Twenty-three Questions on Technology and Education

   
   
   
   
   

In 1900, the German mathematician David Hilbert posed 23 problems in mathematics that were very influential to 20th century mathematics. Subsequently, variants of this device has been used to draw attention to additional challenges in mathematics and in other disciplines. While I am no certainly no Hilbert, I use the device here to draw attention to a number of problems--perhaps not as intractable as the Riemann hypothesis--facing the intervention of technology on learning (still in draft form):

Computer Science:

(1) How does one build an efficient, scalable, affordable community network? (802.11s is not yet the solution and may never be.) How do we efficiently connect these local networks to the global network?

(2) Are there scalable architectures for software development such that one can reach towards complexity while maintaining a level of simplicity so as to not be unapproachable for the uninitiated? Can these architectures be open to local development and yet, within reason, secure to malware? Can these architectures be reasonably efficient?

(3) Is there a better distributed fully-persistent versioned file system? And a better flash file system?

(4) Are there more efficient means of internationalization and localization? We need to scale these efforts by three orders of magnitude in order to reach every corner of the planet.

(5) Can we design a more symmetric global content distribution system, so that people everywhere are on a more equal footing as both creators and consumers of content?

Engineering:

(6) Can we develop low-power computing and alternative power systems?

(7) Can we develop low-cost computing (and buck industry's predilection for marketing bigger and faster systems to no purpose)?

(8) Can we build environmentally-robust computing?

Education:

(9) Can we validate methods that lead to fluency, such as "scaffolding" in support of "learning through doing" at scale and across disciplines? (We still have many open questions about learning: How well do we understand mastery? How well do we understand understanding? How do we measure what we value instead of value what we can measure?)

(10) Is school reform possible (in our lifetimes)? Are there systemic approaches to overcoming the systemic barriers to change?

(11) How can we unleash the teacher in the classroom and in each of us?

(12) Are there new tools for collaboration, critique, and meaningful evaluation? (There lessons the education community can learn from the FOSS community.)

(13) How can we engaging the local, regional, and global communities to help? Are there any other ways to scale such that every child has an opportunity for a quality learning experience.

Economics:

(14) What are the best models for the governance of volunteer communities?

(15) Are there new economic models for schooling?

(16) What are the micro-economics of learning? Of support? Of economic development?

(17) Is it possible to validate the hypothesis that learning (coupled with freedom of thought) leads to economic development?

(18) Are there better models of FOSS economic (and technological) impact?

Social Sciences:

(19) How will we cope with a switch in the balance of knowledge and knowledge creation? How does this impact local culture and social norms?

(20) What does it mean for a child to create content from both legal and cultural perspectives?

(21) Who should pay for learning? Is it a basic human right? Is it a means to combat poverty and the other root causes of social unrest?

(22) What "shoulders of giants" should we stand on? What is it that children should learn? Are there any universals? How do children decide whom and what to believe?

(23) How can open-content programs such as Open Courseware be expanded? Should contribution to a knowledge commons be the de rigour for universities?

Learning Learning

These problems are beyond the scope of any one organization--many in fact are by their very nature global. I propose that we establish a "Learning Learning consortium" with a mission to supporting universal access to innovative quality education worldwide. It would engage universities around the world to take action. (We have many "think tanks" but far too few "action tanks".)

Two universities in Peru are giving students a semester of course credit to spend time in the field in support of their country's learning initiative. (Pairs of students--one from education and one from engineering--are spending time in schools throughout the most rural regions of the country, observing, supporting, and spreading best practices.) This is but one example of how universities can get involved. We need to invent many more ways, put them into practice, evaluate them, and share the ones that work.

Universities need to use their power to convene--bringing the best and brightest minds to these questions.

This is the third installment of "Confessions of a Fundamentalist": part 1, part 2. Last week Walter posted the third and final part of his thoughts under the title "A page from the Hilbert playbook". He graciously allowed it to be re-published here:

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10 Comments

At least for some of these questions, the answer is yes, for many a "not yet". For #1, see http://www.nextbillion.net/blogs/2008/05/06/taking-bop-strategies-to-scale-pt-2-connecting-rural-communities on market-supportable community networks with Internet access. I hope these questions all spark meaningful efforts to answer them.

