I am Winter, and I am sorry to say, but I think that most of the criticism directed against One Laptop Per Child here is misdirected. I have read about Nicholas Negroponte's, or OLPC's, arrogance. But Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, and Bill Gates are all arrogant, and their products range from brilliant to pathetic. Arrogance is irrelevant to consumers.
I read about the "error" of fixating on $100 price tag, but that is the price point for primary schools. A more expensive laptop simply will NOT reach 6-12 year olds. The latest fall in the dollar can make up for some of the price increase, but I do think the OLPC is right that a higher price will simply make the laptops unavailable to younger children.
I read demands for experiments, but large scale experiments on children are simply out of the question. They have not been done in the past (on any topic), and won't be done in the near future. And it is fun to discuss the technical challenges of mesh networks. But as long as we lack contributions from people who actually have any knowledge about the technical sides, this remains just speculation.
There seem now to be more options for computers in the classroom. We do see a difference. The OLPC is also targeted to young children in regions where there is a severe shortage of teachers. The other projects are targeted to high school children that have adequate teachers and facilities. This difference IS important to the number of children that can be reached.
So, I do think that there are better subjects for discussion than Negroponte's interpersonal skills and speculations about mesh technology not yet implemented. I have written about the importance of gains in productivity in teaching earlier, so I will limit myself here to the education process itself.
What do I think is important? The fundamentals of education:
- Safety (self evident)
- Interaction (that is what a classroom is for)
- Activities (Children are bad at passive learning)
- Knowledge (what is taught)
In the context of the laptop projects, safety has two aspects, physical and software security. The physical security tries to use safe (non-poisonous) materials. That has been central in the design of the XO, much less so in other laptop projects. Both the XO and Classmate have anti-theft measures build in. The OLPC has set up a comprehensive infrastructure for this. I have no idea how well the other projects do in this area.
Software security can be judged on what is protected. In MS Windows, the security tries to protect Microsoft (eg, wrt liability) and the user is on her own. In Unix-like systems, the computer is protected, or better, the owner can protect the computer. The OLPC model, Bitfrost, protects the user. For consumer systems, Bitfrost is comparable to the models used in, eg, aircraft maintenance: You should only be able to do something wrong if you really know what you are doing. All the other projects just use what is in the software they install, eg, XP.
Interaction is communication, conversation, and collaboration. Good teaching always is an extensive two-way interaction. Between teacher and student and between students.
The Sugar UI tries to be an integrated interaction platform. This extends the conventional email/Instant Messaging/VoIP model. Sugar is revolutionary in that it integrates peer group collaboration (and communication) on all levels.
For instance, sketching together is build into Sugar. MS Windows on the Classmate seems to don't go much further than a client-server model using SMB shares. For many tasks, special programs can imitate single aspects of Sugar. But for XP and Linux, there is no real integrated model.
No, using Office is not an activity. Making music, drawings, projects, and playing games and hide-and-seek are activities. Activities must make sense to the children to be useful. Teaching is making children doing activities that help them learn.
The classical model of computing is processing memory-less, flat and unstructured, information. The root example of this is are the linear text and the relational database. Sugar is built completely on structured activities and portfolios. For instance, in Sugar, all activities are collaborative by default and have a history. (on a personal note, MS Office is unfit for structured projects, as anyone who tries to write a book in it discovers)
The classical model is build around the file+application concept, where a file is an unstructured linear array of information interpreted by a single application. Attempts to let more than one application work on the same file show the "one file - one application" history so much that most users only combine the output of different applications after they finished everything.
Modern efforts to free information from the one-application disadvantages are, eg, the Open Document Format. Noteworthy, Microsoft is doing everything to prevent consumers from using ODF, and pushes its own, application bounded, model, ECMA OOXML.
I think Sugar is way beyond any other project with respect to integrating activities with interaction. All the other projects are still based on the old "one file - one application" paradigm.
Central to knowledge is the realization that it only comes from conversations (actually, discourse). Knowledge is more than information. In education, this translates into instruction by teachers, and books that explain more than inform.
In this respect, there is little difference between the laptop options. Whatever educational material you can put on one, you can put on the other. The only edge in is how good the laptops are for reading books and using educational materials. In this respect, the XO's large, direct light readable screen makes it superior.
So I think there is a lot of importance that can be discussed. It still surprises me that it is the cheapest option, the OLPC XO, that has the edge on all four important aspects in my list. In most cases, bad design has lower price as an excuse. Here I can only see haste and lack of interest as excuses.
One Laptop Per Child has its distribution model as a huge disadvantage. However, both the production and use model (mesh network) of the XO depend on large batches being made available. Individual XO's are much less useful due to the network effects.
It is these network effects that I think Intel tries to disrupt with the Classmate. And I suspect that Intel (and MS) will refuse to make the Classmate and XO integrate in any meaningful manner for precisely this reason.