If you are interested in the intersection of computers and education the big news this week is that Birmingham, Alabama has announced its intention to buy 15,000 OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) computers for its elementary and middle school students.
That's right, the struggling steel city a few states to the east.
The Dream — OPLC and Birmingham
The OLPC program, attuned readers will know, is a product of the fertile imagination of Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab. It's the famous "$100 dollar laptop" that has been widely touted in the media. It's been grandly promoted as a project to put a computer in the hand of every child in the world. The purpose laid out on the website is only a bit less grandiose:
OLPC is not, at heart, a technology program, nor is the XO a product in any conventional sense of the word. OLPC is a non-profit organization providing a means to an end—an end that sees children in even the most remote regions of the globe being given the opportunity to tap into their own potential, to be exposed to a whole world of ideas, and to contribute to a more productive and saner world community.It's not just a nifty computer we're talking about; it's a nifty networked computer—which is an entirely different animal. Each machine is capable of using wifi and creating a node in a mesh network—the machines create an ad-hoc network that extends any user's connection to all the other computers in the neighborhood. That opens up large areas for collaboration with local users and potentially with any internet user world-wide. Spend a moment thinking about that. Of course the reliance on ad hoc mesh networking introduces both speed and reliability issues that the OPLC people don't talk about. But the integration of networking into the core makes applications which were previously impossible to consider because of the lack of infrastructure pretty easy. Kids won't need to go offline to work together.
Negroponte's TED talk is worth a watch if you'd like to get a flavor of the project..and the man. While the ideal of building a machine for every child is a bit grand, less grandly, the OLPC laptop is a tour de force effort to make networked computing technology affordable, durable, power efficient, usable and cheap. In a phrase: a cheap utilitarian commodity. The computing industry hates it. They're too close to a commodity already.
OLPC also offers a frontal challenge t0 both the software industry and the educational community. The radical software innovations start with the operating system. In contrast to the "modern" desktop and document metaphor popularized by the Macintosh the "Sugar" interface operates on a social-activity metaphor (see guidelines) where the central visual organizer is organizing ongoing activities around the child. (Literally central--the image at right with the child in the center of their ongoing set of activities is the equivalent of the desktop in the Sugar interface.) The challenge to the educational community is embodied in that metaphor—the organizing principle of the educational arm of the project is that learning consists not in storing facts but in successfully joining ongoing activities. (Just for the record: this is NOT far out; Most modern educational frameworks for learning theory since the the 1890's take a version of this stance. It's practice that has lagged.)
Looked at in that way one has to wonder whether the florid global ambitions of the OLPC aren't, in fact, a way to distract observers from the really ambitious project that lurks in the background: to transform modern computation and software so as to drive a fundamental change in educational practices--in learning-- in the 21st century. (Now there is a really grandiose, if noble ambition. If that is the hope, then putting the idea that they want to give every child a laptop front and center is a way of being modest.)
That's what the city down the Interstate is getting into.
Now laptops in the schools are not new...Apple, in particular, has a long history of pretty aggressive marketing into schools and once produced a set of rugged laptops (example, emate 300 at right) tricked out with kid-driven software and extensive online support. Maine was an early adopter has had a successful laptop program for years. (Negroponte was associated with it in the early years.)
That legacy lives on. Now it has come to Alexandria, Louisiana.
A recent Town Talk editorial lauded a Louisiana/Apple program that has put Macintosh laptops in local schools:
"Turn On" has put laptop computers into the hands of children in 54 of the state's public schools. In Central Louisiana, Bolton High School students received laptops at the start of the school year. Now Cottonport Elementary School and Mary Goff Elementary School sixth-graders have received them.
Twenty years ago, computer literacy was optional. Not any more. Today it is fundamental to the working world and to an individual's ability to succeed.
...It is no surprise that Gov. Kathleen Blanco has helped to get the "Turn On" program going in Louisiana. Blanco has been out in front of significant technological initiatives during her tenure, including the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative and the Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise Center.
Lafayette prides itself on being a progressive city...going for something like this seems an obvious addition addition to a city-wide fiber and wireless build. Programs like Maine's, Birmingham's, and the one in Louisiana use laptops because they give each child learning tools both at school and at home. Apple's program requires that schools have a good internet connection in order to be considered—one of its few real requirements. Where these programs run into trouble is with having easy, fast access at home. No school system can mandate that homes have an adequate connection; there is not only the cost, but some homes or apartments in every district simply cannot buy, at any price, a reasonably fast connection.
But bandwidth is essential to the vision. And not having a fast connection available in every home has been THE major stumbling block in pushing the use of network-based learning.
Nation-wide folks like Apple have simply had to compromise the vision. No comprehensive assignments can be made for completion at home. No teacher can assume that learning, practice, and reinforcement are available anywhere but in the school itself. That limitation keeps anyone from seriously designing programs that really encourage the habits of life-long learning that a dynamically changing society has come to demand.
Testing the idea of pervasive, always-on learning hasn't been possible.
OLPC's ad-hoc mesh networking comes as close as anyone has to proposing a viable solution to the lack of universal, always-on broadband service. A laptop taken home wouldn't be assured of a connection to either their fellow students or the internet. Mobile Ad hoc mesh networking only works even half-reliably in the confines of a small area--like a school. Because it implicitly relies on one connection to the larger internet it is limited to dividing the available bandwidth (usually a small fraction of wifi's potential bandwidth) it is, on its best days, slow. Video "show and tell" using cheap, built-in cameras like those found in Alexandria's Macintoshes isn't possible--and a whole range of program and screen sharing capacities are but theoretical dreams given those limits. But the OPLC implementation of networking is the best solution for collaboration that I can imagine without comprehensive support from the surrounding community. After all the OPLC was designed for use in third world countries where the village simply doesn't have any way to provide connectivity. Some of the laptop's most widely praised features result from its not being able to count on reliable electricity; in those places local networking can only come from the computers themselves.
But here, in these United States, electricity isn't an issue. We could provide robust pervasive wireless access. If we had the will. That is what the wireless municipal dream has been about. (While I have critiqued the simplistic version of that dream it was never the dream I distrusted—only the suitability of the tools to realize it and the unwillingness of some promoters to deal with the weaknesses of their plans.)
A Solution; The Dream — Lafayette
Lafayette will soon have a functional fiber-optic network in a every corner of the city. A wireless network hooked into the fiber at every other node will closely follow that build. At the end we'll see the nation's first integrated fiber-optic/wifi network with speeds on both sides funded by 100 megs or more of bandwidth. Each wifi node could, if we chose, distribute 50 megs of bandwidth to its local area. That's enough to provide more than enough bandwidth for all the kids on the block to use good quality mpeg-4/H.264 video for their collaboration--even at home. Lafayette's kids could do screen sharing and use whiteboarding applications.
It would be easy to lock a code into the laptops that would give them special speeds and access privileges to school-provided programs. The school system and even individual classes could tunnel their own VPN's (Virtual Private Networks) to provide tools and security. None of this is technically difficult. Access control and provisioning have all been more than adequately developed on university and large corporate campuses.
There's grant money going begging and imaginative projects that lack grant support only because no one can imagine where the bandwidth to use them will be widely enough available to justify helping out.
With the essential, fast, universal infrastructure in place, the only limits for Lafayette would lie in our imagination and in our willingness to boldly use public assets for the public good.
Worth thinking about, don't you think?