One Laptop Per Child "Stamp Collectors" Needed

   
   
   
   
   

My brother Joe Felsentein, who is famous in the world of population genetics, tells how for decades those working in his corner of biology (phylogenetic inference - the science of constructing inheritance trees) were scorned by the reigning molecular biologists as "stamp collectors".

While the molecular biologists pursued the secret of life itself, the stamp collectors puttered around with statistics and large data sets, working out how to make sense out of data patterns.

Then came the crowning triumph of molecular biology - reading the human genome. Note that I do not say "decoding the human genome", as it suddenly became clear that no one knew how to make sense of gigabytes of gene sequence data. Who, the moleculars wondered, could make some order of all this data?

Then everyone looked at each other and exclaimed in unison, "the stamp collectors!" Joe and his colleagues were showered with money and attention. Their grant requests were now favored for approval, and at Joe's university a brand-new Department of Genome Sciences was created which welcomed his august presence.

The parallel is this - the OLPC project is about as far as it can go without empowering its own "stamp collectors", by which I mean those who have long labored in the field of experimental education. Yes, there are others besides Seymour Papert, and the official OLPC line on the topic, that the educational research had already been done and that the engineering was all that was left, was always blatantly untrue.


Only two experimental educators

The arguments in the comments of OLPC News about what "killer apps" are needed indicate that very little input is coming from those with experience in trying out new approaches to learning. A fast check of Google turns up lots of hits on "experimental education" (which seems also to hit on "experiential education", which may not be too far from its probable subset "constructivism"), and it is clear that there is a robust literature and publication ecosystem in that field.

Good places to start inquiring would be at education schools at local universities. Not all the professors there are involved in experimental education, but most should know the ones who are. OLPC fans should seek out contacts there and should arrange to get together in groups with interested education people (profs and students) to discuss the potential of the XO and to provide assistance in programming for those who wish to try something. Audio transcripts of the discussions should be posted on-line so the meetings can be broadened in time and space.

Education is a notoriously stodgy and bureaucratized field, and most students in the subject won't see the point of trying something new, but the ones who do are likely to be motivated to try something really new rather than incremental improvements. They're more likely to come up with alternate solutions to the orthodoxies than to make slight improvements on test-taking.


Montessori teaching on computers

I particularly want to mention Danielle Martell. I first met her four years ago and she is implementing Montessori teaching methods on computers, and needs help in the process. She's been hoping to get hold of an XO (and, I presume, some help in programming in Python as well as financial support) to help her get the software in working condition for this level of computer. Her work is applicable all the way down to infancy.

I'm going to take the XO I just received (yes, I bought one through a friend who ordered G1G1 - or G2G2 in this case) and see if an old friend of mine is interested in looking at it. He spent several years traveling around visiting various late-'60's alternative education situations, and was instrumental in shaping my thinking about computers in society back in 1971.

He has just retired after a career teaching elementary-school science at private and alternative schools, and has published his thoughts on science teaching on his website. Sorry not to give a URL for you, but I do want to discuss it with him first, and he is recovering from a life-threatening illness.

If you're serious about making the XO a success at its stated goal you have work to do. Find the "stamp collectors" who have spent their lives finding out what does and does not work as well as what might work, and get in touch with them. Show them something of what the XO can do so they can broaden their thinking to include it as a tool. Help them connect with other groups who are doing the same thing.

This will all be work that OLPC initially discounted as unnecessary - but it will be needed to save the project. Intel/Schmintel - they may have more money but we have the enthusiasts, and it was enthusiasts that created the personal computer industry. Just don't expect everything to happen by magic (the original OLPC model).

Get busy!

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11 Comments

I've wondered if this is what the 3 OLPC Learning Workshops held in Cambridge in Nov and Jan have been about.

"Education is a notoriously stodgy and bureaucratized field, and most students in the subject won't see the point of trying something new, but the ones who do are likely to be motivated to try something really new rather than incremental improvements."

I can attest to that. The Netherlands have just seen a very damning review of decades of educational policy. The central message here was that everything was important, except the students learning something.

