Monday, December 8, 2008

Happy 40th Birthday, Dynabook!

Thanks to Bill Kerr for alerting me to this fantastic 45-minute video in which Alan Kay, the "inventor of the personal computer," tells the story of the Dynabook invented as a children's machine 40 years ago. Kay and colleagues trace this evolution to the OLPC XO and discuss the work yet to be done to realize this forty year-old vision.

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Friday, December 5, 2008

Ask ISTE a Simple Question

Last year, more than 100,000 generous Americans invested in the One Laptop Per Child's Give One, Get One promotion (as explained on this web site created by my Masters degree students). The promotion made it possible to make a personal laptop computer a reality for hundreds of thousands of children in some of the world's poorest countries.

Since ISTE seeks to be the premiere educational technology advocacy group in the world, it seems curious they have done nothing whatsoerver to promote the efforts of One Laptop Per Child or the Give One, Get One promotion ending at the end of the year.

Why not take a minute to contact some of the folks listed here on the ISTE web site or its Board of Directors and ask them why the International Society for Technology in Education is silent on connecting the world's poorest children to the 21st Century?

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The Banned Collection is Back - Issue 4

Two different education magazines refused to publish this article about the One Laptop Foundation's heroic efforts to produce a low-cost, rugged, low-power personal laptop computer for some of the world's poorest children. This rejection was a contributing factor to me ending my relationship with one magazine after more than a decade while a second magazine accused the column of being irrelevant to educators.

One editor was concerned that the article "might offend potential advertisers" and refused publication even after ample documentation was provided to support my claims.

Read The Best Way to Make Enemies... Do the Impossible and see what all of the controversy is about. Please share your thoughts here on my blog!

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Students Change the World!

Greetings from Qatar!

My entire "Learning and Technology" Online Master of Arts in Educational Technology class at Pepperdine University collaborated online to create a web site promoting the One Laptop Per Child Foundation's Give One, Get One promotion in which Americans pay $398 and get an XO laptop computer (known as the $100 computer) and a child in the developing world gets one as well. Donors also receive a $199 tax deduction. This special offer runs between today and December 31st.

This learning adventure embraced by students was an opportunity for them to develop technological, project-management and advocacy skills, in addition to making the learning case for G1G1. It was gratifying to receive email messages from students thanking me for the assignment. Having a sense of purpose makes learning more meaningful.

Check out result of the students' efforts at the following URL:

The OLPC Mission

The XO Computer

The Unique XO Interface

Superbowl MVP Tom Brady on the G1G1

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Why Microsoft and Intel tried to kill the XO $100 laptop

Read this article from the Times of London before you spend one more dollar on Microsoft products or endorse Intel's Teach for the Future program!

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Video from the OLPC Country Workshop

I'm delighted to be a member of the One Laptop Per Child Foundation's Learning Team. The learning philosophy of OLPC and its computer, the XO, are an exciting manifestation of my 25 years worth of teaching Logo to kids and teachers as well as my work with "laptop schools" since 1990.

On May 20th, hundreds of educators, government officials and thought leaders from dozens of countries descended on the MIT Media Lab for a global summit organized by OLPC. Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of OLPC, gave a "State of OLPC" presentation in which he reviewed the organization's amazing accomplishments and presented XO 2.0. He also explained how the success of the Give One, Get One program made the XO cost $100 in developing countries.

Several leaders from countries using the XO (the "$100 laptop") spoke about the need for the XO in their countries, the implementation issues and the obstacles they have overcome. Oscar Becera's presentation, "The Starfish on the Beach: Why OLPC for the Poorest and Most Remote? and How?" was particularly interesting. Many children in Peru live a 4 day walk from Internet access.

My old friend and colleagues, David Cavallo and Mitchel Resnick spoke about learning and computing, while the father of the personal computer, Alan Kay, finished the day with another thought provoking discussion of the computer's unrealized potential in education. Dr. Kay's talk is highly recommended.

Best of all, these videos are all available for you to watch online here

The videos are up to an hour in length and available in Flash and OGG formats. The OGG files are easier on the eyes and larger. If you don't have software capable of playing OGG files, try VLC. VLC is GNU free and cross-platform. VLC the Swiss Army Knife of video players. It seems to play anything, including DVDs encoded for another region!

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Friday, July 27, 2007

Why Should Software Be Free? (version 1.0)

Bits for the poor

Wesley Fryer’s recent blog, A digital playground of dreams?, makes the case for play and then discusses what would/should be in a digital playground. I think the logic is that if  real playgrounds are good for kids, so are digital playgrounds.

OK, so far so good. But then the article assumes that software (at least software for kids) should be free. Why is free the criteria?

Why is software so devalued that a growing number of people believe it should be free?

Balls and playground equipment are not free. Hardware is not free. Spelling books and standardized tests are not free.

