the ballyhooed initiative failed spectacularly
January 25, 2020 1:30 PM   Subscribe

On the failures of charismatic technology, with the MIT Media Lab's "One Laptop Per Child" as a case study: Advocates presented a vision of student-led educational experiences as antidotes to stultifying American-style learning factories or “classrooms” in the Global South, which “might be under a tree.” Nicholas Negroponte explicitly referred to OLPC’s machines as the “Trojan horses” that would introduce the ideology of constructionism into foreign classrooms, undermine government control of education, and “provide a shortcut to social change.” At one point, he even suggested tossing the rugged green laptops out of helicopters and letting children teach themselves. “It’s like a Coke bottle falling out of the sky,” he explained.
posted by ChuraChura (67 comments total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
 
But he was unwittingly thinking only of boys. Indeed, MIT’s hacker subculture was almost entirely dominated by men, and hacking was largely seen as a form of masculine rebellion. OLPC adopted, consciously or not, the model of the “technically precocious boy” as its idealized user. In addition, there was, Ames notes, a distinct libertarian sensibility running through Papert’s ideas. Public schools were imagined as poorly run government institutions cranking out factory-made products whereas constructionism treated children as learning entrepreneurs, responsible for their own education.
Yeah, no big surprise there. Once a profession - such as elementary education - becomes seen as women's work, it's immediately seen as less valuable to society.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:41 PM on January 25 [70 favorites]


“It’s like a Coke bottle falling out of the sky,” he explained.

The Tech Gods Must Be Crazy
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:54 PM on January 25 [27 favorites]


I remember reading about this and at the time, wondering why they weren't selling these here. A 200 dollar basic laptop would have been amazing as I was pretty broke then. I'm sure plenty of other people would also have been interested.

I guess I was foolish in assuming these were set up to use the local language of the kids. Typical.
posted by emjaybee at 1:58 PM on January 25 [10 favorites]


It’s a pain to create the links on my phone, but there are a number of past FPPs about the OLPC in this site, and it is interesting to see the range of comments over time from when it was announced through the growing perception of failure.

This is an interesting review of what sounds like a book that would be worth reading, thank you for posting it.
posted by Dip Flash at 2:00 PM on January 25 [2 favorites]


I remember reading about this and at the time, wondering why they weren't selling these here.

They did, the schtick was that everyone you bought paid for giving another one away. A friend bought one - it was limited enough compared to the Eee laptops of the era that none of us that played with it really saw a lot of point in getting one.
posted by Candleman at 2:07 PM on January 25 [14 favorites]


> “It’s like a Coke bottle falling out of the sky.”

If he thinks that's a selling point, he only remembers how the movie starts, not how it ends.
posted by ardgedee at 2:07 PM on January 25 [57 favorites]


nice find... probably too dense for me too pick up anytime soon...that said, technical utopianism, ugh. I've said it before: the pressing technological need is 'mosquito nets and clean water' not anything with a screen. that wealthy idealists steal from poor counties, well, burn in hell already.

maybe a little sour grapes, but 20 years in IT has only demonstrated to me that mostly, confidence wins over correctness.
posted by j_curiouser at 2:07 PM on January 25 [23 favorites]


This article from two years ago is is my favorite postmortem of the OLPC.

Any writeup which doesn't include netbooks (like the eee pc) has kinda missed the point. The OLPC itself didn't go everywhere, but the netbooks that it inspired absolutely did. Instead of having the government hand out laptops, basically every family that could find ANY WAY to scrape together ~$250 for a cheap laptop for their smartest kid did so.

The story here is more complicated than just labelling the OLPC people as colonists. Parents /everywhere/ see education as the best route out of poverty, and go to pretty extreme lengths to get it for their children. Access to books and videos online is - even in the english-dominated internet - still orders of magnitude better than the access afforded in neglected libraries in poor schools. Consider the GiveDirectly argument here: people with access to some cash will use it for what they think is most important. And often, that is paying outlandish school fees and any sort of tool that might help their kids better succeed in school. People desperately wanted these things; the idea that everyone was just going to be brainwashed by these magic coke bottles that had been forced upon them is silly, as the demand was already there.

