Blasts from the Past

Remember our discovery over at of the proto-OLPC project in Senegal? Our insightful readers dug even deeper and found some more news articles from the project. To quote the Bard, "What's past is prologue" - there are frighteningly strong parallels between this failed early-80s project and today's OLPC project. I've taken the liberty to do some not-very-creative search and replacing on the article to update it to modern circumstances. You can hover over any text that I've modified to see the original (Firefox users - check out the Long Titles Addon to see the longer pieces of text). Some paragraphs I've dropped for the sake of brevity, but please feel free to read the unadulterated original article, Seymour Papert's 'Microworld': An Educational Utopia, by Charles Euchner. All the emphases are mine, but the text is relatively unadulterated. The majority of the changes were:

  • LOGO becomes Squeak
  • microcomputers and Apple IIs become OLPC laptops
  • French / French companies become Taiwan/Quanta
  • Paris-based World Center for Microprocessors and Human Resources and Microworld become OLPC Project

Let's take the first half of the article, which parallels much of the progress to date with OLPC (emphasis mine):

Seymour Papert's One Laptop Per Child:
An Educational Utopia

Modified by Jon Camfield, original by Charles Euchner
July 18, 2007

New York--At a meeting of the New York Academy of Sciences here this spring, Seymour Papert managed to take issue with just about every teaching method that schools use in education--particularly the way most of them are now using computers.

Mr. Papert [...] first became widely known when he and colleagues at MIT developed Squeak--a computer language specifically designed for elementary schools. Mr. Papert and his followers say that Squeak eventually could be the centerpiece of a movement to restructure education.

More recently, Mr. Papert has attracted attention because of his association with the OLPC Project, an organization with the goal of using the computer to enable developing countries to "leapfrog" whole stages of development.

In his remarks at the New York meeting, Mr. Papert offered his scientific colleagues the kind of visionary perspective on computers and education for which he is noted. He began with a general critique of schools, saying the traditional K-12 system is arbitrary and should give way to a program of studies directed almost entirely by students--with few of the formal lecture situations that now typify schools.

Mr. Papert disputed the contention of many educators that extensive use of computers in schools is expensive and threatens to widen the gap between students in wealthy and poor districts.

By making a modest financial commitment over several years, he said, districts could provide every student with a terminal. But Mr. Papert does not want his remarks about computers and student-directed education to be considered an endorsement of computer-assisted instruction. Structured computer lessons, he said, are "a bad thing."

Educational Development

In his address and in an interview, Mr. Papert outlined a philosophy not only of how education in industrialized countries should work, but also of the role it can play in the development of third-world nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and with people who have not succeeded in traditional schools.

At the World Center, founded by the French journalist and futurist Jeans Servan-Schreiber to test Mr. Papert's ideas, researchers hope that the laptop will give developing countries the means to move into the modern era without the traditional stages of development.

The idea, described by one critic as putting "a computer in every hut," is that the laptop will soon be as inexpensive as a portable television set and will respond to spoken commands--and therefore will offer third-world countries access to the information they need to increase literacy and become economically self-sufficient. [...]

Squeak Is Key

At the center of Mr. Papert's educational utopia is Squeak, the successor to LOGO, the language that grew out of his five years of study with the Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget. [...]

Mr. Papert contends that the ease with which students grasp Squeak and their own microworlds eventually could lead to a kind of educational utopia. [...]

Also in this perfect world, the traditional teacher-student relationship would change. Instead of attending several classes daily, children would be given sets of academic goals that they would be required to achieve. There might be one lecture per week in each area of study, and during the rest of the week the students would direct their own studies.

Such a vision is controversial--"subversive" is the word Mr. Papert uses--and he said he has no illusions about achieving it in the near future. But he added that he is confident that some programs under way in the U.S.--in New York City's "Computers in the Schools" program and at the Lamplighter School in Dallas--will start to convince educators that such changes are desirable.

"This computers-in-the-schools project in New York [does not have] the shock of sudden change," he said. "We started off by training some teachers ... and then increasing [computer use] to two or three in the classroom, and now there are a few classrooms where there are 15 or 16 computers.

"It takes a little bit of time, but you begin to see in these contexts quite dramatic results," he added. "It's seeing those results, documenting them, making them as visible as possible" that eases the worst fears of teachers.

For the time being, Mr. Papert said, educators should "start clearing their heads about notions that computers are expensive. Every child should have a computer like an OLPC."

Mr. Papert noted that New York City schools spend more than $30,000 on a student over the course of his 13 years of public schooling. If the computer were priced at its manufacturing cost, he said, it would cost no more than $100 to equip a student throughout his formal schooling.

"For a negligible cost, you can have this change that can transform education," he said. "Get rid of any ideas that this is mythology."

The biggest change seems to be the increased scope of the project, moving from computers available in the classroom to the ubiquitous OLPC laptop, as well as further expansion of the constructivist pedagogy. The article continues, moving from the goals of this project to the eventual failure of it:

Plan for Development

It is the relatively low cost of computers and the lack of established educational systems in developing countries that attracted Mr. Papert to Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber's ideas for the third world. [...]

Mr. Servan-Schreiber convinced French President Francois Mitterand in the fall of 1981 to support the idea of an international center to use computers in third-world development, and the center opened its doors last March. But it has been embroiled in controversy ever since.

Mr. Papert and others blame Mr. Servan-Schreiber and their own political inexperience for the problems. The problems began, the participants said, when Mr. Servan-Schreiber took strong control of the organization and irritated officials from Kuwait, India, Saudi Arabia, and the Philippines who had expressed an interest in the project.

The problems continued when researchers, who Mr. Papert said were promised that they would be able to use whatever equipment they felt was necessary, were criticized for using non-OLPCs Quanta products.

"This was an example of how fundamental research gets diverted into something more trivial," Mr. Papert said.

"There had been a very formal though verbal agreement that the center would never be restricted to use technology because it's French, or for that matter to choose people who were French. But very quickly we were very severely criticized for accepting a gift from Intel."

The pressure to buy Quanta never abated, Mr. Papert and others said. Finally, the center passed from the control of the Ministry of Research to the Ministry of Communications--without the consultation of Nicholas Negroponte, the executive director, or Mr. Papert. It was considered a coup for the Taiwanese, and the ultimate defeat for the center's foreign researchers.

World Center Projects

But before that development--which led both Mr. Negroponte and Mr. Papert to announce their resignations--the center had started work on research and pilot-development projects in Marseille, France, and Dakar, Senegal.

In both places, officials from the center sought out members of the community who expressed an interest in using computers and gave them training in everything from programming to repairing a broken computer. The job of those "vectors" was to introduce computers to every segment of society possible.

If residents of the community expressed a desire to use computers to plan agriculture or medical programs, Mr. Papert said, the researchers in Paris set out to either find the appropriate software or to create new software.

The project now "is going at a snail's pace," Mr. Papert said. If it were on schedule, he said, the World Center's projects would be moving from the cities to smaller towns--"ultimately aiming at the most un-urban, traditional village, with a low level of literacy."

A training program for unemployed youths in Paris using Squeak, Mr. Papert said, showed the promise of computers for the most desperately troubled people.

"My experience working with this group is really quite moving," Mr. Papert said. "Generally, their attitude to computers is very negative--they blame the computer for bureaucracy, for putting people out of work. They are very militant about it. They are very angry.

"The other element, the paradoxical element, is that they absolutely can't keep their hands off. In the end, bit by bit, some of the people were expert enough to be able to go out and work with [unemployed people] on their own. [Such programs] can magnify literacy."

The ability to achieve some success with these youths is not that surprising, Mr. Papert suggested, when one considers the way children of all ages and backgrounds enjoy playing "Pac-Man."

"There's no question that there's a certain real holding power," he said. "This tells us that we can harness these powers. We have to think in terms of what will make children fall in love with learning."

While my immediate question is, if this idea was so good, why didn't it already cause a global education sea-change the first time, regardless of organizational failure, over 20 years ago? Was the technology (or its cost) not quite ready for the constructivist theories? Can the OLPC succeed today in a world of cell phones and desktops where the Apple II failed in a world of landlines and mainframes?

However, the goal here is not to point out past mistakes to show that the OLPC can never work, but rather to look at what went wrong and try to figure out what can be done now to head those same problems off at the pass. It appears that the intense interaction and implementation discussed in the last few paragraphs above, reaching out and providing training to anyone interested, helped encourage usage of the systems. What failed was the organization and its leadership. Having an open source and unpatented software (and largely open hardware) is a big step to prevent some, but not all of the organizational problems the MicroWorlds project faced. Still, these are potential threats for the OLPC program. Certain key aspects of the system may get locked down by patents (the "patent pending" yo-yo power generator, for example). "Co-opetition" for the emerging market coming from both Intel and Quanta (see Quanta's suggestion that it will sell $200 OLPC-like computers to the open market, and the recent Intel brouhaha) (and others, such as Microsoft, will also want in on the action of course). Another risk is a near exact repeat of the MicroWorlds problem, with disagreements in implementation (or lack there of) between OLPC Foundation leadership, lending agencies, and national governments.

What seems to be the take-away lesson for governments considering the OLPC program is to drive hard bargains focused on protecting their (hefty) investment on the up-front hardware costs in case the promised services and support don't come through. What if the development community for OLPC dries up, what if there's a hardware problem, what if connecting the laptops to a network beyond (or including) their local mesh gets wrapped up in controversy (witness attempts for muni wifi in the US)? Development projects don't come with insurance policies, but any project with such large up-front costs requiring ongoing assistance need some form of backup plan.