Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What ever happened with One Laptop Per Child?

I have been researching information designer Lisa Struasfeld and her involvement in One Laptop Per Child. Strausfeld is currently a partner at Pentagram, a multidisciplinary design firm. According to the bio on Pentagram's site,

"Her work lies at the intersection of physical and virtual space: where information structures and physical structures meet, and where navigation of information and navigation of buildings is joined in a single experience. Her team specializes in digital information design projects that range from software prototypes and websites to interpretive displays and large-scale media installations."

Strausfeld studied art history and computer science at Brown University and received master’s degrees in architecture at Harvard University and in media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While at MIT she was a research assistant in the Visible Language Workshop of the Media Lab.

"The Tiger Woods of data visualization," Strausfeld is "currently a senior scientist at the Gallup Organization, where she advises on ways to more effectively communicate poll results online."

In 2005, Strausfeld and her team (Christian Marc Schmidt and Takaaki Okada) at Pentagram designed a user interface (UI) for a new computer called the "XO". The XO was the product of efforts by One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), a non-profit organization founded by Nicholas Negroponte.

Based on constructionist learning theories , OLPC's mission statement is

"to create educational opportunities for the world's poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning."

Abandoning the desktop metaphor operating systems like Windows and Mac OS use, Strausfeld's team developed a completely different type of interface that represents the physical world. Called Sugar, the UI centers around a stick-figure icon that represents the user.

Initially using three-dimensional visual design, the team chose to go 2D because, according to Strausfeld, "the flat graphic language has more universal references."

Excerpt of the OLPC's section on the computer's interface,

"Beginning with Seymour Papert's simple observation that children are knowledge workers like any adult, only more so, we decided they needed a user-interface tailored to their specific type of knowledge work: learning. So, working together with teams from Pentagram and Red Hat, we created SUGAR, a “zoom” interface that graphically captures their world of fellow learners and teachers as collaborators, emphasizing the connections within the community, among people, and their activities."

I found notes on the first-ever UI demo of the OLPC over at, which describe a lot of the UI design team's methodology and process. A few excerpts from the August 2007 talk:

Sugar is: a tool for learning, for children without prior experience with computers, in multiple languages

“Home Sphere” is a place for myself and my things. “Friends Sphere” is a shared space. “Neighborhood Sphere” is a larger community like a school. Zoom based interaction model–4 levels of zooming between spheres. Fourth sphere is “Activity Sphere” where shared activities are done.

All activities are recorded in the journal: record of all the things you do. Time based and non-heirarchical. Automatic, no saving required. Keeps track of all activities over time. Search and filters help find entries.

Lots of UI and usability issues when users start sharing activities that we’re just now discovering now that the devices are in the field.

2000 developers around the world developing activities. Hope is that it will be like Mozilla add-ons.

Started working on the UI last summer–incredibly rapid. UI is constantly iterated. Constant builds of the OS.

Basic UI features were established before Pentagram got started–things like journal. Pentagram established model, framework, visual language. Making it more of a continuous space. Extension of the best features of current desktop space.

When we started, we just had to work and make a lot of assumptions. Testing cycle is to come. When the feedback comes in, the bugs haven’t been the problem. Kids are still doing amazing things in the field.

Debate about the frame and its discoverability. But in a classroom, if one kid can find the frame, the kid conveys it to others. Kids share the UI with others. Helped the usability quite a bit.

Most challenging view is the neighborhood (”mesh”) view. What should the view be? The scalability is a challenge: how do you represent 200+ people in the neighborhood view? It can be overwhelming.

The notes above begin talking about some of the challenges that OLPC immediately faced when announcing the machine.

The UI alone garnered intense criticism for lack of apparent user testing. Discussions on Flickr began unveiling some metaphor problems of the interface.

The OLPC program itself came under fierce attack. Every aspect of the organization, from the top-down marketing structure to the mechanics of the power-generating hand crank was scrutinized and ridiculed.

Aside from questions about lack of internet or electricity infrastructure in the target developing nations, social concerns were raised. What would children raised on this foreign OS do when the time came to switch to a more traditional computer? Would the family just sell the computer for much needed money? Would the laptop get stolen? Why shouldn't money go towards more pencils and teachers, not unnecessary, expensive tools?

These legitimate questions gave OLPC a lot to think about. But they had much bigger problems to deal with. An excellent article on Times Online comprehensively traced a bitter story between OLPC, Intel and Microsoft.

First, OLPC asked Intel to make a processor chip for the XO computer. Intel stalled, and OLPC approached Intel rival AMD instead. AMD worked to develop the chip, and Intel promptly produced an XO competitor laptop, the Classmate, targeted at developing countries. Intel, the for-profit near-monopoly, created a product to compete solely with the non-profit XO.

Since the XO uses Linux, an open source operating system, Microsoft Windows would not be included. Feeling threatened, Bill Gates of Microsoft began trash-talking the OLPC's XO, completely destroying the XO's credibility to potential customers.

Somehow, OLPC is still functioning. And functioning well. Orders are still coming in and plans are set to sell the machine on this month (using a buy one / donate one system–buy one for yourself at $400, and a machine gets donated to someone in need). On Flickr, the user One Laptop Per Child posts photos of XO deployment taken as recently as last Saturday. And that most recent photo? It's of the pope getting an XO.

Reports are also coming in of huge successes for the XO, like in this village in Peru.

Other deployment images:




After all the time spent reading the conflicting opinions on the OLPC, I have to conclude that the program is completely revolutionary and hugely world changing–if it can avoid being silenced by corporations. The most agitated critics seem focused on old models of learning and afraid of new technology–or paid by Intel or Microsoft.

The XO absolutely can help close the digital divide. If the user interface is confusing, the kids will quickly share progress in learning with each other. Will they get bored? Not with onboard camera and sound recording. Not to mention the internet.

These critics underestimate the potential children posses. The XO allows users to hack the operating system with Python. Can you imagine learning advanced programming languages and spoken languages concurrently? Kids can handle this technology–it's those who don't understand it who can't.

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