Sunday, September 28, 2008

So, what's it good for? (XO Laptop, part 3)

(I wrote this quite a while back, but was never really happy with how it turned out. Here it is, nevertheless)

See also Part 1 and Part 2 

Okay, so I've had a chance to play with the XO some more, and I've been thinking about how it might be useful for school kids in the developing world. You can read more about the project and their official justifications for it at the OLPC web site.

But as a computer geek, and an early adopter of the personal computer in my own country (the USA), I thought it might be interesting to look at it from the perspective of my own experience.


I first encountered Personal Computers some time in the mid-to-late 1970's, when they started appearing, in small numbers, in schools, at my friends' houses, and in stores. The first time I sat down at a computer and typed in a BASIC program, I was totally hooked. I experiemented with computers at other kid's houses, played with the systems on display at local stores, and even stayed after school and took summer classes at the local community college to get access to computers.

For the next few Christmases and birthdays, when my parents asked me what I wanted, I only had one answer: "I want a computer!". Unfortunately, it wasn't until about 1982/3 when my parents could scrape together the nearly unimaginable sum of $500 or so to buy me my first computer - a Texas Instruments 99/4a. I loved that thing to death, and it was a major part of my life for several years. I would have been ecstatic if someone had come to me at age 9 or so and said "here is a computer of your very own, to use at school, and to take home with you at night".

I got my first computer-related job my Junior year in High School. In theory, I was hired to do simple assembly and software loading on PCs, but I very rapidly got into more and more programming on a regular basis. You could fairly say that I wouldn't be where I am today without that early access to computer technology.

I went to my 20-year High School reunion recently, and one of the things that struck me was the number of folks who were working in more-or-less high-tech fields, particularly computer software. For a bunch of middle-class midwestern folks, we did really well riding the tech wave. I think that having computers in our schools (and a mandatory computer literacy class in high school) was a major factor there.

Okay, back on track...

So, having access to computers at an early age changed my life, and led to me to a highly-paid job in the technology industry. So what? That's probably not a reasonable goal for a poor kid in South America or Africa, there being no reasonable local high-tech industry for them to move into when they grow up (yet).

But, as the OLPC folks put it, "this is an education project, not a laptop project". So it's not (just) about providing computer literacy, but improving the educational process overall.

One example of this is textbooks - textbooks are surprisingly expensive, and as a result, aren't readily available, or frequently updated, in developing countries. If every child has their laptop, then textbooks can be stored on them, greatly reducing year-to year costs, allowing for more frequent updates, and freeing the students from carting a heavy load of books to and from school.

Or take language instruction - if you live in a developing country, one of the best things you can do to improve your chances at a better career is to learn a major language of commerce - English, Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, or whatever. But if there aren't any native English speakers in your village, who are you going to learn from? It'd be *really* easy to write a basic English primer to run on the OLPC, complete with video of a native English speaker demonstrating pronunciation.

Other features of the laptop are especially geared towards communication. In addition to the ability to access the internet, every laptop has an integrated video camera. In addition to giving the kids another device to experiment with, the teachers can use it to "send a note home" with the child, even if the child's parents are illiterate.

But, aren't there better places to spend the money? Don't these people need food and medicine first?

Yes, that's a common criticism - what's the point of giving children laptops, if they're dying of malnutrition, dysentery, malaria, and AIDS?

First, not everybody in the developing world is starving

In fact, there's no good reason for anybody to go without food, given the surpluses in the USA and elsewhere. If someone is starving out there, it's a political problem (i.e. someone in power doesn't care enough about them to feed them).

Second, who's to say we can't do both?

There are already lots of charities working on addressing basic human needs. The Gates Foundation is working to improve the health and basic welfare of children and adults all over the world. They're vaccinating children, helping small businesspeople bootstrap local economies, etc, etc. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization and UNICEF are doing their part as well. As an exclusively education-focused initiative, OLPC can provide services that aren't being covered by other agencies.

Knowledge is power
Finally, you can easily make the argument that a lot of the problems in the developing world are actually educational problems at the root. One reason that AIDS infection rates are so high in Africa is because of lack of education about the causes of AIDS and how to avoid becoming infected.

Similarly, rampant governmental corruption is not inevitable, but if you don't actually know that things don't work that way elsewhere in the world, how are you ever going to start down the road of cleaning it up?

I'd like to think that hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren running around with laptops that can function as digital camcorders would help bridge the gap of understanding between the folks in the developing world, and us in the "developed" world.

In conclusion
I think that despite the much-publicized management problems with the OLPC project, it's an interesting approach that I hope will have a positive effect on the children that participate. Even if the program as a whole doesn't quite work out as planned, hopefully we'll all learn something from it about how to "do it right" the next time.

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