Laptops and Learning

Let me begin with an “I told you so.” For a few years I have been obsessed with the use of technology in education because it is my considered position that the smart use of technology provides the best hope of solving the problem of educating the hundreds of millions in India.

But a bit of thinking brought me to the (apparently contradictory) conclusion that laptops in the school learning environment is detrimental to learning. I love the idea of using technology in schools but totally distrust the idea of one-on-one laptop use in schools. In 2006 I wrote, “It is predictable that in the near future, good schools around the world will prohibit school students the use of laptops while in class, just as students are not allowed cell phones.”

I arrived at that position by considering my own educational experience and how I behave. I realize that it is risky to generalize broadly based on one’s personal experience but there you have it. I wrote this nearly two years ago in the context of my own years in school:

Question: would we have become better educated if we had access to laptops and the internet? Arguably yes. At least some of us would have had a richer educational experience. Strictly speaking for myself, I would have probably flunked. I would have surfed the web for god alone knows what, I would have played computer games (I once spent an entire year playing Solitaire on my laptop), I would have wasted all my time socializing on the web. In short, I am grateful that I got access to the internet only after my basic education was complete. Even now, as a grown up and presumed responsible person, I find that my work suffers when I start surfing the web. I am sure that if my internet privileges are not restricted, I will probably never finish the work I am supposed to do and I fear that I will get fired.

What brings this topic of laptops in schools in mind is a recent Slate (June 5th) article “The $100 Distraction Device: Why giving poor kids laptops doesn’t improve their scholastic performance.” (Thanks to all who emailed me the link.)

The article reports the research findings of two economists into the question of whether computers and access to the web actually help school kids. Their finding: “For many kids, computers are indeed more of a distraction than a learning opportunity. . . that merely providing access may be more of a curse than a blessing . . . just giving kids computers? Might as well just ship them PlayStations.”

Some schools are wising up and taking away the laptops from kids in school. In May 2007, an article in the NY Times, “Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops” reports:

LIVERPOOL, N.Y. — The students at Liverpool High have used their school-issued laptops to exchange answers on tests, download pornography and hack into local businesses. When the school tightened its network security, a 10th grader not only found a way around it but also posted step-by-step instructions on the Web for others to follow (which they did).

. . . Scores of the leased laptops break down each month, and every other morning, when the entire school has study hall, the network inevitably freezes because of the sheer number of students roaming the Internet instead of getting help from teachers.

So the Liverpool Central School District, just outside Syracuse, has decided to phase out laptops starting this fall, joining a handful of other schools around the country that adopted one-to-one computing programs and are now abandoning them as educationally empty — and worse.

. . . school officials here and in several other places said laptops had been abused by students, did not fit into lesson plans, and showed little, if any, measurable effect on grades and test scores at a time of increased pressure to meet state standards. Districts have dropped laptop programs after resistance from teachers, logistical and technical problems, and escalating maintenance costs.

I will not quote any more from the article but there are lots of lessons reported in that piece and I think that Indian education policymakers have to learn from the experiences of others — others who have tried technology and learnt from costly lessons.

The State of the OLPC Universe

So what’s new in the OLPC world? Two articles by Steve Lohr from the last month in the NY Times bring us up to speed. Steve’s first article, “Microsoft Joins Effort for Laptops for Children” (May 16th, 2008) reported that finally talks between Negroponte and Gates resulted in the decision to release the OLPC laptop with a Windows XP option sometime this month in some countries.

The OLPC’s dalliance with Microsoft apparently led Walter Bender — who oversaw software development — to resign. Steve’s second article, “Why Walter Bender Left One Laptop Per Child” (May 27th, 2008) says,

Walter Bender, a longtime collaborator of Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the nonprofit laptop group, left O.L.P.C. in April. Mr. Bender oversaw software development for the project. His departure had been the subject of blog posts that suggested his exit was because a pact with Microsoft was in the works.

Negroponte said Bender’s departure was “a huge loss to OLPC” but also claimed “that some people, including Walter, became much too fundamental about open source.”

Oh that must have hurt! Calling people “fundamentalists” is not good these days. Bender’s response:

“Microsoft stepping in is the symptom, not the disease,” he said in the interview. The issue, in his view, is whether the tools that bring computing to children are “agnostic on learning” or “take a position on learning.”

“O.L.P.C. has become implicitly agnostic about learning,” he said. The project’s focus, he said, is on bringing low-cost laptop computers to children around the world. “It’s a great goal, but it’s not my goal,” he said.

So what’s Bender up to? He’s a founder of Sugar Labs. Here’s more from Steve:

The Sugar software, which provides the user interface for O.L.P.C. laptops, is the means toward the end of a “constructionist learning model,” said Mr. Bender. It’s an approach that builds on the conceptual work of Jean Piaget, the Swiss philosopher and developmental theorist, and the practical research of his intellectual descendants like Seymour Papert, the M.I.T. computer scientist, educator and inventor of the Logo programming language, designed for education.

