Archive for the ‘learning’ Category

We’re back from Cambridge, MA and have had a couple days to reflect on the OLPC workshops.  Dr. Nicholas Negroponte joined us on the last day and took some questions.  The most interesting, and in a way, most promising aspect of OLPC and their mission is their ability to be honest and open about all aspects of their work.  This has many implications.  Education, and the people who work in education are altruistic in nature.  However, education is a big-business market in its own right; and educators have to sometime work with companies who may have altruistic intentions, but at the end of the day have stock-holders to report to: text-book companies, building contractors, technology companies and a whole list of others.  OLPC, we can all agree, is honestly altruistic in nature.  And Dr. Negroponte was honest in his answers.  He said outright they do not have all the answers and will never say to a district “yes, this will solve your testing or truancy or literacy or classroom management problems.” They are not even sure yet on how to best reach and roll-out their own product.  They do not have a sales force, or a marketing team.  He was even open enough to say that in five years they hope to be out of the manufacturing business.  All this is on purpose in order to stay true to their bottom-line which is providing students a high-quality educational tool at as low a cost possible.  What does all this mean?  For starters, it means:

  • The operating costs of marketing and sales do not factor into the cost of the device (which I will remind everyone, in public schools is paid for by tax-payers)
  • It means the XO laptop was designed so their batteries and AC adapters last longer than a year
  • All the parts are interchangeable and easy to get at to fix
  • The software that runs the laptop is free; and by copyright will always be free and community supported
  • There is no mercury in the device
  • The machine uses as little energy as possible.  Idling it uses 1W of power – your average notebook computer uses 25W.  200 standard notebooks in a school add ~$10,000 a year to the power-bill that tax-payers pay.  200 XO machines add ~$1,000 a year.
  • You can’t pop the keys off the keyboard, you can spill soda all over it, you can drop your backpack by accident without breaking it.
  • There are no 1, 3, or 5 year support contracts

My point is the playing field is different.  It is not fair to compare the XO to a Dell, or a Classmate or an EEE PC because the XO is designed under a different philosophy.  If the XO breaks and you have to buy a new one, OLPC does not profit from that purchase in the same was as a company with a bottom line does.  Intel and Dell would love nothing more than to have the education market think their devices are comparable to the XO – and they have marketing teams and sales forces ready to do so.

Even excepting all this, we can’t hide from that fact that US schools are now familiar with technology and they have defined their expectations about what a laptop means.  US schools expect to call a support line and have a place to return the device.  They expect their devices to be powerful and fast.  They expect hardware to be monetarily valuable, and locked up for safety.  And most importantly, they expect the manufacturers of technology to own the problem when the technology doesn’t work properly.

In order for XO devices to work in the USA, these expectations need to change.  Users of the XO need to expect to own their problems.  We need to expect to try and fix the device ourselves when the hardware breaks or the software doesn’t work correctly.  We need to expect that support will come from a community of users; rather than a company phone bank.  We need to expect that we will participate and contribute to this larger community of users.  We need to expect to take our machines home, experiment with them, understand them, own them, learn through them. 

I know what you’re going to say, and it is a natural initial reaction  - that this is WAY too much to expect out of teachers.  How in the world can we expect our over-burdened teachers to manage all this!  However, that too is an expectation that needs to change.  The device was designed for students – and students need to expect to own their problems.  This means student support teams and communities of knowledge at the student level.  It also means trust on the part of teachers, coaches, principals, districts, central technology department, superintendents, parents, ministers, city-council members and mayors – all agreeing to allow their students and children to own these problems.  It means parents working with teachers.  I guarantee if you say to any parent – “We would like to give your child a laptop – would you be willing to participate in the process.  Perhaps come to a couple workshops yourselves and learn along with us” - the answer will be “Yes, thank you.”  I can’t emphasize this enough - the students need have ownership over the technology, not the school, not the district, not even the parents.  When they own the tools for learning, they own their learning. 

It is not hard to see this as an opportunity for change.  There are a number of problems in NYC schools – access to technology probably doesn’t rank very high.  However, empowerment of our youth in our schools and communities is another matter.