Now, as to the 'techno libertarian' thing... The perceived problem here is that if you just give someone access to a world of educational materials, they may or may not be in the right place (drive, independent interest, free time, english literacy, etc.) to actually make good use of them. This is where the 'just give them tools and access' argument seems to fall down. But a few people absolutely /can/ make good use of the new tools, though. And then two things happen: You get a new collection of people who, through this expanded access, become local experts, who otherwise might not have existed. And second, these new experts often start laying down roads that other people can follow. I saw this repeatedly working with maker spaces in Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa and India: all of these spaces were the result of self-starters building a community. The few self-starters pass on the things they found most helpful, and help others find their way along... And then you end up with a community, often built (thanks to the magic communication devices everyone now has access to) on the advice and help of others who have built similar communities in distant corners of the world. And eventually that community can start having real impact on the way things are done back in the regular school system and universities.

So, in short, I think the relentless negativity of the article is misplaced. There's a hell of a lot to criticise with the approach of Negroponte, but also a whole lot of wider, longer-term success that has been left out of the article entirely.
posted by kaibutsu at 2:11 PM on January 25 [43 favorites]


Ah, the failure point of so many plans: "oops, what about women?"
posted by odinsdream at 2:20 PM on January 25 [29 favorites]


I wish every educational fad had a book like this written about it. I’ve been teaching close to 20 years and have seen all manner of fads come and go: learning styles, multiple intelligences, genius hour, grit, mindset. These are just the ones that come to mind after a few seconds of thought. I’m sure that fellow teachers could add dozens more to this list. I’ve tried a bunch in good faith. What these education fads have in common is that they are completely untested and touted as magic bullets. Unless your “amazing”, “game changing” or “disruptive” new theory comes backed by, oh I don’t know, maybe actual peer reviewed studies with decent effect sizes, I am done with faddish and charismatic ideas in my classroom.

I’m certainly not saying that the current state of education is great or that there’s no room for improvement. I just want actual reasons to modify my practice in ways that will benefit my students. I don’t need or want your totally untested fad.
posted by trigger at 2:20 PM on January 25 [51 favorites]


We’ve put smart phones in the hands of nearly every 13 year old in North America and as far as I can tell they’ve only managed to produce videos of themselves lip syncing. Maybe it would be more efficient to put tools in the hands of teachers who will know how to apply them to the task of teaching.
posted by simra at 2:25 PM on January 25 [33 favorites]


OLPC may have succeeded as a limited sincere offer of only putting thousands of books and lessons on it and avoiding any connectivity as a distraction. The benefits would include resistance to obsolescence, encyclopedias, virus free, a graphing calculator and spreadsheet, word processor, while discouraging non-learners to hijack it. Perhaps the biggest bonus of an offline machine is a viable standard test platform, which is a separate expense in education and often unreliable.
posted by Brian B. at 2:40 PM on January 25 [4 favorites]


When the concept of OLPC was originally announced in 2005 it was as the "$100 Laptop" and that seemed absurd to most people at the time (the average cost of a laptop was around $1000), but there was a lot more techno-optimism in those days, and the idea of bridging the digital divide was coming to the fore. I think in some ways just putting the goal out there of an ultra-inexpensive computer helped eventually make it a reality (but as kaibutsu relates, a reality that came from other sources)

As an aside, it's so weird to look back at old Metafilter threads with no Favorites. I sometimes forget that we didn't have them for years. You used to have to read every comment and decide for yourself which ones had merit ;)
posted by gwint at 2:47 PM on January 25 [10 favorites]


Indian here. Calling OLPC a "Trojan horse" is almost exactly correct; I say "almost" because it wasn't even nominally free: India was supposed to buy the Trojan horse with Indian taxpayer money.

Let me give you a tip: anytime you hear of a scheme that is supposed to benefit underprivileged people in the "global south" while simultaneously creating a lucrative marketing opening for wealthy western corporations, rest assured that only one of those two objectives will be served. And by "only one", I mean "the latter".
posted by splitpeasoup at 2:57 PM on January 25 [99 favorites]


The real problem was hubris: “This laptop project is not something you have to test.”

