[Olpc-open] Responding to misinformed criticism of OLPC

James Sayre jfsayre at vcn.bc.ca
Thu Dec 13 00:40:26 EST 2007

Hello to all of you.

I'm a new member of this list.  It's great that so many enthusiastic
people are working on this important project.

Some of you may know that a nasty attack on the OLPC concept was written
by John Dvorak of PCMag and ZDNet recently.  It's getting a lot of
attention, unfortunately, and it would be helpful if supporters would
counter some of the misinformation.  Here's the link:

Fwiw, here's my latest response to the Dvorak article.  I'm sure that
those of you who are actively involved in the developing and using the
computers in the classroom could be much more specific about the many

jfsayre at vcn.bc.ca

> No one is suggesting that 3rd world countries should reduce their food programs to buy laptops.  It's dishonest to pretend that the relevant choice is between food for starving people and a potentially invaluable educational tool.  Both food and education are vital, especially if 3rd world countries are ever going to catch up with the developed world.  If choices have to be made by well off countries or individuals, they can spend less on unnecessary wars, gas-guzzling SUVs, or winter holidays in expensive resorts, and spend the extra money supporting both worthy causes.  
> As Nicholas Negroponte says, OLPC is an education project, not a laptop project.  When it's considered in that light, it's potentially brilliant.  
> I say this from a perspective which many of its critics in the technical community don't have, because I spent several years teaching in First Nations elementary schools in northern Canada in the 60's and 70's, at a time when our educational resources were similar to the poorest 3rd world schools today.  
> In one of those communities, there were no roads, electricity, plumbing, telephones (cell or otherwise), mail service or radio or TV reception.  The only textbooks were Dick and Jane readers that had been discarded by the public schools, which showed Dick and Jane walking down the sidewalk to school with their little dog Spot while their father went off to work with his briefcase.  My students' fathers went to work in a canoe or on snowshoes to their trapline or fishing camp.   The readers were about as relevant to them as a story about Martians.  
> There were also NO materials whatever in the children's own language, even though only a couple of people in the community could speak any English.  I could try to make my own material, but the only way to make copies was a "hectograph" contraption that could make a few copies of a worksheet, if you had an hour to create a masterset first and do them one by one.  
> One of the most important factors in education is to make it relevant.  But how can that be done in a community where there are no relevant materials, even if the government had the money to print and distribute them? 
> The concept behind the OLPC project - individual computers for each student linked into a mesh classroom intranet - answers this and many other educational needs in a far cheaper and far more immediate way than any collection of books and other traditional materials that could be made available.   Once the teachers get the computers and learn how to set them up, their goal will be to create a classroom where the computer largely replaces both books, and paper based work.  
> I think that it's a bit of a mistake for the OLPC promoters to talk about the benefits of the internet.  Teachers will probably turn off internet access for most of the day, so that the class will concentrate on their lessons.  The internet will be used mainly at scheduled times for research projects or to allow the students to interact with classes in other parts of the country, or even other continents.  (Much of the criticism will disappear when OLPC equipped classes begin to set up interactive sessions with classes in the developed world.)
> Governments which adopt the OLPC model will almost certainly supplement them with more powerful computers for the teachers, large disk drives and CD burners for storage, and digital cameras.  Lessons loaded from a CD or created on the teacher's computer will be instantly available via the network to all the students, without the need to go to the copier or use a single sheet of paper.  A demonstration like solving a math question on the blackboard will be done instead on the shared screen, and then saved instead of being erased to make room for the next problem.  If a student neds extra help after class or was away sick, the demonstration will be there when it's needed, and instead of re-creating it for the next class, the teacher's time can be spent more productively. 
> Special reading and other materials will be created by teachers and students based on the actual community where they live, with locally meaningful details and maybe even their own pictures and voices.  Some of it will be copied and sent to other schools where it's also relevant.  In a poor country with many different dialects and local cultures, computer based education is the only practical way to do this.   It will also make it possible to keep the material current, unlike a paper copy of an enyclopedia, for example. 
> And the benefits aren't just for the students.  These will not only be useful in class; they'll enable the entire community to participate.  Students can use the cameras to interview their parents and grandparents and preserve oral history, which can later be used in the classroom. 
> If you think about all of that, schools using computer based learning just might leapfrog over schools in developed countries in many respects.  They will surely be better than they would be if without the computers. Anyway, the success or failure of these early efforts at computer based learning will be decided by the teachers and students who finally get a chance to try it.  Why not have a little faith that they'll find a way to work out the problems and maximize the benefits just as we probably would if we were in their shoes, rather than dumping on a great idea that is just starting to be tested for first time? 


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Community Legal Assistance Society
Per:  James Sayre
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