OLPC 2.0: What the world needs now is more books

I’m glad that the second generation OLPC is more of an ebook than a laptop. While the “laptop,” as a designed object, is an excellent tool, books are what define our early education and creating an electronic book that works and is actively useful seems far more intelligent than the original OLPC, which was a stab at a “less is more” mentality that eventually hobbles the very people it is designed to help.

I consistently recall a very interesting statistic from Freakonomics: the single, traceable correlation between a child’s abilities in school and his home life are the number of books a family has in their home. I’m paraphrasing, but I’ve taken it to heart and I believe it to be true. A laptop is an interactive tool. An ebook, even if it’s just a glorified, dual screen laptop, is a reading tool. That is why tablet PCs never took off in the mainstream: people don’t know what to do with a form factor that is clearly not a laptop yet is also clearly a powerful computer. There is no way to connect the act of “scratching out words on a tablet” to processing worksheets in a spreadsheet. Why doesn’t the iPhone have handwriting recognition? Because it’s a horrible way to talk to a computer, even now.

I doubt the OLPC 2.0 will make it to market. Big players like Intel will step in or someone like ASUS will make an ultra-cheap laptop that isn’t really aimed at kids and start selling it — or create a system to donate it — to the very audience OLPC is after. But I believe something like the Kindle or this new OLPC is what is really needed in developing countries. Laptops can be confiscated and hijacked by bad regimes. EBooks can’t. When a device has no discernible purpose besides showing picture books and math problems — when it isn’t clearly a high-tech device — it can be used the way books are used in the home and at school rather than as something separate and tacked on to the pedagogical process. Kids don’t need to learn LOGO and run an MS Office clone. They need books that will spur the imagination to learn enough to use a real computer in a school computer lab. Kids games are garbage, for the most part, but interactive books and the written word are gold.

I’ve had lots of trouble with the OLPC project and while I agree that my thinking is backwards and crotchety, I’d much rather spend $5000 to train a teacher in a developing country than spend $500 on a crappy laptop. That’s just me.