Yes, the idea was grandiose, gender-biased, and culture-blind. But some ideas that turned out to be successful were also initially criticised by experienced people who were certain they know better.

And on the other hand, there are plenty of culturally-sensitive ideas that were endorsed by experts, and also turned out to be failures.

So let a thousand flowers bloom, but don't assume that anything works until you test it.

P.S. You also want to see that your idea scales. Plenty of interventions (particularly in education!) work great when conducted by a small group of enthusiastic volunteers, but break down when scaled with ordinary teachers.
posted by Hediot at 2:59 PM on January 25 [15 favorites]


Plenty of interventions (particularly in education!) work great when conducted by a small group of enthusiastic volunteers, but break down when scaled with ordinary teachers.

Particularly in education, I’ve often wondered if new ideas work because the people trying them out are super enthusiastic and that enthusiasm infects the kids they’re teaching. And then, after a while, it just becomes another thing you do. Your enthusiasm is gone and you decide this new idea just doesn’t cut it. Maybe in the end it’s really about being enthusiastic. Or maybe not. Just one of my untested theories.
posted by trigger at 3:24 PM on January 25 [34 favorites]


People desperately wanted these things; the idea that everyone was just going to be brainwashed by these magic coke bottles that had been forced upon them is silly, as the demand was already there.

That was Negroponte's vision, though, at least as this article frames it. I mean, the point is that the leaders of the project couldn't help but see it as a vehicle for a grander educational ideology, when it might have been more productive to focus on delivering a reliable, inexpensive computer to meet the organic demand.
posted by atoxyl at 3:51 PM on January 25 [5 favorites]


I wanted an olpc so bad when they came out. I was frustrated the closest I could get was a Dell netbook. I think someone should make a lightweight device that connects a pi to a screen in a TouchPad or netbook format. Ah well - corporate created devices are all I can access these days.
posted by rebent at 3:52 PM on January 25


Oh man I bought one (two) of these laptops, and tried my damndest to use it myself. The only distinguishing feature was the two-mode Pixel Qi display that worked better the brighter the sunlight. I hoped that part of it, at least, would catch on.
posted by anthill at 3:58 PM on January 25 [5 favorites]


Maybe in the end it’s really about being enthusiastic.

I started tutoring while in middle school in 1993.
I’ve taught college students at a handful of institutions and once high school students over those many years since (but not logging that many total years.)

And I think you’re 100% right: instructor enthusiasm and enjoyment of the subject is hugely important, perhaps the most important single factor in educational outcomes, for a typical, conventionally abled student.
posted by SaltySalticid at 4:02 PM on January 25 [16 favorites]


I had one of these from the BOGO thing. Never used it. Turns out the real game changer is one smartphone one child.
posted by snofoam at 4:03 PM on January 25 [9 favorites]


I bought one. It was almost unusable. It would grind to a halt if you opened a 2nd web page. The physical design was great with the handle and antennas and the dual-mode screen, but they shipped it before they had a working OS.
posted by bhnyc at 4:08 PM on January 25 [10 favorites]


the schtick was that everyone you bought paid for giving another one away.

That's how my dad got one. As noted by anthill, the one good thing about it was the display, how you could turn it all the way down and still see it in bright sunlight, but oh man what a kludgy interface. The notion that they "would introduce the ideology of constructionism into foreign classrooms, undermine government control of education, and 'provide a shortcut to social change'” is laughble.
posted by Rash at 4:21 PM on January 25 [2 favorites]


That screen though.

Those daylight-readable, power sipping Pixel Qi screens were magic, like a colour LCD that could be turned into readable-in-daylight e-paper at the touch of a button magic, and to this day I’m angry that technology just... vanished. I would have gladly paid a premium then for a 12 to 15 inch version of those screens running on modern hardware and I still would today.

