OLPC: Is This The End?
One Laptop per Child is announcing an agreement with Microsoft to make a dual boot, Linux/Windows, version of the XO laptop. In addition, our intention is to engage one or more third parties to port Sugar to run on Windows in order to reach a wider installed base of laptops. In the meanwhile, OLPC remains fully committed to our goal: a completely free and open learning platform for the world’s children. The mission statement of OLPC has not changed in three years (attached).
Sugar is the first user interface specifically designed for children and teachers to learn and collaborate, and remains central to our strategy. Broadening Sugar’s reach to as many children as possible remains key to OLPC’s mission.
To enable the Sugar environment to reach as many children as possible, particularly in the poorest areas of the world, OLPC must be able to bid on educational technology contracts, some of which require that Microsoft Windows be able to run on our hardware. The increased volumes will lower the XO-1’s price, already lowest in the industry with capabilities no other laptop shares.
The problem with that is that OLPC is supposed to be about changing the learning environment to enable children to play an active role in learning. Even in our nation, education is frequently a top-down force-fed thing that stifles curiousity. Our best students sometimes resemble baby birds. They sit with their beaks open, waiting for someone to stuff knowledge down their throats.
Supposedly, one of the reasons that OLPC originally chose an open environment is because they realized that conventional computer classes are failing. Most are variations of the old quiz program, hidden behind a game. Most are also closed-source proprietary programs, in which interested teachers and students are not allowed to alter or improve the software.
Joining hands with Microsoft, the king of proprietary software, is very likely to require learning-unfriendly changes to the software. For example, using Windows introduces “Genuine Advantage” snoopware, software activation, and a workplace-oriented interface that requires students to work the way the operating system desires, instead of vice-versa. It also encourages those who desire to afflict students with the same productivity-sapping software used in office settings, who wish to replace guided exploration with more intellect-sapping dictator-style teaching.
The primary reason, of course, for putting Windows on a school-related computer is to teach students to use conventional office productivity software, a task that the XO is not at all designed to do anyway. For a country that wishes to buy Windows computers, the Classmate is probably a better choice, even as it continues to rot out the brains of students.
Sadly, this new direction looks to make the OLPC project part of the problem, rather than a key part of the solution to the world’s educational problems. This might have made sense if OLPC was a computer project, rather than an education project. If the only goal is to sell computers, one may spread one’s butt-cheeks to all sorts of unsavory characters. If the goal is revolutionary change in the very change-resistant educational establishment, then maintaining and improving the existing software in order to better support those objectives, along with bringing back G1G1 and expanding it to all developed nations, along with a long-term perspective is necessary in order to see results.
I sincerely hope that OLPC regains its bearings and stops looking to established market players to support the disruptive changes that OLPC’s original goals require.
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