Confessions of a Fundamentalist


For the past 30 months, I have been part of an effort to bring about a global transformation of education through the provision of connected "ultra-low-cost" laptop computers; computers that will provide an agency through which to positively impact learning, and consequently, everything that learning impacts, in particular, economic development.

This work has been about giving children who don't have the opportunity for learning that opportunity: it is about access; it is about equity; and it is about giving the next generation of children in the developing world a bright and open future. It is predicated on the fact that children lack opportunity, not capability:

Walter Bender, Fundamentalist
    1. High-quality education for every child is essential to provide an equitable and viable society
    2. A connected laptop computer is the most powerful tool we have for knowledge creation
    3. Access on a sufficient scale provides real benefits for learning because critical mass is necessary to establish a sustainable community.

None of us have been so naïve to think that a connected laptop is in itself a cure to the problems of poverty and ignorance; it is an agency through which children, their teachers, their families, and their communities can manufacture a cure. Computers are tools with which to think, sufficiently inexpensive to be used for work and play,
drawing, writing, measuring, composing, editing, mathematical thinking, programming, communication, and sustainable economic development.

"It's a learning project"

It has been asserted that I am a free and open-source (FOSS) fundamentalist and that the use of open-source software has become the project's ends instead of its means, very much to its detriment. Step One on the road to recovery is to admit your addiction: "I am a fundamentalist." There, I have said it and I feel better already. I am a fundamentalist--but in regard to what? Not software. I am a fundamentalist about learning! That is not to say I am not passionate about FOSS, but as the means, not the end, towards a "constructionist" learning model.

"Constructionism" is a theory of learning pioneered by Seymour Papert. Papert first started developing the theory as a student of Piaget in the early 1960s. Over the course of more than 40 years of research and practice, Papert and his students found that children learn best when they are in the "active role of the designer and constructor" and that this happens best in a context where the child is "consciously engaged in constructing a public entity" - something "truly meaningful" for the learner. Further, the creation process and the end product must be shared with others in order for the full effects to take root.

A false dichotomy

The computer serves as a power tool for getting new pedagogical approaches into the education system and while getting computers into the hands of more children is undoubtedly of benefit, the question remains, how does one maximize the learning that occurs? The question often is framed (in the marketplace) in terms of "teacher-centric" approach versus "child-centric." This dichotomy is a false one; while we should not be proscriptive, we should be striving for a "learning-centric" approach, where teachers mentor students as they engage with powerful ideas, "teaching less and learning more."

Another false dichotomy underlies the debate regarding proprietary vs. free and open systems. The former is often associated with the efficient delivery of learning as a service, perhaps best exemplified by those who advocate mobile phones as the most cost-effective way of putting access to knowledge into the hands of children. The latter is often characterized as having as its goal, turning children into "Linux kernel hackers." Clearly one can use proprietary software tools to engage in the construction of knowledge and just as clearly, one can use FOSS-based tools to access instructional materials. As an aside, it is not obvious that the mobile-phone form factor or the service-oriented telephone industries are conducive to constuctionist methods. When was the last time you wrote a program for your phone? (and did you write that program on your phone?) We have all sent text messages from our phones, but have you ever written an essay on your phone?

Learning is fundamental.

We should not be agnostic about learning. While we aspire to give children access to knowledge--through media such as electronic books, the world-wide web, and multimedia--we also should try to skew the odds toward children and teachers appropriating this knowledge by putting it to use and engaging in critical dialog. That is not just going to happen by itself; we have to try to make it happen by giving them tools that put them in the roles of consumer, critic, and creator within the context of a learning community. Learning is not a service--it a process of active appropriation, and the appropriate software tools can serve as a catalyst to this appropriation. We should foster the appropriation of knowledge, not just access to it. Thus we should provide tools that skew the odds towards appropriation. For example, you can give a child a book as a PDF file or in a Wiki format. In both cases, the child can read the book. But the choice of representation does make a difference: the chances that the child will add a comment to a PDF file, a read-only format, are almost zero; a Wiki page, which has built-in affordances for annotation, significantly increases the odds.

Walter Bender was President of OLPC Software and Content until his resignation in April of 2008 and he is now leading the Sugar Labs project.