3M bought the tech out after the OLPC project (inevitably) failed. I think they ended up in some military instrumentation displays. For a while you could buy the OLPC leftovers as netbook upgrade kits, but you can’t buy them for modern laptops anywhere these days for any amount of money.
posted by mhoye at 4:33 PM on January 25 [21 favorites]


A 200 dollar basic laptop would have been amazing as I was pretty broke then. I'm sure plenty of other people would also have been interested.

They did. I had one. They really weren't that great and were relatively useless here. I was basically just looking for a distraction-free writing tool. It wasn't one.
posted by dobbs at 4:41 PM on January 25 [6 favorites]


I was basically just looking for a distraction-free writing tool.

The thing you want for that is the AlphaSmart Neo2, long EOL'ed now but there are plenty of places still selling refurbs and old stock. It's basically a keyboard with a small LCD and a key buffer. I got mine with a bunch of some kids' homework still in it. Runs forever off a couple of double-As, costs about fifty bucks, and is pretty great at being exactly what it claims to be and not much more.
posted by mhoye at 4:49 PM on January 25 [5 favorites]


(The OLPC keyboard was trash, though. Just absolutely garbage, like Negroponte’s secret goal was the slow-burn sabotage of developing nations tech sectors via pervasive early-onset RSI.)
posted by mhoye at 5:17 PM on January 25 [6 favorites]


What marked the project for failure from the start was the idea that a non-profit startup could conjure a usable $100 computer at a time when commercially available computers of any kind cost several hundred dollars. As if those big tech corporations were involved in some kind of greedy conspiracy to keep computers out of the hands of the poor around the globe and milk users for all they got. And all it would take is a noble non-profit to develop hardware, software and support network, not to mention the educational mission at the core. When the truth is that it simply wasn't possible to come close to that goal at the time. And of course, to make such a piece of hardware possible, it took those greedy corporations to create netbooks, tablets, chromebooks and smart phones. Things that actually could deliver desirable performance to people who previously could not afford, or need, or even want, a computer. While concurrent with the development of OLPC, these developments were not the result of OLPC.

Amusing how OLPC is painted as some kind of libertarian disruption when it's a top-down technocratic non profit endeavor, the exact kind preferred over big corporations and their greed driven drive to provide more computer power and utility for lower prices. Because non-profit beats for-profit, for reasons.
posted by 2N2222 at 5:23 PM on January 25 [5 favorites]


One Straw Man Per Child
posted by ActingTheGoat at 5:36 PM on January 25 [3 favorites]


My spouse did the buy-one-donate-one thing with OLPC, also hoping it would be a good writing tool. She hated it, and I hated it too. I think it might have gotten 40 minutes of "use" (e.g. trying to figure out if it we could figure out a use for it) before it disappeared into the same bin we keep all our old cables and junk.

She got an Alphasmart Neo later, but found she really just prefers to write on her real PC anyway.
posted by Foosnark at 5:39 PM on January 25 [2 favorites]


At one point, he even suggested tossing the rugged green laptops out of helicopters and letting children teach themselves.

This is an amazing example of people who are getting high on their own supply.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:05 PM on January 25 [19 favorites]


This was the worst intent-based project. The only user need it fulfilled was Negroponte's need to be adored.

I think someone should make a lightweight device that connects a pi to a screen in a TouchPad or netbook format

It's called the Pinebook Pro: not a Pi, but a similar class ARM machine in a pretty okay laptop for the money. The first Pinebooks were kinda crap, but these are (supposedly) quite decent.
posted by scruss at 6:26 PM on January 25 [5 favorites]


Let's not forget the MIT Media Lab also gave us "food computers" that didn't work. It's currently without a director, because the one they had quit after news broke of the Media Lab's ties to Jeffrey Epstein - after his conviction.
posted by adamg at 6:28 PM on January 25 [9 favorites]


I caught Negroponte's attention at a Media Lab industry event by complementing him on the wines at the buffet (quite exceptional for a institutional setting), he said that when he was in Europe shopping for the good stuff for his cellar he find the occasional nice discount wine that the 'tute could afford. I'm still squinting from the glare of the ego.

