Binks Is Here

Commentary on the World

Technology Education

I was inspired when I saw yet another article about the OLPC project. One thing that always surprised me was that they had a computer that was custom designed for educational purposes, with an open source and purpose built operating system installed. It was designed to be able to work effectively in every possible situation, and had an emphasis on durability. It featured improvements that no other laptop, at any price, currently has (for example, a sunlight readable screen) and embraced other features that should have been far out of its price range much sooner than anyone else (for example, their flash-based hard drive).

What always bewildered me was that they had this perfect tool (or at least as perfect a laptop as has ever been developed), but they don’t sell it in developed countries.

I buy that laptops can become effective tools for education - every University student I know uses or at least has access to a laptop. Building computer skills from a young age seems like a reasonable and responsible thing to do.

All that being said, why is the OLPC project limiting its scope to developing nations? Shouldn’t we be “eating our own dogfood” and putting these tools into the classrooms of developed countries first?

If on a shoestring budget a laptop can help deliver an effective curriculum in a developing nation, in a developed and wealthy country couldn’t they free up lots of cash and resources for other programs? If you can teach all other subjects “on the cheap” under the funding formula in Ontario you could give money by the bucket-load to constantly starved programs like music or physical education. Under the funding formula in Ontario, it’s my understanding that they get $X per student, and so long as they’re teaching the curriculum that has been laid out by the government they can allocate that money however they please.

Like any new tool used for education; there needs to a process of work and learning on the teacher’s part to determine how best to integrate the system into the curriculum. To get maximum benefit, it can’t just be a “throw in” to replace a few computer labs and replace the notebook; it will need to have customized and effective software packages available that fits with the curriculum. I for one would rather see that learning and software development process happen in a developed country, so that we can take maximum advantage of it and it will allow us to bear in a large part the costs of developing that teaching methodology and educational software.

Were I a developing country; I would shun OLPC. I would think that the children in my country were being used as guinea pigs to see if laptops are any good.

Say what you will about software development houses; almost all of the big ones (and probably all of the good ones) realize that if anyone will trust their product, they need to use it in house first - Microsoft uses Powerpoint and Google uses Presentations. If they didn’t the implicit assumption would be “sure, it’s good enough for THEM; but we need to use the best software possible, so we’re using something else”.

(Right around here it gets a bit ramble-y…)

The only people that seem to be putting a significant amount of effort into the “Developed Nation Laptop” conundrum is Microsoft. They opened the “School of the Future” in Philadelphia a few years ago. Unfortunately, the best article I can find right now is basically a paraphrased press release. In essence, the attempt seems to be to create an educational environment that is entirely integrated with technology - instead of doing the exact same things they’ve always done; the idea is to do things that are much more relevant and closer linked to life skills; and doing so with a computer better models real life.

I remember vividly in grade school the yearly tradition of “speeches”. These “speeches” had absolutely no relevance to any particular topic, and they had nothing to do with how one should ACTUALLY perform a speech. It was an incredibly contrived activity. If my memory serves me; you had to jump through such “oh so realistic” hoops as being exactly 3 minutes long (marks were docked if you were off by more than 5 seconds or so) and saying your speech as it was written (deviating from the written copy was penalized).

To actually give a speech, if the professor in my university “public speaking” course was correct, you would have a goal time but that needed to be flexible, you didn’t memorize a speech (in fact, he warned about being “over practiced”) since that often contributed to a droning tone of voice. Much better was “extemporaneous speech” - you had points you wanted to get through; but you made up the exact words on the spot. A great side effect was that you were better prepared for the unexpected - someone drops a water bottle and it doesn’t throw you off your memorized track, you can just get back on the point you were on.

In middle school and highschool, I would have liked to have focused on some particular kinds of speech - how do I do a speech that educates someone? How do I do a speech that entertains someone? How do I do a speech that convinces someone? And, perhaps most importantly of all, how do I properly use educational aids, especially the now-ubiquitous PowerPoint. Everyone seems to have to present with PowerPoint at some time or another; and a lot of people do it very badly. With a little bit of effort and some technological backup; that laborious and useless grade school activity could have been a way to build an essential life skill.

The focus can’t be on the technology, and it never should be. The focus should be on education and real life skills; and in real life you WILL have access to a computer and it will probably be at home or at your desk. To ignore this reality and think that throwing in a few computer labs is “good enough” is flawed reasoning. At the same time, there needs to be work from the ground up teaching the teachers how to use these tools such that they don’t become the focus or become a distraction; but a means to a valuable end. There also needs to be work done to create the infrastructure “backdrop” to help facilitate this process for teachers and students.

If the OLPC project is to be successful; it needs to start living up to its name - one laptop, per child, wherever they are. Only once we get these devices into a first-world classroom with a properly trained teacher can we see how great the value of a computer for every student is. Maybe we’ll meet the optimistic goals; maybe it’ll be more of the same, except students will be able to take notes faster. Most importantly, we need to start eating our own dogfood - until we put in a lot of work, time, and effort we won’t be able to see how effective this addition to the curriculum is. What I don’t think we should do is try and use developing countries as an extended “beta test”.