Sharing and Not-Sharing Alike User Generated Content

olpc users
Should children share alike?

I have been following this thread about sharing and privacy on the One Laptop Per Child XO computer with great interest and thought it was worth bringing this out to a broader audience in the hopes of widening the conversation.

The discussion revolves around the default policies governing the sharing of content (documents, projects, journal entries, etc) that students create using the XO-1. This issue is a great example of the way in which modern software design has begun to resemble traditional architecture, as a leading art.

Walter Bender explicitly recognizes the power of affordances to shape the dynamics of student interactions when he makes the case that the prudent design would

"[let] the human social context dictate the rules of sharing and privacy rather than trying to engineer them."
It is important to recognize that modern software environments often must decide between policies which are culturally practiced versus ones which are strictly enforced (or encouraged, e.g. through UI).

Engineering decisions can facilitate, catalyze, and favor certain kinds of interactions over others (this is not a form of naive technological determinism). Now that software is mediating human-human interactions, it helps shape the flow of knowledge, communication, and power within a community.

From this perspective, it is easy to see how software embodies ideologies and cannot be easily decoupled from politics. As has been pointed out here before, the extent to which education is tied to the future vision of society means that everyone has a stake in its outcome. The challenge is that some aspects of an environment's design are so deeply woven into the environment that it is hard to imagine them otherwise.

With regard to the question of default sharing vs. privacy, I certainly agree that this decision will likely influence the usage of the XO and may also have many unintended/unanticipated consequences. Generally speaking I am a strong advocate for open content, promiscuous sharing, and hippie workflows -- unless there is a compelling reason not to.

But, I do think that educational environments often have very good reasons to vary the policies around access and sharing. As I attempt to depict in this diagram - educational technology has the potential to impact far more than the student's cognitive capacities. There are social, personal, and emotional dimensions which are impacted by these dynamics as well.

While I understand the tendency to favor construction, collaboration, community, and trust I truly wonder if there are important stages in a student's development where developing an autonomous, independent voice is an essential aspect of "becoming."

I think it is all to easy for our generation to get swept away in the euphoria of collaboration, and even maintain with certainty that it is the best way to learn, even though very few of us learned this way ourselves. There are some valid critiques of "all collaboration, all the time" - some have argued that the resulting work is shallower and more superficial than one produced by personally grappling with a deep analysis.

And Wikipedia is not a good counterexample here - it is a great piece of work, but in the universe of wikis its quality is the exception rather than the rule, and its likely that most of the contributors had traditional educational training before they began collaborating so effectively.

I would guess that very few people are extreme constructionists, who actually believe in all sharing, all the time - it seems a healthy balance between self and other, personal and public, ego and communal is the reasonable position. But it is fascinating to consider how something as seemingly innocuous as a default security setting can have such far reaching implications.

Finally, apart from the pedagogical considerations, I think it is also worth raising the point that the flipside of complete transparency is omniscient surveillance. While it might not be fun to consider, we are not yet living in utopia - even emergency relief housing has locks on the doors. The real world is full of bullies and stalkers which is one of the reasons the FERPA regulations (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act Regulations) are so important.

Sometimes these regulations do restrict the use of social software in the classroom, but there are some really good reasons that people fought hard to get these regulations passed. There is a darker side to the sharing of all personal/private information, and this is not mitigated by complete transparency. To deny this reality is irresponsible, not visionary.

Personally, I think that the OLPC should offer better support for truly anonymous browsing and usage. Without such a provision it is easy to imagine this device becoming the instrument for an international id program. No matter what, decisions as important as these need to be carefully considered, and arrived at thoughtfully, ideally with as many stakeholders as possible offering input.

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First --> Great article.

"I think it is all to easy for our generation to get swept away in the euphoria of collaboration, and even maintain with certainty that it is the best way to learn, even though very few of us learned this way ourselves."

I'd argue that a large share of our learning is through collaboration. Collaboration and debate.

This very website's success is built upon collaboration and debate facilitated through controlled sharing. Much goes on behind the scenes to make sure the public view is professional and stimulating, yet many of the ideas expressed in post often started with a public comment.

Hi Patrick,


I agree that a large share of our learning is through dialogue, collaboration, and debate. A balance with individual concentration, focus, and study are also crucial. Anyway, we are talking about the balance between the public and the private and the recognition of the importance of the private in education and psychological development. In traditional education, students choose to make an idea public, but I don't think it is the default.

Another layer of this conversation is how decisions like this are discussed and arrived at on the OLPC project. I happen to think a decision like this is pretty important, and even though it is hard to explain its implications to people, it deserves more attention than buried away on a developers mailing list.

I would imagine that plenty of educators, psychologists, and sociologists (maybe even architects) would have strong opinions on a subject like this. It would be great to get them involved in this conversation.


Hi Jonah,

As OLPC starts to take off then we will probably see a lot more people getting involved. OLPC is now much more than vapor-ware and I am sure there will be a lot more constructive input.

There is good reason to state that ALL knowledge comes from dicussions between people. Peer tutoring and group work are second only to a great teacher in improving education. So collaboration should indeed be central to the XO.

