Over the weekend I had some time to (re-)read many of the comments and discussions that have been taking place here on OLPC News in the past days and weeks. One recurring theme that you can basically find in almost all discussions is the constructivism - good vs. bad debate.
And while many of the contributions are very interesting I have to admit that I sometimes get sick of seeing yet another argument for one side or the other, plus I personally feel that we're sometimes getting very close to name-calling and personal insults at the moment. Having said that I started wondering what the underlying cause of all these debates could be.
Plus I suddenly asked myself why there are so many contradicting views on the issue, with some people claiming constructivism is the best thing since sliced bread while others are saying that the close connection between OLPC and constructivism is the biggest flaw of the whole project. The next step was the question of whether constructivism was really all that important and if the topic isn't overly stressed and discussed by too many people who could be doing so many other things.
What it boils down to - at least for me - is the question of whether the X0-1 works, as a tool or vehicle for driving education that is, without constructivism and Squeak, eToys, etc.? I'm going to make it quick and painless and say that *yes* I do believe that the X0-1 laptop is an incredible tool for educating children in developing countries even if it comes without any of the constructivist approaches and learning activities.
Now, I know that at this very moment brains will have processed this information and started coming up with a 1001 arguments why I could be right or wrong. Right now, I can already see the 10+ comments by all the regular contributors here discussing this sentence. But before you finish your elaborations please bear with me and let me explain why I think the X0 minus constructivism is still a great thing.
The first aspect that I want to mention is that I personally believe that constructivism and the X0-1 aren't as closely tied together as some people seem to think. I'd even go as far as saying that constructivism is a "built-to-order" option that the potential buyers (governments in this case) can simply select when placing their order at OLPC and Quanta Computers.
The people behind OLPC have mentioned that while they would obviously love to see Sugar and other alternative and constructivist activities running on the XOs there's really nothing stopping anyone from installing Fedeora Core, Ubuntu (Edubuntu maybe) or even Windows XP Starter Edition on the machines. They really do believe in in operating system choice. So if the very people working on the project think that it's fine for competing solutions to be installed on the X0 then who is going to argue against that?
Say a country wants to order 500.000 laptops, is anyone going to stop them from purchasing a Windows (I'm mainly going to be using Windows XP in this argument, not only because it makes for an easy target but also because at first sight it's pretty much the opposite of a constructivist and alternative approach) based version? No. Even if OLPC had decided to lock Microsoft out of their machines then countries would simply turn towards Quanta's CL2 alternative which can be purchased in different hardware- and software-configurations.
Now the next obvious point is whether the combination of an X0-1 and the Windows XP Starter Edition will be more, equally or less effective as an education tool for children in developing countries than the X0-1 and Sugar solution. The truth is that nobody knows that at this point because there haven't been any studies on the subject matter.
There haven't even been any conclusive and serious trial-runs with either of these setups so in my opinion it's simply not possible to make a serious judgment on this subject. We can discuss our opinions for all we want, some people might even submit links to conclusive evidence to support their point-of-view but at the end of the night we have to accept that this is somewhat of an experiment and it's too early to make any final calls. What we can however do is draw somewhat of a quick'n'dirty comparison between these two possible solutions and see whether there any significant differences.
Both setups would allow children to do basic things like write texts, browse the web, paint images and similar activities. Online learning platforms such as Moodle are obviously also available on both platforms. But what about more alternative software solutions such as Squeak which has been talked about a lot by the OLPC folks? Well, it turns out it's also available for the Windows platform. That basically means that even a "hardcore" constructivist educational approach could work on an X0-1 shipped with the Windows XP Starter Edition plus Squeak.
What I'm really trying to say here is that I think some people are taking the above mentioned constructivism - good vs. bad debate too far, especially when it comes to the OLPC project. Some seem to think that if the X0-1 doesn't quickly and radically revolutionize education in developing nations then the whole project is a failure. Personally I'm more inclined to believe that giving thousands of children (and their families, neighbours, etc.) access to a modern ICT infrastructure will improve their chances of getting a good education and improving their lives in the long run. "giving" in this context includes implementation, difference finance options and other things we've previously discussed here, it doesn't necessarily include constructivism.
Is it going to be the silver bullet? No. Do some of the alternative (constructivist) education approaches and software tools increase the chances of the project being a success (however you want to define that word)? I honestly don't know.
Is it up to me and you to decide whether X0-1s come with or without constructivism? No. Is it a decision by (mostly) elected government officials of sovereign states who will have to answer to their voters on why they spent a big chunk of money on the project that may or may not have the desired or expected outcome? Yes. End of story.