Tuesday, January 1, 2008

OLPC skepticism/hope

Early last month, Aaron Schultz explored some of the skepticism towards the OLPC project. On Sunday, Aaron Barlow was skeptical of the value of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative, Nicholas Negroponte's vision of putting a cheap, energy-efficient computer in the hands of millions of children worldwide. Aaron's not alone. Business Week's Bruce Nussbaum has gotten his digs into OLPC (twice, in September and December), as did the Putting People First blog and Alexandre Enkerli. While there are some dissenting views from an anthropological perspective, and while one of the Red Hat programmers on the project had a much more sophisticated view of technology's use context, I can't deny some of the more extreme versions of patronizing/ignorant attitudes I've seen, either examples from within the project (one naive view of one of the Abiword/Write (word-processor) app programmers) or by some of the enthusiasts at OLPC Forum (see this thread on the software being "child-centered").

So what perspectives can social foundations offer OLPC and its green-and-white XO (the name of their machine)? Negroponte's utopian vision is that inexpensive laptops will revolutionize the education of children in poorer countries. There are two lines of criticism that overlap. One relies on the history of education (and the history and sociology of technology), while the other from the world of comparative education. In both cases, the point is similar: technology does not exist outside a social and institutional context.

As an historian, I'd note that Negroponte's argument is a fairly standard educational technology fairytale, perhaps the 21st century equivalent of Thomas Edison's claim that movies would eliminate the need for textbooks. In Teachers and Machines, Larry Cuban points out how in the U.S., technology evangelists have often ignored the existing culture of schools as organizations. It's one of the themes he and David Tyack explored in Tinkering toward Utopia (where they discuss computers explicitly, if briefly), and the most vivid example he uses is a geography class that's in a plane, and the teacher is in the front of the cabin in a fairly standard lecturing style with student desks arrayed in rows, just as if they were in a standard school. No one is looking out the window at the ground below.

Thus, I agree with Bruce Nussbaum: the omission of teachers from the picture is deeply troubling and shows too little thought about the XO operating within a school context. That doesn't necessarily sink the project entirely, but it's discomforting. The "child-centered" ideology so often tossed around is abstracted from a social context, and in this case suggests too little thought about relationships between children and adults.

As Larry Cuban has noted several times, computers hold the promise of being different from other technologies. As flexible tools, they are closer to the flexible tools that are now considered semi-automatic in U.S. schools—chalkboards or dry-erase boards, or overhead projectors. And there is some evidence that computers are making that transition, as some teachers look to computers for the connections to the internet and the wider world rather than as drill machines or programming boxes. But technology still exists in a social context, as historians and sociologists of technology would tell us. Those contexts vary from country to country, and the bravado of OLPC may ignore the local nature of adaptations and use.

Comparative education researchers and anthropologists would point out the long history of top-down efforts at educating children in poor and moderately-poor countries, paralleling all sorts of humanitarian efforts that ignore the realities on the ground, the local context. Read Putting People First's views on culture and technology, or listen to the lessons Randy Martin describes from his efforts at Mercy Corps USA, to get a sense of how that context can change and how important it is to consider what educators and communities in an individual country think is needed from their perspectives. Thus, Aaron Barlow's criticism of OLPC for a top-down set of decisions about what the developers thought must be needed in poor countries. Or Alexandre Enkeril's suggestion that maybe a better project would be One Cellphone Per Child.

There's another blind spot in OLPC, the assumption that there is a device that can be aimed at a hypothetical lowest-common denominator of poor countries. This has driven the creation of a fairly ingenious device that requires little power, that is sealed against the elements, and that has a bimodal display that can be used in the dark and in bright sunlight. Yet that model oversimplifies both the potential market for computing devices and also misunderstands the last 40 years of educational history worldwide. OLPC is attributing the loss of the bid for the first 150K machines in Brazil to Brazil's national protectionist policy to nurture its IT industry. That shouldn't surprise us, that countries poorer than the U.S. are nonetheless ambitious enough to want to build its own industry. The pilot program whetted the country's appetite... but not necessarily for the XO, or at least not just to provide computers to schoolchildren.

The educational system in a country is also relevant. In many of those countries with established primary education systems, the OLPC's first machine is going to look inappropriate, for multiple reasons. While I disagree in some important theoretical respects with John Meyer, Aaron Benavot, and others who have argued that we've witnessed the worldwide diffusion of a system of education, it is true that there are plenty of countries where at least primary education is well established. Those are going to be the best markets for the XO, yet they may not be satisfied with it. Apparently one of the reasons for Nigeria's selection of the Classmate PC is the ability to integrate it into the country's curriculum planning (or maybe integrate the national curriculum into content loaded onto the machines). In addition, the XO truly is a machine built for small children, hard to use in secondary schools.

And yet I was optimistic enough to pop for the give-one, get-one program, and we've had an XO in our house for two weeks. I think there is a chance for the machine (and the project) to be much more than a patronizing waste, for a few reasons. First, the three-year lead-time from Negroponte's proposal to the first machines, plus the existence of competition from both the Classmate PC and national IT industries, has allowed countries the opportunity to decide if they really want the XO, something else, or nothing in terms of computers (as India apparently has decided). Brazil popped for the 150,000-machine bid because President Lula da Silva had committed to closing the digital divide early in his term and committed his country to open-source software to reduce expenses. Countries that are choosing the XO are doing so with more information, in a competitive environment.

Second, the smaller roll-out will give the OLPC group the opportunity to do what they evidently failed to do: Work in local contexts to understand local needs. If OLPC had succeeded in gaining millions of orders by the end of 2006, the architecture would have been set in stone for all of those machines. Now, there's a chance for the OLPC staff and allies to modify, adjust, and react. And a chance for the concerns of individual communities to be heard.

Third, the smaller roll-out gives some of the technology ideas to spread to other machines. In particular, the lower-power design and the dual-display screen are significant achievements that should be licensed to commercial firms. (In some ways, OLPC could have succeeded without nearly as much acrimony if they had done as the Rocky Mountain Institute has and consulted with commercial manufacturers instead of trying to produce a machine.) If Enkerli is right and cell phones are going to be better choices, the cell phones can still use dual-display technology so they can be read in sunlight.

Finally, the OLPC idea will have social spin-offs as well as technological ones, and while I'd like to be able to look around corners on this one, I can imagine one social consequence: greater internet access for teachers, who have generally been ignored in all the OLPC hype. Even in countries with rigid curricula, giving teachers internet access will change their ability to learn as adult intellectuals. And that's a heady idea.

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