If I remember well, the XO had several levels of collaboration for each project/file: Private, friends, specified individuals, world. Looks a lot like the file ugo+rwx properties in Unix. That worked very good and is well understood.

I agree COMPLETELY with Ivan Krstić:

"Yeah, no. I could be convinced about application/resource files, but user documents are not going to be public by default as long as I have something to say about it."

Remember, the user (child) is supposed to be in control of the XO. That is also the only way for the children (and their parents) to trust it. The discussion does center uncannily around a diary. But think of the photographs and movies a child collects. Would anyone really want them all to be public by default? I think the only ones with a universal right of access are the parents.

The solution could be as simple as creating a project as private with a simple button to add predifined groups (teacher, class, friends-list), and a simple point and drag to add other users.

Other users are visible as small, colored symbols on the XO display. Nothing could be simpler than to drag another user's symbol into your project :-)


Hi Winter,

"There is good reason to state that ALL knowledge comes from discussions between people. Peer tutoring and group work are second only to a great teacher in improving education. So collaboration should indeed be central to the XO."

Really? Then why bother shipping e-book software? Sure you could construe reading as a conversation with the original author, but that's not what we are talking about here. I don't dispute that collaboration ought to be central to the XO, but as has been pointed out elsewhere, one way to look at collaboration includes the choice to share something at a certain point.

As Wayan pointed out, this website's success is built on a collaboration model, but it isn't all-sharing, all the time. People work on their posts for a while before choosing to publish and share them.

In any case, I also happen to agree with Ivan (and Walter) on this issue - but I kinda think that they won the argument for the wrong reasons. I am really glad there are good people on the OLPC team who care alot about privacy and security, but Ivan's insistence that "user documents are not going to be public by default as long as I have something to say about it" is almost accidental good fortune.

I think there happen to be very compelling pedagogical and psychological reasons for not sharing by default, but the conversation never really got that far on the sugar development list. And yet, I think we can all agree this is a pretty important detail.

If you go back to the thread, you will find that SJ Klein was advocating strongly for public access to the be the default, requiring the user to do something special in order to designate a document private. He presented some educational justifications for this position which largely went unopposed (someone brought up cheating/plagiarism as a downside, but not the kinds of considerations I was trying to raise in this post).

It seemed like a dangerous moment to me, since all-sharing, all the time (by default) is probably an easier scenario to implement than intricate access control policies, so there is an incentive to be lazy/efficient about this on the project management front. Hats off to Ivan and Walter for putting their foot down on this, though their arguments struck me as largely practical and security minded, and did not respond to the educational gauntlet that SJ threw down.

I hope this helps clarify my perspective on this, which has as much to do with examining consensual decision making processes on the XO project as it does with the particulars of this decision. Different open source projects introduce different degrees of formality around decision making, and I am not advocating any particular model.

I will say that the resolution and handling of this question struck me as being a bit casual and flippant. I am glad it was resolved this way, but don't have a great deal of confidence that it could have just as easily swung in the other direction without many people noticing until it was too late.

"Really? Then why bother shipping e-book software? "

Children do not learn from books alone. They always need some kind of social interaction. In a more general note, knowledge itself is created in discussions (see Popper and Foucault).

Personally, I think that the OLPC (or any other computer project) will only work if the children trust their computers. Making all you personal stuff open by default does not help in this.


There are some excellent points made but there is something missing in the discussion of sharing and privacy. The XO laptop is, of course, to be used for learning in school, but the important premise is that it belongs to the child and he or she (and their family, friends, etc.) can use it, 24/7, in whatever way they like. Teachers will also own laptops and their requirements for privacy can be very different from a student’s.

A system that requires all users to be open - to share and collaborate, whether they want to or not - does not sound right. And even if the technology doesn’t absolutely require openness, the social and peer pressure within this laptop community may.

I also sense that this discussion of sharing, privacy and openness (and all of the XO discussion for that matter) is incomplete because of the lack of woman and girls that are contributing to the discussion and to the technical design and development. This is still, sadly, the way things are with technology development and what makes it hard to get a more holistic perspective.

I have followed all of the developer discussions and it is a discussion almost exclusively by men. I suspect it is because the emphasis is centered on the technology and this doesn’t encourage input by women.

With all the emphasis on openness, it would be nice to see a greater effort to be open to more varied opinions. That seems crucial for a product that truly wants to change the world.

Hi Winter,

I think we are in agreement on the default sharing policy that the XO should support.

> Children do not learn from books alone. They
> always need some kind of social interaction. In
>a more general note, knowledge itself is created
>in discussions (see Popper and Foucault).

I never said that children learn from books alone. Rather, that developing the capacity to concentrate and focus, and a healthy autonomous ego with the confidence to articulate and express one's own opinions in your own voice, probably also involves some non-collaboration (not work isn't ultimately shared, but that it is authored by a single individual - careful, we seem to be using multiple senses of 'collaboration' here).

One quick way to illustrate this is Taylor Mali's poem, "What do teachers make?"

"I make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall
in absolute silence. No, you may not work in groups.
No, you may not ask a question.
Why won't I let you get a drink of water?
Because you're not thirsty, you're bored, that's why."

Does this help clarify what I am getting at?


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