Microsoft Office is Practical, Not Criminal, in Education

   
   
   
   
   
Nicholas Negroponte OLPC
Nicholas Negroponte of OLPC

On of the more interesting quotes in the AP article on OLPC's Sugar UI, is one by Nicholas Negroponte about Microsoft Office training in the developing world:

"In fact, one of the saddest but most common conditions in elementary school computer labs (when they exist in the developing world), is the children are being trained to use Word, Excel and PowerPoint," Negroponte wrote in an e-mail interview. "I consider that criminal, because children should be making things, communicating, exploring, sharing, not running office automation tools."
I find it interesting because those very students and their parents do not see learning Microsoft Office as criminal. No, they see it as a great opportunity. A wonderful experience that will help the students in one very important way: it will get them a job.

Or as Ethan Zuckerman's says in "Ubuntu, and the ongoing difficulty of marketing free beer":

The obstacles to adoption of open source software in the developing world are myriad. Yes, there are countries like Brazil and China that are making governmental investments in open source. And there are organizations like the Shuttleworth Foundation - main sponsors of Ubuntu - who work hard to make open source software available and useful.

But there are lots of other countries where the reason to get a computer is so that you can develop marketable skills so you can get a good job with an NGO or a branch of government… which means you need to learn the software your potential employer uses… which ain’t Gimp.

For better or worse, today that is Microsoft Office. That is what employers know. That is what employers ask for in their employees. That is what students learn to become employed. Microsoft Office, Windows, and Windows-compliant software skills.

olpc Windows XP
Just say "No" to XP clones

Now don't get me wrong. I am no fan of Microsoft, and I couldn't think of a worse misappropriation of the Children's Machine XO than to make OLPC XO yet another Windows clone. But then again, not teaching a valuable skill that may be the difference between feeding your (extended) family or unemployment because of a philosophical difference, is only a moral dilemma to the rich.

For the people I know in poor countries, they do not care if the user interface is Windows, Ubuntu, or Sugar no matter how open the source code or collaborative the design. They may not want to "learn learning"; they will want to learn practical skills that will get them a job.

Even Dr. Negroponte understands this - he added the Secure Digital (SD) slot just for Microsoft. His quote:

"We put in an SD slot in the machine just for Bill. We didn't need it but the OLPC machines are at Microsoft right now, getting Windows put on them."
And that openness is what we should all keep in mind: The goal is increasing national educational, economic, social development on a global scale, using practical and appropriate technology. Not investing in technology for technology's sake, blinded by ideology.

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18 Comments

"they see it as a great opportunity. A wonderful experience that will help the students in one very important way: it will get them a job."

I really don't see this. Word is a gui, menu-driven word processing program, and most of the people who use it as part of their employment use only its simpliest features. Anyone who has learned to use any gui-based computer, including olpc, could pick up Word in a day or two.

One need not believe in all of Ray Kurzweil's ideas ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accelerating_change ) to buy into the commonsense notion that inventors ought to design for the future, the world their product will be deployed in, not the world of today.

If you haven't yet watched Moglen's Plone Keynote address where he grapples with MS, OLPC, and the relationship of Free Software to the Social Justice movement, it is a must see - http://www.worldchanging.com/archives//005626.html

While NN speaks hyperbolically, his perspective is valid. As architects, should we be aspiring towards compromises, or visionary ideas? For more on this style of analysis, check out my paper on Plato and the Laptop ( http://alchemicalmusings.org/2006/11/03/plato-and-the-laptop/ )

Finally, one large semantic divide I continue to encounter in this project is the question of education. What Educates? Some of us are talking education as that which helps someone perform better on a standardized exam or get a better job, and others seem to have a more generic sense of education, knowing oneself and knowledge of the Good. Which do you think this project should aspire towards?

When a emerging market employer is looking through a few hundred resumes, he will put the applicants with Microsoft Office skills in the short list.

The reality is that no one in HR takes the time to think "Anyone who has learned to use any gui-based computer, including olpc, could pick up Word in a day or two." They want to see job-ready skills fully formed before hiring.

I think the concept of "knowing oneself and knowledge of the Good" is a luxury of those children who already have a family reaching the higher levels of Maslow's needs - or at least full, lucrative employment.

That would be children in rich-country schools, not the children the XO targets. Children in difficult environments should be focused on education that increases opportunities for gainful employment.

Note that I do not say the OLPC should run Windows - far from it - but I do make the point that Windows is a valid employment skill.

I can easily see a world where children in elementary school start on OLPC's but transfer to "adult" computers in secondary school. Those adult computers should run what businesses require - be that Windows, Linux, Apple or some still in development alternative.

>> When a emerging market employer is looking through a few hundred resumes, he will put the applicants with Microsoft Office skills in the short list.

Perhaps today. But with millions of these deployed, in three or four years will that still be the case? And by then, how much more important might Google WebApps (and web-based collaborative authoring in general) be than MS Word?

Now that's a dream that we can both ascribe to, Jonah.

wayan,
"When a emerging market employer is looking through a few hundred resumes, he will put the applicants with Microsoft Office skills in the short list."

Oh come on. For one thing, the great majority of the developing world students olpc is aimed at are not going to be applying for office jobs. That is because developing countries don't have many such jobs, and those that exist mostly go to college graduates, who can study MS software while there.

And if a non-college graduate wants to apply for an office job, he or she could just spend a few days learning Word (or OpenOffice, which functions almost identically) on a friend's computer.

Wayan, you are losing track of the issue here, which is whether students should forgo Sugar et al so that they could spend years learning MS software, when it takes only a few days to get up to normal competency.

