Despite numerous experiences which could persuade me otherwise, I remain an ardent idealist who wants to change the world for the better. Nicholas Negroponte and the OLPC project have been two extremely influential inspirations to me in the past few years. The March 2010 issue of “The Rotarian” magazine includes the article, “The Rotarian Conversation — Nicholas Negroponte.” Several of the answers Dr. Negroponte provided to the author of this article remind me again of why I find his work and OLPC specifically so motivational.

Education in Iraq
Creative Commons License photo credit: One Laptop per Child

We need to be helping our own children and the children in our schools learn to write and create computer programs with free software like Scratch and Squeak. I don’t care that this activity isn’t in the “state standards” in Oklahoma or most likely the rest of the states in our nation. We need to do it not because a committee legislated it as a mandate, but because this is the RIGHT thing to do. Negroponte addressed this need in this March 2010 article, stating:

OLPC was officially created in 2005, but we didn’t wake up in 2005 and decide to build a $100 laptop. Seymour Papert’s theories about children and learning were developed after he worked with Jean Piaget in Geneva. Papert came to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and started to work at what he called “teaching children how to think.” He realized that if children could write computer programs, the act of writing a program was the closest they could come to learning about learning itself. That’s true, because when you write a program, it never works the first time. You have to debug it. Papert’s position was that the act of debugging was learning about the learning process.

Later this month in Oklahoma, we’re expecting around ten schools to be awarded a portion of the $6.5 million in ARRA TitleIID funding given to our state by the deficit-loving Obama administration and our complicit Congress. I’m very glad to see some of our state leaders recognizing the IMPERATIVE for 1:1 learning in our schools. We do NOT need to put $1000 devices in the hands of all the schoolchildren in our state, however. We need to put $200 devices in their hands, because $200 devices can be used in remarkably constructive, creative, and transformative ways AND those costs can be sustained EVEN in a time of ridiculously low funding levels for public education. On this topic in the article, Negroponte stated:

Whether teachers have paper and pencils or books is a secondary issue. By all means, train teachers and build schools, but it’s going to take years. In the meantime, is there a way to leverage the children themselves? There are roughly a billion children in the world. You can go to the countries where we go and find half the kids not in school. In exceptional cases – girls in Afghanistan, for example – it is often too dangerous. Children are so good; they learn so much by interacting with the world. In 2003, my son, Dimitri, went to Cambodia and started a school. I sent him Panasonic Toughbooks. The kids were bringing the laptops home. That changed the whole fabric of the village. I asked, looking at a cute picture of the kids holding up their laptops, what in this picture is not going to happen by normal market forces? In the background of the picture was a satellite dish, but to me it was the laptop that was important. Normal market forces were not going to lower the cost, because every time the cost goes down, the industry adds more features… I’ll give you an example: Learning English in the rest of the world is an issue because the people who teach English can’t speak it. If you sit in the back of an English class at our school in Cambodia, you wouldn’t even know they were teaching English. It’s not intelligible. But now kids can do short text messaging or go to the Web site and download English and hear it. They can do things that just couldn’t happen before. Books? We could put 100 books on a laptop and just fractionally touch the memory. Then you ship 100 laptops into a village. Each laptop can have 100 different books. Now, in a small village in the middle of Africa, you can have 10,000 books. Talk about the economics of books – this is the most economical way to get them to an entire village. You go to Ethiopia today, and there are kids who write computer programs in the Squeak language. You don’t find kids in this country writing computer programs in first and second grade. When a country does not have an established telecom infrastructure, in a sense they can leapfrog with some of the pieces.

I’m just as excited as anyone you’ll find on the street or in your school about the iPad and Apple Technology. But you know what? I say, “Bring on the netbooks.” Because they don’t just run “junk software.” They CAN run amazing software like Sugar, and incredibly powerful as well as collaborative software like Google Apps for Education. The learning revolution of which you and I are a part ain’t just for the rich kids and parents. It’s for everyone. This is one of the reasons Negroponte’s work inspires me so strongly. Our advocacy for better learning opportunities shouldn’t be limited to the wealthy schools in the rich, white suburbs. It should be for ALL the urban kids living in the cities, and for all the rural kids living out in the sticks too. Sure, I’ll buy an iPad and I’m sure I’ll love it. But I’ll be even more excited when ALL the kids in our state, poor as well as rich, have a laptop computer from which they can access and collaborate with the world.

OLPC XO and Intel Classmate PC
Creative Commons License photo credit: curiouslee

Do we care about our kids and their learning, or are we still willing to believe the hypnotic swan song of ignorant and ill-informed politicians who are driving our public education system off a cliff to oblivion? For those who continue to make the ridiculous claim, “We can afford it,” I point them to Negroponte’s words in this article:

… Here [in the United States] we spend thousands of dollars per child per year on primary education. When you spend that amount and you add or subtract a laptop, it’s economically insignificant. It’s also sort of an accessory to a big educational machine, whether you think it’s working well or not. When you go to a country that is only spending $100 a year per child, to spend $20 or $30 of that on a connected laptop on a prorated, yearly basis is a huge difference. Rwanda this year alone is spending 20 percent of its education budget on laptops – OLPC computers, it turns out.

Bring on the learning revolution, and bring on the laptops. Can we please elect some state and national leaders who clearly understand these needs, and have the courage to ACT in the interests of our children?

OLPC New York Lady Composite Cropped Square
Creative Commons License photo credit: curiouslee

Hat tip to my Dad for sharing this article with me.

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One Response to Inspired by OLPC, Nicholas Negroponte and Seymour Papert

  1. Kent Chesnut says:

    Wes,
    Wow! Very inspirational. Thanks for sharing.
    Kent

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