Do You Have To Prove It Works?

[First published on GOTOXO as Do You Have To Prove It Works? on December 19, 2007.]

I just came across an interesting post at planet.laptop.org by Bryan Berry, Speech to the OLPC Learning Club of DC.

Bryan speaks to three difficult issues he has encountered after people get over their first rush at seeing an XO Laptop:

# 1: There is hardly any content for the XO.

# 2: Teachers don’t have time for the XO.

# 3: You have to prove it works!

I don’t yet have my XO laptop, and I’ll give my own views on it when I get my hands on it.

However, I think it worth looking at these three issues from the perspective of the PC, the Personal Computer we have had around in the United States for over twenty-five years.

# 1: There is hardly any content for the PC in the classroom.
Whenever I speak to an educator these days, or someone who works with educators, I ask them the following question:

We’ve had PC’s around for over twenty-five years in the United States. Can you name just one computer program that has really led to an improvement in pedagogy in our largest, poorest, urban schools during that period? Just one?

No one has yet ventured an answer, and one person whose opinion I respect said that his best guess was that, taken all in all, personal computers have done more harm than good in these schools. [1] The dollars spent on them would have been better spent elsewhere.

I often then remark that if we have invested just one-tenth, or even just one-twentieth, of the money we have spent on building computer games to write better educational software then our classrooms would be in much better shape. No one has yet said I’m wrong on this.

Here is another way to express the lack of content:

Name, in order of measured success, the five Microsoft products that have demonstrably improved the quality of education in the United States in the last decade.

Five? Four? Three? Two? One? None!

Yet another:

Let’s assume that, miracle of miracles, Microsoft could made Windows XP, or Vista run on the XO Laptop, using no more space than that needed for Linux and the current XO applications that are written in Python. What would then be the five must-have applications from Microsoft that every educator would want, ones that would still fit on the XO’s and leave enough room for the students to do some meaningful work?

I can’t think of even one … Five? Four? Three? Two? One? None!

What about Linux?

Name a Linux application that has improved education as well as any commercial product?

This is a trick question, in that we are asking about what I think is an empty set. See Python-XO: On the shortest Python program. Since no commercial product has had that much effect, then Linux is as good as any of them. So the answer could be “all” or “none.” You take your pick.

The net is that Linux is probably almost as good as most available commercial software when it comes to classrooms. It certainly costs much less. Yet since folks don’t really want to admit just how bad the current software is, especially in that so much money has been paid to license it, things will stay pretty much as they are.

# 2: Teachers don’t have time for the PC.

True. Teachers don’t have much time for anything except to prepare their students to take standardized tests of questionable value, and since they are paid too little many of them have to work at second jobs.

Given this environment, there is little incentive for teachers to try anything new, especially if there aren’t even resources available to teach them how to use proposed new technology.

# 3: You have to prove it works!

Do you? Available commercial software seems to have achieved a market share close to 100 per cent even though evidence to date suggests it is of little value.

If the PC hasn’t had to prove itself, why should the XO have to do so?

In a rational world, people would accept that innovation in education is hard, really hard, and so would understand that many paths would have to be tried, even though some would fail, for that is the nature of true science. See On Education, Innovation, OLPC, And Open-Source for some more thoughts on the difficulty of doing innovation in education.

But, sad to say, the world isn’t always a rational place, and the XO will probably have to “prove itself,” even though the current incumbent hasn’t proven itself. This is one of the problems of innovation. Everyone always views the world through the lens defined by the current reality. It is hard to look through that lens and recognize a new reality is possible, especially if one only makes “reasonable” estimates of what is truly possible, or what can be accomplished.

For example, I was recently in a bit of an argument about affirmative action. I said that I supported it, and that schools such as Harvard should admit more black students than they do now, and not necessarily always picking the brightest ones they could find. They should just do it as an investment, in the hope that in the long run it will make our country a better place than leaving things the ways they are now.

They responded by saying:

Affirmative action is not logical. It is not “fair.” This would be unfair to the white students. Shouldn’t Harvard admit solely based on merit?

This is the paradox. People assume irrational acts, especially injustice, must be dealt with rationally. My own view is:

Fair? Who cares? Harvard spent at least two centuries keeping Jews, Blacks, and Women out of its classroom. Why not give those groups preferential treatment for the next two or three hundred years before we next review the “fairness” of the admissions process?

Evidence to date suggests that most folks in the U.S. are taking a similarly irrational “rational” approach to evaluating the XO. That is their call. For my part, I think the real action, and the real fun, will be found outside the United States, in countries that can’t afford current PC’s, or the currently available commercial software for them, or do not have the electricity needed to power them even if current watt-hungry computers were made available.

We shall see, and though it may take years — or even decades — to make real measurable progress, we’ll have fun making the journey.

Notes.

1. He is almost my age. He is black, and was hired by IBM after he graduated from a technical high school in Detroit in 1966. He worked for IBM for a few years, then went on to a long and successful career in the computer industry. He has spent the last few years working with educators in large, poor, urban school districts, and knows whereof he speaks.

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