The Lab produces vast numbers of demos that are on second look totally lame, but that first glance is gleaming and among the many wacky sparkles few really worthwhile ideas that do actual good for folks.
posted by sammyo at 6:36 PM on January 25 [4 favorites]


he even suggested tossing the rugged green laptops out of helicopters

"As God is my witness, I thought laptops could fly."
posted by Greg_Ace at 6:53 PM on January 25 [34 favorites]


I understood that reference dot gif.
posted by mhoye at 6:54 PM on January 25 [4 favorites]


Wait, the OLPC was in English?
posted by signal at 6:56 PM on January 25 [3 favorites]


he even suggested tossing the rugged green laptops out of helicopters

You know what might work better than dropping $100 laptops on poor people is dropping $100 bills ripped from the pockets of millionaires like Nicholas Negroponte. Trust the people figure out their own best use for $100.
posted by JackFlash at 7:05 PM on January 25 [22 favorites]


The thing is cute as fuck though... it's like the laptop version of WALL•E.
posted by valkane at 7:16 PM on January 25 [3 favorites]


The techno-libertarian subculture that birthed the Internet failed to deliver the anarchist utopia we expected. I look back on my career of dot com disruption and wonder if perhaps I wasn’t part of some heroic revolution; but in fact was enabling a death cult that will kill us all in the end.
posted by interogative mood at 8:53 PM on January 25 [4 favorites]


The techno-libertarian subculture that birthed the Internet failed to deliver the anarchist utopia we expected.

That's because the techno-libertarian subculture didn't birth the Internet. It was birthed by government employees and contractors, and government-funded academic researchers. The Internet was birthed mostly by experts who never got rich from their efforts, funded with public money for the public good. Techno-libertarians just moved in, monetized it, enclosed the commons, and then told themselves and everyone else that they'd built it in the first place.
posted by biogeo at 9:19 PM on January 25 [94 favorites]


I think someone should make a lightweight device that connects a pi to a screen in a TouchPad or netbook format

The PiTop is a laptop housing for a Pi.
posted by BungaDunga at 9:40 PM on January 25 [4 favorites]


The OLPC itself didn't go everywhere, but the netbooks that it inspired absolutely did

Not in Africa, they didn't. The continent leapfrogged a generation of shitty laptops and went straight to phones instead, with many places also preferring equally cheap, more functional, fixable, and upgradeable desktops where there are computers.
posted by smoke at 10:16 PM on January 25 [12 favorites]


*shrug?* Maybe it was a relatively brief window around 2012, but I certainly saw a whoooole lotta Kenyan university students with cheap laptops, including netbooks. The netbook time window was just before phones were quite as generally useful as they are today, and the netbooks were a fraction of the price of a full laptop or even the average desktop. And could even be brought to class to take notes, etc...
posted by kaibutsu at 12:56 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]


But that was years and years after OLPC and eee PC's.

I dunno, I would be very hesitant to draw a straight line between OLPC, asus eee's, and subsequent netbooks running windows, especially in a university context in Kenya which I funnily enough have some experience with and, when I was there, was mostly composed of the Kenyan elite - a far cry from the egalitarian mission of OLPC.

(But seriously, ugh, don't get me started on how much naive western aid was essentially purloined by the undeserving while I was there. God. I include myself in that naive cohort. "it's our time to eat now" is a great book about corruption in Kenya)
posted by smoke at 1:10 AM on January 26 [4 favorites]


This project was flawed for multiple reasons, but I always find it very frustrating when discussions on the subject veer towards "lol, stupid tech bros; poor Africans need food and medicine, not toys".

Phones and laptops are not toys. They're incredibly versatile and powerful tools which are game-changing in the hands of people who actually know how to use them. I assure you that in many parts of the developing world people do in fact know how to use them, and don't appreciate the condescension from people in the developed world who assume that phones are gimmicky status symbols usable only for time-wasting.
posted by confluency at 2:27 AM on January 26 [15 favorites]


We’ve put smart phones in the hands of nearly every 13 year old in North America and as far as I can tell they’ve only managed to produce videos of themselves lip syncing.

