Digital Writing (ala Chromebook)

Over the past year or so, I have been asked more and more often about my opinion on Chromebooks, and I want to offer an informed opinion. I know that many educators have taken up the conversation on Chromebooks, especially Joe Wood. Also, so I have some base of knowledge from which to speak and because I want to give it whirl during our 2013 Chippewa River Writing Project summer institute, I bought a new toy this week — the Samsung Chromebook. 

Image from GoogleSo, what have I noticed so far in two days of using the Chromebook? First, given my reliance on Google web apps and the Chrome browser over the past five years, the interface switch has really not been too demanding. I basically live my entire professional life via Gmail, Google Docs, and Chrome, with occasional forays into standalone applications, mainly Word, when I really need them. Thus, I was accustomed to the Google interfaces, and when I loaded up the Chromebook, all my extensions and web apps loaded right away.

The next element, of course, is getting used to the keyboard. While my fingers are still getting used to some of the different key spots as compared to the Mac, I am accustomed enough to the idea of a Ctrl-C for copy that getting acquainted with the keyboard isn’t too troubling. Also, the built in search button is pretty handy and the keys along the top of the board allow for easier web browsing and controlling the window. 

The computer itself starts up incredibly quickly, not quite so fast as a tablet but certainly much faster than a normal laptop. There is adequate on-board storage, and Google also throws in a terabyte on Drive for two years, which is a pretty nice incentive for those who are doing more and more work in the cloud. Besides getting used to the fact that I am doing everything online — no programs to load here — I find the rest of the functionality like connecting to wifi, logging in and out, and changing other settings — to be relatively simple. 

Scott McCloud's Comic Explaining Google Chrome

The other point worth noting is that Chrome itself syncs across devices and, as I noted above, will load all your extensions. In a sense, it is like have portable apps with you, but really it is an entire computer that you bring and not a jump drive that you have to plug in and load. Way back when Chrome came out and they talked about how it was built different from other browsers — mainly that each tab essentially functioned independently — I didn’t really appreciate what that meant until now, when I can see that you would not want your entire computer to restart because of one bad web site. If this was true in 2008 when Chrome was released, then it is even more so now with more and more web-based applications running. 

In terms of digital writing and teaching, however, I think that this has some serious implications for helping students think about when, how, and where they are using web-based apps. Yes, there are privacy concerns, and I am not entering that part of the debate right now. Instead, what I find very exciting is that a student could — with the help of a knowledgeable and pedagogically insightful teacher — think very strategically about how to choose a handful of web services and utilize them across devices. School computing, with Chromebooks, could be highly affordable and definitely portable. Not that tablets or other computing devices, including ones brought in with a BYOD program would be obsolete; instead, we would need to help students think carefully about utilizing web-based services in productive, academically rich ways. 

And, at a $250 price point for the Samsung Chromebook that I am using now, it is worth having an extra laptop in our house full of kiddos, all of whom use Google Apps for their homework in some fashion. Given the functionality and integration with Google services, I think that this is probably a better deal than the OLPC laptops that I bought a few years ago for my kids, which ended up barely being used. 

So, I am (so far) quite happy with this purchase, and I am sure my family will get our money’s worth from it. As I play more with it in our summer institute, I hope to think more about its affordances and constraints… and share some of that thinking here. 

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OLPC Keynote from SITE 2008

Sorry that it took so long, but getting back to another crazy week finds me now, on the Friday might before MRA 2008, catching up on SITE.

That said, I have one final set of notes and reflections, and this keynote was a good one. Dr. Antonio Battro, the Chief Education Officer for One Laptop Per Child delivered an excellent keynote address and post-keynote discussion. Highlights from both are here, followed by my reflections.

Also, FYI, I have update my presentation post from a few days ago, and it now includes a podcast of my session.

Here are the notes from the keynote, followed by notes from the post-keynote discussion, and, finally, my reflections:

The Cognitive Challenges of the One Laptop Per Child Program
Antonio Battro, Chief Education Officer One Laptop Per Child