Bravo, Dr. Bender! These are the questions that should have been posed at the inception of the OLPC program.

Your call for a "Learning Learning Consortium" is on target. These questions can not be answered in more than a superficial way by efforts operating under commercial constraints. The investigative work and analysis must be done in the open as a global collaborative effort, and it deserves financial support from a wide range of sources.

The work must not be tied to a product development and manufacturing timetable. Having some quantities of XO machines around will be helpful, given that they are made available for the purpose and not locked up in warehouses. Negroponte is to be given due acknowledgment for having brought them into existence - he is, as I have said before, an accomplished promoter.

But please, let us no longer have a project dominated by a "man on horseback", with legions of the faithful placing their trust in him. This is a matter for evidence, experiment, analysis and synthesis - all conducted in full view.

These are good thought-provoking questions, but I have some issues with the computer science questions:

Question #1 is important, but it's not really a computer science problem. It's about electronics and especially economics. There won't ever be a new algorithm that solves this problem.

#2 is easy: no. We can make trade-offs between complexity, flexibility and security, but we can't dramatically improve all of them simultaneously.

I'd say #3 is a yes, but it's not a useful question unless you define "better".

Question #4 is interesting, though I feel a little dissonance between the idea of scaling i18n and l10n and the idea of reaching every corner of the globe. To reach every corner implies incorporating new information about languages and cultures not previously served. This learning (or its initial incorporation into a system) is not scalable. What might be more scalable is the application of known language/culture domains to new digital content production/distribution.

I find question #5 a bit odd, and again maybe it's not really about computer science. Is it really more difficult to distribute created content than to consume it now? What could be more symmetric than wikis and blogs and peer-to-peer file systems? There may be some economic and social barriers to distribution (censorship, domain name and hosting costs, etc.), and I suppose the requirement for literacy and basic computer user abilities could be barriers that software could overcome, but those barriers apply equally to both consumers and producers. Is there really anyone in the world who is saying "I've got all this valuable digital content here but no way to distribute it"?


Here some news, a group of participants in the International Development Design Summit have been designed a low cost incubator.

The incubator uses a XO laptop for sensing medical signals. The project was presented at the MIT Media Lab Theather. The incubator will be used in Peru and manufactured locally.

Here some pics:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/aidg/2743439041/

Other project is the $12 Computer
http://www.iddsummit.org/press

Some thoughts from an educator in the trenches.
Education:

(9) Can we validate methods that lead to fluency, such as “scaffolding” in support of “learning through doing” at scale and across disciplines? (We still have many open questions about learning: How well do we understand mastery? How well do we understand understanding? How do we measure what we value instead of value what we can measure?)

I BELIEVE UDL OFFERS THE BEST PROMISE AS BOTH A TEACHING, LEARNING AND ASSESSING MODEL. However, as long as States measure criteria reference tests that are designed with readable levels above appropriate developmental levels-teachers will teach to the test as they have been bullied into.

(10) Is school reform possible (in our lifetimes)? Are there systemic approaches to overcoming the systemic barriers to change?

ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE-PROBABLE IS ANOTHER THING ALL TOGETHER. However lets remember how many children a really great teacher can reach during his/her career. Even if we cannot change the world let's not devalue the effort to try! Success breeds success. The alternative to simply do nothing is just unacceptable!

(11) How can we unleash the teacher in the classroom and in each of us?

CLASSROOM TEACHERS IN MOST CASES ARE ALONE IN THEIR CLASSROOMS. Working together, team teaching, and administrators supporting and praises their good teachers would go along way to keeping the best and the brightest engaged in a rather low paying career. To often as a teachers hearing nothing from the school principal is a good thing. Teachers are spouses, mothers, fathers and human beings.