This is incredibly uncharitable. Kids and teenagers are producing insanely creative and sophisticatedly-edited videos - not just lip-syncing, either. They do stop motion animation, cooking, crafting, dancing, and a lot of stuff that I absolutely don't get but it's not for me - I'm not 13. They are exploring the absolute limits of the software that's available to them and visual media is going to be really interesting in the coming years as they become adults.

Whereas I, an adult who works in tech, along with all my other friends who also work in tech, spend approximately 16 hours per day scrolling twitter or instagram each day hoping to stumble upon funny dog gifs or videos that might make us exhale through our noses slightly more loudly than usual. I think the 13 year olds are making better use of their time and technology than we are.
posted by cilantro at 2:55 AM on January 26 [40 favorites]


People always wondered why OLPC didn't think about poor kids in the US who don't have computers. This organization in my hometown is repurposing laptops that local corporations are done with (Lowe's world headquarters is there and they are the primary donor) and giving them to kids in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Anybody can purchase one for $50, poor kids get them for free. Kids who are homeless also get a wifi hotspot so that they can study wherever they spend the night. The difference between being able to write your paper at home and having to go to the library in the evening is everything for a kid. When E2D laptops break, they are returned to the schools and repaired by student workers who are paid to maintain the laptops, so that's another way this program helps--there are high school students learning all those basic helpdesk skills while maintaining those computers for free for the users.

Another laptop story about poverty in the "developed" world--I teach a college population that is not that different from the population of the Charlottee-Mecklenburg Schools. One of the very best students I have ever had got a Macbook for a high school graduation gift from her family. It was the first computer her family had ever owned. It enabled her to do her homework in college and maintain her 4.0 and ultimately go to grad school. She lived at home, and her laptop was used by the whole family--we all know that there are many things that are much easier to do on a computer than on a phone. Once, during her senior year, she came to class in tears. Her Macbook wasn't working. She wasn't done with school. Her part-time job helped pay the bills, not expensive laptop repair. When her Macbook died, her whole family was cut off from the world again. She did finally get it repaired, but it was hard for me to realize again for the thousandth time just how easily my students' lives can be derailed by small things that folks who are just a bit more wealthy wouldn't even notice.

The problem with OLPC was not that kids don't need computers. The problem was the hubris in thinking that everyone doesn't need access to real technology, that everyone needs the same technology, that all you have to do is hand people a laptop and their problems are solved. Schoolkids do need computers in the 21st century. Phones don't do everything, and in particular a lot of schoolwork requires more technology than just a web browser. But they need the right computers for their place and time and they need maintenance of those computers, too.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:05 AM on January 26 [31 favorites]


We’ve put smart phones in the hands of nearly every 13 year old in North America and as far as I can tell they’ve only managed to produce videos of themselves lip syncing.

The 14-year-old in my life spends hours doing digital art on her mom's her iPad that she's basically annexed. She's entirely self-taught and produces some pretty damn good stuff. And, much to my bewilderment, does her homework on her phone. "I can put together a computer for you." "No, I like using my phone."

She also has gotten into some of most unexpected things through her Internet travels. Her latest is sea shanties.

She doesn't spend her time on devices the way I'd necessarily hope, but she's doing alright.
posted by jzb at 5:12 AM on January 26 [11 favorites]


We got suckered into funding two of those stupid laptops but I haven't really thought about the whole thing since then so thanks for this post.
posted by octothorpe at 5:15 AM on January 26 [2 favorites]


OLPC was a giant ark that everyone's hopes and dreams got poured into. Wishful thinking abounded hand in hand with unrealistic views of the world. The economic models weren't sustainable. It seemed to scare the netbook movement into life.
posted by ZeusHumms at 7:37 AM on January 26


I agree with the analysis in the article of OLPC, and I'd like to read Ames' book. I've always wondered how things might have gone if the aims had been less grandiose, and they'd focused on making durable personal computers that also had an effort to work with local schools to distribute and teach instead of some sort of silver bullet solution that both never really worked, and was antagonistic to the places they were trying to "help". A lot of the MIT Media Lab's work from that era is like institutional Engineer's Disease.