The constructionist model, put simply, says people learn best by building things — solving problems by “constructing” answers as active agents — instead of by being passive recipients of facts and received knowledge.

Computing is potentially an ideal tool for constructionist education because a computer is a universal machine and software is a building material without material constraints. (In fairness, Mr. Negroponte, founder of the M.I.T. Media Lab, has also been a champion of the constructionist education agenda over the years.)

Mr. Bender says he thinks the collaborative, interactive learning environment embodied by Sugar could be “a game changer in how technology and education collide.” He says he wants to see the Sugar software run on many different kinds of hardware and software platforms, even on Windows, if the Sugar experience is not sacrificed.

“It’s not about Microsoft being evil,” Mr. Bender said. “It’s about optimizing the chance of having a positive impact on education, and that is what Sugar is about. And that mission would be endangered by being too tightly coupled to one hardware vendor, O.L.P.C.”

So the OLPC is now a hardware vendor and the goal is to sell laptops. In a very candid (and long piece) cleverly titled “Sic Transit Gloria Laptopi” on his blog on May 18th, Ivan Krstić, formerly director of security architecture at the OLPC, tells you everything you ever wanted to know about the OLPC but never dared to ask. For instance, he writes that he quit “when Nicholas told me — and not just me — that learning was never part of the mission.”

If you have any interest in the OLPC and what intrigues have occurred and are going on, you must read Ivan’s article. It presents a comprehensive account of the genesis of the OLPC project.

There is one point that Ivan makes that particularly resonated with me. Many proponents of laptops for children claim that children futzing around with software will help them learn. Perhaps it will help them learn how to fix and write software. But learning is not only about fixing open-source software, or making fancy multimedia presentations and videos. For every child who gets excited about fixing software and learns, there are scores of others who would be better off concentrating on learning other subjects instead of having to waste time dealing with hard to use software and hardware.

Here’s a nice quote from him:

My theory is that technical people, especially when younger, get a particular thrill out of dicking around with their software. Much like case modders, these folks see it as a badge of honor that they spent countless hours compiling and configuring their software to oblivion. Hey, I was there too. And the older I get, the more I want things to work out of the box. Ubuntu is getting better at delivering that experience for novice users. Serious power users seem to find that OS X is unrivaled at it.

Anyway, this post is getting too damn long and I will end it with the concluding paras from Ivan’s post (for the record.)

I’m trying to convince Walter not to start a Sugar Foundation, but an Open Learning Foundation. For those who still care about learning in this whole clusterfuck of conflicting agendas, the charge should be to start that organization, since OLPC doesn’t want to be it. Having a company that is device-agnostic and focuses entirely on the learning ecosystem, from deployment to content to Sugar, is not only what I think is sorely needed to really take the one-to-one computer efforts to the next level, but also an approach that has a good chance of making the organization doing the work self-sustaining at some point.

So here’s to open learning, to free software, to strength of personal conviction, and to having enough damn humility to remember that the goal is bringing learning to a billion children across the globe. The billion waiting for us to put our idiotic trifles aside, end our endless yapping, and get to it already.

Let’s get to it already.

One thought on “Laptops and Learning

  1. clueso Monday June 9, 2008 / 4:08 pm

    I too believe that having internet access in the classroom is just asking for students to not concentrate during lectures, but I am not so keen on dispensing of laptops altogether.

    I remember when I was in school, the general routine was the teacher writes, writes and then writes some more, while all the students in the class copy what the teacher puts down word by word. The teacher writes the same stuff down every year, so we had around 60 odd students every year copying down things which would have been done in 5 minutes if it was being done electronically. If a student was ill and missed a class, then they had to spend a good part of the day simply copying down notes from their friend’s books, a task which is not glamourous even on a good day and downright ugly when one is recovering from an illness.

    There was also the issue of getting textbooks. It was a standard problem that textbooks would not arrive on time at the start of the academic year and the first one month was spent trying to get intelligence of which shop has the text books and then rushing over in the fear that someone may buy them before you get there. Woudln’t it be more convenient and also save a hell lot of paper(and trees and therefore the environment) if the PDFs couls simply be downloaded and stored on a hard drive? Electronic storage also makes it easier to keep old notes, which may be useful in some cases…

    I think laptops/computers have tremendous potential to make our educational system more efficient and hence I would support the use of laptops in class but not having internet access during class hours. If not laptop access during class, there should atleast be a drive towards getting more notes and textbooks in eelctronic format so that future generations do not waste time writing down reams of notes and then just discarding them at the end of the year.

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