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The Children’s Machine

It’s time to turn the network upside down


Not Published by District Administration Magazine

©February 2008 Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.


During the mid-sixties, Seymour Papert began advocating for ubiquitous computer access for every child. While considered heresy at the time, Papert’s predictions led to what we now refer to as 1:1 computing, even if the use of those computers bears little resemblance to Papert’s vision of the computer being used as incubator for powerful ideas.


Alan Kay, a scientist at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) visited Papert’s MIT lab in 1968 and was so excited by the mathematics he saw young children doing that on the flight home he sketched the “Dynabook,” an uncanny simulacrum of today’s laptop computer. This personal computer would be a children’s machine,” on which learners could construct knowledge anywhere anytime. Alan Kay said, “The computer is simply an instrument whose music is ideas.”


Papert had always hoped that the computer could be built, programmed and maintained by each learner. Such intimate knowledge of the machine would contribute to a sense of ownership and a deeper appropriation of the powerful ideas constructed with the computer.


Forty years later, Papert and Kay’s vision of truly personal computing for children is beginning to be realized in the XO (aka: the $100 Laptop), developed by the non-profit organization, One Laptop Per Child. Although much less expensive than a retail laptop, the XO is more robust and features a new operating system and software that may be more appropriate for children. American school districts are seriously considering adoption of a computer designed for developing countries for economic and educational reasons. The low price is but one feature that should rock Silicon Valley.


The Seasons of 1:1 Computing

When I led professional development at the world’s first laptop schools back in 1990, the device was viewed as a disruptive technology that would bring Papert and Dewey’s ideas about learning to life in traditionally conservative schools. A renaissance of profound discussions on the nature of teaching and learning were commonplace in faculty rooms and students created a caliber of work that few of us could ever have imagined. Kids took the skills taught in class and built upon them to engage in sophisticated project-based knowledge construction that challenged conventional notions of curriculum or achievement. The mere fact that the laptop allowed a student to work on a project until it was “done” was itself a revolution. Newfound respect for time, interdisciplinary learning and student mobility caused early “laptop schools” to make fundamental changes to school curriculum, scheduling, assessment and even architecture.


Around 1995, fewer exciting examples of school reform accompanied laptop deployment. Sure, early adopters are more ambitious, but there was another force at work The Internet offered schools a way to deliver content, test kids and monitor teachers from a centralized command at a relatively low-cost. Schools could appear modern without all of that pesky freedom or change in practice that might upset the top-down order of the system.


Bizarrely, I now encounter schools that buy laptops and pronounce that nothing else will change. In fact, some school policies fight hard to retard the personal empowerment afforded by the device.


Think Different!

The biggest challenge facing successful XO implementation in Western countries is the requirement that schools think differently about computing. If you are concerned with making the XO (or any of the new generation of ultra-portable computers it has inspired) work with your district’s Exchange server on your Novell network with unchanged proxy settings, filtering software and firewalls, then it never will. Such costly I.T. ballast may not work with the children’s machine, but more importantly it will undermine the educational value of the device.


The ingenious mesh networking of the XO or the Mac’s Bonjour networking protocols make seamless collaboration free and easy right out of the box. Unfortunately, many school districts employ expensive personnel who disable this educational functionality deliberately or as a result of overly complex networks serving too many masters.


Emerging technology, universal wireless Internet access and best educational practices will cause increasing conflict with the job security of many I.T. employees. How will your district respond?


Imagine approaching the challenge of providing students with home Internet access in a new way. Instead of prevailing upon politicians or telecom companies to install expensive antennas or launch a new satellite, why not have a Mayor say, “My fellow citizens, the children of our city need you to remove the password to your home or small business wireless router so they may work and learn outside of school.”


The future requires us to think of the “network” from the kid up, not the system down. The “children’s machine” ensures that history will be on the side of the student.



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