!

And, of course, the spirit and tradition of free culture permits and encourages just this. Anyone can get involved. There is no "they", just a "we" that needs to will these changes into existence.

With a project like OLPC, it is common to see people come in asking for permission to do stuff (usually not using the term "permission", but there's something like that going on). And in typical free culture style, they are met with indifference. I'm afraid this is very discouraging, but of course there are important reasons for it too; a loose community in this style just doesn't have the time (or maybe more accurately attention) to hold people's hands, to make investments in people that aren't necessarily going to pan out, etc. So we wait for something concrete to emerge, and then praise it then.

And remember, children have families, and families have communities... What about OLPC after-hours? Educational content for adults? Aids education, malaria prevention, farming techniques, or any of the millenium project objectives.

The posts that initiated the discussions with Ivan (1 and 2) were actually about relevence. Why would computers as constructivist tools really matter? For a lot of curriculum, I still don't know how to answer that. I like Logo, I think imperative programming in general is a far superior way to teach pre-algebra and algebra over traditional declarative math... but even if that can work it doesn't matter for these audiences. Algebra barely matters in the US (for most people far less than probability and statistics, for instance). Maybe trig is useful.

Anyway, I think it's a big leap to making these things important in these communities. For some subset of children they will be, just like for a subset of children these things are important here. As a programmer I want to build more programmers, just the natural self-obsession everyone has. But realistically programming and similar formal systems aren't going to be the important thing.

But if we ignore all the programming and constructivist learning and whatnot, and just think about content and communication, it's not hard to see how important these computers can be. Educational content for adults perhaps -- but just as much, the children can become a conduit for important information getting to their families. Basic medical information, for instance (and hopefully more than just the purely cautionary/preventative information we are inundated with here, but actual constructive and useful information about diagnosis and causes). And there's all sorts of mundane but important things... price quotes on food markets, employment listings, government services... everything we do here means something there too, our worlds aren't so different. And as mundane as these things are, they are part of a larger network of information and skill which are the basis of any real constructivist learning -- you don't construct knowledge and concepts from the ether, you construct them from the world around you.

I don't know if adults will work directly with the laptops immediately or not. I kind of like the idea of children as intermediaries.

Sincere and authentic hard work, paved with good intentions might get us pretty far, and besides, what more can we ever hope to achieve?

Absolutely. There's some "can vs. should" discussions about OLPC. But personally I believe, if the intentions are good and the implementation competent, "can" and "should" are usually the same thing. Because there's lots of people with self-serving intentions that are working hard all the time, so there is no "first do no harm".

I was reading a textbook on international labor policy several years back, and they had a little snippet of an interview with a textile manufacturer in El Salvador. They were very happy with computers and databases, because they allowed them to track union organizers and blacklist them cooperatively in all their factories. All of us involved in technology are helping people do things like that, indirectly but inevitably. And there's a lot of defense contractors using Python, so we are indirectly helping build the instruments of death. That's depressing. We have to push forward, and push forward hard to do the right things with technology, because there's people pushing forward hard to do the wrong things.

# Ian Bicking