(12) Are there new tools for collaboration, critique, and meaningful evaluation? (There lessons the education community can learn from the FOSS community.)

WIKIS BLOG AND WEB 2.0 TOOLS ARE BEING USED IN THE SCHOOLS MORE AND MORE. As a mater of econimic reality-using a free web 2.0 tool to create a timeline, store photo's create slide shows and allow students to use multimedia projects means less copy paper, toner, not having to buy 2 and 3 sets of books per grade level when you can doenloa some E books for reteachig and review. I converted the teachers in building to use wikis for their classroom newsletter, to post assignments and highlight student projects. They quickly learned that the parents would check a web site assignments much quicker than reading the child's assign,ment log.

(13) How can we engaging the local, regional, and global communities to help? Are there any other ways to scale such that every child has an opportunity for a quality learning experience.

THE UNIVERSAL QUESTION REALLY IS CAN WE MAKE IT MORE FAIR? As an urban teacher I have to say we can do much-but many situation such as war poverty abuse do exist and they will take their toil. That does not mean we do not try-it means instead we have to try harder.

As longer has their are good people working to make a difference -change will happen

Here are some answers and ideas ( I have left out entirely, answers to the questions I know nothing about. )

> (2)
> Are there scalable architectures for software development such
> that one can reach towards complexity while maintaining a level of
> simplicity so as to not be unapproachable for the uninitiated?
There are many concurrent version control systems, both FOSS and proprietary. One of the most popular in the FOSS world is 'git' written by Linus Torvalds. The page http://git.or.cz/ mentions many interfaces and related programs.

Note that while git is probably the best, it is but one of many, Mercurial, Bazaar, GNU Arch; and Monotone are other names which come to mind. Simpler and older programs from which the above are derived include: cvs; cvsup; and to some extent 'subversion';

Whether or not any of the above satisfy your "approachable for the uninitiated" criterion, I know not, because I have only dabbled with them. Doubtless a non-intimidating & simpler front-end could be made.

> Can these architectures be open to local development and yet, within reason, secure to malware?
Yes. All files under the control of 'git' are cryptographically protected. I don't know about the others.

> Can these architectures be reasonably efficient?
Yes. Some more than others.


> (3) Is there a better distributed fully-persistent versioned file system?
Probably not, but you might care to go to:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_file_systems#Distributed_file_systems
for an extensive list. As far as I am aware, versioning, as an intrinsic to the file system, is not offered by any in the list.


> (5) Can we design a more symmetric global content distribution
> system, so that people everywhere are on a more equal footing as both
> creators and consumers of content?
The use of a good distributed file system would produce this effect.
It would appear that OpenAFS could do this well because it has very advanced access control and caching mechanisms. However, whether or not it would scale to "every-child-in-the-world" size is, I'm certain, highly debateable.

> (6) Can we develop low-power computing
OLPC have already done that exceptionally successfully.

> and alternative power systems?
Super Lo-Tech is the way. The 12 volt lead acid battery is completely ubiquitous throughout the whole world. Charging using wind, or some other motive power, and a scrapped truck or car alternator is the way to go. Reserve expensive and fragile photo-voltaic panels for the really remote communities and repeaters. Drop the totally potty notion of child powered crank-handles and yo-yo gadgets. The children are in school to learn, not to be used as power sources. Don't forget the 4-diode bridge rectifier in the internal charging circuit so that crossed over power wires can't release the magic smoke. The power connector is probably the most likely single point of failure because it will be plugged and unplugged at least twice a day. So use something which is both strong and can be replaced simply. A pair of old-fashioned wire binding posts would be totally satisfactory whereas the normal co-ax connector as used on 1st. world laptops just does not cut it because the wire breaks just next to the plug. Fixing that in remote 3rd. world situations is, quite simply, completely impossible.


> (7) Can we develop low-cost computing (and buck industry’s
> predilection for marketing bigger and faster systems to no
> purpose)?
I'll just repeat that OLPC have already done that exceptionally successfully. Look at the copy cats!