Why not have free teachers? You could all work voluntarily.

Is the quest for free software rooted in the low self-image of educators? Why should teachers depend on charity? This emphasis on “free-ness” seems sad, needy and symptomatic of powerlessness to me.

It’s one thing to be a good bargain hunter on behalf of your students. I too have learned to wait around conference exhibits waiting for vendors to give me books and PE equipment they don’t want to ship back to the office. However, that seems qualitatively different from the lonely teacher I see shuffling out of the half demolished exhibit hall carrying armloads of free bags full of other bags. Should educators be reduced to bag ladies? Is software the new free ballpoint pen?

There’s no such thing as free software

Software development is paid for by either of the following:

  • Consumers/customers
  • Government agencies via grants to research and development institutions in higher education or the K-12 bureaucracy (for example, The National Science Foundation or the military)
  • Universities
  • For-profit companies spending investor funds and tax credits to make charitable contributions to education
  • A programmer working alone or with his/her friends who want to share their software

In all, but the last (and least common) case, the free software you are using cost you as a taxpayer or someone else, as a stockholder. You just didn’t use a credit card at Best Buy to pay for it.

It is certainly the case that educators embraced Microsoft Office as what kids should do with computers. I've been on-the-record against children playing Donald Trump dress-up in computer labs for decades. For Pete’s sake you can satisfy ALL of the ISTE standards with Office alone. The new appeals for creativity and innovation are mere lip service.

Even with productivity tools (what an awful term for children) you could do with fewer features. Such streamlined design would reduce costs and make software more usable and developmentally appropriate for children. This does not mean for one instant that I believe that preschoolers are incapable of using Office. What I do mean is that the false complexity implied by too many menus, submenus and dialog boxes ensures that the teacher’s focus is on features and the software’s peculiarities rather than on its creative use.

Don’t believe me? Look at the number of district tech plans that make using scroll bars a nine-year scope and sequence? How many 700-page books are published to teach you to use a web browser or word processor?

I love inexpensive software, but I'm weary of digital handouts. Some of the most ingenious pieces of software I use regularly are shareware. I pay a reasonable fee to a clever person who provided me with a great service.

The fact that districts, states and national governments surrender too much public treasure to Microsoft is not an argument against hardworking software designers and programmers earning a living. Some countries (more so than in the USA) often subsidize the development of software and materials for schools that compete directly with the open market. You'd be hard pressed to identify three such products that were worth what the government invested.

You get what you pay for

Sure, it’s relatively easy for programmers to knock-off free copies of existing software – paint programs, word processors and even operating systems fall into this category. Occasionally some of these programs are even better than the commercial originals. However, the hard expensive work of invention has already occurred.

It’s expensive and incredibly hard to invent (after all software design is a form of invention) productive contexts for learning; what Seymour Papert called microworlds. Microworlds facilitate creativity, problem solving, divergent thinking, debugging and encounters with powerful ideas. It takes educational experts and gifted software designers to create such environments for children. If such software packages are developed, their sales potential is extremely limited since their market is almost exclusively K-12 schools. The same customers that expect software to be free.

Have you noticed that the educational software industry is nearly dead? This is one reason why I organized The Constructivist Consortium. The Consortium brings together publishers of creative open-ended learning materials so they may stand out in a sea of “smart” furniture, multiple-choice clickers and testing software while giving voice to the fantastic educators who work every day to provide constructive creative learning opportunities for their students.

Even in the hey-day of Reader Rabbit and Math Blaster, the school market was just viewed as a way of lending legitimacy to dubious software packages for sale at the local Wal-Mart. Schools never bought much of the software, but the publishers were able to point to classroom use as a way of convincing parents that the software would “teach” their children something.

Small creative educational software companies, such as Logo Computer Systems, Inc., (LCSI) now in its 26th year of creating powerful software environments for learning, have worked tirelessly to make high-quality products available to American students, but they are no match for the white board pitch-men and the integrated “learning” systems companies.

Many of you may not remember this, but it was LCSI, a 100% educational software company, that invented the site license with the release of LogoWriter in 1985. Such brilliant software grew with the learner and could be used creatively for years cost very little. However, its developers deserved to feed their families and invest in the development of future software like LEGO TC Logo and MicroWorlds EX.

It was also LogoWriter and later, MicroWorlds, that fueled the education renaissance in Costa Rica.  (see articles here and here) Teachers began to see themselves and their students’ potentials through fresh eyes and not only were Costa Rican schools improved, but the nation’s economic fortunes rose as well.

The fatal flaw in the $100 laptop

As the person who led professional development in the world’s first laptop schools back in 1990, I have spent nearly two decades as an unabashed evangelist for every student owning a personal portable full-function computer.