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Hurrah for the Fundamentalist! As a teacher there is nothing more "fun"damental that a child's quest to learn. Providing them with the tools, opportunity and guidance is critical. As a public school teacher I can readily admit that I use only open source tools.

First of all I love the idea of teaching the children that others have used their knowledge and learning to create a tool they can use to enhance theirs.

There is also a wonderful lesson in demonstrating that not everything is bought and paid for-and some people value learning in and of itself.

Another benefit of using open source software is that students can use the same tools at home that they do at school. This allows them to continue their exploration outside the classroom.

One of the most promising aspects of open source software has been the students willingness to post their own creation and allow others use their ideas as well. (Several of my students have an entire section on Scratch and have been thrilled when other download their games!)

In a world filled with border disputes, cultural and religious differences, the ability to collaborate with others is wonderful step in building realtionships of understanding. And isn't understanding what learning is all about?

A couple of thoughts. I am drawn back to my own teaching experiences and the experiences of and sayings of Thomas Edison and Confucius. According to an MIT article Edison failed, although he had the superior technology, because "he failed at understanding just why people buy specific products; he failed at marketing."

"It is not enough to be first. It isn't enough to be best. It isn't even enough to be right. In the ideal situation a company should be all of those, but in addition, it is essential to understand why customers buy products, what they are looking for, and how their needs and perceptions drive sales. Having the best product means nothing if people won't buy it."

Confucius appears to have understood what is needed to actually influence retention and comprehension of concepts. In 450BC Confucius is reputed to have said: "Tell Me and I Will Forget; Show Me and I May Remember; Involve Me and I Will Understand."

By compiling various research sources a breakdown was arrived at that looks like this: Lecture (5%); Reading (10%); Audio Visual (20%); Demonstration (30%); Discussion group (50%); Practice by doing (75%) and Teaching others (90%). This reinforces the concept that students need to be turned into teachers.

A largely misunderstood point here is that to truly teach a subject and achieve that (90%) one needs to be able to engage that subject/concept in at least multiple (five different?) ways. This degree of knowledge comes as no surprise except to those that have never tried to teach a broad spectrum of students.

While everyone seems to have their own idea as to what and how children learn, how to go about that, and what to call it. I feel that perhaps a better label would be to set the goal of helping children develop a "prepared mind" as Louis Pasteur stated "Chance favors the prepared mind."

If you are not aware of a unique forum/wiki called Honey Bee (An experiment in people to people learning) I suggest that you take the time to take a look at it !

What is Honeybee ?

"The name Honey Bee signifies a philosophy of discourse which is authentic, accountable and fair. Honey Bee does two things which many of us don't. Honey Bee collects pollen without impoverishing the flowers and it connects flower to flower through pollination. The idea is that when we collect knowledge of people we should ensure that people don't become poorer after sharing their insights with us. Further, we should also connect one innovator with another through feed back, communication and networking in the local language. We have to share it with the providers of the knowledge what we did with the knowledge. If we generate consultancies or other sources of income by writing on people's knowledge, a fair share of this income must accrue to the providers in as explicit a manner as possible."

"the chances that the child will add a comment to a PDF file, a read-only format, are almost zero; a Wiki page, which has built-in affordances for annotation, significantly increases the odds."

I agree in principal but the current wiki softwares offer a terrible reading experience and present other problems. Firstly, they are not available off-line. You could browse an off-line wiki but then you lose the advantage of collaboration.
Off-line access is a must-have since most kids in OLPC pilots don't have Internet access at home, definitely not in Nepal.

Pdfs do not offer collaboration but I find it much more pleasant to read a 100 page pdf than a 100 linked wiki pages.

Lastly, when I read a well-known work like Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat" I want to read the original work, not my classmate's version. I would want to read my classmates' notes and annotations on the story but read Poe's original words.

The best EBook reader software out there, from what I can tell, is the Sophie ebook reader It needs a lot of support but I think it has the most potential. I would love to see Sugar Labs or OLPC somehow assist Sophie.

Hilaire Fernandes wrote a whole post on OLPC News w/ some great ideas on how to improve the XO for ebook reading:

Don't get me wrong, the wiki is a great tool but not for all purposes, particularly as an ebook reader.