  • OLPC (and per teacher)
    • Sharing knowledge is a dialogue, and this is the essence of OLPC
    • The machines may change, but education must evolve
  • History
    • Nicholas Negroponte
      • 1960’s architecture of the machine
      • In Paris, Battro spent some time with him and in the early 80’s began thinking about deploying machines in remote countries
  • Five OLPC Principles
    • Child ownership
      • This is the key, as the child and the teacher own the computers and they are given to them as a gift
      • It is difficult to understand for many ministers of education, because they want the school to own the computer — not the child or teacher
      • When we go to the highest levels of the governments that we work with, this is the first obstacle that we have to overcome
      • Uruguay is the first country to adopt OLPC for the entire country, and the machine was produced in Shanghai
        • The machines arrived during the last week of classes in November and there was discussion about what to do
          • One group said that we should give the machines to the teachers with a workshop and when classes start again in March, the kids can get them
          • Another group said that this is not the OLPC idea — we should give the machines to the children tomorrow (and this is what happened)
          • 10,000 students received the machine
          • Doing research on children and teachers who get the machine with no formal training (this is the last time that this will happen since all the children will have machines next year)
    • Low ages
      • In many countries, the idea of having digital skills is meant for adolescents and older students
      • For OLPC, kindergarten is too late and we have designed a machine that is for early ages
      • The interface is adapted very well for a child even before they learn how to read and write
      • Uruguay is starting in kindergarten because they have seen so much success with the 5 and 6 year old children
      • This motivation to start early came from Jean Piaget and Seymour Papert
        • In about 1960, Seymour Papert said that all children will eventually have a computer
        • This was a crazy idea, but he was a prophet (he developed Logo)
      • Piaget
        • Constructionism (how the child constructs reality)
          • Learning to learn
          • Children teach — this was a very profound idea, too
            • At five years old, children are very good teachers and OLPC will have millions of teachers around the world
      • Howard Gardner
        • Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century
          • The human mind has evolved a number of separate organs/information-processing devices
          • Taking human differences seriously lies at the heart of the multiple intelligences perspective
            • We do a different kind of construction for each intelligence
              • Digital intelligence (“the click option”)
                • Everything boils down to a simple question: to click or not to click
              • What happens when a child makes a mental calculation (Hideaki Koizumi, 2006)
                • The frontal lobe is activated by mental arithmetic
                • The frontal lobe is not activated when using a calculator
                  • So, what could it being doing instead?
                  • His dream is to write a book with Hideaki Koizumi about the activation of the human brain when teaching
                  • Knowing that someone else doesn’t know something and then teaching it — this is an amazing human capacity, and children can do this
    • Saturation
      • Every child has a machine and it is like a vaccination
        • Once you have good trials, you have the obligation to vaccinate everyone or else the vaccine will not work
          • This idea was presented by Jonah Salk (correct name?)
        • We prefer to have a whole town or region saturated
          • One example: in a setting with all the ministers of a country where he took at picture
    • Connection
      • Ability to connect with other users
      • The computer is not a tool, it is an environment
    • Free and open source
      • Multiple languages for the machine
      • 100 books for the machine
  • Conclusion
    • Our approach has moved from education for the few and privileged (image of Greek forum) to one computer for all the children (image of a girl with the machine balanced on her head)
    • This is hope, justice, and peace
  • Questions and Answers
    • How might this affect countries that are not democratic?
      • OLPC is non-profit and incorporated in the USA
      • OLPC will go everywhere and try to join the education efforts in the country that we work with
        • Some places need an extra push
        • We are teachers without borders and many of our people are volunteers
      • Peru — putting machines in the most remote areas of the country
    • Bill Gates idea that technology will not solve the problems — we need teachers and electricity. How do you respond to this?
      • Battro discussed his experience as a medical doctor and the eradication of disease (saturation)
      • Also, OLPC is not about machines; instead it is about education (we must have water AND education — education today is about having a computer)
        • If you introduce the computer as a technical, colonial invention, then you are reducing education
        • Education has a value in and of itself, not just as a tool
        • In many difficult places today, there are lots of struggles but the governments are willing to give the computers out

Post-Keynote Discussion

  • Security — some people are worried that the laptops will be stolen and used for illicit purposes
    • Response — the machine isn’t “on the market,” so it doesn’t have a price
    • Also, if it is lost, it can be permanently disabled from afar
    • Finally, the communities that have these laptops know that they are for the children. If adults have them, and they are are not teachers, then it is likely stolen
  • Maintenance — worries about fixing the machines in remote spots
    • Response — easy to open and repair, if it can’t be done at school it can be mailed
    • Eventually, it would be great if people could just take their laptops to any post office and, like other items like keys, they would automatically be sent in for repair and then back to the child
  • Student Use — what is happening for teachers training to support student use?
    • Rapid deployment of laptops and teachers are changing pedagogy quickly, too
    • Teachers are moving from classroom to classroom to see new practices
  • School Architecture — how do the laptops affect this?
    • Changing from desks and rows to tables and chairs in South America

    Printers — why can’t they print easily?

