Thursday, November 1, 2012

About that tablet project...

One of the highlights of OLPC-SF was an update on OLPC's Ethiopian tablet experiment, directly from the engineers working on the project. This is an ambitious project where OLPC has taken great pains to be as hands-off as possible, while collecting meaningful data. They built resilient hardware in a village with perhaps no literate adults. They also developed and collected technology that speaks to kids ( taking inspiration from The Diamond Age, which was a fascinating read on my OLPC Uganda trip ).

Nicholas Negroponte's media circuit, though, doesn't sit right with me.

In an article reaching the front page of Reddit and Hacker News, we are told "OLPC workers dropped off closed boxes containing tablets... Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day... Within five months, they had hacked Android." The press repeats these numbers, these timelines, these factoids.

Stories like this are setting up the project for failure. I'll limit myself to five points:

1) OLPC built a solar charging station and instructed children to charge the tablets daily. The project depends on this training. How much time was spent on construction and training? Would it work better with twice as much training? If so, the "dropping off tablets" idea is more stunt than strategy.

2) 47 apps / tablet / day is a silly number - an average over an unknown time. If months into the program, children still use their tablets like this, then they are overwhelmed with choices. Tell us: how long do they use content? Are they engaged? Do they get better at a literacy game over time?

"Children there had never previously seen printed materials, road signs, or even packaging that had words on them."

3) No way. OLPC's engineers chose the Xoom tablet because its charger could not be repurposed for villagers' and truckers' mobile phones. Yes: remote African villages do have motor vehicles, phones, radios, and Coca-Cola. OLPC has outdone themselves in finding a location far more remote than I traveled in Uganda, and I believe what OLPC has said about literacy and lack of education in the village. Even considering that, I would be astonished if children had never seen letters before.

4) "Hacking Android": OLPC set up a monitoring system, the children got around it by activating some mode or setting, and OLPC doesn't know how. It's a little funny, but not learning.

5) There's some conflation between this project's use of the Motorola Xoom and the proposed OLPC tablet. The OLPC tablets exist, their hardware is interesting, but the software is not touch-ready. I've always liked the idea of OLPC's custom software disrupting education from within, but there's a reason that the Ethiopia project chose Android.

Please... this is such a cool project. Tell us meaningful metrics, good and bad. Talk about the engineering. Talk to us about how you see this experiment leading to learning. Tell us about the choice to use Android, and stick with it. That's all.