OLPC a “failure” in Peru

According to the Economist. Ah, but here’s the rub. From the article:

Part of the problem is that students learn faster than many of their teachers, according to Lily Miranda, who runs a computer lab at a state school in San Borja, a middle-class area of Lima. Sandro Marcone, who is in charge of educational technologies at the ministry, agrees. “If teachers are telling kids to turn on computers and copy what is being written on the blackboard, then we have invested in expensive notebooks,” he said. It certainly looks like that.

The laptops are necessary, but not sufficient. It’s the classroom environment itself that does not scale. Now take the next step, Peru, and get these kids using something like Khan Academy.

OLPC a “failure” in Peru

Enough of the boo-hoo-hooing about OLPC.

Wayan, here’s the simple fact:

The OLPC organization is built to do hardware innovation. Of the many things they’ve attempted, it’s the one thing at which they have clearly been wildly successful. They put the fear of God into Intel and forced the worldwide introduction of the Netbook, thus driving down the median price of personal computing all over the world — whether you choose to give them credit for that achievement or not. Their decision to focus on hardware innovation as a core competency is a good thing, not a bad thing.

Is the challenge of educating every child in the world bigger than OLPC can handle? Why, yes. Yes, it is.

There’s the problem of open educational resources, which is being attacked by organizations like OER Commons and Curriki and UNESCO, and possibly even by the United States federal government. Did you know that the Hewlett Foundation actually has a logic model for the development of open educational resources, which they now apply to every organization who comes to them for requests to fund education projects?

There’s the problem of open source software suitable for use by kids, which is being attacked by organizations like Sugar Labs and the KDE Education Project and GCompris and Squeak — all of whom have successfully deployed software that is now being used by lots and lots of kids. None of these projects are perfect, but all are continually improving.

Guess what? OLPC was *bad* at these things. That’s why they have, quite sensibly, left those problems for other organizations to solve. OLPC is now, and has always been, a single piece of a very large puzzle. The shrill cries that “OLPC HAS FORGOTTEN TEH KIDZ!!!!” are at best, unhelpful, and at worst, ridiculous.

So while all of the other organizations in the world work on the other sticky open education problems, let OLPC focus on the one thing they’ve clearly demonstrated an aptitude for: innovation to make better and cheaper hardware that is built specifically for the needs of young kids.

When you try to be everything to everybody, you end up being nothing and nobody. OLPC has learned that lesson, and I, for one, am delighted.

Enough of the boo-hoo-hooing about OLPC.

Xtra Ordinary for the XO

So I’m hanging out with Karlie and Todd Robinson this afternoon at their lovely home in Rochester, and Karlie just showed me the distro that Todd optimized for the XO. Todd calls it Xtra Ordinary. It’s pretty cool. Based on LXDE with some nifty hacks. (Based on DebXO, but I’ll forgive them that, heh.)

The thing I like best: the plug-in for Iceweasel called Glazoom. It resizes the main browser pane to fit into your screen size — which, for the XO, is one of these small tweaks that makes it *amazingly* useful. Note to Fedora Mini folks: consider shipping this plug-in by default.

This afternoon we head over to visit the Computer Science House at RIT, and then tomorrow we spend the day with Stephen Jacobs, the RIT professor who is teaching his students to write games for the XO. Great, great stuff, and I’m hoping to learn as much from him as possible to spread to other programs at other schools. Also, looking forward to getting his feedback on our nascent open source textbook effort.

Also, apparently there’s one of these in my future:

(Props to andrewc for the CC BY-NC-SA image of the garbage plate.)

Xtra Ordinary for the XO

I guess this is why they call me Professor.

This, and the elbow patches on my jacket. And the pipe.  (It’s certainly not because of any earned credentials of any kind, that’s for sure.)

I’ve been reflecting on POSSE all weekend now. It was pretty insanely great, and I think that we provided a lot of value for the professors who attended.

Once again, though, as so often happens whenever I’m fortunate enough to assemble really smart people — I learned way more than I taught. And I mean, way, way, way more.

When I started as “the community guy” at Red Hat almost five years ago, the job was perceived as “the guy in marketing who keeps the LUGs happy”. The reason I took the job was because I saw opportunities to do a lot more than that. We’d just made the Fedora/RHEL split, with the promise that Fedora would be developed in partnership with the open source community — but we weren’t really delivering on the “partnership” side of that promise. The frustrating thing was that we had a ton of community support, but we weren’t exactly putting it to good use.

So a lot of what I did in those early days, I did by feel. I spent a lot of talking talking to Elliot Lee and Seth Vidal and Karsten Wade and Jef Spaleta and many others, figuring out exactly how to give real responsibilities to our nascent Fedora community — or just as frequently, how to take the legitimate work they were already doing and fit it into the ever-growing Fedora puzzle. Thus were born the Fedora Infrastructure team, the Fedora Extras Steering Committee, the Fedora Documentation team, the Fedora Ambassadors team, and ultimately, the Fedora Board.

