Constructivism & X0-1: The good, the bad or the ugly

   
   
   
   
   

Happy with Constructivism?

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.


Wayan says: No XP on OLPC!!

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.

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13 Comments

A quick question: How are governments going to decide what is best for them? Do they have to run their own tests? Do they need to buy a lot of XOs and then try the different options you mention?

"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."

Actually, we do know something.

We know that XP is unstable and insecure. If the subjects cannot even handle paswords, their machines should no be allowed on the internet.

We also know that XP is extremely slow on this type of hardware.

We also know from experience that Linux can be configurated out of the box much more secure and stable. Using virtualization, bitfrost's design does handle everything currently known to affect computer security. XP doesn't even handle the known threats. Furthermore, XP is unable to handle mesh networks.

Linux _can_ also be tweeked to run fast on this type of hardware.

So overall, XP would indeed be a bad choice. Even if MS could get it to boot XO.

Btw, some of the staples of "constructivism" are project based learning and peer tutoring. The software designed for the XO is based on that.

But has anyone visited a modern school in the Western world recently where they did NOT use these two "constructivist ideas"?

The alternative to constructivist education seems to be pre-WWII/Soviet style "Practise and Drill" (neo-behaviorist) teaching. One reason educational software often fails seems exactly to be their lack of support for modern educational practises. At least as far as Western Europe is concerned, this was already reformed in the 1950s. In short, this whole "Constructivism good/bad" discussion is about kicking a dead horse.

The developing world wants to modernise their teaching practises anyway (where needed). They too know that beating initiative out of their children is not the road to wealth. They just lack the resources to do it.

Winter

Nick said "A quick question: How are governments going to decide what is best for them? Do they have to run their own tests? Do they need to buy a lot of XOs and then try the different options you mention?"

I guess it's better to be safe than sorry... Spending 5% of what a 250K order would cost on getting a smaller quantity of laptops and running thorough trials for a year or two isn't the worst thing these countries could do. Plus the issue is of course how much they'd trust any studies and results coming out of trials lead only by OLPC.

Additionally it's important to realize that there's no single package-solution that will fit the unique circumstances in each country. While places like Chile and Brazil are probably in similar situations and have similar requirements which would allow for similar approaches, Nepal and Nigeria are a whole different world with other demands, expectations and requirements. Therefore countries will have to look for custom approaches and experiences anyway.

Winter, what it boils down to (at least for me) is this: Running Windows XP Starter Edition wouldn't cripple the X0-1 as much as some people would want you to believe. Personally I also think that Sugar is a better solution but that doesn't mean that I expect the rest of the world to agree with me. Especially when in many economies (South America comes to mind) knowledge of basic Office (and by that I mean Microsoft Office, probably Office 97) is still a requirement for many jobs.

"Winter, what it boils down to (at least for me) is this: Running Windows XP Starter Edition wouldn't cripple the X0-1 as much as some people would want you to believe."

1 million crippled XP machines in the hands of 6-10 year olds. What will do that for computer security? These are children, their security should be in the center of all attention. IE and outlook express? MSN messenger? Even I cannot fully protect all the XP computers at home, and I am close to paranoid. And then there is the registry, which I heard breaks down eventually.

Currently, MS are unable to even boot XP on the XO. XP doesn't even run from flash memory (once upon a time, there seems to have been a research project outside MS that succeeded in doing that). Think "defragmentation" on a flash disk.

I understood that MS never offered XP for the OLPC, just CE. Linux runs from mobile phones, XP doesn't. Windows mobile is build on CE (that is what I remember).

When they throw enough money on it, MS might succeed in porting XO to the OLPC. But they seem to have lost all in-house know-how on hardware drivers, as these are always supplied by the hardware vendors.

I will believe XP crippled runs on the OLPC when I see it. The $3 version is for the Classmate.

Winter

"I guess it's better to be safe than sorry... Spending 5% of what a 250K order would cost on getting a smaller quantity of laptops and running thorough trials for a year or two isn't the worst thing these countries could do. Plus the issue is of course how much they'd trust any studies and results coming out of trials lead only by OLPC."

Any idea how much this will delay deployment?

I would guess 2 years field testing + 1 year procurement + 1 year deployment = 4 years?

Moreover, they will have to redo the study because anything available then will be 3 times as powerful/cheap or just different.

However, if all the countries do this the question will be solved easily: There will be no XO to buy after 2 (3) years. If not for other things, just for the fact that the parts will not be on the market anymore. Nor will there be any spare production factories for 10 million laptops.

Winter

ChristophD said: "I guess it's better to be safe than sorry... Spending 5% of what a 250K order would cost on getting a smaller quantity of laptops and running thorough trials for a year or two isn't the worst thing these countries could do."

Do they really have the power to do that? Does OLPC really allow them to get only 5% just for trial (which would last for at least a year)? As of my understanding OLPC is requiring governments to place the full order. That is in fact what I think is the main limitation of the project: taking a leap of faith.

"As of my understanding OLPC is requiring governments to place the full order. That is in fact what I think is the main limitation of the project: taking a leap of faith."