A few comments on your discussion of constructionism.

Constructionism can be implemented in school setting w/ lots of well-trained progressive minded-teachers. The challenge for all of us is to make constructionism possible in a resource-constrained environment like Peru, Nepal, Africa.

Constructionism requires that you both allows kids to create meaningful stuff in a public space and an agent that exposes them to powerful ideas.

Scratch currently does the first part better than any other activity in my opinion but it doesn't have any built-in mechanisms for exposing them to powerful ideas. Kids can develop important thinking skills building their own activities in Scratch but they won't invent grammar or algebra.

Bill Kerr's article on constructionism explains this better than I can.

In short we need to develop better learning tools and supporting systems to fully realize constructionism for most of the world's kids.

@Bryan Berry:
"Lastly, when I read a well-known work like Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat" I want to read the original work, not my classmate's version. I would want to read my classmates' notes and annotations on the story but read Poe's original words."

That has been solved years ago. It is called "stand-off annotation" in the field. It means that the comments are put on an overlay over the original. And Sugar had that from the start. It has also been used to annotate/comment web pages.

The point is that by sharing comments, the "depth" and "meaning" of the story can emerge from the discussion. This is the way literature is generally appreciated, by discussing it in reading groups. The same works in other fields of learning.


Why FOSS in the OLPC/Education

First, this is about FREEDOM not money. Whether or not the software is distributed for a fee or not is not a factor for FOSS versus proprietary educational software.

I think there are several aspects of educational software that play a role here. Remember that the children will use this laptop for 12 years.

- Sharing: children must be able to share everything, from drawings to applications

- Customization: Every country, school, class, and child is different. So the software must be able to be customized extensively to fit this specific child and her situation.

- Control: schools, teachers, and children must be able to control what the software does or doesn't do. But they must also be able to take control over the future development of the software to ensure it will remain useful to them.

- Durability: both the applications and the documents must live "forever". Many documents become useless without the applications. Eg, most databases are useless without the database application and scrips. But it holds also for anything beyond mere text. A child will use her computer for up to 12 years. "Recordings" should outlive the replacements of hardware and applications should "live" forever.

- Understanding: a good craftsman/woman understands his/her tools. A good teacher or student will in the end have to understand the computer and applications. This is needed in all stages of life.
Like this old story of a shipload of cheap Vauxhall cars who were sold as taxis in West Africa (?) without spare parts. They were refitted with Opel parts when needed by local mechanics. They could do that because they understood cars. They can do the same if they understand the computer and applications.

- Expandability: if you want to go beyond root learning, the children should build NEW things. Which means, they will have to change the applications at some level. Therefore, scripting (even rudimentary) is a necessity. Somebody in the neighborhood should be able to do that.

- Exploration: children must explore their tools to really understand the world

- Content: Everybody should be able to add or change content. Many people almost always know more than few people.

Now, in theory we maybe could get all of these with closed, proprietary software. However, in the current world, only FOSS delivers these all out of the box.


@Winter, Unless I am missing something, there is nothing like the "standoff annotation" feature you mention in Sugar's built-in e-book reader or other activities. I would be happy to find out this feature has been implemented in some Sugar activities. Can you tell me which activities and which versions of those activities so I can test them out myself? Also, is this specific to a build of Sugar? I have been working w/ build 703 for about 2 months.

I agree w/ your points on sharing comments.

@Bryan Berry:
"Unless I am missing something, there is nothing like the "standoff annotation" feature you mention in Sugar's built-in e-book reader or other activities."

I am pretty sure I read about a stand-off note feature in Sugar quite from the start of the OLPC. A kind of overlay window.

However, I cannot find any reference to it anymore. So you might be right in that it has never been implemented.

I am afraid that you will have to ask Walter Bender or other (ex-)OLPC people for details.


PDF is not inherently a read-only format. True, we don't have anything like Adobe Acrobat in the FOSS world, and we should. I'm sure somebody is working on that, but without Adobe's help, of course. In the meantime, it is possible to edit PDFs in a somewhat clumsy way, only one page at a time, in the Inkscape Vector Graphics Editor. Well, this too is FOSS, and can be greatly improved when people see a reason to do so. Or you can run the pdftotext utility from the command line, and reformat the text in Write.

