Presenting the XO Laptop

The XO went into production late last year, and I’ve been looking for interesting material on it to talk about here. David Pogue of the New York Times did a review of the XO last year, but I just found the video for it.

I think he does a really good job of presenting it in an approachable way. He mentions a “give one, get one” program that went on for a while, on into December as I recall. At first it was only going to go on for a few weeks, but it went for several. That’s encouraging. It must’ve been doing well. OLPC is not offering this anymore. You missed your chance. Maybe they’ll restart it again in the future. I think it’s a neat idea.

The feature that made me a bit giddy was where he said that with one keypress you can look at the source code for any program you’re running, and even change it. He also mentions that there are three programming environments on it (one of which is Squeak), but only talks about Python, which is what most of the software is written in. He notes that there’s also a “restore” button that restores things back to its “manufactured” state “in case you make a mess of things”. This could encourage programming all the more, because it takes away the risk that you could royally hose your computer so you can’t use it anymore.

Finally a computer that actually invites its users to become programmers. How long has it been since I’ve seen that in the U.S.? Only this laptop was not designed with kids in the U.S. in mind. It was designed for poor, deserving kids in developing nations. Apparently most kids in the U.S. don’t like the idea of programming, not even college students (I know the link is old, but nothing’s changed). It’s sad. Perhaps if CS programs at universities would re-think what they’re doing, take a look around them, and try something creative that really meant something to people we’d see interest return. Unfortunately too many think teaching CS means teaching Java. I pity the beginner who tries to pick that up. I think the XO is going in the right direction, because it gives users “something to chew on”, and it uses a language that is more flexible and powerful than Java. If only it was around when I was growing up.

2 thoughts on “Presenting the XO Laptop

  1. I think that the XO is a neat project, and I love how it encourages kids to be more interactively involved with the computer. You can really see a lot of Alan Kay’s ideas in the project. Unfortunately, I think that the project is propositioned poorly. Kids in poor countries don’t need XO laptops, particularly with mesh networking. They need that money spent on things like irrigation, malaria prevention, and so on. I think John Dvorak really nailed it a few months ago. Even with a computer perfectly designed for kids, the fact is, the target audience has much larger problems than a lack of PCs, and PCs certainly are not going to solve their problems. 😦


  2. @Justin:

    I think the XO is in line with the philosophy, “It’s better to teach a man to fish, than to just give him fish.” From what I’ve heard from Nick Negroponte this project was not just based on a delusional whim. I saw his interview on 60 Minutes, and he spoke about the inspiration for it. He brought some laptops to a poor town in an Asian country (I believe–I can’t remember which) some years ago. He said there was a high truancy rate in the local schools. Most kids didn’t come. When he brought the laptops in, the kids flocked to school. They were excited to see them, learn about them, and see what they could do with them. That’s what convinced him there was potential benefit to this. I think the idea was anything that will inspire learning is good. Ignorance is one of the reasons their poverty persists.

    Both he and Alan Kay see computers as media, which open an avenue for learning, just as with books. The computers in and of themselves are educational once students gain a literacy about them. The reason the XO is open source is so kids can learn how they work. Kids are allowed to explore the software, and the hardware (it was designed so it would be safe for the kids to open the case and look inside). This isn’t just so they can learn a vocational skill, or fool around on Facebook. That wasn’t the idea. The idea behind this aspect is, like with math, learning about computing opens up new avenues of perception. Everyone can agree that learning math is important. Why not computing?

    Everyone can agree that book literacy is a good thing. If a benefactor had come along and said they were going to fund the creation of libraries in these poor countries, would Dvorak have taken the same stance? In the sense of book literacy, computers with the internet open up a wider world of learning.

    OLPC doesn’t see them as mere luxuries, but powerful tools that can help people rise out of ignorance. I wouldn’t say that the XO is going to solve the problems of these countries by itself, but I think it’s a potential piece of the solution.

    Foreign aid helps with problems in the short term, but once the aid is gone or reduced, they’re stuck back where they were in terms of essentials like food, shelter, and clean water. Yes, water purification systems can be installed, but they have to be maintained. You can’t just start them up and forget about them. Wells can be dug, but unless they know how to do that themselves, and understand principles of well safety (preventing contamination), they’re at risk of losing their water supply. It doesn’t really solve the fundamental problems that keep them in poverty. They need to develop themselves, and in order to do that they have to learn some advanced concepts. For that they have to be interested in them. In these countries no one forces them to come to school. Sometimes they can’t, because they have to take care of the farm or a family member. In these cases the XO can be taken home with them, and they can still be a part of the mesh network if others are in range, so they can reach the internet.

    I agree that it’s a shot in the dark. It could turn out to not work. It could even have negative effects. One of the ways that Al Qaeda and other Islamist networks recruit new trainees is over the internet. So there is the potential that, taking advantage of the ignorance that exists in these communities, they could gain new recruits through the XO. That would royally suck. From what I understand, OLPC is educating those who will maintain the internet backbone that the XOs will link up to about how to filter sites like this, plus other sites that would be offensive, like porn. So there’s risk associated with this. No one knows how it will turn out. I think though that the effort is better than nothing. If someone came along and did offer to fund libraries instead, perhaps that would be a good alternative, but I haven’t heard of anyone, besides Oprah with her project in Africa, come along and offer that.

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