> (10) Is school reform possible (in our lifetimes)?
Sure, Give all the old, staid in their ways, incompetent, and worn out teachers a golden handshake, and let them retire early.

> Are there systemic approaches to overcoming the systemic
> barriers to change?
Resistance to change is always due to fear of the unknown. If the 'employing system' provides information about the future changes together with caring support while that information is converted into knowledge, then change can be achieved.

> (14) What are the best models for the governance of volunteer
> communities?
Self controlled anarchy, with a "Benevolent Dictator for Life" hovering around in the background. Volunteer groups which bind themselves up in red tape controls usually spend an inordinate amount of time playing politics and end up going nowhere very fast. Also see: How Open Source Projects Survive Poisonous People (And You Can Too) video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-4216011961522818645


> (21) Who should pay for learning?
A combination of the learner's parents and family, supported by the wider community. Totally free State-provided education results in sending the wrong message about the value of education and learning.

> Is it a basic human right?
Absolutely!

> Is it a means to combat poverty
Yes.

> and the other root causes of social unrest?
The root cause of social unrest is overt injustice, usually the capitalistic exploitation of the vulnerable.

> (22) What “shoulders of giants” should we stand on?
Maria Montessori.

> What is it that children should learn?
The three Rs, how to care for their bodies so they can have a healthy life. The use of tools so they can earn a living. Their place in their historical culture.

> Are there any universals?
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

> How do children decide whom and what to believe?
Goodness knows, experience, but everybody learns that one pretty quickly or they don't survive.

> (1) How does one build an efficient, scalable, affordable community network? (802.11s is not yet the solution and may never be.) How do we efficiently connect these local networks to the global network?

Most likely the solution is a combination of mesh wherever necessary and access points/repeaters that form their own network wherever possible. Some access points may be connected to uplinks (land, fixed wireless or cellular links), some act as repeaters using their large antennas to communicate with other access points and omnidirectional downlink antennas to communicate with laptops.

> (3) Is there a better distributed fully-persistent versioned file system? And a better flash file system?

Distributed filesystems are impractical without extremely reliable, high-bandwidth networks -- lost packets will cause applications to hang in uninterruptible state.

There should be some synchronization mechanism that downloads local copies of directories from servers when applications request them (on startup?), backs them up on a server (after inactivity timeout or on exit from application that last modified a file), and keeps local cache within a reasonable size, not unlike a web browser cache management. The API to this may be filesystem-like, however it should be a userspace application.

No idea about flash filesystem alternatives, everything I have seen uses either jffs2 over raw flash or ext3 over some hardware-implemented wear-leveling mechanism.

> (6) Can we develop low-power computing and alternative power systems?

I don't think, it is a problem by now as far as computer hardware is concerned. Backlight LED state affects XO power consumption more than most other parameters. There are plenty of possible power sources, the problem is production and delivery, not development.

> (10) Is school reform possible (in our lifetimes)? Are there systemic approaches to overcoming the systemic barriers to change?

Please don't project the current state of US school systems onto other countries, don't approach them as if their education officials and teachers use the same approaches and operate in the same social environment as their US counterparts. They don't need a "reform", they need new methods that can fit into whatever system they have without a "reform".

If someone tried to improve US schools, they would have to implement changes with an iron fist holding results of research in developmental psychology, teacher training programs, new curricula, and a lot of pink slips. I don't think, this is going to happen any soon, at least not before US will reform some of its more prominent failures such as healthcare. Yes, I know that education is more important -- politicians don't, and without them nothing is going to happen. Other countries have their own problems, however jumping in front of their educators and yelling "You are doing it wrong!" is not necessarily the best solution there (it is in US).

> (13) How can we engaging the local, regional, and global communities to help? Are there any other ways to scale such that every child has an opportunity for a quality learning experience.

I have two recommendations:

1. Finish what you started.
2. Document everything.

You won't believe how one's credibility will improve with all kinds of communities when those two principles are followed.

> (17) Is it possible to validate the hypothesis that learning (coupled with freedom of thought) leads to economic development?

