posted by Thom Holwerda on Wed 14th May 2008 09:02 UTC
IconBack in November of 2006, I wrote a piece about the One Laptop Per Child Project. I was afraid that the project's focus on creating a whole new paradigm (the Sugar UI) would ultimately intervene with the actual goal of the project: teaching stuff to kids. Ivan Krstic, former director of security architecture at OLPC, wrote an essay in which he heavily criticises the OLPC project.

Krstic wrote his essay in response to the news that the OLPC might become Windows-only, with the Sugar interface ported to it. In the essay, he gives several points of criticism that seem to reflect what many others (including Eugenia and myself) have been saying for a long time now.

Firstly, he doubts the usefulness of constructionism as a learning theory. The constructionist part of the OLPC project is more or less the open source part: users can fix, improve, and translate the software themselves, which will aid massively in the learning process. While Krstic appreciates the "bright-eyed idealism", there simply appears to be no facts backing it all up. "No, we don't know that laptop recipients will benefit from fixing software on their laptops. Indeed, I bet they'd largely prefer the damn software works and doesn't need fixing."

As far as I know, there is no real study anywhere that demonstrates constructionism works at scale. There is no documented moderate-scale constructionist learning pilot that has been convincingly successful; when Nicholas points to "decades of work by Seymour Papert, Alan Kay, and Jean Piaget", he's talking about theory. [...] There sure as hell doesn't exist a peer-reviewed study (or any other kind, to my knowledge) showing free software does any better than proprietary software when it comes to aiding learning, or that children prefer the openness, or that they care about software freedom one bit.

Later on in the essay, Krstic dives a little deeper into the philosophical issue of whether or not the entire software stack must be open source. He writes:

At the end of the day, it just doesn't matter to the educational mission what kernel is running Sugar. If Sugar itself remains open and free - which, thus far, has never been in question - all of the relevant functionality such as the 'view source' key remains operational, on Windows or not. OLPC should never take steps to willingly limit the audience for its learning software. Windows is the most widely used operating system in existence. A Windows-compatible Sugar would bring its rich learning vision to potentially tens or hundreds of millions of children all over the world whose parents already own a Windows computer, be it laptop or desktop. To suggest this is a bad course of action because it's philosophically impure is downright evil.

Krstic also quotes Richard Stallman. Stallman equated teaching children to use proprietary software to introducing children to addictive drugs. This got Krstic riled up pretty badly. "If proprietary software is half as good as free software at aiding children's learning, you're damn right it makes the world a better place to get the software out to children," he fumes, "Stallman doesn't appear to actually give an acrobatic shit about learning, and sees OLPC as a vehicle for furthering his political agenda. It's shameful, the lot of it."

He does want to make clear that he opposes the idea of making Windows the sole operating system of the Sugar UI - but he is enthusiastic about porting it to as many operating systems as possible. In an internal memo Krstic wrote that the OLPC project should port the core Sugar technologies to other operating systems, and then leverage the developers on those operating systems in order to develop the actual user interfaces. "The core mistake of the present Sugar approach is that it couples phenomenally powerful ideas about learning - that it should be shared, collaborative, peer to peer, and open - with the notion that these ideas must come presented in an entirely new graphical paradigm. We reject this coupling as untenable."

Another big issue is the one of deployment, or distribution as I called it in my short piece. For a project aiming to bring laptops to third world countries, you'd think they would put a lot of emphasis on developing an infrastructure for getting laptops to places where there aren't even McDonald's restaurants, let alone Starbucks, and, well, roads. Well, you thought wrong.

Other than the incredible Carla Gomez-Monroy who worked on setting up the pilots, there was no one hired to work on deployment while I was at OLPC, with Uruguay's and Peru's combined 360,000 laptop rollout in progress. I was parachuted in as the sole OLPC person to deal with Uruguay, and sent to Peru at the last minute. And I'm really good at thinking on my feet, but what the shit do I know about deployment? Right around that time, Walter was demoted and theoretically made the "director of deployment," a position where he directed his expansive team of - himself. Then he left, and get this: now the company has half a million laptops in the wild, with no one even pretending to be officially in charge of deployment. "I quit," Walter told me on the phone after leaving, "because I can't continue to work on a lie."

Krstic then posts a part of an internal memo he wrote, in which he explains that not having a deployment strategy is going to be the biggest problem for OLPC - so the project very well knew this problem was coming, but didn't seem adamant to fix it. "That OLPC was never serious about solving deployment, and that it seems to no longer be interested in even trying, is criminal," Krstic explains, "Left uncorrected, it will turn the project into a historical fuckup unparalleled in scale."

Krstic doesn't just criticise the past, he also proposes how to go forward. He presents a paragraph from an email he sent to Negroponte, in which he explains what OLPC should become.

I continue to think it's a crying shame you're not taking advantage of how OLPC is positioned. Now that it's goaded the industry into working on low-cost laptops, OLPC could become a focus point for advocating constructionism, making educational content available, providing learning software, and keeping track of worldwide [one-to-one] deployments and the lessons arising from them. When a country chooses to do [a one-to-one computer program], OLPC could be the one-stop shop that actually works with them to make it happen, regardless of which laptop manufacturer is chosen, banking on the deployment plans it's cultivated from experience and the readily available base of software and content it keeps. In other words, OLPC could be the IBM Global Services of one-to-one laptop programs. This, I maintain, is the right way to go forward.

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