Just Plain Foolish

Just a chance for an old-fashioned, simple storyteller to say what needs to be said.

Friday, October 05, 2007

A really good idea

While I am still boilingly angry over the recent veto of health insurance for children, I'm comforting myself with the forward movement of the One Laptop Per Child program. Soon, very soon, the actual laptops will be coming out. And I'm thinking very seriously about the give one/get one offer. A recent NYTimes review of the actual laptops left me thinking about the real advantages of the design they've come up with.

Sure, the laptops came out at twice their projected price - $200, instead of $100; and yes, the screen is small - 7.5 inches, and the keyboard is designed for children's, not adult hands, but the underlying computer is incredibly smart. It was designed without a hard drive, the part of a laptop most likely to fail. Instead, it relies on memory sticks, of the kind I most recently saw attached to a convention tag. The battery is longer lasting than most laptop batteries, can be charged by human or solar power (or probably plugging in to a socket, if you must). They are rugged, basically weather proof, and have an interface a child can understand.

As if that weren't enough, they're loaded with open source software, so that users are encouraged to "mess with" the underlying code, to create new stuff, fix bugs, learn *how* the software's logic actually works. And such software - of course, there are the standards - word processing, internet and email capabilities, games (so far, there are 2, a connect 4 sort of game and a tetris variant, but I wouldn't care to bet on the number staying that low.), a music composition program, multimedia presentation software, the works.

And plenty of programming software - there are at least 5 programming environments available, from Logo, which I played with and loved as a child, to Python, which was used to make the user interface for these laptops. This last feature, in particular, impresses me. Computers have become a sort of black box magic to most people, with a few magicians who understand the underlying principles doing all the messing about. As a member of GenX, the generation who programmed our parents' VCRs, I am baffled that kids today don't even seem to learn "instructional languages". I remember not only playing with Logo, but programming a very simple game in Basic, a 15 square in Pascal, and other basically useless programs. The point was not that the world desperately needed a 15-square puzzle in Pascal, but to teach me the structure of programming, the logic.

This thing looks like it's shaping up to be the old VW Bug of computers - tough, general purpose, and you can mess with it yourself. Only it's also very green - resource conservative, powerable by solar or human power, off the grid. While I am not generally of the gotta-have-it persuasion when it comes to gadgets, well... let's just say, I'm waiting eagerly for the possibility of buying 2 - one for me, and one for a kid who needs it.


Blogger Don said...

It is a really good idea even if it didn't work out quite the way they planned. I too used to work with Logo. I taught it to a number of students and actually used a Logo based curriculum to teach geometry to students. It was developed by Dr. Douglas Clements when he was at Kent State University. I still think that Logo has a place in curricula. I believe that open source software like what is used in the OLPC project could be another way to engage students to learn more about abstract concepts in the same way that Logo was used.

In fact much of what Seymour Papert talked about is contained within the open source movement.

10/06/2007 8:41 AM  

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