Kevin Delaney’s March 31st article for the Wall Street Journal, “What Do Kids Want? For children raised on the Web browser, a new computer proved to be less of a hit than one parent expected” reveals perceptions of computer use which I suspect are sadly common. He wrote:

Generally, we limit the [our] kids to one or two hours on the computer on weekend days. And at first, they were eager to spend that time on the XO. But they soon became less and less interested in the laptop. Once Jack packed it up in a briefcase when he was playing at being a grown-up — but he didn’t actually turn it on. When the kids wanted to use a computer, which they do mostly to play simple Web-based games, they turned instead to our old desktop PC.

If the expectation for optimal computer use is simply web surfing, YouTube watching and online game playing, it should not come as a surprise that some parents and children find themselves disappointed by the OLPC. Kevin admits that he has modeled this use as well as perception of the computer’s potential for his own children in his final paragraph, writing:

And in fact, my behavior isn’t that much different. Part of my own rationalization for buying a new iMac G5 computer a few years ago was that I could use it for music and video projects, thanks to its GarageBand and iMovie software. Now that I have it, what do I do? Mostly, I just browse the Web.

What a sad commentary this is on common perceptions of computers by adults in our society! This is a VERY limited perspective of understanding about personal computing technologies, and the ways they can and should be used in our homes and lives more generally. Computer technology offers SO much more than the ability to “surf” information and consume multimedia. Unfortunately most of the teachers at the public elementary school my own children attend seem to share Kevin’s perception of computers, with the addition (of course) that computers are great for keyboarding/typing reports, taking AR tests, and taking other types of online assessments. In the 4th grade musical program at our school in February (which was WONDERFUL but my wife and I unfortunately missed because of our trip to Seattle) the students theatrically related different topics they learned about in school. What did they learn about technology and computers? How to “surf” the web. They sang a cute song about it, in fact, complete with surfboards and Beach Boys style music. (We watched the DVD of the performance last week.)

Great. We are surrounded by people writing for national newspapers as well as running our public schools, who think the purpose of a computer is to “surf” for information and take tests. (My expression of personal frustration over this isn’t just starting today, of course. My post “Computers for just testing and math games” from February relates closely to the themes of this post too.)

The most compelling vision of computer use I have heard to date is that of Gary Stager, who has been heavily influenced by the ideas of Seymour Papert. In Gary’s Learning 2.0 conference presentation in Shanghai last fall titled “10 things to do with a laptop” (available as a podcast) Gary discussed the personal computer as a “laboratory for ideas and a medium for expressing your creativity.” In this article, Kevin recognizes that his Macintosh computer includes WONDERFUL applications like iMovie and Garageband to CREATE media. It also includes the amazing applications iChat (Similar to Skype but with better video quality) to communicate and collaborate via videoconferencing with friends, family, and acquaintances around the world. Is Kevin modeling and encouraging these types of transformative learning experiences with technology for his own children? According to the article, no. He’s content for his own children to remain passive consumers of media content, surfing the web and playing online games because “that’s what we do on computers.”

I’m philosophically and pedagogically with Gary Stager and other followers of Seymour Papert’s vision of learning and computers when it comes to situations like this. I believe computers should be regarded not as mere funnels for content delivery, but rather as “imagination machines.” Garageband and iMovie ARE fantastic applications for people who want to express themselves creatively and find powerful ways to extend their own imaginations into the virtual ether. Sadly, too many people today seem to view the computer as “just another screen” and basically use it (along with the Internet) as a fancy television set with more channel and game choices. The computer can “do” so much more than just multimedia, however! Look at Scratch, Alice and MicroWorlds! Consider the broad range of uses for the software applications included on the OLPC! Multimedia use is just a PART of the potential offered by the OLPC and personal computers more generally. This vision of technology use is unfortunately not something Kevin (and many others) seem to “get.” YET.

The only tangible way to help students develop media literacy skills is to have worthwhile conversations about the media and content which surrounds us, and encourage others (as well as model ourselves) to move from the role of passive CONTENT CONSUMER into the role of active CONTENT CREATOR. We need to advocate for this type of technology use not only within our schools, but also within our homes.

I’m sorry to read that Kevin Delaney is disappointed in the XO Laptop, since it turns out not to be the web surfing, cutting edge multimedia funnel that he and his children expected it to be. It is true if he buys a Macbook for his children, they can experience the “consumptive multimedia funnel” which apparently belies their overall desire to own and use laptop computers.

