Regarding the Laptop Revolution

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The Laptop Revolution and the fashion of learning

The laptop revolution not only has clothes, but will change the fashion of learning.

It is ironic to note that Larry Cuban, who has been a champion for quality education for marginalized youth and whose work with David Tyack captured brilliantly the function of a “grammar of school” should fall victim to that same grammar when thinking about the potential uses of computers for learning. Tyack and Cuban depicted, in the words of Seymour Papert, how the grammar of school reforms the reforms before the reforms can reform schools.

The grammar of school leads to the conception of the computer as merely an instructional device, as only a medium for delivery, and that such a limited device is no substitute for good teaching as it provides an insufficient learning environment that does not justify its cost. Such impoverished use of computers in schools misses where their true potential as tools for learning resides: as powerful devices for expression, construction, design, modeling, imagination, creation and collaboration.

The computer has enabled an exponential growth of knowledge and learning in the world in virtually every field. Limiting the use of the computer to instructional delivery or presentation of information did not enable this growth. People in virtually every field gained knowledge in their field, made new discoveries, advanced new theories, that is learned, by using computers to assist conceiving, expressing and constructing models, sharing the models, running the models, gaining feedback, reflecting, discussing, visualizing, debugging, and then iterating again. The computer facilitated diversity in thinking, being open to different expression, different ideas, different fields, and different people. Children should use computers not because in business as adults they will use them. Children should use computers in the manner that professionals use them—for learning and creating—because the business of children is learning and the computer is the best learning device created.

Over the past 2 decades there have been numerous examples of how children learn and acquire concepts in computer-rich environments, including concepts extremely difficult for children to acquire without computers. The difference is in the role of the computer in the learning; the activity of the child, shifting from passive receiver of information to active creator. Amazingly, these results are often ignored while people focus on the lack of change of the overall system. Cuban and Tyack document the normalization process of the institution of school. Clearly the difference is not in the potential of computers for learning but in the resistance of the system to fundamental change. Critical mass of laptops for learning presents the possibility for fundamental change at scale.

Distinguishing learning and teaching

The distinction between learning and teaching is critical. The omission of the word learning in Cuban’s critique is significant and demonstrates the influence of the grammar of school. Naturally, teaching is a critical component of learning. But teaching is not equivalent to learning. The greatest teacher in the world cannot guarantee the proper learning of every child. The learner has the key role to play. Too often the role of the computer is relegated to an instructional machine, an electronic delivery truck, rather than as a learning machine, a protean device enabling thought, expression, collaboration, and modeling in ways other materials do not afford.

Cuban cites the limitations of ACOT; and it is an important one from which to learn. Cuban notes that the weekly use did not justify a 1:1 ratio. The scale of ACOT, limited to a relatively small number of schools and classrooms did not enable a fundamentally different use of computers. ACOT alone could not enable fundamental change simply because the scale was too small. There was not critical mass. With only a few classrooms participating, no one will develop new content that takes advantage of what kids can do with computers that they cannot do with paper and pencil. New activities for learning did not grow to scale because there was no mechanism for spread. At best the impact remains local to the participating classrooms.

Alan Kay is exactly right when he describes that the development of the culture is key, that the culture is embodied in the people. However, Alan Kay is a key participant in OLPC. Why? Because 1:1 access to laptops creates the environment with the greatest potential for a culture for learning to be developed. The music is not only in the teacher, as Cuban claims. Teachers, music that people have already created, devices to enable listening to music, discussion and criticism about music, musical instruments, radios, concerts, stereos, CDs, MP3s, and so on comprise the culture into which a child can enter. The child learns by participating in the culture, by playing music, by learning. This is what needs to be developed for better learning environments. And ubiquitous access to laptops for learning is a fundamental element towards creating a rich, robust, equitable learning culture.

Healthy skepticism and critical thinking are obviously essential to helping to produce real improvements in the learning culture. No one should accept the hype of computer vendors more interested in selling products than in truly improving the educational environment. Yet, skepticism should not prevent us from creative thinking about how to truly provide a quality education for all, including the most marginalized children in every country. The need has never been greater yet the problems have never seemed more intractable. Immersive presence of connected laptops for learning, collaboration, teacher development, and new activities provide the best hope for creating the learning culture that Alan Kay evokes.

While we believe in one-to-one access to laptops for learning for every child, our particular initiative, One Laptop per Child (OLPC), is focusing on school-age children in developing countries. Given the state of the vast majority of schools in the majority of these countries, the students do not have access to libraries, books, or quality educational materials. Moreover, their families in the vast majority of cases do not have access to telephones, let alone the web. In addition to creating the environment for the potential learning gains described above, this laptop initiative brings content, materials, and connectivity to the children and their families in their schools and homes. This is a huge potential gain. Because the computer is both a mechanism for information delivery as well as a device for creation and expression, (and sharing that expression) it is by far the most cost-effective means for addressing these critical problems of education, inclusion, democracy and economic development.

-- David Cavallo

Written in response to a October 2006 Op-Ed by Larry Cuban [1]