"Find the "stamp collectors" who have spent their lives finding out what does and does not work as well as what might work, and get in touch with them."

I am afraid that won't work. The better thing is to get the stamp collectors find the laptops and schools. Central control is almost always a waste of time and money. "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let the hundred schools of thought contend". is better (although Mao planned to cut them all afterwards, but WE don't have to).

And congratulations with such a brother :-). Phylogenies are the bread and butter now in the study of everything living, even such odd things as disease control.

Winter

It'd be nice if there were a bit more in the way of information at the web site which is conspicuous for its lack of substantive content. Conspicuous also is a fairly eye-popping "special thanks" list. What do they know that the proprietor choose not to share with the rest of the world.

Inferring from the web site, it looks like the marketing plan is to sell the software at retail. Any time line? Is beta software available? Will it be? Where's the software been put to use and what's been done to determine efficacy?

How about some "proof of concept" software? It's unfortunate but the "notoriously stodgy and bureaucratized field" is also prone to bouts of wild enthusiasm for products/ideas with little evidence to back up their generally extravagant claims. The product/idea is always quietly discarded once its failure to produce the implied results can no longer be shielded by acolytes and true believers. The use of computers - including the OLPC - in education is *not* exempt from this observation or prediction.

winter wrote:

> The Netherlands have just seen a very damning review of decades of educational policy.

No!

> The central message here was that everything was important, except the students learning something.

And where have we heard this particular truth declaimed?

Are you ready to take the next step, winter? Ready to accept that the relative unimportance of learning isn't a fault of the public education system but an integral feature which can only expand or contract in importance depending on political fortunes? If you're ready to take that step you'll come to understand the fatal flaw in the OLPC marketing plan - selling to governments.

You'll also see why the flaw is irredemable as a matter of policy. Policy will not change the fundamentally political nature of public education any more then argument will change the meat-eating nature of a carnivore. If it's a plow that needs pulling a tiger might be theoretically capable of doing so but it's unlikely that things will turn out well.

Of course, that leaves the questions of where education can be done and who's going to do it, unanswered.

Takers?

@allen:
"Are you ready to take the next step, winter? Ready to accept that the relative unimportance of learning isn't a fault of the public education system but an integral feature which can only expand or contract in importance depending on political fortunes? If you're ready to take that step you'll come to understand the fatal flaw in the OLPC marketing plan - selling to governments."

If you think governments should leave all education to the market, you are fighting a lonely battle.

I am ready for that step like I am ready to diss capitalism because Enron went bust or the sub-prime lending scandal. I see scrapping government supplied education is like scrapping capitalism. Things go wrong, but by and large, it is government that produces education world-wide. In the Netherlands the current administration is franticly trying to get the support of schools, teachers, and students to prevent losing even more votes than they already do.

Besides, there have been governments that succeeded in supplying good education for most: The small tigers, China, Cuba (of all places), Finland.

And sometimes I rather have to rely on voted politicians and their parties that someday HAVE to stand in front of their voters and explain than in business men who take the money and run: Reed Elsevier being one horrible example in Academics.

Winter

Re: Montessori software
1. the XO is really not designed for very young children
http://olpcnews.com/forum/index.php?topic=822.msg15838#msg15838

2. do you really want to park infants in front of a screen as shown on that site?

3. I thought free/open source was vital to the program. This sounds very 'Baby Einstein' to me and software for that already exists.

@winter - Thanks, but Joe is three years older than me and had much more to do with my development than I had to do with his. Credit where credit is due.

@ann - I know very little about those Cambridge workshops - can anyone give any information about how they went? Were ideas for implementation of new educational approaches welcomed and discussed or were they training sessions on the XO? Is there a follow-on discussion forum that nonparticipants can access?

@maddie, allen - Please direct questions about Montessori software to Danielle. I am not her representative. I believe that she needs to connect with a viable organization that can work with her to implement her software and bring it to whatever market is appropriate. She has opened a topic in the OLPC Forums.