I am an unapologetic supporter of the $100 Laptop initiative and refuse to be drawn into petty squabbles over hardware features, price-point or whether or not the project honors teachers sufficiently. I believe that putting millions of PCs in the hands of children does hold the potential to change the world and may offer the first opportunity in generations to rethink teaching and learning.

That said, my greatest disappointment with the One Laptop Per Child project is that the principles involved do not think that it is difficult to develop high-quality intellectually expansive software for children and they refuse to pay others to develop it. Without such software, the potential of the $100 laptop will be severely crippled. Children will be able to consume information and chat, just like American kids. They just won’t be able to create or be the mathematicians, scientists, composers, engineers, filmmakers or computer scientists they could be if the “smart” adults behind the development of the hardware had more respect for software development.

A great robust developmentally appropriate programming environment, like MicroWorlds EX, would be a welcome addition to each $100 laptop. However, Redhat employees cannot develop such software during their lunch break. It requires expertise and insight into learning that they (and even MIT students) lack. It’s too bad since such an environment would add sustainability to the creative and intellectual use of the device and allow students to create software themselves.

I fear that if fewer children have experience programming computers and expressing themselves symbolically, then software will cases to have any value at all. Wes Fryer’s blog paraphrases Alan Kay about “inventing the future,” but the actual quote is “The best way to predict the future is by inventing it.” I’m confident that Dr. Kay believes that one way of inventing the future is by constructing knowledge and new tools via computer programming. The future does not look very bright if as Seymour Papert pointed out, we deprive children of the opportunity to understand and control the technology so central to their lives.

Footnote #1

Why not call software an invention? People don’t expect inventions to be free?

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

My partial response to the OLPC discussion on Will Richardson's Blog

Will Richardson led a discussion of the One Laptop Per Child ($100) initiative, aka: the $100 Laptop, on his blog,

Here are a few of my thoughts on the thoughts of Will and the people who commented on his blog.


I've spent 17 years working with 1:1 schools all over the world and I have an ongoing relationship with many of the leading thinkers behind the OLPC. Therefore, I have a number of perspectives I would like to share.

I think you miss the big idea when you say...

"Let’s hope the pedagogies that these kids are taught help them take full advantage of the awesome connection that they now have."

This is NOT about teaching. Your young children didn't need a school curriculum or NETS Standards to use the computer. Neither do children in Nigeria.


The power of OLPC is in placing computational technology in the hands of children. The theoretical basis for the OLPC is Seymour Papert's work (suggested reading, "The Children's Machine). Papert's work concerns students using computers to make things - programs, robots, games, simulations, poems, movies, etc... - that are sharable with others. The ability to connect those computers, no matter how cool Web 2.0 tools are, is secondary to the construction of knowledge through the explicit act of making things. What makes the computer special is its ability to make lots of new things in many ways. Modern knowledge is made accessible not just by asking questions or looking things up, but by using computers to do the work of mathematicians, filmmakers, computer scientists, engineers, writers, composers, scientists, etc...

Papert began writing about the promise of every children having a computer back in the mid 1960s. He was mocked for that position then as many mock OLPC now. Alan Kay visited Seymour Papert's Logo Lab in 1968, observed young children engaged in sophisticated mathematical thinking and was inspired to sketch the Dynabook on the flight back to Xerox Park. In other words, the laptop (and personal computer - also Kay's term) was invented as an instrument for children.


With all due respect to Brian, we here in the USA are amateurs at poverty compared to much of the world. Comparing free and reduced school lunch percentages to life in Africa really doesn't cut it. A billion or two people in the world earn less than $1 per day per family. I am however thrilled that his students are doing great things with personal computers.


Carolyn is correct when she points out the community involvement of OLPC. I asked Negroponte why OLPC was bothering with schools at all, "Why not pass the laptops out on street corners and give each kid a purple thumb to signify that they received their computer?" Negroponte told me that they considered that, but that schools offered a distribution channel.

If the OLPC is about empowering children and the future of learning then it should come as no surprise that schooing is NOT the focus.

That is a message that the edublogger community should applaud. I read a great deal on this site about the decline of schooling and need for a replacement. OLPC represents an investment in R&D when research and development is virtually non-existent in education.

Educators seem genetically predisposed to crave professional development even when NO evidence exists that it works. A quarter century after microcomputers arrived in American schools even the wealthiest schools cannot get teachers to use them. "Lack of professional development" is an addiction. The demand for it is insatiable. Let's move on.

The most important variable of OLPC is the fact that a million or more laptops will be delivered in one country at one time. I have long known that limited access to computers is a major barrier to use.

We have no idea what might result from giving 1 million or more children PERSONAL computers at the same time. Why not support the lucky kids who receive "The Children's Machine" and see what we might learn from them. Then and only then are we in a credible position to set policy.

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