Last night I wrote to J. C. Prentiss, educator, politician, and member of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators:
Earlier today I saw you and others in a ten-year-old video on C-SPAN (a national treasure, and the only unbiased news source on TV) talking about Rep. Jesse Jackson, jr.’s then-new book A More Perfect Union, on adding eight new civil rights to the Constitution, and talking more generally about the centuries of the Color Line in the US. Let me first associate myself with everything the participants said, and then explain how I might be able to help.
I grew up in and around Newark, NJ. I attended Weequahic HS, which at that time was about half Jewish and half Black, but in no way integrated. It was still one of the top high schools in the nation, with one of the highest acceptance rates to top colleges and universities. The story of Weequahic’s fall and much later recovery has been told in the documentary Heart of Stone. I graduated from college the week before the Newark riots broke out. I know about Ironbound, on the wrong side of three sets of railroad tracks. I know about white flight, police murders, mob politics, and much else from there, and I know about the Republican Southern Strategy that produced much of it out of the ashes of legal Jim Crow.
It isn’t enough, in my view, to agree with Rep. Jackson. In addition to the rights he advocated, I would include a right to information and communication. Firstly, I don’t believe in Bridging the Digital Divide. I believe in obliterating it. A simple Internet connection gives anyone
anywhere access to most of human knowledge, with the exception of certain commercial databases and publications, government secrets, trade secret information, and legitimately private personal informaion. An Internet connection further gives people access to each other, which is the essence of a free political system as well as a free marketplace of goods and services and a free marketplace of ideas.
But access is not enough. Information is not enough. Knowledge is not enough. Understanding is required. For example, it is not enough in civics class to know how the government is supposed to work. It is not enough to have access to the information about how it is working. Children have to learn what to do when government isn’t working, not as an academic study, but as every-day action.
This means that education as we have known it is also not enough. Fortunately, as former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan pointed out the year after your meeting, we now have the technology for access to information, for communication from anywhere to anywhere else (except North Korea), and for vastly improving education while reducing costs, and ending global poverty in the process. Many other ills associated with poverty, including many forms of oppression and most government corruption, would go away also over time. We can even discuss how to get rid of the Color Line in the US, and its many analogs in other countries, simply by bringing more and more people together without exclusion, whether face-to-face or around the world.
One Laptop Per Child was founded on the basis of these insights, to provide a laptop computer and sufficient educational materials to a billion children at a time, that is to say, every schoolchild in the world. We have reached about two million so far. The key fact about the project is that computers with Free Software, such as Linux, and with Open Education Resources (OER), are now much less expensive than textbooks. Hardcover high school textbooks commonly cost $100 or more each. Many college textbooks cost more than $200. The One Laptop Per Child XO-1 computer came out at $189 each, and the XO-3 is expected by MIT engineers and others who know something about the matter to cost about $75 each.
Free Software for education, including the Edubuntu version of Linux, and the Sugar software for XOs, is well established. It is not, and by its nature cannot be finished, but what can? However, creating a sufficient OER catalog of materials on every school subject for every stage of student development for every country in every language needed has only recently begun, and that is currently the gating factor for the entire program of education, rights for all, ending poverty, and all the rest.
Much of this was clear to the most far-sighted of the computer pioneers of the 1960s, led by Douglas Engelbart. He is known for inventing the computer mouse, but the program he was working on produced a great many other computer innovations, and a great many of the uses of computer and communications technology. His purpose was to Enhance the Collective Intelligence of all of humanity.
The current cost of computer hardware was predicted when Moore’s law became accepted, holding that computer capabilities double at the same cost every 18 months. In the last 40 years, this means that they have doubled something like 26 times, about a factor of 60 million. The result is that any modern mobile phone has more computing power than an early IBM mainframe computer, and that the lowly XO-1, which is relatively slow today, is almost as slow as the first Cray-1 supercomputer, best remembered for creating most of the animation in the original Tron movie. ^_^
A number of people jumped on Engelbart’s key insights, including Alan Kay, the inventor of Smalltalk at Xerox, which became the ancestor of all graphical user interfaces on the Apple Macintosh, Microsoft Windows, and everywhere else. But that was an incidental side effect. The real effect will be seen when every child can learn to program as naturally as learning reading, writing, and arithmetic, and high-school graduates will routinely have 12 years of shared, collaborative computer experience. That is, 12 years in programming, or computer music, or computer art, or building Web sites, or writing and publishing, or e-commerce, or whatever children discover they can do.
Another major pioneer was Seymour Papert, inventor of the Logo programming language for children, including Turtle Graphics. Children can, with equal ease, do art, math, and science in Turtle Graphics, if they have their computers in every class, and can take them home to use for homework. Not, as is presently the standard practice, if they have an hour or two a week in the computer lab.
Now, I have offered you the end of poverty and the color line, at some undefined point in the future, which is all very well. But what am I offering you today? The answer is, the opportunity for educators devoted to minority rights in education to create the OER that minority students need, but that they cannot get, by way of textbook purchasing committees and state standards, from commercial publishers. OER that tell the truth, and explain what to do about it.
I am the Project Manager for the Sugar Labs project for Replacing Textbooks (with OER). We have collaborative book writing, editing, and publishing software that we can put at your disposal via the Internet. Our partner FLOSS Manuals has used this and its previous software to write software manuals, including How to Bypass Internet Censorship, in one week each. We can organize face-to-face book sprints for you, and teach your people how to organize their own. We can provide volunteers to aid in the work. We have access to educational research groups, some of which are inventing new educational techniques, and others of which are testing our work in the classroom, so that we know what to keep, what needs improvement, and what to discard. We have translators in a hundred language communities.
And what would I like from you? Well, volunteers, to begin with, first for a discussion, and then for the work. We can also discuss possibilities for funding, and for implementing the One Laptop Per Child program in US schools, and for aid projects in other countries. You should check out the program in Birmingham, Alabama, with 15,000 XOs, the first in the US.
There is actually much more to this story, but haven’t I told you enough for you to decide whether you would like to continue the conversation, and to bring in your colleagues in teaching, in government, and in the various communities that would be interested? I will be happy to answer questions, or to connect you with those who know more than I do about various parts of the work and the plans.
I close with a few links, and some suggested reading for you and others working on these problems.
- One Laptop Per Child (laptops)
- Sugar Labs (educational software and OER)
- The Replacing Textbooks Project
- Some notable OER sources
- Earth Treasury (planning)
- Sugar Labs blogs, including my Replacing Textbooks posts
- Invited UNESCO discussion: OER Economics for a Billion Children
- Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, by Seymour Papert.
- Economics Nobel Prize Winner Amartya Sen’s book, Development as Freedom says many of the same things as Rep. Jackson, but in a global perspective. Everybody in the NBCSL should read it.
- Also, to understand White folks’ hangups about their social status and everybody else’s better, The Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorstein Veblen. So right on, I can’t help laughing.
- You Can’t Say You Can’t Play, by Vivian Gussin Paley, on ending invidious distinctions in kindergarten.
- The Evolution of Cooperation, by Robert Axelrod. A mathematical theory with applications to war and peace, making and breaking caste and class systems, ethnic and religious conflict and its resolution, and much more. The short version is that you build up trust by working together with others repeatedly in the face of non-cooperation by others. It can take a long time, but it becomes very, very strong once it works. That’s not exactly news in general, but now we can be much more specific about how and when it works.
- Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control by Christopher Peterson, Steven F. Maier and Martin E. P. Seligman. The most important finding, first in dogs, then in people, is that when those previously taught to be helpless are taught not to be, they cannot be taught to be helpless a second time.
- “All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to be the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.”–Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations