Thursday, September 27, 2007

If I Were Education Minister of Brazil...

... (or another random country in the developing world) I wouldn't have bought an XO for ever kid in my country this year for a simple reason. The software is too raw. I've always imagined that a successful early prototype of their inexpensive low-power dual-mode display, or at least the underlying technology, was the tipping point for publicly launching the project. As I recall, this previously unheard of technology was mentioned from the beginning, and I doubt they pulled the concept out of thin air or off a wish list, since exactly what they envisioned appeared right on schedule.

They just didn't have the same hook on the software side. Sure, they knew that they could use Linux and other free software so the whole implementation wouldn't be dependent on the good will of an American corporation. But it should be noted none of the key people who launched this project are stalwart free software advocates. Anyhow, the designs and overall scope of ambition of the software to be used in the XO unfolded late in the process, especially compared to the hardware. The innovative security specification (that's the plan, not the implementation) didn't appear until this year.

When I last checked the development snapshot of the XO software, it looked like they'd streamlined and tightened things up to the point where the software they ship later this year will work reasonably well. But a month or two ago, it was still hard to tell if it would work at all, and fundamental aspects of the architecture still seem unsettled, making it difficult for third parties to develop applications for the platform.

If OLPC really gets rolling, I'm not worried about educational applications and/or content appearing. The whole world can contribute their own bits and pieces to that effort. The bottleneck though is implementing an entirely new desktop computing paradigm, which primarily has to be done by a relatively small, cohesive team.

The Sugar development team has done an amazing job up to this point, and I think just about all their decisions have proven to be good ones, but for the XO to be "I'll order a million" ready today, they would have needed as much of a head start in writing the software as they seem to have had on the display.


Wesley Fryer said...

I heard and watched Richard Baraniuk's 2006 TEDtalk "Goodbye, textbooks; hello, open-source learning" recently and was impressed. This type of openly modifiable digital textbook project is needed by OLPC, in my view, but you are right that it has been underemphasized. I think, perhaps in defense of the OLPC philosophy, that they have wanted to emphasize more the collaborative projects that can be created on the devices rather than the curriculum which can be accessed and "delivered to" them. If I understand it correctly that is what the constructionist approach to learning is all about. So in addition to software challenges, I'm sure the teacher professional development aspects of this are very challenging since they need to convince teachers to not simply deliver content.

It's always a risk to be a the leading edge of something new. I hope the "Give 1 Buy 1" program is successful in getting the OLPC devices down in price and out to more students. It certainly seems to be a project with its heart in the right place. Hopefully more software options will follow soon.

Bill Kerr said...

What you say is true (raw software, "none of the key people who launched this project are stalwart free software advocates", sugar is different).

But is that the real reason why countries are not signing up? Software can always be upgraded / learnt.

There are other possible reasons. OLPC is about by passing adults to leverage the children. Negroponte hasn't hid that and he's been criticised for it. But its the adults who have to sign the cheque. Maybe the real problem is that too many adults just don't get it.

Tom Hoffman said...


I guess I'd say it is too early to tell how the XO is going to shake out and why. I do think it is premature to blame its "failure" up to this point on pedagogy, financial model, etc. (which you aren't doing), for the reasons I outlined in my post.