OLPC: the leading-order term

There was a meltdown on the One Laptop Per Child developer list because Negroponte (OLPC chief) said that they would work on a Windows version. In the ensuing discussion (which was, in fact, very enlightening and constructive), many issues came up, about code development and open-source and the educational value of having computers in the hands of children.

One point made by one of the developers, with which I strongly disagree, is that the leading-order term for the educational impact of the OLPC is that it gives children access to the web. Although I love the web (as my non-existent readers know), this is not the leading educational impact of OLPC, if OLPC is successful. If the main point is the web access, then give the students all ASUS or Nokia or Classmate low-cost computers and be done with it!

The leading-order term in the OLPC project is that the computer is a device that can be modified, programmed, altered, and made to do new things. The project de-mystifies computers and electronics and technology and software and the web. It is not access to the worlds information, but an introduction to the world's modifiability and opportunity for innovation. Unfortunately, I don't think everyone on the project agrees, and I don't think that the countries that are investing in OLPC understand. This may bode ill for what might be right now a marriage of convenience between constructivist educators and countries hungry for development (of the economic kind, not the code kind).


teaching physics teachers

I took a break from my no-teaching, all-research sabbatical to make a guest appearance this week in Jhumki Basu's course Recent Advances in Physics in NYU's education program. Her students are building new science units with help and ideas from current researchers. I presented not really my research, but some of my research techniques: estimation and approximation. No surprise there!

I showed on dimensional grounds that cars like the ones we currently drive will never do far better than 30 miles per gallon. 100 maybe. But never 1000. A nice result, with important implications, using only techniques that a high schooler could easily muster.

After I spoke, we discussed, and it was noted by one and all that despite the simplicity of the techniques, in fact estimation and approximation techniques are non-trivial and sophisticated. It is hard to incorporate them incrementally into the existing New York State middle- and high-school curricula. On the other hand, it is my (perhaps optimistic and/or utopian) view that if these things were the focus of quantitative education from day one, they would be easy to have mastered by the end of high school. Of course the teachers I was talking to are going into the system that exists; they can't start from scratch!

Many other interesting things came up, which I hope to blog about at some pont in the future, including students' lack of contact with machinery and hardware and electronics, and the idea (that I hold, but others don't) that education ought to give students skills and tools, rather than knowledge.