DCrit: Negroponte Speaks!

October 26th, 2011 § 0 comments

After having heard Negroponte speak, I have really mixed feelings about the project. On the one hand…it’s an amazing accomplishment – I hope to do as much as he has to move the dial forward. He’s put the tools of technology in the hands of millions of kids at the lowest costs possible. He shared some early models and sketches, and the development of the project is an exciting thing to behold. The crank – why did it go? Kids spend as much energy pressing down on the laptop as they do cranking – so it’s a waste of effort. Plus…that thing was going to break! So it’s clearly well designed from an ID and UI standpoint. No one can argue that.

But just this week, the New York Times wrote about how some of the highest-tech parents in Silicon Valley send their kids to schools that …don’t have much in the way of computers.

compute

I think it’s rather funny that the kid above is reading “on a desktop”…get it?

So while Negroponte showed us awe-inspiring images of the computer in remote conditions, with smiling children…I still have to ask. do computers=education?

They certainly don’t. While Negroponte made it clear that these laptops wouldn’t provide unfettered access to the internet, if they did, it turns out that kids wouldn’t know what to do with it…in any critical sense.

This blog entry is a thoughtful commentary on a Wired article by Clive Thompson I read over the weekend – Why Can’t Johnny Google?

We’re often told that young people tend to be the most tech savvy among us. But just how savvy are they? A group of researchers led by College of Charleston business professor Bing Pan tried to find out. Specifically, Pan wanted to know how skillful young folks are at online search. His team gathered a group of college students and asked them to look up the answers to a handful of questions. Perhaps not surprisingly, the students generally relied on the webpages at the top of Google’s results list.

But Pan pulled a trick: he changed the order of the results for some students. More often than not, those kids went for the bait and also used the (falsely) top-ranked pages. Pan grimly concluded that students aren’t assessing information sources on their own merit – they’re putting too much trust in machine.

Other studies have found the same thing: high school and college students may be “digital natives” but they’re wretched at searching. In a recent experiment at Northwestern, when 102 undergraduates were asked to do some research online, none went to the trouble of checking the author’s credentials. In 1955, we wondered why Johnny can’t read. Today the question is why can’t Johnny search?

Every day he walks into a sanitized information landscape with the expectation that anything he finds behind the school firewall is valid. How does that teach Johnny good digital hygiene?

And it’s spot on…kids trust tech too much. Critical thinking skills aren’t taught by computers. They are taught by teachers. At the end of the day, the laptop costs $100, but the teacher costs even more…and is worth more. To run a program with the laptop costs about a dollar a week…cheap to us, but a major investment in a poor country. To create a real environment of learning takes more than a laptop. I wonder if the $100 could be better spent.

That said…I want to leave myself with a parting thought. Negroponte said several times that he chose to do what he felt the market would not. I think it’s a fair litmus test for action…if we can find something to do that the market wouldn’t create…then that’s real innovation and real entrepreneurship. It’s a high bar, but a worthwhile one. And I feel he has set it and surpassed it.

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