Other Technologies Appropriate for Children's Education


Nicholas Negroponte of OLPC

While we geeks all too-easily get wrapped up techno-lusting after the laptop part of One Laptop Per Child, every so often Nicholas Negroponte reminds us:

This project is about learning, not about laptops. And that is perhaps the hardest thing I have when I travel around the world bragging because all too long people think that this organization is selling laptops and we are indeed distributing a huge number of laptops, but the purpose is education.
Yet, if the goal is education, might there be more effective alternatives for the $30 Billion dollars OLPC wants the world to spend on computers for children? Technological alternatives, even.

Technologies that T. A. Abinandanan reminds us about in his interview on OLPC for NDTV. There, T. A. Abinandanan used his 15 nanoseconds of fame to remind us of the educational technology he seeks for every Indian child:

There is a technology appropriate for educating young children. It's called school. Not just any old school, but a school with other supporting technologies such as a classroom, a teacher, a blackboard, and yes, a toilet. An unbelievably large fraction of our children don't have access to these basic and essential technologies. We must concentrate on reaching these essential technologies to our children. This should be our priority.

We must not forget that these basic things are like bread. And we are absolutely right to say 'no' when someone comes along and says, "let them eat cake", ... and proceeds to set up a cake shop!

And now why would T. A. Abinandanan be so negative? If he read Seymour Papert's speech on USINFO, he would know why the OLPC team is selling Children Machine XO's to the developing world:

Knowledge worker medium
People ask why, why is it that you want to give computers to children in many places where they hardly even have books.

The answer is, that you're asking the wrong question. If you think about people doing knowledge work, knowledge work means anything to do with writing, or numbers, or information, all the people in the world except children have opted to use the computer as the natural medium.

They have found this is the efficient way to do knowledge work. So, if we want to bring the children of the world into the knowledge economy, knowledge society, the computer is the only means of doing that.

But what if you goal is not making new knowledge economy workers but simply providing a basic education to your populace? Or as T. A. Abinandanan explains in his questions about laptops in schools:
My fundamental complaint against the OLPC in the Indian context remains valid. Our government spends about Rs. 4,000 to 5,000 per child per year. This expenditure is roughly equivalent to seven tenths of an OLPC laptop!

In other words, the cost of a million of these little monsters is the same as educating 1.38 million kids a year. A country which has roughly 40 % of its kids out of its school system should not be wasting its resources on a fancy gadget of questionable educational value.

Whoa! Wait till T. A. Abinandanan finds out OLPC XO's are at least $208 dollars per laptop and Nicholas Negroponte hopes for $150 Billion in OLPC start-up funding.

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I'm reminded of the flamewars that arise routinely in the open-source communities where someone says "Why is everyone wasting time on implementing foo, when clearly bar is a much higher priority?". The civil answer to this is that people may honestly disagree about what is the most important focus for them and they can't always through argument convince other people to agree with them.

Nicholas Negroponte clearly believes that the most effective way for him personally right now to help the cause of education is to develop and evangelize the OLPC project. People who disagree are free to argue, but what's the point of arguing in this forum (OLPC News)?

The target audience clearly believes that the OLPC is an interesting endeavor just by virtue of being here. Posting this almost anywhere else it would seem a thoughtful impassioned argument. Posting here though strikes me as trolling for a fight.


(This is a fantastic post.)


The whole point of OLPC News is to stimulate commentary, and discussion of One Laptop Per Child program. One very relevant aspect of the discussion is OLPC's appropriateness relevant to other methods of childhood education.

Just to clarify (Patrick and I posted at the same time) -- I was referring to Wayan's original post above.

I quite enjoy the mix of opinions and topics here: from the hypercritical to fanboys; from technology to costing to education to the fun stuff. The OLPC touches on lots of topics and challenges lots of perspectives; I like the mix here.

I'm all for impassioned argument (and even, I guess, the occasion troll to keep us honest).

"There is a technology appropriate for educating young children. It's called school. Not just any old school, but a school with other supporting technologies such as a classroom, a teacher, a blackboard, and yes, a toilet. An unbelievably large fraction of our children don't have access to these basic and essential technologies."

A large proportion of children in the developing world don't go to school because 1) the government can't afford enough schools, or 2) the child is kept home during the day to help out in the fields or earn money.

One nice thing about the oplc laptop is that the child it has been lent to brings it home, and so other childen who are not in school can learn along or use it on their own, especially if how-to-read software is included. That means the oplc is, in terms of monetary expenditures, a considerably more efficient way to spread literacy and education than is spending money on more schools, teachers, etc.