Only if you observe a relatively large community that is affected by changes in education as a whole. Otherwise you will see few lucky people who got superior education leaving for greener pastures, the rest of society deteriorating.

It also has to be observer over at least few decades of time (10-15 years for kids to study, at least 5 years for local economy to accommodate the influx of people capable of more intellectually challenging work, 5-10 years for it to propagate through society).

> (21) Who should pay for learning?

Government.

> Is it a basic human right? Is it a means to combat poverty and the other root causes of social unrest?

It's a matter of arbitrary definitions, what is or isn't a human right -- it in in Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 26), however it is not in, say, US Constitution (and this is why it's handled by the states, and not federal government, despite such arrangement being an obvious nonsense). I see it as one of the fundamental functions of any society.

> (22) What “shoulders of giants” should we stand on? What is it that children should learn?

This is the question that people already thought about when developing national curricula for countries that have ones (again, US is not among them). Studying those, and the results of their application in practice, will be helpful.

> Are there any universals?

Whatever they are, it's not relevant. You don't go into another country to indoctrinate kids into something that contradicts what is being taught there. Not unless you are a part of some CIA-funded ideological warfare program.

If the question is, "what knowledge is useful everywhere?", fundamental science, math and local language are universally accepted as the foundation of education. Political and religious ideas, though popular, neither are universal nor should be taught before basic foundation of human knowledge.

> How do children decide whom and what to believe?

They don't. Until a certain age they place all their trust into whoever is in a position of authority, and usually it's teachers. When teachers give them contradicting ideas, kids don't engage in massive amount of independent thought and choose something that is most reasonable, they either trust one whom they consider a better authority on the subject or get confused and decide to ignore the whole areas of knowledge where adults apparently can't agree what to say about. Knowledge about groups of non-crazy adults having disagreements about fundamental and supposedly easily verifiable things comes later, and ability to deal with it even later than that, often never.

> (23) How can open-content programs such as Open Courseware be expanded? Should contribution to a knowledge commons be the de rigour for universities?

Who is responsible for creation and maintenance of national curricula and public-funded textbooks in countries where those things exist? Who educates teachers? I guess, the same people and organizations can work on content used beyond those programs.

Seymour Papert asked a number of probing questions about the nature of School and the use of computers in School, which originated from Piaget's ideas about how children learn and which initially focused around a piece of software or object to think with called logo. I see Walter's list as continuing in this tradition with some updates involving issues arising from networking, the prospect and new reality of far cheaper, mobile computers, the FOSS model, the need to scale learning democratically and others.

Some of the questions strike a strong chord with me (eg. 2, 9, 10, 11, 14, 18, 22) whilst others push me in the direction of the need to expand my areas of knowledge or expertise. For me the main point is not that the questions are the best possible questions or whether the categories are correct but the meta issue that new innovative hardware / software (OLPC or Sugar as object to think with) creates the need to step forward and ask questions like this that span multiple disciplines (computer science, engineering, education, economics and social sciences). We need polymaths.

I think the stage we are at is getting the questions right as well as the answers - that walter's act of modelling such a process would bear fruit if others took up the same challenge that he has taken up, to be a grass roots intellectual spanning disciplines as well as having expertise in particular domains. In many ways this is going against the dominant trend of intellectual discourse (http://billkerr2.blogspot.com/2007/11/truth-slips-from-view-in-sea-of-post.html), so I'm grateful to Walter for giving it a try.

I wrote a blog in response to Question 22:
http://billkerr2.blogspot.com/2008/08/question-22.html

About internationalization and localization: just making it work would be a major step. In the latest joyride there's a cute control panel that let me set the messages and strings to French, but I can't change the keyboard layout, so I can't use my XO in French, to actually *write* in French. Without appropriate keyboard layouts, even a hundred more languages in the XO would be useless. A couple of months ago, I read on this forum that the killer app for the XO would be English literacy, and now I wonder if the lack of good support for other languages is a feature...

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