Sunday, January 7, 2007

Giving Laptops To The Young Makes Me Feel Old

If you're my age or older, you can remember a childhood without a personal computer of any kind whatsoever. I know, it's difficult to remember through the fog of your developing Alzheimer's, but give it an effort. You actually had to use a pencil and blank piece of ruled paper to write your reports, or at least a typewriter (do you remember when you made a mistake you had to go back and either type over the letters with eraser ribbon or X them out? –shiver-), since a "word processor" was just a fancy typewriter, not a type of computer program. Good luck finding typewriters these days! If you needed to look up some sort of odd information, there was no internet, you had to go to a library and hope their encyclopedia was up-to-date, or check out and read a book which was also likely out of date. And you had to rely on a phone to contact your friends when you weren't near each other, instead of texting or MySpace. Ah, how primitive!

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Yeah, but it can't hurt kids these days to learn how to use a library and actually write with decent penmanship!" This just means you're turning into your grandparents. Don't tell your kids about those days or they're likely to realize how old you really are then text their friends about you while you think they're doing their homework.

I was actually on the cuff of the computing revolution; at age 12 I got a TRS-80 personal computer with a whopping 16K of useable memory. Wow! If I wanted to do anything with it, I had to program it myself with about a zillion lines of BASIC (- another shiver -).

Well, many children in developing countries are no better off, computing-wise, than we were 30 years ago or more. Now an organization called One Laptop Per Child has decided to do something about that. They basically redesigned the computer and the way it is used, with a goal toward helping elementary school children in developing countries learn computing and be able to use that ability in creative and constructive ways:

Their website: http://www.laptop.org/
An article on them from CNN.com: LINK
An article from Popular Mechanics: LINK

Instead of a battery, their laptop has some sort of hand-crank mechanism. It has a redesigned screen that can operate in color or black-and-white (for use outdoors). It has a swivel screen, a built-in camera, and nifty neon-green accents. And they've done all this for a cost of only about $100 per computer. Countries will purchase them and distribute them to schools. It is completely free for the children.

By July, One Laptop expects to distribute millions of these machines to children in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Nigeria, Libya, Pakistan, Thailand and the Palestinian territory.

The kicker is that it has a whole new operating system. Instead of Windows, it operates on low-cost and low-memory open source programming similar to Linux. On start-up, the child sees a stick figure (them) linked to each of the open programs. There are also icons linking them to all the other students near them with a computer (through a wireless network). The idea is that it is supposed to be intuitive – just click on what you want to do – and that they can interact with their classmates in unique ways to build upon each other's work. One commentor (from Geekcorps) says about the operating system, "It doesn't feel like Linux. It doesn't feel like Windows. It doesn't feel like Apple. I'm just impressed they built a new (user interface) that is different and hopefully better than anything we have today." But then he added, "Granted, I'm not a child. I don't know if it's going to be intuitive to children."

One Laptop's got a good thing going. The world is shrinking, and teaching kids to do what us old fogies couldn't at their age can only give them a hand up in this increasingly technical world of ours.

But, being an Angry Lab Rat, I of course have to find something to grouse about, so here it is: the operating system is unique and vastly different from existing systems. While that represents a nifty, and perhaps improved, programming and engineering achievement, I have to question rather it is the right choice. Put it this way: hundreds of thousands of school kids will learn computing on a system which is not likely to be present in their workspaces as adults. Like it or not, Microsoft has the market, worldwide, though Linux is growing. Are these kids really being prepared?

And here's another thing (and now I'm really being negative): $100 goes a long way in some of those countries. Will little Mahmoud in Palestine, upon receiving his sleek neon-green computer, look at it and wonder why they spent money on that instead of rebuilding his war-torn house and feeding his family for a month?

But don't get me wrong, I think One Laptop is a worthy enterprise, and it's certainly a better start than what I had at elementary age (nothing!).

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to dig out my typewriter from storage and turn it into something useful, like a flower pot.

1 comment:

Lauso said...

Hi Angry.

About not using Linux, Windows, or even OSX not being the right choice, I could say it is completely the opposite. I believe that the goal of the project is to introduce them to the technological world of ours, not training them on some suite or tool; having them switch to some of these other OSs in the future will probably teach them even more.

As for the 100 bucks being used to feed them, well, I come from Brazil and at least there, if you can't afford feeding your children, then they probably won't be at school either, where they would get their laptops (although realizing this doesn't make me feel any better).

I don't know how old you are but I am just 28 and had never touched a computer before the age of 15. So, don't feel that old :)