Another Anti OLPC blog post

In Appropriate Technology, International Development, Technology on May 6, 2007 at 5:54 am

I really don’t want this to be an anti One-Laptop-Per-Child project blog… but I read this article in todays NYT and couldn’t help but think about it:
Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops – New York Times

Apparently, having laptops issued one to a student in American schools, who have access to some of the best technology, with students who actually have previous experience with this technology, hasn’t worked as well as had been expected.

The article brings up one good point – the educational rubric hasn’t caught up to the digital age; having students really use wirelessly connected and networked laptops for their intended purpose – collaborating and exploring their creativity – was taking them away from concentrating on passing outmoded, standardized tests.

What we should take away from this, in relation to the OLPC endeavor… is what I have mentioned in previous blog posts – if you introduce a new technology or development intervention, you have to be aware of it’s wider systemic effects. I’ve come to realize that ecosystems are not just something related to the physical environment, but the social and political environment as well.

I’m in agreement with the sentiments of the OLPC project, and I love the idea of getting students the best technology possible. But with regards to what the NYT article highlights – the systemic effects of the intervention were not considered. Of course some the kids were going to IM each other and look at porn… they’re teenagers for gods sake…

A better plan would have been for the school to create a much more controlled educational environment that is more hardwired to the classroom – and give all the students their own, private flash-drives or iPods. The iPods could be specially adapted to hold the students entire scholastic identity, basically being their boot drive for whatever dumb computer terminal they log into. That way they could take their work home to their home computers – which should be provided to low-income people at subsidized rates and free municipal WiFi access. The school could then maintain their secure network and the students wouldn’t just be distractedly surfing the internet.

Even as a relatively responsible 33 year old grad student, I find that my always on laptop can be an enormous distraction. I find myself looking things up constantly, then getting sucked into reading the news or instant messaging with my friends. My workflow is a stream of short bursts; responses interrupting my creative efforts. My last blog post was done from a class, I’m sorry to admit. The professor structured class in the traditional, passive listening manner that these new technologies were designed to eliminate.

But then again, I have other professors who depend on us bringing our wirelessly connected laptops to class to take advantage of the collaborative and enabling environment they were intended for. I’ve had class meetings using Skype where we were spread out all over the world. It’s completely amazing and fun.

So there is hope for the OLPC project, but like I said the systemic effects of this intervention really need to be considered. The OLPC coordinators should read this NYT article carefully so they don’t end up with a completely busted project.


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