Jesuits and OLPC Laptops: It's Education First, Religion Second

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The recent pitch given by Negroponte at the Jesuits headquarters, might mean a lot more than just making the XO a e-Bible reader. The Catholic News Service reported:

"Vatican officials, ambassadors to the Vatican, and representatives of the world's religious orders were among the more than 200 people attending an Oct. 29 conference highlighting the One Laptop Per Child initiative. The conference was sponsored by the communications office of Rome's Jesuit headquarters and two commissions of the international organization of superiors general of religious orders."
The connection should not be as unexpected as it might sound. The Jesuits have, since their inception, sponsored schools across the globe, and involved in missions in the poorest corners of the world. Religious orders have for long known that education is a key to the survival of their beliefs onto the next generation.

Education First

I am Alexandre Van de Sande, an interaction designer and a shameless OLPC fan-boy. And as an Agnostic raised inside an Augustinian School I can attest: it's about education first, Christianizing later. The age of Jesuits roaming the world converting natives is over, and "education first" is the only win-win strategy. Religion sponsored education has already graduated millions of children worldwide and for most part this does mean quality education with real science: the phenomena of creationism bogus infiltrating some north American conservative schools tends to be an exception to the rule, and one can only hope that it can be entirely left out of this debate.

Also the Society of Jesus order (as they are known in the Catholic Church) have historically been early adopters of advanced ideas before the rest of the Roman Catholic Church. In the 17th century they were the first to try to debate in scientific - not religious - grounds with Galileo on the phenomena of Sunspots, and in the 19th century South America they were among the first Europeans to defend the native Americans from colonial slavery.

Although the Vatican is a country, a Pope-sponsored OLPC program is more akin to a NGO jumping in the band wagon, which shows one positive consequence of reducing minimal laptop orders to 10,000, 1,000 or 100. As such they have many advantages in place that the OLPC organization might never have: a far reaching distribution network around the world, an established curriculum, teaching infrastructure and perhaps the most important, experience in continuous fundraising. The XO laptop would do what it does best: be just another piece of the education puzzle, not a ready made education revolution in a box.

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Sugarized Local Religions

Beyond the dangers of proselytization, Sugar can be very powerful to local religion and cultures. It's focus on the local network first and the internet later helps keeping the child under the sphere of influence of their own community, and the camera and mic can be used to record and archive traditional prayers and rituals.

Finally there's a final twist: One thing is to build an interface that is usable by children - kids can learn anything they put their minds to - but another completely different is an interface that can be used by adults with a more traditional mindset.

I believe not only that Sugar can hold to the task but I would go further and say that because of some of it basic principles - like the abandonment of the office desktop metaphor, the more humanized icons and the tablet that allows handwriting in any alphabet - that the OLPC will benefit immensely from their feedback. The XO doesn't require much learning or wasted hours of installing a de-installing applications, cleaning the system and learning a whole new tech vocabulary.

Because it's an open platform, it can be very easily adapted to user's needs. The humans using it won't need to change drastically the way they think - their culture - while the machine is able to be adapted to their lifestyle. We want the OLPC generation to use computers to learn about the world around them, understand their own history and reinforce their own identities, not create a new generation of western computer geeks.

Those last two points were the theme of my graduation thesis about interaction design, which became the short video documentary below:


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The XO laptop would do what it does best: be just another piece of the education puzzle, not a ready made education revolution in a box.

Amen to that, brother! The whole bit about "we don't have to train the teachers, the kids will figure out what to do" is a trainwreck waiting to happen. Kids like to play, that's their nature. Sure, some will teach themselves to program but most will just play. Unless the curriculum and the XO are tightly integrated most XOs will end up in 1st world countries via the black/grey market.

Not sure who has editing powers for the site, but that "Suarized Local Religions" could really use a "g" :)


Very interesting, the article and the video. I really believe that communications technologies, and mainly mobile devices are excellent tools for communicating local cultures to the world and to learn from foreign cultures, by interacting.

In Uruguay we are having an excellent experience on that point through children's blogs made with XO laptops.

I work at a Jesuit university (Santa Clara U in California). The president, Father Paul Locatelli, was recently tapped by Rome to head the association of Jesuit colleges and universities around the world.

A group had a meeting at Creighton Univ in Nebraska earlier this month. There is a project in very early planning stages called The Messina Commons to deliver courses online to underserved around the world. As you can imagine there are a lot of barriers to overcome aside from designing the courses: electricity, connectivity, and a populace that does not own or use computers (well, perhaps at a telecenter or library or cybercafe) but might own a phone that can accept SMS.

Perhaps the XO can play a role in this project. I'll keep the group informed if I hear more.

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