Learning Learning/Parable 3/Bites

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“No one wants to cross the digital divide using yesterday's technology.” – Paul Otellini, Intel CEO in a speech at the World Conference on Information [1]

There is an implication that we at OLPC are the ones who are victims of the QWERTY phenomenon: one is led to believe that we are stuck with an old technology while some technological advance will lead the way to the future.

I see in this quote not ONLY of one but of two QWERTY effects.

My first QWERTY charge:

The QWERTY in this case is not the machine but a way of thinking that has become as firmly stuck in the minds of the computer world as the QWERTY arrangement on the keyboard.

This way of thinking is: forever bigger, faster, brighter... and especially newer, If you haven’t upgraded recently you are stuck in the QWERTY mud!

Perhaps for some purposes this is a healthy and good way of thinking. In the first decades of the digital age it might have been good for the purpose of supporting education and development. But long ago computers became powerful enough to serve as magnificent instruments for learning. From that point on serving education meant making the machines cheaper and more robust. QWERTY in this area meant sticking with the old criterion for judging progress.

The implicit criterion is simple: if it runs the latest software, it is good; if it does not, it is bad. End of discussion.

Mine is a little more difficult. I look concretely at how the machine will enter into the learning process. Breaking out of the QWERTY phenomenon in math education is just one of many I have written about. I’ll talk about others in the following weeks. For now I make one point about how to go about discussing the question.

I have proposed some very powerful educational procedures that DO NOT NEED 2-GHz processors or gigabyte memories. I challenge someone to describe concretely the learning activities he has in mind that DO NEED that kind of machine. Of course I am not questioning the possibility of making educationally valuable materials that will only run on a super-computer. Obviously, whatever capacity you have you can use. The rules of engagement I propose are:

First, line up, side by side

everything that can be done with (for example) the OLPC “hundred dollar” machine


what can be done with Eduwise, the “four hundred dollar” machine proposed by Intel (or some other machine).

Then, make a comparison of the marginal added value of the allegedly more powerful machine. A good businessman should be able to back his choice by a hard-nosed comparison of how much learning you get for your buck. I believe that it will turn out that the OLPC machine offers more learning support for than the other does for four times the price.

I can’t resist trying to score a debating point: Since Otellini boasts of the Intel program “Teach to the Future,” which teaches teachers to use technology, I assume he would approve of the fact that, since its inception in 2000, I have made supporting what this program does part of my minimal criteria for an education computer. Needless to say, the OLPC machine comfortably passes this minimal test.

My second QWERTY charge:

Intel has announced a billion dollar program to “train” teachers in the use of technology to support education. Not a word about changing the content of education. I’ll discuss details another week. But in essence the charge is simple: this education policy is 99% QWERTY.

I mention here one of the issues that will be spelled out: For me the personal computer allows the learner more control over the learning process, not on how the learner can be controlled. The Intel press release quotes Otellini as saying:

“With students using the Eduwise notebook in class, a teacher can make presentations, control what a student has access to...”

And reporters who were present quote him as adding:

The teacher can “control what Web sites the student is visiting... can pull them back from checking sports scores or chatting with friends online.”

OK! I know someone will be saying: “you see Papert is just a crazy anarchist he wants to let the students run wild.” A better statement of my position would be this: the goal is not to gain more control but to create a culture in which less control is needed. In my vision freedom is used constructively by students who have acquired the discipline of self control. Of course the problem is how to do this... come back next week for some ideas.

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