OLPC: Helpful or Harmful?

Over the holiday break, there has been an interesting discussing on the TechRhet list about the OLPC initiative. Aaron Barlow has been leading the con side of the debate, and outlines the argument in his blog, here, and points to articles about failed development projects such as the one here; the pro side generally gives the opinion that we should at least be doing something, both at home and abroad, to close the digital divide.

One of the elements of the pro side of the argument comes from the idea that this is a program built on open-source ethos, and that makes it an honorable project, despite a history of failed development efforts. This is a valid point, yet I think I agree with Barlow’s point that we are still imposing our technological values on other cultures in that sense (having a word processor and other office tools installed, for instance).

What I find lacking from the conversation that would refute his point, however, is the explicitly constructionist approach that the OLPC team has taken in developing software and collaborative properties of the laptops. For instance, the OLPC News Page had a recent post about how the program is designed around constructivist principles, and teachers and students are reporting the benefits of collaboration, such as in Digital Planet‘s 12/21/07 story.

As I reflect on the ideas behind OLPC, and the fact that I donated in to the program for my children and children somewhere else in the world, I still feel that this was a worthwhile cause. I agree with Barlow’s main point — that western countries need to be conscious of what we “give” when we give aid. That said, I feel that we all need to be critical consumers of any technology given to (or purchased by) us, including the OLPC. I see this as the basic literacy issue involved — to what extent are the users of this, or any, technology able to compose their own thoughts with it? For the OLPC, I think that the options are wide open.

I look forward to continuing this discussion and exploring the potentials of the OLPC initiative, both with my own kids and in the larger educational communities that are forming around it. So far, we have figured out some of the basic options, individual and collaborative, in the writing, chat, browser, draw, and tamtamjam programs. More soon

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