OLPC and Sugar: Mobility through the Community

01 octobre 2009

This article was first published in October 2009 by http://interdisciplines.org.

Philosophers like to question language

When I think about “mobility”, my mind turns into a TV screen with this advertisement: a beautiful girl on a boat, updating her twitter status from her android-based smartphone. No wire. No keyboard. No sitting. The ad goes on and says: “Connected from everywhere, with everyone.”

Now, when I think of what “mobility” could have meant for Alan Turing, I guess it would have referred to the mobility of the various parts of the computing machine, as described in his 1937 paper1. The Turing machine contains a read-write head which moves around the cells of a tape, scans them and updates them according to a set of rules.

What changed within the last 70 years? Machines are smaller and they let people connect to each other through the Internet, which means that “computers” (smartphone, laptops and ordinary computers) are used as communication devices, not computation devices. When the mobility was that of the machine itself, it had to happen in a protected environment, with a group of programmers taking care of it. Now that you can hold this “protected environment” in your hand, mobility is yours, and it allows users to be part of a “community”.

Hackers2 like to question technology

Lets consider machines and the “technosystem” that they are part of. We have at least three layers: hardware (physics), software (logics), usage (habits). The software layer itself is at least two-sided: the data and the interfaces.

The separation between those layers is not only an abstract one, it’s a real one. All hardware elements are not compatible. You cannot run all operating systems on every machines. You cannot run all applications on every operating systems. Some data are locked down behind specific interfaces. Moreover, our habits tightly depend on the interfaces, on the software they run on, on the hardware that supports them.

But it’s not as bad as it looks like, and some forces bring fluidity in this technosystem. The first force is the “outside” community: people communicating through the devices to access content. The more people communicating and willing to access content on the Internet, the higher the pressure to reach some homogeneity at the data/interface level.

The second force is the “inside” community, hackers who try to make the inside parts of the machines more “mobile”, able to talk to each other in a fluid way. At the hardware level, mobility is compatibility; at the software level, mobility is interoperability; from a user point of view, I would define mobility as the “genericity” of habits3, i.e. the fact that it is not hard to migrate from one device to another.

Children like to question themselves

So maybe the question is not “why mobility is great for teachers” but rather: “what mobility is important for learners?”

The “outside” mobility is important for practical reasons. It’s nice to carry around smartphones and laptops, just as it is nice to carry around books (content) and phones (communication). But this mobility needs to be sustained by the “inside” mobility – the openness of the technology.

An open technological environment lets children explore it. Moreover, it can function as a “crumple zone”: when something goes wrong in the interaction between the child and the device, this interaction doesn’t need to break, it can turn into an opportunity to learn something4. Opening the technological environment also promotes a “deep digital literacy”, one that doesn’t stay on the surface of habits but reaches the core technological concepts, those that lets users reflect on their habits. Finally, an open environment is important because compatibilty and interoperability enforce genericity, and genericity is what matters the most to teachers and learners: when developing/using an educational program, you don’t want to be impeded by interfaces, you want to use them to interact with powerful ideas5 transparently.

If education aims at letting children develop their own freedom, let’s make technology something they can question, especially the technology that we use to help them learn. By questioning it, children really question themselves.

OLPC: mobility trough the community

The One Laptop Per Child fondation helps developing countries to let their children use laptops as learning devices. It encourages learners to collaborate through the Sugar software6 platform. It helps teachers work together on computer-based lessons and imagine new interfaces. It encourages developers to open Sugar activities and contribute to them. It let hackers to open the hardware. It encourages anyone to see himself both as a learner and as a teacher. In general, OLPC creates new opportunities for learning communities : communities of hackers, developers, educationalists, and communities bringing all these people together.

This is possible because “outside” and “inside” mobility go together: our body needs freedom of movement, but so does our mind. The laptops can follow the children everywhere, thus opening the doors of the classrooms; and the children can open the doors of the laptops, making it a natural home for their ideas, a home they can share with others.

Notes

1 Turing, A.M., 1936-7, “On Computable Numbers, With an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem,” Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society, s2-42: 230–265; correction ibid., s2-43 (1936): 544–546 (1937).

2 A “hacker” is not a pirate, it is just someone passionate about technology: see the Wikipedia entry for ”Hacker”.

3 A versatile software is useful in many areas. A universal software is usable to everyone. I suggest to use “universatility” to refer to the combination of universality and versatility: good softwares are those who are useful to many people in many different ways. Those softwares are the ones who are more likely to promote a high level of genericity among users’ habits.

4 Cf. this interview of Walter Bender, executive director of Sugar Labs. Also remember Alan Kay’s quote: “The computer interface should be a learning interface.”

5 The expression comes from Alan Kay. Here is a conference where he explains and demonstrate what he means through this expression.

6 Sugar is the free software learning platform developed by the Sugar Labs community.