Whinging about the OLPC’s lack of User-Centered Design again

Note: This post might be a little dated. It was published in January 2007.

Maybe I should stop ranting about this but it really gets me going. The OLPC UI specs seem to have been revised slightly and it’s got some people saying things like “Wow!” “Genius!” “How Adventurous!” and that sort of thing.

I agree it is exciting stuff in terms of UI design research, but is it right to gamble with Kids’ educations? And with the little money that developing nations are able to spare?

We seem to be forgetting history here. It’s very naive to assume that OLPCS + Kids = Education.

In the past, technology-centric initiatives have a well documented history of not solving the problems they were intended to, when introduced into schools. Conversely, pouring money into teacher training is well known to be hugely effective.

Look at some of these quotes from Jane Healy’s book “Failure to Connect”. Note that she is talking about the introduction of computers into US schools the 80s and 90s. She isn’t talking about the OLPC – but she might as well be!

“‘Technology! I feel as if we’re being swept down this enormous river — we don’t know where we’re going, or why, but we’re caught in the current. I think we should stop and take a look before it’s too late. Assistant Superintendent of Schools, Long Island, New York”

“Technology shapes the growing mind. The younger the mind, the more malleable it is. The younger the technology, the more unproven it is. [...] Today’s children are the subjects of a vast and optimistic experiment. It is well financed and enthusiastically supported by major corporations, the public at large, and government officials around the world. If it is successful, our youngsters’ minds and lives will be enriched, society will benefit, and education will be permanently changed for the better. But there is no proof — or even convincing evidence — that it will work.”

“The experiment, of course, involves getting kids “on computers” at school and at home in hopes that technology will improve the quality of learning and prepare our young for the future. But will it? Are the new technologies a magic bullet aimed straight at success and power? Or are we simply grasping at a technocentric “quick fix” for a multitude of problems we have failed to address?

“Why do we so desperately need to believe in computers? After surveying current attitudes for the nonprofit organization Learning in the Real World, William Ruckeyser told me, “The nearest thing I can draw a parallel to is a theological discussion. There’s so much an element of faith here that demanding evidence is almost a sign of heresy.”