The argument for that was that small quantity orders would double the price. In retail, normally more than half the end-consumer price is in the retail distribution.

Winter

> In retail, normally more than half the end-consumer
> price is in the retail distribution.

Source?

Winter says "I will believe XP crippled runs on the OLPC when I see it."

Trust me, Windows XP has been running on the X0s for several months... Or do you really think that Quanta Computers is offering the CL2 machines (which is basically the same hardware as the X0) with Windows XP to potential customers (something which they have been doing for at least 3 months) without a running operating system?? Come on...

> "Any idea how much this will delay deployment?
I would guess 2 years field testing + 1 year procurement + 1 year deployment = 4 years?"

Would a two year delay really matter? I don't think so... The X0-1s have a life expectancy of at least 5 years after deployment (IIRC) so +/- 18 months doesn't really matter. Especially when you think about the large amounts of money governments are going to invest in this project? Would you be happy to see your government spend 50 million dollars on something unproven? I don't think so. Do you know how many other things one could do with that money? I'd rather see this thing happen 2 years later but with good solutions in terms of implementation, teacher training, educational content, financial options, etc.

> "Moreover, they will have to redo the study because anything available then will be 3 times as powerful/cheap or just different.

However, if all the countries do this the question will be solved easily: There will be no XO to buy after 2 (3) years. If not for other things, just for the fact that the parts will not be on the market anymore. Nor will there be any spare production factories for 10 million laptops."
So you don't think that Quanta could just purchase all the off-the-shelf supplies for these components for the next 4 years? Plus most of the things are custom components anyway which will basically be produced on-demand...

Nick says "Do they really have the power to do that?"

Of course the countries have that power. They're the customers and they'll vote with their wallets, if they decide to purchase the Classmate & Windows XP Starter Edition combo then there's not all that much OLPC can do...

"Trust me, Windows XP has been running on the X0s for several months... Or do you really think that Quanta Computers is offering the CL2 machines (which is basically the same hardware as the X0) with Windows XP to potential customers (something which they have been doing for at least 3 months) without a running operating system?? Come on..."

You could of course be right. But "basically the same hardware" can break an OS. I have experienced that MANY times with Linux. Two crucial points.

First, the Bios of the OLPC cannot boot XP. There were reports that MS couldn't manage to get an XP booting Bios flashed. Also, many HW components and ASICs used (mesh network chip) were custom designed. There are no XP drivers for them.

The second point is more crucial. The XO runs directly on bare flash memory. That requires a special file system. You can circumvent that by including a hardware controller that manages the flash memory and behaves like a pseudo hard disk, like a USB memory stick does. The XO does NOT have such a controller.

I can't find the data on the Asus CL2, but I believe XP crippled does NOT run on the bare flash memory. Remember that the Asus CL2 was build to run XP. The XO was designed to run Linux without any regard for other operating systems. The fact that there are native Linux versions for any Mac computer, and the iPod, does not imply that there are Windows versions that could be run on them (except under an emulator).

I am no XP expert, actually hardly knowledgable. So I would be grateful if someone who knows can tell me whether XP can indeed run on bare NAND flash memory. Or maybe someone does know for sure that XP will runn acceptably on the XO? Until now I have seen only speculation that did not go into the basic questions.

Winter


> In retail, normally more than half the end-consumer
> price is in the retail distribution.

Source?

Interesting that the OP is about constructivism, but the comments take aim at whether XP boots on OLPC or not. It's hard to see the hardware as an issue, either in regards to constructivism or education reform in general. The bigger question is what support schools in developing countries, and kids in developing countries, need in order to "boot" constructivism.

BUT the comment
"...That is in fact what I think is the main limitation of the project: taking a leap of faith."
hits the nail on the head in re constructivism as well as high-risk hardware plays. With the exception of education systems in Costa Rica and Singapore and one-off schools and classrooms elsewhere, decision-makers for developing-country school systems first see computers as means of supporting IT education. Which in turn is seen as a means of supporting economic development. Active-learning pedagogies, including constructivism, even if they're desirable, are seen as beyond the capacities of schools and teachers.

So the "constructivist challenge" posed by OLPC is another zero:sum proposition akin to the requirement that countries order 1mm units rather than staging field trials: There's no allowance for testing, transition, the building of systems and supports to ensure that the project works.

MAYBE the all-or-nothing approach will be vindicated this time. IMHO the zero:sum approach is based on the idea that schools are beyond repair and that revolution is therefore preferable to efforts at reform. The premise may be true, but the conclusion is at best conjectural.

Uh, well, ...

My understanding is, if the kids *keep* their laptops, if the laptop is *theirs,* and it has a bunch of programs they can play around with and make stuff with, then, ...

... "constructivism" is happening.

Maybe I'm wide off the mark here, or something.

I "did" constructivism with an 8088 COMPAQ luggable when I was 7, because it came with BASICA, and there were some books in the library. Sure changed MY life! If kids are excited to play with their laptops, I can't see how "constructivism" can fail.

Whatever teachers decide to have kids do with the laptops in the classroom is basically (to my untrained eye) basically irrelevant, at that point.

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