In my last post I described the origins of the $100 laptop idea, and what that laptop might end up looking like. Nicholas Negroponte said he hopes to start the program in six countries: Nigeria, China, Egypt, India, Thailand, and Brazil. While he has abiding faith in the power of technology by its very existence to educate and foster change, I couldn’t help but think he was a little naive about the difficulties of dealing with at best stubborn and at worst antagonistic heads of state. Ethan Zuckerman recently wrote about his private meeting with Negroponte, during which he had similar questions:

Negroponte explained that he was just working with heads of state, counting on them to get their teams to implement the project. Colin and I exchanged glances - we’d both worked with President Leonel Fernández of the Dominican Republic, a visionary leader who’d dedicated himself to bringing technology to the DR in 1996. His party was voted out of power in 2000 by a kleptocrat who ran on a platform of “Plantains, not PCs”, and pro-IT reforms were rolled back.

Especially in Nigeria, China, and Egypt, this project is bound to be met with wariness and suspicion. How are we to make sure that these governments don’t sell the laptops on the black market, or selectively give and take them away? In response to worries about governments simply not participating, Negroponte did come up with a good solution. Create a waiting list for the computers, so if, for example, Brazil passes up, Argentina might be next in line. This creates competition and excitement and can end up making the countries that pass look uninterested in education and development.

Nevertheless, Negroponte skirted the bigger problem of dealing with totalitarian regimes ruling over closed societies, and I wonder how to get these computers to those people and how to make sure the people get to keep them.

Before the laptops are rolled out, teacher trainings will be held to introduce local teachers, many of whom may not have used computers themselves, to the laptops and to ways of teaching. Those teachers will then teach another group, and so on. Here again Negroponte didn’t discuss any specific pedagogies or subject that would be taught; his faith resides with the power of the machines themselves to teach and be taught.

Dave Munger at if:book is nervous about the lack of attention to teaching and content and compares the laptops to buying empty containers:

Anyone who has ever shopped at the Container Store knows that it is devoted entirely to empty things. Shelves, bins, baskets, boxes, jars, tubs, and crates. Empty vessels to organize and contain all the bric-a-brac, the creeping piles of crap that we accumulate in our lives. Shopping there is a weirdly existential affair. Passing through aisles of hollow objects, your mind filling them with uses, needs, pressing abundances.

And he then wonders if there’s actually a problem that can be solved by handing out cheap computers:

There's no question that the Container Store sells useful things, providing solutions to a problem we undoubtedly have. But that's just the point. We had to create the problem first. I worry that One Laptop Per Child is providing a solution where there isn't a problem. Open up the Container Store in Malawi and people there would scratch their heads. Who has so much crap that they need an entire superstore devoted to selling containers?
But nothing can substitute for a good teacher. Or a good text. It's easy to think dreamy thoughts about technology emptied of content -- ready, like those aisles of containers, drawers and crates, to be filled with our hopes and anxieties, to be filled with little brown hands reaching for the stars. But that's too easy. And more than a little dangerous.

I found this kind of self-reflection lacking in Negroponte’s presentation. It’s a wonderful idea that just handing these things to kids has the power to create social change, but there are so many other social factors to consider – the governments’, parents’ and teachers’ receptiveness, the time to work with the computers, basic literacy skills – that he glossed over.

Zuckerman questions this approach as well:

My questions largely had to do with how the laptop would be used in the classroom. I made the mistake of asking a question of how the laptop would be used as “a teaching tool”… like Papert, Negroponte’s a big believer that students simply need access to technology and can use it to teach each other and to make discoveries themselves.

To me and others, it’s not enough to provide the tools, though it’s a huge start. We need to consider what will actually get taught. How can we work with local teachers to create curricula that will benefit those communities and tackle problems specific to those communities? Change can’t happen with programming alone; we to consider more substantial content.

Ultimately I want this project to succeed. It can be a brilliant experiment and model for the future. I fear that if it doesn’t succeed it will be because of the naivete of the cyber-optimists who are convinced that, armed with a cheap laptop and some open-source software, we can do no wrong. But technophilia alone can’t change things. What about those kids who just don’t adapt well to technology? Should they simply fall through the cracks? Or those kids who have the misfortune of having their computer stolen? We need to help develop effective education programs that teach literacy and encourage democratic expression, programs that will be able to use these laptops. But we can’t focus on the computers alone.

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