January 31, 2008

Are we spoiled?

This post was last updated on December 12th, 2011 at 03:17 pm

Today my XO or “$100 laptop” arrived.  It brings with it the cool-looks-like-a-Fisher-Price-toy kind of responses from others. I fire it up and without doing anything, I’m online. (Our technicians had issues with the wireless in their office but it worked without even keying in a WEP code here).  I take a quick tour and have a look at some of the other activities. (The XO uses the term activities rather than programs). Soon I’m stumped because it doesn’t function exactly like my Dell laptop.

So here are the questions that hit me almost immediately: Will kids like it? Is it intuitive? What is required in schools to make it work?

It’s not really about the XO but about the varying devices we carry. I think of Clarence’s recent post on boxes and it resonates with me. The difference that in our country and others with wealth, we’re not content unless it’s shiny, new and almost ridiculously intuitive. We’re dazzled and amazed with the interface of the itouch. We’re begging the industry to make things easier, better, faster, cheaper and for the most part, they are responding. We’re extremely impatient and frustrated when things don’t work they way we think they ought to.

Several years ago, a number of school divisions in Saskatchewan embarked on an experiment with Sun Microsystems to institute a thin client model of computing. The idea was to provide greater access at a low cost.  Some divisions, sold the farm, dumped all their PC’s and adopted this system 100%. Some, like ours, chose to place these in classrooms, maintain existing systems, but hopefully provide students with greater access. If you surveyed most teachers in my former division, they would categorize this as a failure. Many classrooms rarely used the systems for a number of reasons. Lack of training, challenges around support. There were some are continue to be some teachers who looked at the systems, asked what they could do and built their classrooms around what they could do rather than what they couldn’t.

This to me is a critical mindset that needs more attention and promotion. Cellphones, ipods, thinclients, handhelds, laptops and XO’s all have potential as learning tools. But one must understand what each does well.  I realize my digital camcorder can take photos but really unless I’m in a hurry or just need something quick, I won’t use it for that purpose.  The desire for the all in one device continues but I wonder if it will ever occur.

I think about people with older vehicles. Whether they use it as a second vehicle or their primary, most aren’t naive enough to think they have a great vehicle. Most see it for what it is; a means of transportation, not fancy, the radio may not work, they may have to do a little trick to get it started but it works. It gets them from A to B. It’s about perspective.

So as I look at my XO, I want to know what it does well and use it for that purpose. I worry that students and teachers will have similar reactions as we introduce low cost computing into classrooms as they have with our Sun project. I worry that when I take the XO home for my 9 year old to play with that she’ll say, “this sucks”.  It sucks compared to the $2000 laptop she uses. The reason we don’t think cellphones suck are because we see them for what they are and that is communication devices first and foremost. The fact that some can browse the internet, take photos and videos and play music is a bonus. If I started calling a cellphone a computer, maybe it loses some of its significance. As far as the XO goes, maybe calling it a laptop isn’t the best term. Maybe we need a term paradigm for these new flash based devices.  I’m trying to present new tools and devices not simply with enthusiasm but clear understanding of what they can and can’t do. Too often people lose focus and assume too much of a product or service. For example, animoto may not be the tool for a real quality piece of storytelling but it does a nice job of making taking a few images and presenting them in an interesting way. The XO is a courageous attempt at providing lowcost computing to the world certainly with limitations but not without value. The story of stuff seems to be playing in the background for me.

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