My brother Joe, who is famous in the world of population genetics, tells how for decades those working in his corner of biology (phylogenetic inference – the science of constructing inheritance trees) were scorned by the reigning molecular biologists as “stamp collectors”. While the molecular biologists pursued the secret of life itself, the stamp collectors puttered around with statistics and large data sets, working out how to make sense out of data patterns.
Then came the crowning triumph of molecular biology – reading the human genome. Note that I do not say “decoding the human genome”, as it suddenly became clear that no one knew how to make sense of gigabytes of gene sequence data. Who, the moleculars wondered, could make some order of all this data?
Then everyone looked at each other and exclaimed in unison, “the stamp collectors!” Joe and his colleagues were showered with money and attention. Their grant requests were now favored for approval, and at Joe’s university a brand-new Department of Genome Sciences was created which welcomed his august presence.
The parallel is this – the OLPC project is about as far as it can go without empowering its own “stamp collectors”, by which I mean those who have long labored in the field of experimental education. Yes, there are others besides Seymour Papert, and the official OLPC line on the topic, that the educational research had already been done and that the engineering was all that was left, was always blatantly untrue.
The arguments in the comments of OLPC News about what “killer apps” are needed indicate that very little input is coming from those with experience in trying out new approaches to learning. A fast check of Google turns up lots of hits on “experimental education” (which seems also to hit on “experiential education”, which may not be too far from its probable subset “constructivism”), and it is clear that there is a robust literature and publication ecosystem in that field.
Good places to start inquiring would be at education schools at local universities. Not all the profs there are involved in experimental ed, but most should know the ones who are. OLPC fans should seek out contacts there and should arrange to get together in groups with interested education people (profs and students) to discuss the potential of the XO and to provide assistance in programming for those who wish to try something. Audio transcripts of the discussions should be posted on-line so the meetings can be broadened in time and space.
Education is a notoriously stodgy and bureaucratized field, and most students in the subject won’t see the point of trying something new, but the ones who do are likely to be motivated to try something really new rather than incremental improvements. They’re more likely to come up with alternate solutions to the orthodoxies than to make slight improvements on test-taking.
I particularly want to mention someone I first met four years ago who is implementing Montessori teaching methods on computers, and who needs help in the process. Danielle Martell has her website at www.montessorisoftware.com , and she’s been hoping to get hold of an XO (and, I presume, some help in programming in Python as well as financial support) to help her get the software in working condition for this level of computer. Her work is applicable all the way down to infancy.
I’m going to take the XO I just received (yes, I bought one through a friend who ordered G1G1 – or G2G2 in this case) and see if an old friend of mine is interested in looking at it. He spent several years traveling around visiting various late-‘60’s alternative education situations, and was instrumental in shaping my thinking about computers in society back in 1971. He has just retired after a career teaching elementary-school science at private and alternative schools, and has published his thoughts on science teaching on his website. Sorry not to give a URL for you, but I do want to discuss it with him first, and he is recovering from a life-threatening illness.
If you’re serious about making the XO a success at its stated goal you have work to do. Find the “stamp collectors” who have spent their lives finding out what does and does not work as well as what might work, and get in touch with them. Show them something of what the XO can do so they can broaden their thinking to include it as a tool. Help them connect with other groups who are doing the same thing.
This will all be work that OLPC initially discounted as unnecessary – but it will be needed to save the project. Intel/Schmintel – they may have more money but we have the enthusiasts, and it was enthusiasts that created the personal computer industry. Just don’t expect everything to happen by magic (the original OLPC model). Get busy!