One Laptop Per Child and Long-term Possibilities for Education

Some time ago a friend and I got talking about the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program, and I haven’t gotten it off my mind since. The OLPC program aims to deliver sturdy, low-power, low-cost laptops to children under the age of 12 in developing countries. The visionary of the program, Nicholas Negroponte, wants to introduce these laptops into second-world, rather than third-world, countries. The difference? Second-world countries face poverty and a host of ills, but possess the resources to purchase these notebooks, to feed their people (at some level), and build roads. The OLPC program is not currently aimed at absolutely poverty-stricken nations – those nations have other, more pressing, concerns, and their resources can be allocated to more effectively than by providing affordable laptop computers for children.

The computers are incredibly simple, providing basic computing. What’s important is that they are almost entirely open-source; kids can take them apart and learn about every element of the computers through trial and error. They’re rugged enough (both physically and code-wise) that kids can put them through hell and they’ll keep on going. While the laptops can be charged by plugging the computers into electrical outlets, they can also be powered by converting physical action to electricity – ride a bike attached to the thing and you’ll be able to charge it. The initial roll-out doesn’t have this, but it’s in the overall specs of the project.

I’ve been looking at using online tools for teaching and guiding students, and in the process I wondered about whether the tools that are often talked about now (i.e. forums, online document collaboration, sharing calendars, wikis, blogs, and social networking sites) can really fulfill some of the learning opportunities that kids getting these laptops have before them. Are blogs and wiki’s a suitable replacement for technology, or just as something to integrate with regular technologies (i.e. books and blackboards).

At the moment, I’d definitely hesitate to say that webtools, or any digital tools for that matter, they are a replacement for analogue technolgies – we’re usually looking at 2.0 apps to focus on how to improve the teaching to particular students in Western nations, and aren’t really considering the need to focus on students outside of our locality. I’m not criticizing this – I think that education often operates best when it’s targeted to particular individuals in particular situations – but I do wonder if, rather than focusing on the current stream of tools that facilitate communication across a particular group, we might be better off in the long-term to focus on how developing infrastructure that allows indiviudals across the world to understandabily and actually communicate with one another.

I’m not suggesting that we just use global social networking systems, but am wondering if our current iterations of social networking sites (a) adequately account for diversity and (b) enable individuals to communicate across linguistic chasms. I think that we can work on (a) reasonably easily, but only after we figure out a way of overcoming (b).

Now, why is this important? Why not just focus on local applications that work well for particular students in particular situations? I have to wonder whether or not some kind of disservice is done when we dominantly focus on the local – we live in global environments, where my actions have the potential to affect dozens of others across the globe. In light of this, should online apps focus on localities, continuing to emphasize the local with a bit of foreign tossed into the mix when it’s a handy teaching tool, or should these applications be developed to enable at least rudimentary discussions across different cultures and languages.

As more and more children who live in poverty get their hands on the laptops the OLPC program provides there is the possibility for more and more voices to be heard online, but how many of these voices will be understandable by Western citizens? If we have tools that let students talk to one another, right through K-12 and into university, isn’t it likely that they’ll grow up with a deeper understanding of themselves, their subject matter, and the challenges and opportunities present across the globe?

Imagine if students in Canada, when learning about northern Brasil, could talk to and teleconference with other students in Brasil; imagine the texture that would provide, and how all aspects of social studies would change. Instead of reading about northern Brasil, students would be talking to residents of that area of the globe, giving the students the ability to critically evaluate the analogue texts and Westernized history they were provided with.

Unfortunately, before we can add that kind of texture, we need to be able to speak with one another – aren’t these interlinguistic discussions the real possibility of the ‘net, not particularly targetted services and content that appeal to native speakers?