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An Ed Tech laptop rant

Sorry, folks...as much as I am a supporter of cheap laptops and hardware for kids (in developing countries and wherever else it makes sense to have them), I'm fed up with the religion, the politics, and the ridiculous misconceptions that surround them.
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Written by Christopher Dawson on

Sorry, folks...as much as I am a supporter of cheap laptops and hardware for kids (in developing countries and wherever else it makes sense to have them), I'm fed up with the religion, the politics, and the ridiculous misconceptions that surround them. I'm afraid it's time for a good old-fashioned rant.

First off, dual-boot XP and Linux on the OLPC is one of the larger piles of horse manure I've seen in recent history. Fellow blogger, Mary Jo Foley, put it quite well when she said,

Why would anyone — kids, governments and/or laptop makers — want a dual-boot Linux/Windows OLPC systems in the first place? Dual-boot Macs make sense: There are some Windows-only programs that Mac users want/need to run. But this scenario doesn’t make sense for the kinds of apps that XO laptops will be geared to run.

While this may just be another case of Negroponte blowing smoke to mollify critics and lure potential supporters (including deep-pocketed philanthropists from Redmond), since when do mini-laptops designed to get kids collaborating, sharing, exploring, and largely exploiting the vast resources of the Internet need to run Windows? From what I've seen of the Sugar OS, it is, in fact, one of the OLPC's greatest strengths.

This has nothing to do with me bashing Windows. Windows has it's place in a variety of settings, just as Mac has carved important niches. Linux has its place too. Aside from the server room, one of the most important applications for Linux is in small, low-horsepower devices. There is no evidence of Vista Lite coming out of Redmond and a stripped-down XP that can be squeezed on a little flash drive lacks the innate security of compact Linux distros. Why does the ability to run Windows have to be a criterion for a successful educational PC? Shouldn't the real measure be a student's success in learning how to communicate better with his peers and instructors or her ability to sort the wheat from the chaff as we head into our next Digital Decade (Thanks, Mr. Gates; you can keep your OS for the enterprise desktop, but I'll gladly take your phrase - it's extremely apt)? Does a student need Windows to write a story, model an equation, take a virtual class, or write a computer program? Of course not. If he or she learns to write a novel, model equations, be a lifelong learner, or program effectively, will he or she be successful regardless of the presence of Windows? I sure hope so, or we've done crappy jobs as educators.

Let go of Microsoft, Nick - put all of that charisma to work convincing the powers that be that they don't need to put little Windows machines into their kids' hands. A kid who learns on the admittedly elegant Sugar interface, or the more sophisticated Mandriva interface (or the gOS on the new Everex Cloudbook, or whatever) will be brilliantly capable of using a mainstream computer and exercising all of those 21st Century Skills regardless of the desktop they're sitting at 10 years down the road. A visionary like Negroponte (like him or not, he has some fine ideas) should certainly understand that computing in 2018 will look a hell of a lot different than it does today anyway. Whether the kids are in Alabama, Nigeria, Peru, or China, they just need to learn to harness the power of the Net and work together with technical tools. They'll be just fine when they have to run Windows 2018 in a data center somewhere (assuming Windows exists in any recognizable form in 10 years).

Speaking of Alabama, why can't we have cheap laptops here? I know We Are the World, but is there a reason that Nigerian school kids will be receiving better training and equipment to support e-collaboration than my kids? 1:1 is coming to developed countries, but there is a damn big Digital Divide in Baltimore, Detroit, and Athol, Massachusetts, that needs to be bridged just as much.

Two professors emeritus from NYU wrote an article this month bashing computer science education in this country. They quite correctly point out that our students' lack of fundamental programming skills is providing little differentiation from offshore talent:

The resulting set of skills is insufficient for today’s software industry (in particular for safety and security purposes) and, unfortunately, matches well what the outsourcing industry can offer. We are training easily replaceable professionals.

Allowing inner cities and rural areas to languish while tax dollars and extraordinary philanthropic resources are devoted to building bigger and better Bangalores around the world just doesn't sit very well with me. There's no reason we can't all compete on a level playing field and in no way am I suggesting that we just take care of number one. I'm railing against the idea that I have to buy $400 Eee's when Classmates and XOs can be had for half the price anywhere other than developed countries. I'm railing against the fact that I have to fight for computer lab space to teach those programming fundamentals and turn out future indispensable professionals when I could send kids home at night with an ultra-cheap laptop on which they could write some damn fine C++ code. Or write poetry, or practice geometric constructions, or blog about what they learned in class.

While I'm ranting, I'm tired of people not wanting to believe that cranking out educational laptops for kids can also be a business. If Negroponte had an MBA, a lot of his successes with the OLPC wouldn't be so clouded by his unforeseen challenges. Quanta Computers is beginning to take heat for unrealized returns on its investment in manufacturing facilities for the XO. Asus, on the other hand, isn't even targeting education. My old high school economics teacher always used to ask how much you should charge for a product. We would answer in unison, "As much as the market will bear." Asus can't make enough of its Eee's even at $400 a pop. This can be business, people can make money on this, businesses can do the right thing and still be successful, and serious development in this area will breed competition and some very cool technology for our students.

While one has to admire Negroponte's vision, it's hard to see if it will be sustainable without business sense and incentives behind it. Does Intel have a lot to gain by having Intel Inside the next billion laptops? Do bears do it in the forest? It doesn't make them the bad guy, though, since the need to compete in emerging markets has brought us some great products and will put a lot of computing power in a lot of kids' laps (hopefully a few million of those laps will be Stateside). This doesn't minimize the work that OLPC has done or the market that they actually created (go OLPC!), but it does point to the need to do this sustainably and intelligently.

OK, I'm ranted out for now. That was vaguely cathartic. I'll try and avoid the invariable articles over the next few days on senseless Microsoft/OLPC partnerships.

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