Questions? Answers!

I have maintained for some years now that I have no interest in Bridging the Digital Divide. I want to obliterate it. Bridging it still means that most people are on the wrong side, with only a narrow channel across. I want to fill the chasm so that there is firm, level ground everywhere for anyone to cross at any time. Or rather, it won’t matter where the divide was. Everybody will be able to connect with everybody, everywhere.

When I repeated this intention in a Replacing Textbooks discussion, Valerie Taylor responded with lots of questions, not only on that point, but a lot of other problems she has noticed. Valerie is working on what sort of library system the Replacing Textbooks program should have, so that teachers and students can find the appropriate Open Education Resources (OERs) for their particular subject at their particular level. Eventually that will also mean searching in their preferred list of languages, for material under appropriate licenses permitting reuse. We haven’t worked out what the questions/user requirements will be in sufficient detail, so we can’t yet discuss the answers.

But on the following questions from Valerie, there are answers, which I wanted to share with everybody else.

The chasm as I see it—v0.1 I know what the landfill is for some of these, but some are more difficult.

The biggest technical problem for obliterating the Digital Divide is to get electricity, Internet, and computers into the hands of all of the billion or so children of the world, so that they can learn and show their families and friends, and also so that they can qualify for existing jobs when they graduate, and start businesses to create new jobs. At that point, the children will not only have access to all of the information riches of the Net, but to each other, to build the social networks that will underlie collaborations in art, music, politics, business, and whatever else the children find worth doing.

We can run the numbers on what must be paid for, subtracting the enormous costs of printed textbooks that will no longer be needed. In middle-income countries, indeed anywhere that printed textbooks cost more than laptops with renewable electric power, that total investment is thus negative.

For current XOs, that means textbook costs of about $50 per child per year or more. For the promised XO-3 tablet computer,

at its promised price of $75, that would be about $20 per child per year. India claims to have a design for a $35 tablet computer. Many doubt that this is so, but if it were so, we would be talking about $10-$15 per child per year. In countries that cannot or for political reasons will not spend even that much to provide adequate textbooks, and that are vastly short of teachers and schools, some form of outside help may still be needed.

For example, UNDP funded Bangladesh to digitize more than 100 primary and secondary school textbooks for every subject at every level, to the great shame of other more prosperous countries. Uruguay has funding from the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) for a similar project, for up to 1,000 e-learning resources in Spanish to use with Sugar on OLPC XOs and on other computers. South Korea is digitizing its textbooks out of its own funds.

Where the investment required is negative or zero, the financial Return on Investment is infinite. The social return, in the form of ending poverty, providing health care, rolling back government corruption, and the growth of civil society more generally, is not measurable in simple numbers, but is also huge.

Where some positive investment in educational infrastructure and technology is required, the financial return is not infinite, but it remains larger than any legitimate business investment, while the social return is much greater for populations that were even poorer, in worse health, and subjected to much worse misgovernment or outright oppression to begin with.


  • educated and in contact with the world on computers
  • safe from preventable and curable diseases
  • knowing how to organize and run a small business
  • knowing how to keep government under control

That’s what I mean by obliterating the Digital Divide, and the political and economic divides that go with it.

Since grown-ups don’t get it, what can be done to “fill in the chasm” so they can get with the program?

Children in laptop programs are delighted to show their parents and anyone else around what they are doing, and how it all works. Teachers who say, “I can teach now!” in even the poorest and most remote villages have similar motivations. Parents and other interested adults have been enlisted in many social movements for the benefit of children in the past, and the methods for doing so are on record. This includes creating mass support for child labor laws, compulsory education, vaccination laws, school lunches, Head Start, WIC, and many more.

To begin with, we need to let the rest of our communities see what we have. I recommend volunteering at libraries, children’s museums, public parks, after-school programs, and anything else that can reach children, their parents, school dropouts, politicians, and whoever else should know. Take laptops to computer conferences, teachers’ conventions, political gatherings…

Lots of well-meaning adults love the “idea” of OLPC and helping educate children everywhere. But it doesn’t take much before they are confused—too many unknowns, too much information,…Then off they go, wishing OLPC and Sugar Labs well on their Don-Quixote-esque mission.

