Ian Bicking: the old part of his blog

Re: Nonlinear learning, the nonlinear internet

Constructivist educational theories are wonderful, but I think it is still important to approach the OLPC project from a critical distance. To caricature the current laptop deployment plan, OLPC is essentially going to airdrop a few million laptops into these countries and rely on the children's intrinsic curiosity to crack open the clamshell and start tinkering with these tools. One cynical response I have heard to this project is that educators have succeeded in providing most children in the world with the technology of pencil and paper, and that has not resulted in a rise of world literacy.

From what I understand, OLPC is not yet focusing on the development of curriculums and strategies for teachers to effectively integrate these new tools in their classroom, or encouraging the exchange of these practices as they emerge. Radical constructivism might wish away the classroom (and its associated hierarchy), but it is still the organizational structure shaping education in most of the world. It would certainly be a shame if the laptop ended up in a cubby during the for the entire schoolday because faculty did not have a clear idea what to do with the tool.

I am reminded of a recent occasion where I heard Seymor Papert speak at Teachers College. - In ten minutes he was able to use logo to demonstrate the concept of a mathematical theorem and introduce the foundations of calculus. The trouble was, Seymor is one of the few teachers able to do this with logo. My sixth grade logo teacher had us doodling and scribbling - arguably we learned a bit about programming and control structures, but the unstructured play time did not translate into mathematical insights. Perhaps the lesson here is that a good teacher can make any instrument sing and dance, but not everyone is a good teacher, and I am not convinced that logo was a demonstrated constructivist success story.

Providing the third world with access to the Internet certainly has an incredible ammount of potential. But don't confuse potential good for actual good. It is dangerous not to question the idea that technology and access to information necessarily lead to greater social justice and good in the world. We should be asking ourselves what we can do to help insure the OLPC doesn't just end up bringing porn to the third world, or worse.

tempering the

Comment on Nonlinear learning, the nonlinear internet
by Jonah

Comments:

One cynical response I have heard to this project is that educators have succeeded in providing most children in the world with the technology of pencil and paper, and that has not resulted in a rise of world literacy.

Sounds like a kind of dumb response too. Literacy rates have risen (if you account for our ever-more-stringent definitions of literacy). Some educational pessimism is just delusionally critical, spouting untruths that are simply absurd but seem to have gained traction due to sloppy thinking, like ideas that our educational outcomes have been slipping over time. Is pencil and paper responsible for the increases in literacy? I dunno, but lack of pencil and paper certainly can't help.

These kinds of critisms are unconstructive and unhelpful, and usually brought up by people who are so full of negative energy and cynicism that they are simply lost causes. They cannot be convinced because they are all too willing to switch to another criticism when the last one is satisfied.

I don't think you are such a person, but I would prefer you not use their arguments even in a devil's advocate role. (I also hate the devil's advocate role, as I find it intellectual dishonest; self-labelling dishonesty does not excuse dishonesty! Speculating on negative outcomes does not have to take the form of intellectual sniping.)

From what I understand, OLPC is not yet focusing on the development of curriculums and strategies for teachers to effectively integrate these new tools in their classroom, or encouraging the exchange of these practices as they emerge.

OLPC is very much focusing on hardware right now. From what I can tell, curriculum development is outside of OLPC's scope and ability, and it's not something OLPC will be trying to develop. OLPC will be building the software infrastructure to go with the laptop, which will provide the context in which curriculum is developed. (As an open source platform, even that infrastructure could be thrown away if people really don't like it.)

This infrastructure work is very strongly informed by the collaboration found on the web and in wikis. Certainly the exchange of ideas among teachers will be a very important part of this infrastructure.

Providing the third world with access to the Internet certainly has an incredible amount of potential. But don't confuse potential good for actual good. It is dangerous not to question the idea that technology and access to information necessarily lead to greater social justice and good in the world.

Certainly it's important to think about this. But OLPC is also a leap of faith, and must be so. It is not a tool to make the classrooms of developing nations look like the classrooms of industrial nations. It is not an effort to come up with the perfect curriculum or teaching philosophy that can reform education and the world. These are not reasonable goals, and may not be very positive goals.

As a result, OLPC cannot have concrete and specific educational goals. It is a tool, and we do not know how it will be used; we cannot know how it will be used because that would necessarily exclude the laptop users from determining how they will use it.

Obviously the laptop could be used for negative ends. It could simply reinforce current power structures, or cause familial collapse, or any number of bad things. Trusting in the good of human nature, I am very optimistic about empowering individuals through the laptop. Because of the nature of the project, it really does empower the individual more than any institution. The fundamental goals of the laptop project focus very much on this; having one laptop per child, teachers using a system that is a peer to the other laptops, a relatively unconstrained environment, and an emphasis on peer communication. I trust individuals.

To force any particular outcome would undo the laptop's most noble goals, in my opinion. The outcome of individual self-determination must be unknown, otherwise it is not truly self-determined.

We should be asking ourselves what we can do to help insure the OLPC doesn't just end up bringing porn to the third world, or worse.

Of course there are many practical issues involved with the laptop, and we can see at least many of them in how children are effected by the internet currently. We're very concerned about spam, security, and there's a lot of questions about what degree a child should be exposed to a larger world, one which may be predatory or just manipulative. I doubt we'll figure this out before the laptop is released, in part because the problems will probably only emerge some time after the laptop is out. But we can probably predict much of it -- as is often the case in the developing world, we'll see many of the same issues that the industrial nations have experienced, just delayed a bit.

Constructive (and especially concrete) input on these issues is very much appreciated. If I seem snippy at the top of this (and I probably am), it's only in response to a certain kind of unconstructive criticism that OLPC seems to be getting a lot of.

# Ian Bicking

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?

# Jonah

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

Hello,

really thanks you for doing work for OPLC.

I feel very concerned about helping third world countries developping. I myself spent two years in Ivory Coast and had different contact with person immersed in this reality.

Here is what I would attract your attention upon :

On a project such as OPLC I think you really got to relie upon association with a strong experience and reflexion in the domain. I mean Caritas and the like (excuse me for citing religious one but it's the one I know best). For example I feel Unicef alone is not competent enough because too far from the battle field (although their work is important too).

If you won't do, you expose yourself to be deeply deceipt. That would be a shame. For example experience shows that you always have to ask for committment of the receiver for the project to be fruictfull. If you don't ask anything for a computer (maybe small thing, maybe not money), they will end in a parrallel black market, or in the rubish ! You also have to take into account society/cultural aspects countries by countries. eg. Congo is not Ivory Coast...

Personnaly, as a first go, my prefered strategie would be to provide OPLC to as much non-governmental organizations as possible and let them bring projects with it.

Good luck.

# Alex Garel

(I also hate the devil's advocate role, as I find it intellectual dishonest; self-labelling dishonesty does not excuse dishonesty! Speculating on negative outcomes does not have to take the form of intellectual sniping.)

A person pleads "devil's advocate" in order to pose questions he's sincerely concerned about without himself becoming associated with the (perhaps controversial) view they imply. I think it's a worthwhile function.

# Jason