One Laptop Per Child

"Beginning with Seymour Papert's simple observation that children are knowledge workers like any adult, only more so, we decided they needed a user-interface tailored to their specific type of knowledge work: learning. So, working together with teams from Pentagram and Red Hat, we created SUGAR, a “zoom” interface that graphically captures their world of fellow learners and teachers as collaborators, emphasizing the connections within the community, among people, and their activities." From the One Laptop Per Child website, 2007

olpc-1.jpgI have my own OLPC computer now. It sits on my desk beside my MacBook.  It looks like an interesting toy ... something that you might get at Toys R Us. And yet, it is extremely sophisticated in its simplicity.  It is indeed a disruptive technology, not because of its design and power (which is powerfully advanced) but because of how it is designed to be used.   Right from the start, the designers of the laptop assumed that children know how to learn and they learn best from each other or by emulating others. They learn because they are curious, playful, and interested in life.  The OLPC does not assume that learning is a scarce commodity ... that only the wealthy can afford to be well educated. In fact, it is distinctly against the model that says children learn by being taught by a teacher.  To me, it is a wonderful experiment, and if it can scale, I am betting that it makes a wonderful contribution to our understanding of how and why learning happens.

A friend, and true knowledge worker, Robin Sue Brooking just sent me a trailer for a film about Africa called What Are We Doing Here? The film is about how little difference we have made to Africa with our billions of dollars of aid and our celebrity help, etc.  Why? It asks.  Perhaps because we have not had the right tools or the right search images and policies that could possibly lead to a thriving Africa.  At the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting last year, I heard one African leader say that for every $ sent to Africa, more than 90% of it is spent on experts who do not live in Africa. In other words consultants, teachers and other experts from developed countries get funded with this money to teach their ideas in a top down manner.  They share their ideas and leave when the money is gone, leaving communities little better than if they had never come.  Is OLPC, widely distributed, a part of a real solution? Maybe. I think so.  We won't know for years, but we can observe the faces and the intensity of learning and collaborating throughout the experiment.  We need to make this opportunity happen.

The intent is that the moment a child turns on her  OLPC computer, she is connected to a mesh network and can find others connected within her community.  She can instantly communicate by sharing ideas, inviting them into a game,  asking questions, etc.  She can help her peers learn and  can learn from them! Teachers become companions in learning and sharing and helping her discover ways to unfold her gifts and talents and life skills. 

So then, what will  the generation of OLPC users learn? What matters, here in the 21st Century? What is the curriculum that guides the learning?  Where is the parental and teacher control? Is it possible that we adults might have to shift many of our assumptions about our children's learning processes? Fifteen years ago, a small group of us gathered and proposed a radically different way of educating our children. Here at home, AOL was in its founding years. Personal computers were available but they were big and clumsy with small memories.  We created a white paper called Redesigning the Future: Curriculum for the 21st Century. It articulated what we as designers called The Five Points Of Mastery. We assumed that the best learning happens in a community with a community.  Mostly, societies are still blind to real learning. We use old forms giving only lip service to action learning and a willingness to trust that our children are eager to learn, mostly from each other, and that learning never stops.  It seems to me that we still relish education as a system that embodies scarcity, hard won expertise often at the loss for someone else, and unfortunately just not available to the masses, not because it wouldn't be nice, but because it is just impossible to teach all those people.  There isn't enough money in it to do it. 

We need a powerful wake up call.  Let's hope that the OLPC experiment and others like it win our hearts and minds and reform our understanding of learning to thrive on this planet we call Home.