One Laptop Per Child?

I don’t know if many of the people who read this would consider themselves fans of “just one book”. Usually, it’s an author, series, or genre of which we become fans, but for my wife, there’s been one book that’s had a lasting impression: Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age”.

Go look at the precis on Amazon, maybe check it out at your library if you can. It’s a complete fusion of the nanotechnological future and the styles and mores of a Victorian time. It’s a wonderful read, and surprisingly enough, it’s been relatively accurate in predicting what might become true future technologies. Those of you more well-read in SciFi than I can go ahead and smirk, basking in my ignorance, but I really liked the idea of having chopsticks that could essentially be displays for advertising, or the idea of creating items simply by interacting with a piece of paper.

One of the more unique items in the book is the Primer, a wealthy man’s gift to his daughter. It essentially is a textbook that opens new worlds for the reader, doing so through stories and interactive play. The idea that technology will not only enable us to learn but will, in essence, save us as a race is not new, but the desire to outfit every child with a laptop seems to be the latest incarnation of this trend.

I work in the embedded space, but by no means would I call myself a predictor of technological trends. However, there has always been this dream of making a laptop that was priced at under $100. Much like the Primer in the story above, it would be used to enhance learning for all of its students. Suddenly, the idea of giving every child access to the world’s data and allowing them to learn through it seems noble, almost virtuous.

I ask that we take a few steps back from that perch. Right now, technology is at a remarkable tipping point: you can, given enough volume, produce a tablet that can be drawn on with a stylus. It can use an open source operating system, thus driving the costs down even further. Admittedly, the lower the cost, the less technological you can go; you can’t get a capacitive touch screen (think iPad) for cheap, but resistive touch screens (think the old style poke-at-a-screen displays at airports and malls) are getting cheap enough where you could make a decent device that could connect to the internet for under $100.

But is that enough to give to a child? Great! You can access the net. However, is your network at school equipped to handle that traffic? Do you have the right software to open and utilize that online textbook? Here’s a case in point: Adobe Flash. If you want to integrate Flash into your system, it’s got to be “beefy” enough to handle it. Flash is a resource hog, and currently, the less expensive tablets that would fit our cost criteria just simply can’t run it well enough to provide acceptable performance. The same is going to be true of any other next technological leap, whether it be HTML5 or video or whatnot. We’re always going to have a barrier that people will want to cross, simply because they’ve invested a ton of money getting to this point.

This entrenchment is ultimately why any attempt at OLPC will fail.

The textbook companies have reasons for keeping their materials copyrighted and not in the public domain. Different electronic book formats with varying levels of copy protection can’t be negotiated down to one standard. And what body is going to start trying to impose order on that, especially when different states have different requirements for educating their students?

Countries like Korea and Greece — yes, that troubled financial mess of Greece — are planning to invest billions of dollars into tablet technology for students as a way to reduce other educational costs. Those countries may be able to make it work, but in America, with our firm belief in the power of the free market, there will never be a consensus as to what is best.

Even if by some miracle we’re able to reach that standard, what about students who have disabilities? Let’s say you want to learn Urdu, but you’re blind. What kind of textbook, written or electronic, will help you there?

Worse yet, what if you’ve already given up on your school system? If we’ve lost a sense of right and wrong and have nothing in the way of civics, what good will throwing a technological toy at a kid do? Especially one that’s less useful than their cell phone?

Again, much like NCLB, the OLPC effort is one that is noble in thought and goal but impossible to achieve. Pragmatically, I believe we should make technology accessible, but not make it the sole path to success, but until then, we’ll keep trying. And failing. And wondering why.