In general - Arnold Toynbee advanced the theory that social and scientific progress originates not at the centers of power and prestige, but in the "marshlands" at the edges of society. I am advocating that XO enthusiasts explore in the marshlands of education to make the XO and similar computers accessible to experimental education practitioners who are not embedded in the official way of doing things.

This requires what is known in marketing as a "missionary sale", to people who would not on their own seek out the tool but who could make good use of it once they understood it. This will probably take the form of making presentations to small groups of people, none of whom feels that the XO would be of much use to their plans. No one will give much of a positive response in the group, but afterward you will be approached by one or two participants asking to learn more about it. When this happens, get them online where discussions are under way about alternative uses of the technology (OLPC Forums will do fine), and be prepared to follow up to help these new participants understand what is being discussed.

"Stamp collectors" like these are notoriously insular and convinced of the superiority of their approaches. They have to be - they have been swimming against the current for a long time. Be sure, in dealing with them, that you not appear to favor anyone's approach as superior to anyone else's - you can't afford to provoke a negative reaction.

Metaphorically, you need to create a soup of the right people with the right tool, and keep it stirred (in the information domain). Nothing much will seem to happen until suddenly something like polymerization occurs and certain approaches quickly gain a lot of adherents. In the meantime, your job will be to answer technical questions and to carry problems back to whomever can solve them.

In this sense, you will be much more a sales representative than a missionary. Sales reps have a critical task of bringing back information whereas missionaries have no reverse channel (I would love to be corrected on this point). By placing yourself in this information channel you will also be presented with opportunities as new industries and markets develop.

My meeting with my old friend went well. He has agreed to write up his thoughts on the subject and get them to me. If it's anything like his previous writings, there will be much to chew upon there. I'll keep OLPC News posted.

Lee, your example threw me off because software for infants seems so unnecessary. As missionaries/salespeople we don't want to start making up problems and claiming the XO will solve them, there's enough real problems. In any case, I look forward to reading how your friend reacts to the XO.

> If you think governments should leave all education to the market, you are fighting a lonely battle.

I'm not fighting a battle at all. I'm trying to understand a phenomenon.

I want to understand why one school is excellent, another is terrible and why the transition from the one to the other, when it happens, seems largely random.
I want to understand why funding levels are largely immaterial to the excellence of a school.
I want to understand why, in an age of unparalleled technological and economic advancement education is essentially unchanged since the time of Socrates.
I want to understand why the same education administrators will know to the penny what a new school building costs and what performance penelaties are appropriate will turn right around an invest similar amounts of funding in educational fads which have essentially no record of success and no theoretical basis for the expectation of success.
I want to understand why something practically everyone assumes to be true, the revolutionary impact of computers on education, hasn't come to pass and seems to be in no particular hurry to reveal itself.

The Dutch education system suffers, I suspect, from the same problem that besets the American public education system: too much money. They're the "centers of power and prestige" and really, why should they change in any fundamental which doesn't lead to yet more power and more prestige? Because kids might learn?

You don't think an end to government education is a reasonable possibility? I'm beginning to see it as inevitable although I'm unsure where the beginning of the end will show up first - the slums of Hyderabad or the slums of Chicago. Toynbee's educational marshlands.

An excellent post. I agree, the more education types who have some real creativity get ahold of the XO, the better.

@Allen: You questions

If I knew the real answers, I would not be posting here, I admit. I will try to stay on topic.

My take on it:
> I want to understand why one school is excellent, another is terrible...

For the same reason one sports team is better than another: People, both teachers and pupils. However, we cannot measure teacher quality like we can test endurance etc.

> I want to understand why funding levels are largely immaterial to
> the excellence of a school.

Because we neither can train nor select teachers on quality.

> I want to understand why, in an age of unparalleled technological
> and economic advancement education is essentially unchanged since
> the time of Socrates.

For the same reason language and love have not changed over human history. Teaching is a human trait that requires human interaction. And just as with language and love, any attempt to interfere with rational arguments ends in disaster.

> I want to understand why the same education administrators will
> know to the penny what a new school building costs and what
> performance penelaties are appropriate will turn right around an
> invest similar amounts of funding in educational fads which have
> essentially no record of success and no theoretical basis for
> the expectation of success.