It turns out that anybody who wants to can take part. Maybe they need to look at the Sugar Labs page on Getting Involved, or ask me right here. Explaining complicated technical topics and projects to non-specialists used to be my paying job, before I retired to devote myself to making presents for millions of children full-time.

I am serious about that. The most important input to what I do is questions, not information. One can always ask the experts for information, at least if one understands their language. I have had to learn the languages of hardware engineers, software engineers, marketers, management, and lawyers, among others, as part of my employment for the last thirty years. (Before that, I was working on Korean, Japanese, and Chinese for other purposes. Now I’m learning Spanish.) Nobody knows who has the important questions. I will be delighted to pass on the questions and translate the answers.

Assumptions, preconceived notions about education, Computer-supported / assisted collaboration—most adults have little, if any, positive experience with group projects in formal education

And no wonder. Collaboration used to be defined in schools as “cheating”. But collaboration is what people in organizations of any kind do all day, with certain notably ill-assorted exceptions where refusing to work together has become the norm. Why wouldn’t we teach our children how to work together? Why wouldn’t we start by teaching them to play together? (See Vivian Gussin Paley, You Can’t Say You Can’t Play.)

The answer, in colonial/imperial times, used to be that the masters of mankind didn’t want the lower orders, especially the colonized, to be able to work together toward the end of the empires. We know how that worked out in the end, usually with varying extremes of violence, including inter-religious “communal violence” in India and Pakistan, in spite of Gandhi’s best efforts. Libya is in that state, although the level of violence in Tunisia and Egypt was quite low this year.

However, school systems have enormous inertia, and post-colonial, post-imperial school systems are still being run for the benefit of the rich and powerful, not for the students. This is particularly the case where the object of education is supposed to be only jobs, not the creation of competent and empowered citizens.

Schools for children of the rich and powerful are organized quite differently, with the aim of poisoning their victims’ minds with a mentality of entitlement, and robbing them of essential humanity. (We can trace this back to the slave societies of Athens and Sparta, and beyond.) I was assigned to room with two such desperately arrogant and fearful types at university in different years, but I have mostly kept my distance from them since.

Thorstein Veblen explained such people in The Theory of the Leisure Class. He was not, of course, the first to notice their existence.

“Everything 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, 1776

Or the financial shenanigans that so angered Jesus (Matthew 23:12-14; John 2:14-16; and others) and the much earlier Psalmists and Prophets.

Psalm 15

1Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in thy holy hill?

2He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart…

5He that putteth not out his money to usury, nor taketh reward against the innocent.

Amos 2:6
Thus saith the LORD; For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes;

Discovery learning—most adults have little or no experience with discovery learning in formal education

Here, too, that is because discovery was not permitted in most schools. Even in the nominally most advanced and liberated schools, such as Montessori schools, this habit of mind persists. My wife and I took our daughter Sarah out of an otherwise excellent Montessori school that would not permit her to solve a jigsaw puzzle upside down, as a greater challenge to herself. (I assume that this is not universal in Montessori schools, but I have no further data. We found another school with a better attitude.) Never mind that Maria Montessori jumped with glee whenever she saw children inventing ways to learn.

Hard play—most adults didn’t like school much, toughed it out because they had to, to get a good job. Neither school nor a good job are expected to be any fun. In fact, if it was fun, it was usually in direct violation of some school rules.

Indeed. If people enjoy learning, there is no telling what they might decide to learn about on their own. Many, though not quite all, of the powers that be can’t have that.

Is OLPC still alive?

  • Two million+ units in the hands of children.
  • Several more countries led by Peru and Rwanda committed to providing all of their elementary school children with XOs, and more in the planning or early trial stages.
  • Several other countries giving other computers that can run Sugar to all of their students.
  • UNRWA funding of OLPC XOs in Palestinian refugee camp schools, starting with Gaza and intending to reach them all.

So, Yes.

Why are XOs only available to kids everywhere but in the US?

This turns out not to be the case. Birmingham, Alabama has 15,000 XOs in its schools. Any government or NGO can buy 10,000 or more XOs for schools. Smaller amounts can be provided for pilot projects, such as those in New York City, Boston, and Cambridge MA.

We have poor, illiterate kids here too.

And children being horribly miseducated for a variety of reasons.