As Fedora expanded, my understanding of how community works expanded with it. I quickly discovered that for some tasks, there was no substitute for an experienced Red Hat engineer. For most tasks, though — the great majority, in fact, more than I ever suspected — entrusting those tasks to passionate community members was actually far more likely to get those tasks completed in a timely and effective manner. Thus, Fedora’s community work became tightly focused on making it easier for community to perform these tasks that gave them such enjoyment and fulfillment and purpose. It also became important to discern which tasks were good community tasks, and which were not, so that we could provide satisfying experiences to our volunteer base, rather than frustrating ones.

I never had a name for how all this stuff worked. I never studied any theory. I had no language to discuss these ideas, other than the language I made up or borrowed. I talked about “infrastructure of participation” and “on-ramp projects” and “pulling innovation from the edges” and “the apprenticeship of open source” and whatever crackpot terminology that seemed to sort of make sense. That’s the thing: I just did what made sense to me, and whatever seemed most useful at the time.

So last week, when Cam Seay and Matt Jadud starting nodding their heads and talking about Zones of Proximal Development and Legitimate Peripheral Participation and Communities of Practice and referenced the works of Etienne Wenger and Lev Vygotsky, something clicked, way deep down.

Building community is fundamentally an act of teaching.

I suppose that I shouldn’t be shocked at finding an entire pedagogy around what it is that we do. I mean, I am shocked, of course — but I shouldn’t be. Because while it may be true that the internet makes it easy to build communities of practice at a previously unimaginable scale, it’s also true that people have been enmeshed in communities of practice, of one kind or another, for thousands of years. In the Red Hat Brand Book, we have a clever saying, and I hope it catches on: “open source isn’t a new idea; it’s the oldest idea.”

In other words: there’s nothing magical about community management. When I say “infrastructure of participation,” I’m actually talking about a specific form of instructional scaffolding. When I say “on-ramp projects,” what I really mean is legitimate peripheral participation. And when any of us say “the open source community”, we are talking about perhaps the largest and best example of a global community of practice.

Maybe there’s something to be said for the Art of Community — but for earnest practitioners, it’s far more useful to study the Science of Community. And those books have already been written; I just never knew where to look for them before.

Here are the books I’m reading now, and if you are responsible for building communities of practice, you should be reading them too:

Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. Etenne Wenger, Cambridge University Press.

Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, Cambridge University Press.

Cultivating Communities of Practice. Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott and William M. Snyder, Harvard Business School Press.

I guess this is why they call me Professor.

LOL Slashdot

Poor Nicholas. He can say something that is completely true, and get pilloried for it.

What Nicholas said, from TFA: “But what we did…was we had Sugar do the power management, we had Sugar do the wireless management — it became sort of an omelet. The Bios talked directly with Sugar, so Sugar became a bit of a mess. It should have been much cleaner, like the way they offer [it] on a stick now.”

Slashdot headline: Negroponte Sees Sugar As OLPC’s Biggest Mistake.


In what he actually said, Nicholas is exactly right.

What should have happened: OLPC should have worked to get system-level changes into the upstream Linux kernel / X / other projects, and Sugar should have been a desktop environment sitting on top.

What actually happened: OLPC forked its own distro and called the whole thing “Sugar”, pushed a ton of XO-specific changes in this distro, and wasted a lot of engineering cycles fighting to maintain a fork. This mistake was a crucial and painful mistake — one that we have fought to remedy in the context of Fedora 10 and Fedora 11. Two release cycles of nothing but pushing XO-specific code upstream, everywhere we find it.

I’ve certainly had my disagreements with Nicholas in the past — I still think it’s a shame how much community goodwill OLPC squandered by failing to be sufficiently transparent — but let’s not put words in the man’s mouth. Saying “the way we did Sugar was a big mistake” is a completely different thing from saying “Sugar was a big mistake”.

LOL Slashdot

4th grade math: an update

As with all new projects, uptake is slow but steady. The mailing list traffic looks pretty good for its first month of life; we’ve got a few people who are working on various math-related activities; there are nibbles of interest.

Pulling all of this interest into a coordinated effort will be a continually ongoing exercise.

The next real milestone, I think, is to really flesh out the Math4 teams. Putting together a few strong teams that consist of at least one developer and one teacher will really help move us forward.

Another important goal for me personally is to ramp up my recruiting efforts — which means refining the pitch and finding as many opportunities as possible to make the pitch to interested people. There are only so many hours in the day, and I’m pulled in a ton of different directions, but pitching the vision is probably the most important activity I can be engaged in right now. Which means that my time for hacking Mongo is somewhat curtailed. Alas. I suck as a coder anyway. 🙂

Anyway. There’s lots of efforts out there to “help kids” using free software. I sincerely believe that helping to fill out the 4th grade math curriculum is one of the most immediately actionable things we can do as a community. Tell your friends — especially your teacher friends. Join the fight.

4th grade math: an update

Still looking for professors: tell your friends!

Red Hat wants professors to participate in open source projects for a week this summer, and we’re willing to put our money where our mouth is.

We are accepting applications for this program right now. There have been some nibbles, but no formal applications yet.

The deadline for professors to apply is Friday, April 3rd, 2009. If you know any professors who would like to participate in an open source project for a week this summer, please tell them about this program. And if you have any questions, feel free to ask me.

That is all. 🙂

Still looking for professors: tell your friends!