This is an example of a point that almost everyone, both pro- and anti-oplc gets wrong. They assume that oplc is just going to duplicate the school experience. But in the developing world people have little and so they are very creative and resourceful with what they do have. With oplc every village will suddenly have a bunch of devices that are fabulous high-tech tools, and they will develop innumerable uses for them beyond helping instruction with children already in school.

Is there anyone who disagrees with me on this? Is there anyone who thinks that developing world villagers won't be smart enough to do this? Wayan, what do you think?

Oops, make that "olpc" not "oplc"

I'm sure that Eduardo knows my perspective on this point, but for the benefit of others I'll respond to his question.

Thoughtful critics of OLPC (which do not include a whole lot of flamers who believe that the poor are poor because they are stupid and that the fix is to make them less stupid through exposure to this Magic Box) keep referring back to the contradiction between Negroponte's rhetoric and his actions.

If this were indeed an education project then it would proceed from the basis of an analysis as to what is wrong with education in the developing world and how it could be fixed. There would be copious and detailed references to research results, there would be pilot studies under way and a coherent argument would be advanced as to how the laptop or some other system - not just a device - would function to attain the desired results. There would even be discussion and argument as to what the desired results are and how they would be measured.

All this would be required if it were in fact "an education project". But what is happening? The whole argument rests upon a few anecdotal observations by Nick, some parables by Papert, and the boundless zeal of many computer geeks who know - just know - that if only laptops with cute user interfaces could "pop out of the box" into the hands of kids everywhere the world would be a "Much, Much Better Place".

Despite the disclaimer by Nick we are indeed presented with a laptop project. It was announced as such ("the $100 laptop!"), promoted using Nick's matchless political connections (just try to get the UN Secretary General to introduce your new product before the world press) and it coasts along on a cloud of unspoken technological totemism. Walter Bender came into the project quite late in the game - leading to a suspicion that an educational veneer is being added. If it were indeed an education project someone like him would have been the first person hired.

OLPC is a system project, with all kinds of systems problems, none of which will be solved or even addressed just by turning on the money flow to factories in Taiwan. If OLPC were a commercial project it would be facing some very tough questions from the "due diligence" invetigators that show up with any attempt to secure funding. Deflecting those questions by saying (explicitly or otherwise) "what's the matter - are you against kids having laptops?" won't make the systems problems go away.

Thank heaven the people at OLPC Nepal aren't paying attention to Nick's way of doing things. They are actually constructing a curriculum for the laptop, based upon the exsiting curriculum, and are not expecting the machine to do away with the need for a curriculum. In doing so they are fitting the laptop into their educational system and are creating the chance that kids will actually benefit from the technology.

In summary - think system - don't just think device! (I say this as a device designer).

Wayan: Thanks for opening up my post here for discussion.

Patrick: My objections to OLPC are specific to one country: *India*. And, I realize that there are many richer countries which may be able to spend more on their kids' education than what India does (or, can afford). Thailand, Argentina and Brazil come to mind immediately. For these countries, I am willing to concede that OLPC may well be a good investment.

I see your point on honest disagreement between reasonable people; but I also would like to see counterarguments that would justify Indian government's diverting funds from schools to OLPC. And yes, 'diverting' is the key word in the previous sentence.

Eduardo: I'm yet to come across a credible claim that a few super-duper gadgets can replace teachers in kindergarten (or, for that matter, in graduate courses). Especially in the case of children, my understanding is that their education depends so much on the involvement of adults -- parents, relatives, neighbors, or teachers. My understanding is that computers -- even powerful ones with most exquisitely crafted software -- can only be teaching aids.

Thus, I find it strange that you think of OLPC as a complete replacement for schools and teachers. It's even more strange that you make this claim in the context of kids from families that are so poor that they send their kids to work. Do you really believe that a computer can fulfill the educational needs of these kids?

I am willing to change my opinion if you (or someone else) can point to successful experiments where teachers have been made redundant by machines.


If you ever left your real email address, I would ask you to frame your comments as a post for OLPC News. As you can see from Lee's comment, your questions are thought provoking.

Excellent post, Lee Felsestein.

That is EXACTLY the reality of this project. Hard to imagine anyone putting everything in perspective so effectively and succintly.

I hope Eduardo can present his own argument in an equally coherent and honest manner.