One Laptop per Child

I heard a lot of skeptical comments about MIT’s 100 dollar laptop project on a recent research trip to Prato, particularly from the Brazilian participants. Everyone talks about a “digital divide”. So it’s easy to assume that’s all that’s needed to solve the problem is the right gadgets which would allow poor/black/developing country people to “cross” the divide and join the information society.
So since then I’ve been reading more about the MIT project, which is officially called the One Laptop per Child project (OLPC). Seymour Papert comments in his column on the project wiki that the project is really about children, and complains that most media attention on the project fixates on decisions that have been made about hardware and software.
In relation to literacy, there are some predictably geeky ideas to be seen on the project website – teaching Esperanto, translating the interface into Klingon and so on.
Since the design of the devices and the software they come with will constitute something of a global curriculum for the children in these countries, it’s worth looking at the assumptions that are currently informing the designs. I found it interesting that the project seems to be founded on similar ideas to those I’ve encountered South Africa’s Khanya project.

Here’s a comment from the wiki page devoted to educational issues:

As much as a teacher wants to teach, they can only teach what they know. The, for lack a better term, “flaw” in the educational process of third world countries is the knowledge available to the teacher. This is either by their own unfortunate lack of knowledge or by their inability to obtain new information for teaching. Since the emphasis of the project (I think) is toward the children more so then the actual teachers, I would think that some standard of training is necessary for the teachers that are involved with use of these laptops. I would think too, that this training would mainly be in the technological side of how to operate the laptops so that there would be nothing stopping the flow of information from the internet to the student.

Interesting assumptions about the “flow” of information here. Not at all in line with the project’s stated constructionist orientation. Still, most members involved with the project are probably less interested in Papert’s constructionist philosophy than in tinkering with the details of hardware and software implementation.
Seymour Papert has a column on the wiki (so far only two!), consisting of somewhat elliptical words of wisdom, expressed in the form of parables. I liked that he’s much less dismissive of teachers and their “lack” of knowledge, and his sense of children learning all the time anyway, with or without the precious gadgets. Here’s a comment from him about the analogy between computers and writing:

[the analogy between “computers” and “writing”] is an important insight that was not at all obvious in the early days of the computer presence and is still not obvious to everyone. Thinkers who have influenced my thinking about this are Alan Kay, Paulo Freire, Andrea diSessa and most recently John Paul Gee. (Google them.)
(Unfortunately the Googlers won’t find James Paul Gee from that reference.)
Still, how this translates into the overall emphasis of the project demonstrates clearly to me how important it is that literacy projects should include programming.

Some links:
Papert’s column
D. Cavallo’s paper explains the educational and developmental philosophy of the group and discusses some pilot work (including a Brazilian project)
One laptop per child website

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