OLPC – I take it all back

Some will argue that I’m weak-willed, but I have made a 180-degree change of opinion on the merits of the One Laptop Per Child project thanks to Tom Coates’s article.

I’ve been pretty cynical about the OLPC previously because I found the rhetoric not really matching what I had seen (limited as that was). The main issues being whether children need laptops versus food (of course, both would be possible), the environmental arguments and also the accusations of utopianism. Tom’s piece neatly kicks those issues into touch from the outset:

For me, it comes down to the way we want to operate in the world. It’s extremely easy to adopt a pose of scepticism and cynicism about any attempt to change things or push them forwards. I’ve said before about a particularly aggravating tech commentator that naysaying is a sure-fire way to look sensible and intelligent without any of the effort of actually having to think. I stand by that, and I think the OLPC project has had its fair share of this kind of thinking.

Fair cop. I think I’m probably guilty of this.

Personally though, I believe that it’s possible to work for the good of all and improve the world. I think it’s a decent and honourable thing to apply whatever means you have at your disposal to raising the aspirations and possibilities of one of the planet’s most squandered resources–its residents. And I do buy the geek rhetoric that access to information, communication and education cannot but help people. As such, I’m prepared to give this project and others like it, the benefit of the doubt.

I still have some issues about the educational theory behind it, but they’re not huge and I think Tom is absolutely right here. Perfectionism is another form of utopianism after all.

It’s always good to read something that turns your opinions upside down. I think it’s important to admit it too.

[tags]OLPC, Tom Coates[/tags]

OLPC versus Nintendo DS


Alexander Stojanovic makes an interesting comparison between the Nintendo DS and the OLPC. Having bought both for his five year-old daughter at Christmas he has been able to compare:

The Nintendo DS (NDS) is the clear winner as an interactive device and learning platform. It truly is a paradigm shift for UI/UX. Our daughter was able to figure out how to configure two DSs for PictoChat (via WiFi) and now constantly wants to “IM” pictures and text with me. It’s an eye-openning experience.

The OLPC is the utter disappointment though. Everything about it is sluggish, unresponsive, cryptic and just sub-optimal.

Like Alexander and as someone who works in both interaction design and educational futures I really want the OLPC project to be a great idea, but I’m pretty worried it isn’t.

The first objection is that really the world would be a much better place if every child had enough to eat, was healthy and happy quite apart from having a laptop.

The second is the potential environmental hazards of sending out so many laptops perhaps not [all that environmentally friendly](and the associated environmental concerns.

Finally, everything is in the execution. Nicholas Negroponte is keen to stress that the OLPC project is “an education project, not a laptop project” and that is, of course, highly laudable, but I’m worried that in the quest to make them so cheap, the user-experience might have been lost in the process.

Alexander Stojanovic’s post seems to be confirming these fears for me:

The OLPC delivers a very – how shall I put this – “academic” idea of what people (children) will want and like. The NDS was clearly tested and usability done on each aspect. The OLPC looks like all the decisions were hardcoded early on by a brain trust of “experts” without any thought of the actual experience of using, maintaining or enhancing the device.

Having created several interactive projects whose primary audience is children, I have experienced first-hand the need to test ideas on children. Looking through the “lens of the learner” is one of the first tenets of teaching and learning.

Engaging people is one of the first tenets of interaction design. Without that the rest doesn’t even get seen. Whilst I congratulate the OLPC team on their achievement I really hope they don’t forget those two principles.

[tags]OLPC, UI, Nintendo[/tags]