The PDF/Wiki comparison was intended as an illustration of how the choice of tools and affordances can impact behavior. That doesn't mean to say that PDFs cannot be made read/write or that Wikis are all equal in terms of their readability or their provisions for inline or standoff annotations. Presumably all these tools will improve over time--with your help.

Okay, sorry, but read/write collaborative PDF is utter crap and a waste of time. PDF is best as an archival format and should have always stayed that way. Other document formats do read/write and collaboration better and have for years. Sugar activities have support for many of them (Wiki software and XML derived formats like Abiword and ODF).

What I would like is for the PDF annotations feature to integrate cleanly with other file formats so perfect, archival PDFs can be used with wikis and ODF. That way, PDFs can be useful while staying true to what the format is good for. Otherwise, ebooks that don't have strict layout requirements should be delivered as .epub (yes, another XML format).

Bryan Berry:
"Constructionism requires that you both allows kids to create meaningful stuff in a public space and an agent that exposes them to powerful ideas.

Scratch currently does the first part better than any other activity in my opinion but it doesn't have any built-in mechanisms for exposing them to powerful ideas. Kids can develop important thinking skills building their own activities in Scratch but they won't invent grammar or algebra"

Yes indeed. And grammar and algebra were invented before computers. Some things (eg.dynamic simulations) can be better represented (and built) using Scratch, etoys, etc. One of the original arguments for logo was that it enables a child accessible version of calculus: repeat 360[fd 1 rt 1], a claim that ought to be discussed more.

Books can be both cheaply distributed (better economics than hard copy) and there is the additional potential advantage of better learning through annotations, using digital media.

We are still left with the question of what constitutes "powerful ideas" (a much used phrase, what does it really mean?) and how best to teach them (what sort of things do children learn unaided, with peers and what sort of things require a teacher - used in the sense of someone who knows more)

I think alan kay's ideas on non universals are an important starting point here

"confessions of a fundamentalist" is a great title for a talk but when I googled it I came up with references to Ahmadinejad, which made me think it through a bit more ;-)

Fundamentalist = the one true way
Agnostic = non believer

Walter says he is a fundamentalist about learning (not FOSS) and the best learning theory is constructionism, which is described

I still think it's better to be agnostic about learning theory and to cherry pick ideas from different theories - whilst agreeing that constructionism, as explained by Papert, is a really good one

Learning theory is still evolving, there is no agreement about the best learning theory. I like Walter's phrase "skew the odds" and agree it would be good to skew the odds more in a constructionist direction - but there are some circumstances where behaviourism, for example, might be appropriate (as well as there being other learning theories that stress the active role of the learner, eg. enactivism, activity theory to name a couple off the top of my head).

As I see it here the difficulty arises from using the constructionist word as shorthand in an imperfect world where many stop reading after the first 400 words ...
David Weinberger was at Walter's talk, some items from his blog that don't appear in Walter's article here:

Walter has 23 problems facing people interested in technology and learning. He’s going to blog them. They include: How can we make the damn network work? Create malleable code that doesn’t turn into malware? How to get localization/internationalization tools that are two orders of magnitude better? How do we a better job of using more wisely a very scarce resource: power? Does constructivism scale? We need better tools to introduce change. How to transplant the culture of freedom and critique from computer science into education? Economic challenges. Research correlating learning and economic development?

Q&A at the end (extract):

[weinberger] Is the constructionist theory cross-cultural?
A: Constructionism is built on first principles that are not culturally dependent. It’s no more culturally tied than Piaget. What children love — what matters to them — is culturally dependent. And what’s the role of the teacher? The teacher is unleashed. They have a lot more fun.

[clippinger] Constructionism has implications for authority, which have dramatic cultural implications.
A: The finance minister is always interested because they see that that’s how they’re going to get entrepreneurs.

[roger] Have the proprietary software companies gotten there first? How does that play out?
A: That will be one of the big social-economic battles over the next 20-30 years. The ones who go with Open Source will do better.