I suspect that many of you are aware of Nicholas Negroponte, the charismatic founder of MIT’s Media Lab and his One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative (or as it is sometimes called, “the $100 laptop”). The stated mission of OLPC is:
“ …to develop a low-cost laptop—the "$100 Laptop"—a technology that could revolutionize how we educate the world's children. Our goal is to provide children around the world with new opportunities to explore, experiment, and express themselves.”
Negroponte originally announced this initiative at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2005, and it has since received a great deal of attention, along with a full range of reactions. But, more importantly, they’ve made great progress since the announcement, and they are on track to begin the distribution of millions of laptops every month starting next year (2008).
Originally staffed by a core of Media Lab veterans, it quickly expanded to include a wide range of exceptionally talented and dedicated people from academia, industry, the arts, business, and the open-source community. For an overview of this project and an update on its progress, please check out the OLPC wiki and information on the OLCP site about the specific components of the OLPC laptop.
The article that sparked this posting, which is one of the best overviews of OLPC that I have read, is in this month’s (April 2007) IEEE Spectrum magazine “The Laptop Crusade” by Tekla S. Perry. As noted in this Spectrum article and its “sidebar” on “Other Roads to Computing for All”, there are several other projects focused on producing low cost, low power computers for the masses throughout the world. It is a fascinating set of stories, and I’d strongly encourage you to read them and be informed of the truly admirable progress that is being made.
Personally, I think the concept of “One Laptop Per Person” rather than “Child” is even more powerful and pragmatic. Negroponte himself noted right from the beginning that “It's an education project, not a laptop project.” This project is NOT just about technology nor it is just for geeks and technical interests. Rather it is a VERY HUMAN story and one with huge potential to bring great change to our world. There is, for example, an interesting timeline in the OLPC “Progress” section which traces back to 1967 when Seymour Papert introduced Logo, the first programming language for children, and his 1980 publication Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas.
However, it is important for us to understand that all these promising outcomes of the OLPC initiative are currently “just” potential. I don’t say this to knock the project, but just to remind the rest of us that the very real challenge is how can we convert potential into reality and what role can we play to do so?! This theme and question of actually changing the world is what I want to focus on today.
I’ve been noting for several years now that in 10 years or less we will look back and see that a large part (perhaps even a majority) of innovation will come from the most unlikely and unexpected sources, particularly underdeveloped and underserved markets and regions of the world. With this context in mind, let’s look at “One Laptop Per Child” and other programs to see what opportunities for true innovation they can provide:
- Innovation of software paradigms and interfaces
- Mass learning for masses of teachers
- Bottom up or grass roots innovation and development
SUGAR: Software that is SO Sweet!
First is the development of whole new metaphors for human computer interaction and specifically the software interface. The desktop metaphor is not only very dated (going back hundreds of years), it is also limiting our abilities to think and work effectively. We’ve noted this effect and limitation here in previous postings and podcasts, such as “Perfecting the Irrelevant” and "Unlearning".
Furthermore let’s remind ourselves of two other fundamental problems with the “desktop” metaphor:
- Many people in the world have never had a desk and millions don’t even know what one is
- Even those who do have desks are more often wanting and needing to be AWAY from them! Think about your own situation and how many hours per week you spend (or want to spend) working at a desk versus being away from it; traveling, walking, socializing, and spending time outside.
So if the majority of people want to be independent of desks, then let’s create ways of interacting with technology and our world that are equally divorced and distanced from the desktop.
The OLPC initiative is developing a whole new approach, one that is worth following and building upon. The OLPC interface called “Sugar” has no software applications; rather it is focused on what they refer to as “activities” and the notions of Presence, Expression and Journaling.
You can read more on the OLPC site and you can try out this demonstration of the interface, or click on either of the images on the OLPC “Interface” page which are screen shots of the new Sugar interface like the ones shown here. The IEEE Spectrum article also includes an excellent overview of the innovative work being done on the interface as well as equally impressive creativity with hardware, low power consumption and overall laptop design.
As noted on the OLPC site:
“Activities are distinct from applications in their foci—collaboration and expression—and their implementation—journaling and iteration.” These are not only cognitively powerful laptops with very low electrical power demands, but they are also seriously focused on the social and play aspects of life and learning.
Each OLPC laptop has a built-in innovative and powerful Wi-Fi capability and game buttons. These features, combined with basic human nature (especially in children) will lead to a great deal of interaction among those using these laptops, and their ability to create mesh networks. You can acccess a fun and simple interactive demo of the power of mesh networks from their “hardware” page. I think you will immediately start to see the power and possibilities this produces. It sounds like some “serious fun” to me!
Mass Learning for massive numbers of teachers
All of this, of course, raises the question about teachers and their roles and reactions. Will teachers see this as an advantage or a threat? How will teachers figure out how to use these new tools and how to integrate them into their teaching methods, curriculum, and classrooms? These are not new questions. What is new is that this is all going to happen extremely quickly and without much warning or planning.
Imagine “classrooms” in many of these countries that are in extremely remote locations, without power, desks or most other basics, and yet literally the next day, each student walks in with one of these laptops in hand. The children, with the combination of their great gifts of constant curiosity and so little to “unlearn”, will likely take to these laptops with great ease and speed. But what will be the reaction of teachers and other adults in the community?
There is no current funding or plans for any associated teacher training programs to go with the OLPC project. Is this foolish or brilliant? Should such teacher training and “train the trainer” programs be formally developed or will it be better to leave this to the teachers and adults themselves? Will teachers learn (and teach) best by doing so with their students and adopting a “guide on the side” type approach?
Grass Roots Innovation
Going back to my prediction that innovation will increasingly come from the most unlikely, underdeveloped, and underserved sources, there is also this question of how to strike the balance between top down and bottom up innovation and implementation. The OLPC initiative is trying to strike such a balance with the “top down” development of the project itself and the technology. However, they are equally dependent upon bottom up or grass roots development of what will become the deciding factor for how well OLPC is realized. This includes the use of an “open source” type of approach to the continued development of the hardware and the software platforms, but so too will be the development of teachers and other members of the communities and support structure necessary to make this all work.
I really hope that by bringing these initiatives to your attention and by provoking some of these questions, all of us will choose to join forces with these initiatives, and contribution individually and in groups to our mutual and overall success. I’ve peppered the text above with lots of questions, but to spice up your thinking even more, consider some of these additional key questions and PLEASE post more of your own.
- What will happen when children start graduating from schools with regular access to such technology into societies and economies that are not ready to or have not changed accordingly?
- Will they choose to leave and go to other places that have changed?
- Will they stay and cause the change to occur?
- Or will these types of initiatives cause economies and societies to change along with them?
- Is this any different than the recent and current situation in our own communities that have had access to this type of technology for years and how we are seeing similar challenges with the new graduates entering the work force and the dynamics between various generations of users?
- Will the necessary support structure be developed to surround this massive influx of laptops and technology?
- Will these laptops go to those who need them or will they still only get into the hands of those who have money, however little?
There is no question that technology will continue to play a pivotal role in changing our world, for better and for worse. However, we get to decide how quickly and how well these changes will progress. It is our choice, both individually and collectively, as to whether initiatives such as OLPC and the concept of “One Laptop Per Person” will bring about any significant change, have a negative impact, or truly change the world for the better. Believing that we truly are given this choice, I choose the latter. I hope that most of you will choose the same, turning our words into actions and deeds. Here’s to better learning, loving, and living.