The Goals of OLPC
The laptop hopefully will give the children the ability to explore, experiment and express themselves. Many children don't have access to books, internet, tv and the laptop will be the only media they have.
Flash space is limited and it's time the talk about what's important for children in their daily life. It would be very helpful to ask the people in poor countries what their priorities are.
This is the first priority. If it is not fun then kids won't use it. But fun is not as obvious as adults think. Constructionist educators and teachers using the montessori method know that children like to be totally involved in learning, not just consumers of content.
One way to tell if something is fun is to observe how much time kids devote to it. In the Exploratorium in San Francisco, one exhibit captured visitors for many times the minute or two that most exhibits get. See Sickle Cell Counsellor for more about it. For that matter, the ESP game devised by a Computer Science prof at Carnegie Mellon captured some folks for twelve hours a day or more for days on end. Mayhap we should analyze that.
In order to make much use of an OLPC, the child needs to be literate in their native language. What kind of applications can assist the child to attain literacy but still work cross-culturally. For example, a visual dictionary might have a picture of an apple with the word apple under it. You could translate the word apple to a south Indian language but it wouldn't help much because the kids would have no idea what the picture represents and the adults around them might not even know the meaning of the word for apple in their language.
See Pre-literate Applications for some ideas. But really, with a million kids with laptops, or even many fewer for a very local language, the task of developing or extending a visual dictionary is, itself, a whole series of appropriate class projects. With the built in cameras in their laptops, the kids themselves can make illustrations which will be understood by other speakers of their language.
In a related vein, a class might well learn lots by undertaking to choose among several alternatives for the best version of each entry for such a dictionary. When education is the fundamental goal, nearly every problem can be treated as another learning opportunity.
Most of the people in poor countries live in agricultural environment. Survival comes first, even before education, but when the education tools can give the kids and their families a better life, they will get hooked on learning.
What the OLPC project must do is to share the ideas that work in one country with educators and kids in other places. For example, if there are people whose job is to help farmers improve their success in farming, then they should be asked to assist some actual classes in understanding what works in the local area. Then those classes can prepare material to convey that understanding to others. Even more telling would be to do actual scientific research of the processes of farming as a part of schoolwork.
How compelling would it be for a class to construct a narrative about planting, tending, and harvesting yams or rice or whatever is grown locally? If someone invented an improvement to part of the process, some class could undertake to document and measure the effect of the new method and provide the resulting narratives to other schools and other farmers. The experts can then be instructed by the students. Wouldn't that turn things on their head sometimes? it also helps kids how to leasrn how to read and write.
AIDS, tobacco, hygyiene, vitamins, ...
It sounds good until you realize that snakes are more likely to kill these kids than AIDS, tobacco is only available to the older, richer villagers, hygiene in tropical climates is not the same as in temperate ones, and vitamins are only available in foods, not in the non-existent shops. All the same, basic health and hygiene education materials already exist, now the OLPC can make it easier to distribute them, even if they are only scanned into DJVU ebooks.
Oh what wonderful projects there can be to document what the local healers and health experts say and do and then to actually measure the results. New knowledge and understandings are guaranteed to arise if this is done even badly. Such topics can be revisited even in a single class every few years, without loss of educational and health consequences of real value. But these things are the very ones which are necessarily done locally in order to fit with the culture and religions of the area. Material without sensitivity to the local culture probably gets rejected by all participants, and their parents.
Peace and Love
Too many people in this world are involved in anger, violence and greed. There needs to be a central focus on family, love and peace. The general platform could focus on embedding peaceful concepts and ideas into the users of the laptop. Other related ideas:
- On startup provide a pleasant greeting.
- One of the options on the desktop should be: Peace activities
- Peace activities could teach about sharing and giving.
Overpopulation is a major problem in the 3rd world because it leads to things like deforestation, desertification, reduced land fertility and so on. Children need to understand how the environment works and how to hold it together so that it can continue to provide food for themselves and their children and grandchildren.
Projects like Motoman show how the OLPC can be leveraged as a communication tool in the absence of telecommunications infrastructure. Where there are no cell phones or landline telephones, a motor scooter can carry electronic messages between villages and towns. Grameen Bank has some experience that shows how even a small amount of communication ability can lead to overal economic improvement in a region.
Understand their own and other cultures
Think globally, act locally. This is a philosophy that crosses all cultural boundaries. We need to teach kids that they are not only citizens of a village, but members of an entire global community.
Given that the OLPC is an ebook delivery vehicle, it could easily be used to deliver technical skills content, such as how to salvage an old electric motor and turn it into a generator, how to build a hydraulic ram, packed-earth wall building techniques and so on. There is an entire library of alternative technology literature that has been built up over the last 40 years which can be delivered on the OLPC using DJVU ebooks.
Still, the phrase delivered on the OLPC sounds so passive receptive. It sounds like what we do in schools in the developed world rather than the more participatory approach which is at the foundation of the OLPC project. Instead, let some classes select relevant portions of this alternative technology literature and construct a locally appropriate narrative about it. Then, in subsequent efforts, they could document what happens when local folks try to apply that book learning in practice. Analysis of the results could be quite stimulating to all concerned.
But it all starts with information which means books. The OLPC's ability to deliver ebooks scanned into DJVU format is key here. The second step is discussion about the new information and here again, the OLPC can help because it provides long-range wireless chat services. The long range means that a larger number of people can discuss any particular issue and this larger number increases the probability that a good idea will get shared. This is what caused Europe to climb out of the Middle Ages, led to the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution. The OLPC is not just a computer, not just an ebook library, it is also a radio, a telephone system, a brilliant communications device.