November 13, 2007

Squeak if you gave one to/got one from OLPC

I have an agreement with my family: I don't work on holidays. I can do lots of fun or worthwhile things that are tangentially connected to work, but nothing that really could be considered work for something I am assigned.

But I did something a little before 6 am yesterday morning that was both civically engaged and something tangentially related to work (i.e., education): sign up for the One Laptop Per Child give-one-get-one program for the OLPC's first computer, the XO (or is it the X0?). Much has been written about Nicholas Negroponte's utopian/moonshot project, and most of the fanatical enthusiasts should probably read Larry Cuban's history and friendly criticism of technology and education. Or you can, to keep your life in balance between the technophiliac ying and the technoskeptic yang.

While I agree with many of Cuban's cautions (something I point out when I teach a course called Schools and the Future*), there is an interesting tool embedded in the XO, a program base called Squeak, an object-oriented programming language that children and even adults can use.

Over at Squeakland, you can find a variety of utopian enthusiasms, but (after installing the plug-in) you can also find some interesting tutorials (scroll down to find the basics on the tutorials page). There are already a variety of programs/objects that will probably be dramatically expanded.

I have no idea how children are going to use this laptop, but my adolescent children were interested in the Squeak environment, at least enough to go through much of the second tutorial on viewing a drawing as an object with characteristics. This is a far cry from math, despite what Squeak's patron saint Alan Keys might say, and it's also a far cry from unified modeling language (what I gather is one meta-language overlaid on top of object-oriented programming). But it does put some engineering tools in the hands of children, and it might be a tool for teaching serious science and math (much like other games might be, even if that claim has rarely panned out).

Yet the utopian views of Alan Keys in the documentary Squeakers are an interesting entree to discussing the curriculum. He thinks Squeakers teaches math. I disagree and think that it's a programming language, which might be useful in itself but isn't really math. But he is correcting prodding us to recognize that the disciplinary structure we inherent is not carved in stone. Math could easily be different, and many argue that our standard sequence through calculus might be better geared around statistics. Should the math curriculum be different enough to encompass engineering principles?

Enough highfalutin' speculation. I'll let everyone know when the green-and-white not-a-toy gets to our house.

* The second time I taught the course Schools and the Future (an advanced graduate topic I use to discuss demographic, economic, technological, and organization arguments about schooling), I was in a classroom with an overhead projector rather than an LCD projector, so I prepared some overhead sheets. At the beginning of the first class, I pressed the projector's on button, and the projector bulb immediately blew out with a loud crack. I smiled and turned to the students: "Welcome to Schools and the Future."

Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy on November 13, 2007 6:51 AM |