    • Printers are disruptive, ink is expensive, and it encourages old ways of production and transmission of information (worksheets)
  • Support — how can educators help?
    • Need more than just money from big corporations. Family, teachers, and students can use the machines for authentic purposes (USB plug in monitors and probes)
  • Education — there is a consensus that we need to change, but we are working with public funds. Also, many governments see teachers as obstacles, but we see them learning with the students. Teachers are our best collaborators. If all kids have the machine, then they are going to use it all the time. Saturation of laptops is the medical equivalent of vaccination.
  • Concluding comments — this is a project not about laptops, but about students and teachers.


The juxtaposition of us, as educators concerned about social justice and equitable access, sitting in the cavernous conference hall of a casino on the strip in Las Vegas did not elude me. Here we were, with our $1000 (or $2000 or $3000 laptops), writing from America’s heart of conspicuous consumption about how “little green machines” are working around the world to empower youth as producers of knowledge, media, and culture. In a town where one is inundated by only a few views of what counts as culture, we had to buy into that part of the illusion to be able to sit in the room with an educator who is, literally, changing the world from a grassroots level.

Dr. Battro, as both an MD and PhD, shared a unique perspective with us on why the laptops have to be in the hands of every child. What public health officials understand about vaccinations are that they are not helpful at all unless everyone gets them. In that sense, it would not serve to only give laptops to some children, or to stop after this initial roll out is complete. This program is designed to be sustainable, a educational inoculation for generations to come.

My question for him was about the imminent release of Windows XP for the laptop. His response: it doesn’t matter to me. In other words, it really is about the literacies enable by the machine, not the particular tools. I will be interested in seeing how that plays out, especially if XP goes open source.

Well, there was a lot of information from that session. Even as I reread it a week later and half a continent away, on the cusp of another conference, I am still intrigued by the core message that this is not a laptop initiative, it is an educational initiative. This can not be underestimated and gives me pause to think about the ways that I continue to frame discussions of technology and literacy, and reminds me that I need to play with my own children as they teach me about their laptops.

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

OLPC – We Did It, We Got It

Pulling into the driveway this afternoon, I saw the box perched on our porch. Like the many other holiday packages that arrive, I didn’t give this one much of a thought until I got it inside and began to look at the address label. Pretty quickly, I realized that the computers we ordered from the OLPC program had arrived, and in time for Christmas.

Last month, I mentioned that we might order these for our kids and, in doing so, make the donation to the OLPC foundation to send two other computers to children somewhere else in the world. We debated for a day or two, and with the deadline looming, we ordered them. Since then, the deadline has been extended, which is great, and I’ve heard from others who are thinking about purchasing one or more computers, too, including Kevin Hodgson and a post on Helen Barrett’s blog.

For a number of reasons, I am so glad that we ordered them. I feel very fortunate that 1) we are in a position to be able to purchase two of these machines for our children as tools to enable their digital literacy and 2) that we have them right now, in time for a Christmas gift. Moreover, I also look forward to explaining how the OLPC program works, so our kids will know that we are helping other kids, too. In so many ways, this program epitomizes what I value about education, and I am glad to have been a part of it.

Lastly, the are green and white after all, so how could we resist?

Heather and I took them out of the box tonight, set them up, and got them running in just a few minutes. We only played for a few minutes (so I could write this post), and not nearly as extensively as David Pogue did. I admit, I did check the OLPC Getting Started Guide (which is all online, so as to save paper), to make sure I could connect to our password-protected home network. That was a snap, and in minutes we had figured out how to get online (above, on the left, see one machine with the web browser pointed at the NYT home page) and (on the right) create a brief video for our children saying, “Merry Christmas!” I took a quick tour of some of the programs just to get a sense of the interface, and I think that my 5-year-old daughter is going to pick up on this machine immediately. My 2-year-old son may just enjoy tapping at it for awhile, but my daughter will be able to utilize much of the functionality including a journal, web browser, painting program, and music making program.

So, now that we have the machines, the question is what to do with them: personally, professionally, collaboratively? I am extremely interested in hearing from other educators who have purchased these — for your children or your school — and to begin thinking about how we can use them in productive ways for teaching digital writing. I will be curious to see what the OS on this machine, as well as the apps, can do as I learn how to use it along with my kids.

When you get your hands on one of these incredible machines, please let me know what you are thinking about. Perhaps we can continue to add to the Learning Activities page on their wiki. Or have a meet-up of OLPC users/bloggers at an educational conference somewhere in the near future, perhaps at SITE in March?

At any rate, please let me know what you find out as you begin to explore this fascinating machine and how students learn to compose with it in the broadest sense of text, voice, image, video, and more.

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