Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Wrong-Footing the Ed-Tech World

The news about various plausible near-term scenarios for inexpensive 1-to-1 laptop deployments in the US is coming fast and furious; at this point I can't keep it straight, and I have no idea how serious the several American state governments who have expressed interest in OLPC are. But it is a very real possibility that the whole US ed-tech establishment will find themselves wrong-footed on this one.

I get the impression that a lot of leaders in this community would give a sour response to any governor who asked them if his state should spend, say, $200 per unit to put robust, inexpensive hardware and free software truly designed for learning and collaboration in every kid's hand. Now, to be sure, I had an email exchange with a friend on the matter and my first response wasn't "Hell, yeah!" but "Make sure you know what you want." But really, it seems like a lot of folks would sit down across a conference table from a state commissioner of education and tell him laptops are a waste of money unless he can completely transform pedagogy in his state, reform his pre-service training, re-design professional development from the ground up, etc., etc., etc. And/or that he should muster the political will and budgetary slack to buy computers designed for business or personal use for five times more. What they wouldn't do is talk about the very real technological problems previous technology rollouts have run into and how they can be prevented or mitigated by new technology.

This may not be a big factor on the hardware side, which may have a political momentum all its own, but I'm more worried about the software side, where there is shaping up to be a three way showdown between OLPC's Sugar, a more conventional Linux desktop environment and Windows XP. Perhaps a simple, practical example of the difference is needed. From OLPC News a few weeks ago:

Dan also demonstrated a version of the Read activity that can show itself in the mesh view: you can click on it and a PDF is downloaded between two machines—suddenly two kids are reading it.

It isn't a huge flashy feature, but it is the kind of thing that is easy to do on the Sugar, because it is the kind of thing that Sugar is designed to facilitate. If I was doing peer editing in an English classroom, it is certainly one I would want to have (without routing through Google Docs, etc.), and it is absurd when you think about it that we can't do it today. It seems so obvious.

If nobody is paying attention to what's going on with Sugar, who is going to argue for it -- and in turn argue for a new generation of collaborative and constructionist tools -- in the US? If nobody argues for it, we may well end up with $250 locked-down laptops running XP that you can't even install Skype on. The gaming advocates have to realize that the XO is their best opportunity. The hand-held advocates have to realize this is their best opportunity. The Web 2.0 advocates have to realize that moving collaborative services out of the commercial internet cloud and into their local classroom will solve many of their problems.

Or else what? More of the same, I guess. Or all the "leaders" will quickly fall in step once they see which way the money is flowing, and everyone will clear out of Second Life to figure out how to get sugar-jhbuild running. Time will tell.

1 comment:

Patrick said...

I am so glad someone is paying attention to all this. You sum it up so, so well here:

"The Web 2.0 advocates have to realize that moving collaborative services out of the commercial internet cloud and into their local classroom will solve many of their problems."

I think you're the only ed-related blog I read anymore. I even think I'll keep reading next year when I am on a full year's sabbatical with absolutely no expectations but that I travel.

Keep up the hectoring. At some point someone somewhere will say, "Hey, didn't Tom warn us about exactly that about five years ago?"