Archive/Current Events/2010-11-08

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Sugar Digest

1. I first met Alan Kay in the late 1970s. I was working on a personalized news project – think Google News meets Facebook – for which Alan came up with the name NewsPeek – a play off of George Orwell's New Speak.

It was then that I first heard Alan's definition of technology: "anything invented after you were born." Taking technology down off of its pedestal is never easy for someone at MIT, but over the years I have come back to those words again and again, as they help me to combat the spell that cool engineering casts and thus I am reminded to look at the essence of what is being accomplished by the technology. The words also serve to remind me to take the long view – those to whom technology is just 'stuff' will be the ones who will be best able to wield it to their advantage. It is in this spirit that I have been advocating that computation should be "on the low shelf" of every child – a "thing to think with" readily at hand to every child. I'll return to this theme in a moment.

Another lesson from Alan at the time was his list of five things computers were (or would be) good for: (1) getting and holding our attention; (2) word processing; (3) information retrieval; (4) simulation; and (5) interpersonal communication. A remarkable list, especially considering that he compiled it 40-years ago. Perhaps the only thing missing from the list is reflection: computers, with their ability to capture a record of everything we do, can be a great medium for reflecting upon our work. And arguably, these 5 (or 6) things underly all of the best efforts to use computers in school and as a facility to learning.

Why am I reminiscing about Alan Kay? When I read Christoph Derndorfer's article about OLPC Peru, Oscar Becerra's response, and the subsequent follow up discussions spread across several threads on the Sur list, I was struck by the dichotomy that seems to exist within the community: those who see and voice problems and those who are trying, despite the challenges, to amplify the things that are good. While criticism is a necessary component of any effort to bring about change, it is important to frame the criticism within a context whereby it can be used in service of our collective goal: to raise a generation of critical thinkers and problem-solvers by establishing a culture of independent thinking and learning.

We can and do argue about how to achieve this goal (and some within the community take issue with the goal itself, e.g., our focus should be on helping children do better on their national exams, as if it were a black-and-white choice), but as we argue and criticize, we need to avoid the temptation to sensationalize (e.g., "it will require a significant overhaul of the whole strategy") or draw premature or out of context conclusions (e.g., the 'Romanian study' often cited by Yamandú proves... [1]).

Christoph made a number of observations on his whirlwind tour of OLPC deployments in South America. While his observations are of anecdotal interest, none of them have any statistical significance and yet he presumes to draw far-reaching conclusions. Even when he relies upon data gathered by others, his conclusions are overstated. For example, he cites from an IDB report "that almost 5% of the schools which have already received XOs don’t even have electricity yet." He goes on to assert "that the Ministry of Education’s data on the infrastructure available at schools doesn’t seem to be up to date and accurate enough." I don't know how he can draw that conclusion from the data. (As Oscar points out, the source of the problem was that the solar panels were not available as soon as expected.) Another way of saying the same thing is, "more than 95% of the schools that have already received XOs have electricity." Or he could have used the data as a rallying cry for support for OLPC's efforts to build a more power-efficient, ARM-based machine.

Like Christoph, I too will cherry pick from the IDB report: "it was noted that over 95% of teachers in schools receiving laptops think they help improve education and children's learning and motivate them to go to school. Moreover, between 90 and 94% of teachers indicated that laptops improve the quality of teaching." (From the original Spanish: "se observó que más de 95% de los docentes de escuelas que recibieron los equipos piensa que las computadoras portátiles contribuyen a mejorar la educación y el aprendizaje de los niños y los motivan para ir a la escuela. Por otro lado, entre el 90 y 94% de los docentes indicaron que las computadoras portátiles mejoran la calidad de su enseñanza y la facilitan.")

The Peru deployment is necessarily a process of iterative design. The challenges (Internet, electricity, training) are formidable and undoubtedly mistakes have been and will be made. The ministry is neither "waiting for miracles to happen" nor is it ignorant of or ignoring the challenges. By adopting an iterative approach, it is refining its deployment model while trying to provide opportunities for learning to children in the near term – rather than waiting for perfection. We can argue about details, but progress is being made: the ministry, the teachers, the community, and especially the children are learning.

If we can keep in mind Alan Kay's axioms as a guide both to not over value technology and to be aware of what is its potential good; and if we work together as a community [2] – not moving blindly without critique, but also not engaging in sensationalism – doing, making, deploying, mentoring, and sharing, we will make a positive difference, in Peru and everywhere else.

[1] Both Tony Forster and Ivan Krstić had nice blogs debunking this study. Since the deployment failed to even get and hold the children's attention, clearly there were some serious deficiencies in the implementation that make me think twice about drawing any conclusions other than it is possible to stifle children's interest in computers.
[2] One place where Christoph and I are somewhat on the same page is in regard to the level of community involvement in Peru. While there are fruitful collaborations with some of the local universities, as described by Oscar, and while parents are becoming more involved in their children's learning, as hinted at in the IDB report, there is an untapped potential in the people of Peru to engage in much the same way that Ceibal RAP and Ceilbal JAM contribute to the efforts in Uruguay. How to unleash that potential within Peru remains an unresolved question. (The community in Peru has been active; for example the community in Puno and Local Lab Somos Azucar organized a camp to translate Sugar into Quechua and Aymara.)

2. A long-standing hole in the Sugar activity collection has been filled by a 14-year-old Sugar hacker. NTT's Edit Activity lets you edit plain text in a simple, collaborative environment. Previously one had to use the rich-text Write activity for plain-text editing, which had the potential of causing formating errors and, unless one was careful, often resulted in the wrong mime-type being associated with your text. So kudos to our young contributor on record for developing such a useful tool.

In the community

3. We are finalizing the list of candidates for the upcoming election to fill opening in the Sugar Oversight Board. I'm very pleased that we have so many outstanding candidates:

4. DIGITAL CITIZENSHIP, an international forum on development and social inclusion through the use of ICT in Uruguay will be held on 29th and 30th November 2010 at the Uruguayan Laboratory of Technology (LATU) in Montevideo, Uruguay.

Tech Talk

5. Aleksey Lim has been drafting some notes on re-architecting the Sugar platform team.

Sugar Labs

Gary Martin has generated a SOM from the past few week of discussion on the IAEP mailing list.

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