There is still hope, however. Nothing is stopping Kevin or others from reading Seymour Papert’s book “The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer.” I have read the book, and it has helped me continue to expand my own thinking about the capabilities of children for exploration and learning, as well as the powerfully constructive role which computers can play in those experiences. I still need to read “The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap” by Seymour Papert, which is targeted at a parent rather than an educator audience. It is true my own children sometimes groan when I tell them that they are going to make another VoiceThread about some experience they’ve just had. Sure, it would be easier to not be asked to think deeply about what they have learned and be required to CREATE something which reflects their changed perceptions as a result of a learning experience. It wasn’t “easy” for Alexander to create his VoiceThread about our trip to Washington D.C. several weeks ago— it took a couple hours of pretty hard thinking and work. We are trying as a family, however, to model computer use which goes far beyond the simple “multimedia funnel” model. We love to watch videos and play games online. But we also enjoy using our computers as THINKING MACHINES, to extend our own thinking and share our thinking safely with a global audience that sometimes provides feedback! In many cases, I think people who use digital technologies and the Internet today are in more need of a “mindware upgrade” than a hardware upgrade.

I emailed Kevin Delaney this morning and offered to purchase his XO laptop from him for $200. I hope he takes me up on the offer. I’d love for my own kids to have a chance to explore the XO “imagination machine” at length, and since I missed out on the pre-Christmas XO Giving program a few months ago, I think purchasing an XO from a dissatisfied customer like Kevin is probably my best hope for getting one now.

Holding the OLPC!

This above photo is my son and I holding the XO owned by Tim DiScipio (of ePals) last month in Washington DC. To fully experience the power, fun, and learning potential of the XO (as we did in Seattle in February with Mark Ahlness, Glenn Malone and his wife) we’ll need to find a way to purchase at least TWO XO laptops for home use!

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Anyone else interesting in selling their XO, or donating it to a worthy family learning project?! ūüôā If so, please contact me.

Thanks to Mark Cosby of Editure for letting me know about Kevin Delaney’s WSJ article.

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4 Responses to If you just want to play games online, don’t get an XO

  1. […] a provocative – but compelling – post by Wesley Fryer on the limited interpretation that some people have about what computers nowadays are supposed to do to be “good.” […]

  2. […] It’s a little slow.¬† The XO takes about 2 minutes to boot up.¬† Activities (programs) take about 20 seconds to start.¬†¬†Inserting a picture into the¬†word processor takes about 10 seconds to open the file dialog.¬† Internet browsing seems sluggish.¬† Scrolling¬†through large PDF files¬†also¬†seems¬†sluggish.¬† However, switching between activities is fast.¬† See Wesley Fryer’s blog entry about the XO’s performance here. […]

  3. tom says:

    Great thoughts, Wes. Yes, we all need a mindware upgrade. I share your frustration, but along a different scale than yours. I deal with teachers who don’t even collaborate around a table on one paragraph on one piece of paper. If the next mindware upgrade is to face-to-face and paper, what will it take to progress after that? Electro-shock therapy?

    This, once more, is not about the technology. It’s about having to work hard at learning and using new stuff, progressing slowly and creating something crummy the first few times you try, overcoming the embarrassment and self-criticism until practice makes less imperfect, wishing that someday it would come naturally.

    I believe people who have mastered a language or a musical instrument (or piloting?) have figured something out about learning that makes this easier. When I’m in Texas I get tired sometimes of people saying they wish they could learn to speak Spanish like me –as if it’s a switch I just decided to turn on– when I’ve been doing it for 35 years, and I’m still working on it. The people who see you enjoying your skill often don’t even think about what it took for you to get there.

    What a surprise to find out that, to use even a word processor or email well, you’ve got to think harder about what you’re doing, figure stuff out and learn dozens of mini-skills that were never necessary in the days of typewriters. If people aren’t braced for that learning curve, the challenge might be too much for them, and they’ll never even get to the “this blows my mind!” stage.

  4. Vembl says:

    Well, XO might help us to overcome the generation gap in the online world. However I think that it is necessary to show children some other hobbies and activities than computers and gaming as when they grow up they will see that life is not just computers, gaming and communities.

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