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OLPC Workshop in Cambridge

We just finished day two of a four-day workshop series at the OLPC offices in Cambridge, MA.  There are 30 or so participants representing all sides of the education world – both literally and functionally.  So far, the sharing of ideas and philosophies has been wonderful and the missions and plans we all have is impressive to say the least.  Everyone involved on the OLPC end is outgoing, helpful and extremely thoughtful and dedicated to their mission. 

The focus of the conversation has not been about the device itself; rather the need to shift thinking about technology and learning at the school level.  It is a very grass-roots concept about taking advantage of opportunities for change and creating model experiences (classrooms and teachers) that can then go on to excite change in the local community.  As someone coming very much from the implementation side of education, it is very interesting to be having these conversations.  The skeptic in me comes out now and again and would like to point out the realities of some NYC schools.  However, looking at the project as a whole, it is very important that OLPC champion their cause in this way.  They are the inspiration and the change-makers (if not them, then who?) and it is important that they continue to inspire and strive to push us implementers to shoot for the pie in the sky.  After-all, they have brought the cost of a fully-functional laptop down to $188 - why would they expect any less from us.

So, in terms of some clear and very real issues that have come up – the top three that have become clear at this point would be:

  1. Sharing of resources and best practices out there in the community.  There are a number of pilots that are going on; and finding information about implementation and assessment plans/results is very difficult.   Technical support is probably the most built out – but there is so much more missing.
  2. Sharing of content and training resources.  Related to the above – the wiki (http://wiki.laptop.org) only goes so far.   It is evident that OLPC is championing constructivist learning – and pushing for a change in teaching styles (using their device).  But curricular content and training resources have not been brought together in useful and extensive way.
  3. Functional sustainable implementation models (again related to the above).  This is tricky because they would vary greatly between locations.  But it is a key question that keeps coming up.  How do we get teacher buy-in?  The best answer has been to look at it as an opportunity – an opportunity to involve the parents and community.  If it becomes an opportunity to better support the teacher in what they do and bring more parents to the table then no teacher will turn down the opportunity. 

Tomorrow I have meetings with Linux engineers and will get some answers and direction onf how to best configure the device for various wireless configurations.  School server is also a topic I’m hoping to find out more about.  Oh, and we’re physically taking the device apart and putting it back together – should be fun. 

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Thank you Opera

We installed the OLPC Opera package today.  Opera is an alternative web-browser that is “out in front of the pack” when it comes to the OLPC project.  They have released their software to run on the device – and, in my opinion, is a vast improvement to the default browser the machine ships with.  Here’s why:

  1. Tabbed Browsing – you can open up multiple websites through the single browser.
  2. Handles popped-up windows (through tabbed browsing) – many websites these days pop-up content or other websites.  I know there are web developers out there who cringe at this – but it is necessary to support!
  3. Defaults to a (although shrunk) 1020 pixel width.  Most modern sites (cnn.com, nytimes.com) these days have designed their websites to fit on a larger screen than the OLPC default browser supports.  Opera fixed this – and also has zoom-in / zoom-out features.
  4. Bookmarks – enough said.
  5. Options to configure plugins/java and a web proxy.  MANY school systems go through a web-proxy and filter these days.

Here’s the installation instructions off of the OLPC wiki:


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I did some more playing around with the OLPC operating system today – this time with an eye to on-line content, particularly literacy content.  We are thinking about how a pilot might run with the OLPC machines in a k-2 classroom environment; and there are some stumbling blocks, but also a lot of potential.

The number one stumbling block at the moment is the lack of a real flash player on the device.  Gnash is the open-source flash player that runs through the default web browser on the OLPC.  And while it does “play” flash files – it does not support many of the basic scripts that most online flash content uses!  This is a big problem for us (Teaching Matters) because a lot of our literacy content (www.writingmatters.org) uses flash animation and tutorials.  We can and will fix our content if we have to; but there is a vast pool of great resources that already exists out there that may have to do the same:

I’m sure this is just a few – and this is by no means meant as a criticism of these wonderful sites who developed their content the way the rest of the world developed flash content.  It is instead to make the important point that the OLPC device needs a real browser with a real flash player and java client.  I know it goes against the philosophy of the machine in a way – but it is sacrificing SO MUCH without them.  The browser interface is great otherwise, it just needs a simple update on the plug-ins that it runs. 

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