Eduardo,

Let's review. I say "I couldn't think of a worse misappropriation of the Children's Machine XO than to make OLPC XO yet another Windows clone." So that would mean I do not want to see XP on the XO.

But I do see why people would learn MS Office - just like you do - and that's my point. MS Office is relevant in education. Not on the XO but for secondary and post-secondary students looking for employment in today's developing world marketplace.

And while office jobs may not be common, they are very very desirable.

The OLPC laptop is not a "learn to compute" teaching aid.
It is in fact much like a blank sheet of paper waiting for a student to write on it. It is a book waiting to be read. It is the Philosophers of the centuries waiting to enlighten and entice. It is a guide to good farming pratice. It is a bicycle for the mind.
It is a window on the World.

If elementary level students are taught to use Microsoft Office applications then it is criminal.
I agree with Nick.

wayan,

Heck, I hate to admit it, but you're right. I should have read you original post more carefully.

I really don't see this. Word is a gui, menu-driven word processing program, and most of the people who use it as part of their employment use only its simpliest features. Anyone who has learned to use any gui-based computer, including olpc, could pick up Word in a day or two.

If office jobs aren't plentiful as you agree, then maybe an individual child about to enter the job market would benefit from knowing these details, but does it do anybody any good for there to be a huge army of young adults who won't get an office job (after all, only so many can go work at these non-plentiful jobs), but know details of a soon-to-be-obsolete program? Wouldn't it make more sense to keep the few "MS Office" courses, but teach the vast majority of children more useful skills?

Re Negroponte's comment:

>>>"In fact, one of the saddest but most common conditions in elementary school computer labs (when they exist in the developing world), is the children are being trained to use Word, Excel and PowerPoint," Negroponte wrote in an e-mail interview. "I consider that criminal, because children should be making things, communicating, exploring, sharing, not running office automation tools.">>>

The only REALLY criminal thing here is Negroponte's CONSTANT stream of lies and misleading assertions being passed as facts. Let me elaborate:

Yes, it is true that elementary school children are being taught Word and Powerpoint (I don't have an evidence about Excel). What is misleading is his DELIBERATE omission when he implies this only happens in the developing world. I got news for him and every other blind person: it is happening in the USA RIGHT NOW. Any person with children in USA elementary schools can easily verify it. Just visit your neighborhood school.

Now comes the lie (even Wayan has fallen for the trap): kids are not being trained on " running office automation tools". Kids are being given the opportunity to use software to create, communicate, explore, share, etc.

Kids WRITE their own stories on MS Word because it is the most widely deployed application for the task of writing a little story with pics (which is all kids do). Has Negroponte ever even bothered to look at what kids actually do? Has he ever seen his kids do homework???

Kids can't use Notepad, because they can't insert pics. The can use most other software because most people will not have it in their own computer. And even if the "other" software can ouput Word documents, most people like using/buying "mainstream" products ("mainstream" meaning "what everybody has").

In short, kids are NOT being taught MS products with the intention of making them MS products experts. Far from that. Kids are being given minimal training on how to use SOME MS products to enhance their school work. That's all.

It's quite silly to even discuss whether an adult will eventually get a job based on having written a little story with MS Word when he/she was 8 or 10 years old.

Want to know what's REALLY criminal: selling this empty dream of "learn learning" to people who can't afford being scammed once more.


*THAT* is criminal.

Thanks Troy for your informed opinion on what kids are doing in US schools. I'm sure many readers of this site feel better knowing that US elementary school children are being taught Word and Powerpoint.

I was originally under the impression that many US school children did not in fact have access to computers in school. I also believed that in some lucky schools they did have computer labs (a good friend was an IT tech in his old school after graduating).

It now seems that the basic 'neighborhood school' have computers. It also would seem that with so many children writing stories and inserting pictures that the literacy rate in US schools should be good. Certainly better that what figures would suggest.

I imagine then that the US education system is ticking along nicely with good attendance records and happy children. Someone must be doing a good job.

Wake up and smell the students!

The current system of pumping students full of answers so they can pass exams is not the answer. Thats not learning. You dont give people the tools for the future by giving them answers.

You give them the ability to know what questions to ask. I'm certain the OLPC will accomplish that.

Do 6-year olds really need to learn Word? They will easily learn this in a few weeks when they are 16. So why not give 6-year olds something more creative and intuitive.

BTW, the Microsoft Office Suite would cost more than the whole laptop, even if you consider the student version.

I fully agree with Negroponte.

What's criminal is the belief that learning how to use Microsoft Office products is educational and of benefit to children. It is simply a software tool which potentially could be used to facilitate creative expression, but is not positioned as such to children in these learning environments. A tool like Notepad or TextEdit would be a better tool, allowing students to focus on what's important, writing down their thoughts and ideas to share with educators and with others, not to get hung up with features and aspects of the software tool that distract from getting ideas out.

Let's seedling. I say "I couldn't desire of a worse conversion of the Children's Machine XO unless to make OLPC XO yet renewed Windows mimeo." So that would ascetic I do not want to see XP on the XO.

But I do see why people would learn MS commissariat - authorized peaceable you do - and that's my point. MS caution is belonging in education. Not on the XO but for accessory and post-duple students looking for drudgery in today's developing ocean marketplace.

And while Mass jobs may not be artificial turf, management are very very agreeable.

@ Eduardo. Sorry to be so blunt about it, but I don't think you really understand what you're dealing with in Developing countries. Picking it up in a day or two is not really what happens over here. People take a long time to learn. See, a computer is a whole new thing for them. It's not just showing them how to type and make their letters bold, it's also showing them how to turn the thing on, how to move the mouse around, how to create folders etc. This is a different level, and because of that the truth is that the learning will help them get a job (even though I prefer Ubuntu, the argument in the article is totally true).

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