I do have a bone to pick with how constructionism is depicted, however. Constructionism isn't an educational approach that is entirely encompassed by Papert's early ideas, and in most of the ways it’s criticized in the article constructionism isn’t dissimilar from any other approach that became popular during the early 2000s - e.g. a distrust with formalized schooling over interest based approaches, rationalizations in a ‘crisis’ with education that only looks at teaching methods and not social circumstances, a utopian claim about widescale change without much attention paid to contextual difficulties. The fact that the hacker mindset is also one that’s heavily centered on boys who own computers is something that’s been grappled with in modern constructionist literature, as is the fact that “helicopter dropping” solutions tends to be ineffective, and that you need to work with teachers to develop curriculums or with community organizations to role out socially situated implementations.

A good counter-example that comes out of Papert’s initial work is Scratch, and the fact that Scratch basically helped to jumpstart modern block-based programming languages, which are themselves a constructionist approach to teaching computer science (and also shown to be effective across many, many rigorous studies). I can think of half a dozen Scratch-based projects that all account for the critiques above. I wonder if the weird treatment of constructionism is a result of the article being necessarily concise, or if it’s also present in the book itself.
posted by codacorolla at 8:15 AM on January 26 [11 favorites]


We’ve put smart phones in the hands of nearly every 13 year old in North America and as far as I can tell they’ve only managed to produce videos of themselves lip syncing.

See, here's the thing. Youth in North America != youth in Africa.
posted by Mrs Potato at 8:23 AM on January 26 [4 favorites]


Codacorolla beat me to mentioning Scratch. Scratch's was the core technical reason d'etre for the OLPC but the OLPC implementation of Scratch + mesh networking sucked.

The OLPC mesh-based classroom Scratch network was a buggy mess. It was replaced by a series of experimental small servers which hadn't been budgeted for by classrooms and which were being tested on those classrooms.

So even if your school got past the barriers of language and cultural insensitivity, resources for training teachers, institutionally- embedded gender stereotypes, etc. the constructionist curricular materials weren't functional for years past the OLPC purchase date.
posted by head full of air at 9:08 AM on January 26 [4 favorites]


codacorolla, I don’t know Ames’s book all that well but I do know she’s engaged with constructionists in published work to some degree already (the book just came out)—E.g. this paper on Logo. Her newer research project, which she describes a bit at her site engages more directly with education and tech here in the US—looking at coding camps and Minecraft and the like.
posted by col_pogo at 9:08 AM on January 26 [3 favorites]


Oh! I'm familiar with her work on Minecraft camps, but didn't immediately recognize the name. Her recent CSCW paper seems fascinating, and I might check that out at work tomorrow.
posted by codacorolla at 9:15 AM on January 26


(Her articles all seem available as non-paywalled PDFs at her site, by the way)
posted by col_pogo at 9:18 AM on January 26 [2 favorites]


My wife has a friend who worked for the One Laptop for Child project, and she made it clear that there were a lot of execution problems with the project long before any of these critical books and articles came out. I wonder if she was a source for any of these articles.
posted by jonp72 at 10:26 AM on January 26


I also found it hilarious that the laptops that made it to Paraguay were frequently used to download porn. I propose Avenue Q's Law: "Any product designed by techno-utopians will eventually be used for porn."
posted by jonp72 at 10:29 AM on January 26 [2 favorites]


The OLPC itself didn't go everywhere, but the netbooks that it inspired absolutely did.
The only inspiring was the name, not the profile. I had a Sharp Actius "ultralight" in 1999. See also "subnotebook", particularly the Toshiba Libretto from a little earlier again.
posted by krisjohn at 3:14 PM on January 26 [1 favorite]


That a product of the Epstein Lab was tainted by systemic misogyny? Say it ain’t so!
posted by acb at 5:17 PM on January 26


OLPC was like the charter school movement given laptop form.
posted by benzenedream at 11:46 PM on January 26 [5 favorites]


