Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Whither OLPC

I haven't been keeping up with the little green laptop for a bit, with the flood of inexpensive (but not as cheap as the OLPC) laptops hitting the market. Machines like the eePC from Asus are not as clever in their design as the OLPC, but I think they may be much more desirable in the end, due to amenities such as faster processors and ram, and a user interface that are more like things people are used to.

This announcment that Walter Bender, one of the mainstays in the OLPC project has left -- because of the OLPC's move to Windows XP........exactly what many potential customers for the OLPC have been asking for.

I have picked on the OLPC project before. I think it is wrong-headed to get into the laptop business to begin with. True to form, the price point for entry level laptops is dropping just as happened with other consumer electronics. It is not driven by educational need but by the market, but education can directly benefit.

Maybe they can be focused on making their OS work on as many different devices as is possible. The world needs a nice, lightweight OS that has modern features, but can run on 5 - 10 year old hardware. I have run across old PII 233 mhz laptops for less than $50.00. That would be a great candidate for the OLPC OS, and would keep one more laptop out of a landfill.

As far as the grand theory of constructivist thinking driving OLPC -- perhaps the OS is the wrong place to start. Conceptually, having an OS that the end user can modify is interesting, but in the k-12 market, with strained resources and little time for training, it makes more sense to leverage what people already know, and let the technology act as a tool to expand on that knowledge. It is ultimately a myopic vision of the technorati to focus on open source philosophy at the expense of what the user needs. And, as past postings will bear me out, I fully support open source. But I care less about the underpinnings than the experience and opportunities that the technology affords me.

Why not spend time developing a simple programming environment that can run on top of any OS, and lets students create their own applications (even better, make it an interpretive language like Ruby, where the apps are web apps, and can run anywhere). Use OLPC's mesh networking, throw some multidisciplinary curriculum behind it (programming/design visual + motion/interaction/literacy/writing/math/science/etc) and some well designed curriculum and learning tools (good books, digital learning objects, good examples to copy and modify) that teachers can use to make use of this stuff. This is much less glamorous than building a cool green laptop, but will have much wider and longer impact.

Okay, it will be interesting to see where the OLPC project will be a year from now. I wish the project well. I like the discussion it has generated. I still think there is a lot of potential, but maybe not making laptops. Let others do that. Unlike the OLPC laptops, these new, small, inexpensive laptops will be devices that you and I will want to own and use daily, but the good news is that a 12 year old in kenya will want one too, for pretty much the same reasons.