Why can’t I buy an XO for my kids if they are so wonderful? XO up close and personal—most adults have only ever seen pictures and have no clue about the functionality.

XO-1 laptops are available on eBay, usually for about $150, which is below cost. You can also run Sugar on several kinds of Linux, on more capacious and faster computers. Sugar on a Stick (on a USB flash drive) will run on any computer that boots from USB. You might have to change a boot order setting in the BIOS to make that happen. You can buy SoaS preinstalled on a flash drive.

Kids toy—yes and no—kid-proof by design but very robust and elegant

Also easy to repair. A group of young girls started an XO Hospital in Nigeria. There are YouTube videos of children disassembling XOs, replacing parts, and reassembling them so that they work.

Weird user interface—absolutely! That’s the whole point. If you can’t read (which is one of the objectives for deploying XOs), there has to be communication on a nonverbal / cross-language level—pictures work. “a word is 103 pictures”

There is a widespread myth in education that we should give children software designed for adults to use in offices. This is silly because

  • Commercial office software is not designed for children, and presents many unnecessary difficulties. Language is not the least of these.
  • Commercial office software provides grossly inferior security and has other deficiencies compared with Free Software.
  • Commercial software is unnecessarily expensive, since there are Free Software alternatives, including Write (word processing), SocialCalc (spreadsheet), and Portfolio (presentations) in Sugar for primary school children, and OpenOffice/LibreOffice for older children and grownups.
  • We do not have permission to localize (translate) commercial software to the dozens of languages in our program, nor to improve it when we find that children need a different approach.
  • By the time the children graduate, all software, commercial or Free, will be much different.

I am working on a version of Turtle Art with no words on the program tiles/blocks. You can see some examples in my Turtle Art tutorial. Everybody should be able to work out what the first two examples do, and some of what the third, more complicated example does, without being told.

I will provide graded lessons on how to discover what everything is and does from such examples.

What is this?—lots of features that do things that adults have never tried to do, or if they did think computers could/should this, the “tech guys” told them that that was stupid and no, computers couldn’t do that. Well, computers can…

Yes, they can, but that does not traditionally mean that you are allowed to do that with them. Especially not on school computers where you do not have permission to install any software. This is one of several reasons why children are supposed to own their XOs.

Software upgrades—Yes, there will always need to be upgrades to software, but this is the scariest part of XO ownership—been there and done that. Even keeping my iPhone current with my favorite apps and podcasts is about the limit of my willingness to trade technology tasks (downloading updates, setting up syncing,…) for utility (getting email, reading books, taking “snaps” and listening to Naked Scientists podcasts).

Huh. Well, proprietary software products have to have separate upgrade procedures, of course. However, upgrades on Ubuntu Linux work like this.

  1. A brightly colored icon appears on the toolbar to let you know that upgrades are available.
  2. When you decide to click the icon, a window opens to show you what upgrades are available, and to ask you which ones to install (default: everything)
  3. If you really don’t want a particular upgrade,  you uncheck it in the list.
  4. Click a button to install your selections.
  5. Type your password into a dialog box to authorize the changes.
  6. It all happens while you go on with other things.
  7. When the process is finished, the program tells you whether you need to restart any applications, or exit and restart Linux, in order for the changes to take effect.
  8. Choose to restart software, or to continue as you are.

There. All done. Not like going somewhere to download files, and then read something to tell you what to do with them, or have to work it out on  your own. We need to implement something like this for Sugar. People are working on it. Please consider making a donation to speed up this and other processes.

Test drive—still too hard. Find a Linux-enabled computer with Sugar. Install VirtualBox and boot Sugar. Needs to be an easy way for folks to step and take a test drive.

If you, have, say, Ubuntu Linux, but copying and pasting

sudo apt-get install sugar-*

into a terminal session is too much for you, or you aren’t permitted to install software on your computer, you can, as I said earlier, buy a Sugar on a Stick, a USB drive that will boot on almost any x86 computer, even recent Macintoshes. Get some and take them to school board and PTA meetings. Offer to do demos to every NGO and civil society group with any connection at all to education, poverty reduction, crime reduction, human rights, government accountability,…

That was easy. Well, after all the work I had to do in years past in order to know this stuff, or know where to find it.

More questions, please. I like this game.


About mokurai

Generalist; End poverty at a profit for all
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