That is the reification error: things can be quantified if you can stick a number on them. Any number.

> I want to understand why something practically everyone assumes
> to be true, the revolutionary impact of computers on education,
> hasn't come to pass and seems to be in no particular hurry to reveal
> itself.

Because of an old victorian misconception that equates information with knowledge and wisdom. If you read this ultimate Victorian hero, Sherlock Holmes, you should watch how his eminence is quantified in terms of enceclopedian information, not insight. Computers supply information on their own, but not much teaching.

Why do I still believe the XO and constructivism can improve education?

Because both are centered around human interaction and "structured play". And that is what teaching young children boils down to in my opinion.

And the Dutch situation was caused by a failed attempt to give all children an equal start in life plus a desire to reduce the costs of education. Teaching 30 children cost you a full salary, now, as it did 100 years ago. Everything else has dropped by orders of magnitude in price, teaching hasn't.

Winter

Allen wrote:

"I want to understand why one school is excellent, another is terrible and why the transition from the one to the other, when it happens, seems largely random."

Because they work under different human and material conditions. The task of providing Swedish kids with an education is very different from the same task for kids in New York (USA) for example: Swedish kids share a lot of history, belifs, cultural and ethnic traits, etc. Having very little immigration, they are a very homogeneus group. Contrast that with the task of education a similar number of students in NYC where some don't speak the english, come from very remote places, have different history, race, religion, beliefs, etc.

That's why education is such complex process.

"I want to understand why funding levels are largely immaterial to the excellence of a school. "

Because (and this is especially true with younger students) often the human element overcomes - in a negative or positive way - the material conditions. Effective education requires a delicate balance and interaction between teacher and student. Education is far more than providing people with data. A public school might be very successful for the simple reason that it is located in an upper middle-class neighborhood, for example. The same school, with the same teachers and administrative staff will not be as successful in a slum of the same city. What changed? The human element.

"I want to understand why, in an age of unparalleled technological and economic advancement education is essentially unchanged since the time of Socrates. "

Because education works. As simple as that. You just have to remember that what you describe as "age of unparalleled technological and economic advancement" was created by brilliant minds educated in the system you talk about.

People like Papert have made the bogus claim that education is a failure and that technology will fix the problem. They have had the opportunity to put their ideas into practice. What happened to their experiments? Utter failures. Why? Because they first created a solution and then went looking for a problem. Yes, education fails in many places, but usually it is not because of the WAY kids are being taught. It fails because of the CONDITIONS under which kids are taught. Those are very different things. Once one understands and accepts that simple premise, it is very easy to realize that computers are just a miniscule part of what is necessary to change the conditions.


"I want to understand why the same education administrators will know to the penny what a new school building costs and what performance penelaties are appropriate will turn right around an invest similar amounts of funding in educational fads which have essentially no record of success and no theoretical basis for the expectation of success."

Some people are willing to put their techno-dreams ahead of their best interests. It is happening right now in Uruguay, where the XO is being used in schools with damged windows and bathrooms in unsanitary conditions. Pretty absurd, if you ask me. Of course, this is not the OLPC's Project's fault. The responsibility reasts on the shoulders of an Uruguayan goverment that failos to do things in the right order: first, take care of the basic educational necessities and then bring the rest in, if there is money left. The school building and enough teachers paid on time are basic necessities - without either one, education is not effective. Computers for first graders are nice, but not absolutely necessary.


"I want to understand why something practically everyone assumes to be true, the revolutionary impact of computers on education, hasn't come to pass and seems to be in no particular hurry to reveal itself."

Because it is a false promise. Computers will never bring the promised "revolution" (btw, Papert & Co. have never really told us what this "revolution" will look like. A world full of geniuses, pehaps?). Computers are magnificent tools who serve students better as they progress in their education: a kindergarten kid can't derive as much benefit from a computer as a college student, for obvious reasons: the more you know, the better you can use your tools. computers are a great tool, not a miracle.

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