Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How Stupid was I?

I had one of those moments tonight. You know the ones. The ones where you've got this set view on things and then suddenly, you realise that you were so completely and utterly wrong. And the more you think about it, the more you realise that you should have spotted this sooner. I had the same thing when it came to Open Source vs. Free Software.

I'm a big advocate for OLPC - One Laptop Per Child. A few years (last year?) ago I was talking to some people about helping out with a deployment - Note: this is while working on the Manaiakalani project. I was feeling a little unhappy about it because I had felt that the technical specifications being given weren't the ones that should be given, even though all recommendations were just that, recommendations.

For example, when working with networking gear there were recommendations given around network switches and PoE (power over ethernet). I felt that choosing switches based upon their ability to do Power over Ethernet was silly given that:
  1. PoE injectors probably worked out cheaper (and much more flexible. Without looking at the standard and going on my own experience - PoE injectors seem to come in different voltage requirements. I've seen as low as 5V and as much as 48V. Is there a standard around this?).
  2. Given that wireless networking gear is relatively cheap, and an alternative exits in terms of PoE injectors, shouldn't the emphasis instead be put on what features the switch supplied outside of PoE features?
  3. Most switches that advertise PoE capabilities in their switches only offer it on half of their ports. If you're looking at an emphasis on wireless network, then half isn't going to cut it. In fact, for most third world implementations, you aren't looking at wired solutions at all. It's so much cheaper in terms of real estate. There's a very good chance that you're going to need PoE on the majourity of your ports - a 1:2 ratio just doesn't work.
They were instead working on Professional Development. I felt that not getting the technical details right made the PD pointless.

But there's a whole other layer. One that, at the time, I should have realised was there, but I didn't.

And here it is:

One of the big take home messages for me from the OLPC project was that for any successful technology roll out in aid of education had to have a sense of ownership. In fact, I called a politician a bollocks for not realising this. I apologise as I realise how stupid I've been. I apologise not because I was wrong, but  for how short sighted I was. Had I been more vocal and less confrontational, I might have gotten the point across.

I did say I'm a big fan of the project. But what I now realise that the project gets wrong is it's lack of emphasis on community. Not only do the parents have to follow through with this horribly exciting new gadget in the home, but the community have to be willing to keep those kids safe while carrying those devices.

The problem, as was pointed out to me tonight, is that the teaching goes to pot without community engagement. There were actually several conversations that lead to this point. 

I was having a conversation about steps taken by a school for actions taken outside of school.

Uniforms make it a slightly clearer problem. If the perpetrators are wearing their school uniform at the time, then it is definitely within the school's realm. However, out of school uniform, it's a murky area. There's a certain partnership that needs to happen between the school and the parents and/or the community at large.

For example, say a stunning student gets caught shoplifting outside of school out of their school uniform. Should they still get the same privileges, held out as being great, as someone who shows, while possibly not the same degree of academia, a greater moral character? The argument is easy for me - school's have a burden to the community at large. Not just the school (or it's reputation).

And the other person I spoke to on the subject tonight said decisively and categorically, that the OLPC project fails when it comes to community. So while I was feeling frustrated about the technical aspects, and the project was focused on teaching, I should have realised that the sense of ownership - that bit that I point out and imagine that the little I say on the subject will have great consequences on the people I'm talking to - doesn't go far enough.

Ownership has it's place. It's important. Obligation has an interesting piece of the puzzle. So while during that conversion on a school's obligation I'm talking about liability - i.e. how much liability does a school have on the actions of it's students outside of school while not in uniform? - the person I was talking to had absolutely no doubt. The school, while not said to me, has a greater obligation to community. The schools help to create valuable members of society in which case, how can you possibly create valuable members of society if you're not willing to look at the actions of that student outside of school?

I keep coming back to the word community. Community... it rolls off the tongue. To some extent, living in a large city (though horribly small on a world stage), we've lost it. For example, it turns out my neighbour, while living next door, now has a 3 month old that I didn't notice. Tangleball was about creating a community - the idea that we could share skills was ALWAYS the most exciting bit for me. The local pub attracted me because there was a certain community to it. Trading Post is likewise about creating community in a very organic way - while I would love to never pay for lemons and limes again, I'm more excited by the prospect of meeting those who live around me.

I talked to woman who had worked at the primary school I attended who said that the parents were a problem. I found myself wondering if more community engagement was the solution. i.e. if one parent is making loud noises to benefit little Johnny, then surely, another parent trying to benefit Contrary Mary is a good thing. Think in terms of research. You might come across someone like me who didn't like the movie "The Lion King". A sample size of 1 is lousy. However, my voice added to 199 others is probably a good thing.

So community helps us gain perspective. It's no longer about Little Johnny. Contrary Mary has a voice as does Snotty Thomas and Adam Bomb or Potty Scotty (for those old enough to remember "Garbage Pail Kids").

Theft could be a problem. What happens when those shiny learning machines get stolen? The machines themselves have little value - although, I was surprised to learn that a few netbooks were stolen rather than shiny iMacs. A hocking outlet rang up to say that they believed to be in possession of stolen goods. Should the outlet in question not know of what was going on in the community, such an act probably wouldn't have happened.

In pub culture, a friend had a van load of tools stolen. One group of people helped to secure the van against further theft. Another group searched - online and through second hand dealers - to find the tools in question.

A friend's email account got hacked. There were appeals for funds to help him out of whatever troubles he'd gotten into - on the otherside of the world. The online community did something I found a little surprising. Some of us went away to figure out how to get some funds together to send to this person. Another few people went about verifying the authenticity of the email. The email, it turned out, wasn't authentic, but the community did jump to action.

But all of these are just fringe benefits. Community has a bigger part to play...

Can you imagine it now? In a few years time chances are I'll be talking about how society has a bigger role here - and then realise that the mess we're in seems to be due to an emphasis on profit over people in which case I'll conclude that capitalism is the source of our problems.... whoops ;) (I swear, this is the one and only time I'll end a blog post with a emoticon).

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