I have one of them from the BOGO days. I wrote an updated bootloader (http://wiki.laptop.org/index.php?title=Custom_bootloader) and put XFCE on an SDcard and used it as my laptop for a year or so. Nothing fast, but it worked fine and got some odd looks at the airport, but the battery life on it was great and it did what I needed it to do. I'd loved for it to have come with the generators for running off-grid. I think I might break it out again and see if my son would like to play with it when he is a bit older and would want his own laptop.
posted by koolkat at 3:54 AM on January 27 [3 favorites]


Several times the idea of gender bias has shown up in reference to this project, both in the OP and in this conversation. How did gender bias affect the rollout/implementation of OLPC?
posted by panama joe at 10:04 AM on January 27


I feel like it's mentioned in the FPP article, and Ames glosses it in the abstract to the book, but I believe the argument being made is that OLPC's theory of learning is that by giving children technology that can be created with you are allowing them to engage in rich and productive learning experiences, and therefore teach themselves outside the domain of traditional schooling (which is often presented as being either repressive, incompetent, or both). This derives from the early 'hacker' mindset that much of the MIT Media Lab comes from. However, effective participation in that sort of learning isn't a solo endeavor (despite often being posited as such), and instead is an intrinsically social process supported by communities, and also situated in existing social structures (e.g. stereotypes about who can 'do' tech). The types of people who tend to do well with that type of learning either:

a) already see themselves as being able to do that type of learning - they have some idea of their self as being capable with technology (this then tends to map onto existing societal and structural concepts of 'computers = toys for boys');

or b) tend to have access to the sort of learning support that is necessary to engage productively in that sort of learning - for example, online spaces that give support to new programmers - likewise, this tends to be gated by gender even in pseudonymous or anonymous learning environments.

This isn't to say that girls and women can't learn productively in these environments, but rather that relying on a 'hacker mindset' tends to favor people who already have a vision of themselves as potential hackers, or people who are welcomed into the social structures to support informal learning (in both cases: young boys who have had some prior exposure to technology). A designed learning experience that factors in existing social inequity can take steps to mitigate structural prejudices, "drop them from helicopters" will likely reproduce those same inequalities.

In short, it's grown men programmers looking at their experiences as young boy hackers and assuming that all children learn that way (or even that all children have access to learning in that way) while not seeing the elements of their experience that were mediated by their gender.
posted by codacorolla at 12:57 PM on January 27 [7 favorites]


Interesting. I mean, I do think things like programming are best learned in a hands-on fashion. But I agree that any model that assumes that people can just "pick it up" -- without any outside assistance or instruction -- will only reinforce existing power structures.
posted by panama joe at 1:33 PM on January 27


I think that Comp Sci education (especially at the K-12 level) is certainly heading towards hands on learning being the best approach, but I believe that Ames' specific critiques of OLPC and of the Constructionist (the educational philosophy that birthed OLPC) movement more generally lies in its large-scale antipathy towards "traditional schooling". She wrote this article, (linked by col_pogo above) that is a very detailed (but not book level) exploration of the history behind that mindset: Hackers, Computers, and Cooperation: A Critical History of Logo and Constructionist Learning.” The whole thing is worth reading, but the meat of the article is summarized nicely in the conclusion section.

An important follow-on is that this sort of 'hacker ethos' tends to view technology as a solution to social problems, rather than as an intrinsically linked piece of those problems. Ames writes, "Moreover, the ubiquity of these individualized, computer-centric perspectives can make it more difficult to envision alternatives for computer-supported collaboration – ones that encode pro-social behavior, mechanisms for countering power differences, or modes of social reciprocity, for instance – or even decenter the computer as a solution for social problems altogether."

I believe the point here being that if you teach Comp Sci independent of context (relying solely on the 'pick it up' model) you not only get unequal outcomes in terms of who learns Comp Sci, but also their disposition towards how computers solve problems / what problems can even be solved, which we're seeing play out at a grand scale now with modern social media platforms.
posted by codacorolla at 1:48 PM on January 27 [4 favorites]


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