Posts Tagged ‘Changing Education’

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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