Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Alan Kay at WSIS

In my last discussion with Nicholas Negroponte about the sub-hundred dollar laptop, I got the conversation off to an awkward start by asking a question about how the device would be used as “a teaching tool” in the classroom. Negroponte explained that this was exactly the wrong way to think about the device – the goal was to convince teachers it was little more than an electronic book and let the kids discover on their own what this remarkable little box could actually do.

And then he reminded me that Alan Kay was designing the UI for the machine. Which made his previous comments make a bit more sense to me.

I ended up sitting in on Kay’s talk at WSIS yesterday by accident. I was taking a break from my otherwise all-consuming task of annoying the Tunisian authorities and decided to catch my friend Andrew McLaughlin’s talk on a panel devoted to the Library at Alexandria. But Andrew had another speech scheduled at the same time, and when I finally finished handing out boxes of filtering circumvention software, Kay was speaking, talking about his work in computers in education and the software of the $100 laptop.

Kay began by explaining that most people aren’t using computers to do the most important things they’re able to do, by which I think he means that we’re not using computers to explore, experiment and discover. Mentioning that he, Nicholas and others working on the hundred-dollar laptop were getting older, he suggested that he was getting sick of computer “vendors who don’t realize there are children in the world.

Outlining the challenges behind the one laptop per child project, Kay characterized the challenges from easy to hard: hardware, software, user interface, content and mentoring. Making it clear that the computer would be based on free and open source software, Kay showed off the Squeak Smalltalk environment by interrupting his presentation to drawm, then animate a car.

For those who haven’t seen Squeak, it’s a great way to understand the sorts of environments Kay thinks are most conducive to learning the real power of computers. Think of a tool like Macromedia director, which lets you draw, animate and script… but for kids… and based around SmallTalk, a language so simple than many experienced programmers (like me) find it bafflingly counterintuitive and hard to use.

The car Kay designs in a few seconds drives in a circle by moving a few units forwards, turning an equal number of units – Kay explains that this is a lesson in differential geometry, one of several mathematical ways of describing a circle. He goes onto show a more complex example – two students who program a car to follow a colored path on a screen, using the principle of feedback (when the car sees the edge of the path, it correct and rights itself.)

Kay puts forth the interesting proposition that “our brains aren’t designed for thinking – they’re designed for survival” – for making quick decisions, which aren’t neccesarily the correct decisions. He sees this as a major barrier to doing science – it’s taken until fairly late in human history that we’re willing to challenge our own perceptions, and “received wisdom” and carry out our own experiments. He offers a critique of Wikipedia as a teaching tool – the article on gravity doesn’t teach you about gravity – it’s a set of assertions organized in a story, not designed to help you learn about gravity. (It seemed like an odd swipe to take at Wikipedia, given that Jimmy’s never billed it as a teaching tool, and given the extent to which Negroponte has indicated that Wikipedia will likely be core to what’s distributed with the machine.

Kay goes on to show a terrific way to use the Squeak environment to teach about gravity. Children (and a teacher, we presume) film a falling ball. By breaking up the frames of the video and aligning them aside one another, measuring the distance the ball falls in each interval and discovering the principle of constant acceleration.

He ends with his thought that the hardest aspect of the one laptop per child project was “getting mentors for children” – finding (and training?) people who can help children learn to experiment and create, helping the readers of this new kind of book read better.

I’ve heard Alan speak several times in the past couple of years, and have been on a panel or two with him in that interval – I found him at his most cryptic in this talk, perhaps because he had a short time to speak, perhaps because I was tired from agitating and troublemaking. While I came away with the clear sense that he’s planning a UI for the laptop based on some form of Squeak/Smalltalk environment, I had almost no sense for how teachers are going to learn to mentor using this device.

In my earlier talk with Negroponte about the device, he suggested that one way to teach educators to use the laptop in the classroom was to send Kay around the world to teach small groups of teachers, who could go on to teach their peers. After this talk, I’m not buying it. It’s clear that there are amazing ways to use a laptop on every desktop as a teaching tool, and that a teacher like Alan could find countless ways to use such a device. But I also got the sense that it’s a subtle art to teach in this way and that it’s going to be far from obvious for most teachers how to approach this new device as anything other than a book.

I agree with Kay that the easiest challenges of the laptop are the hardware ones – indeed, I think these are the challenges Nicholas and team have done the best job of figuring out. I suspect the software – a version of Redhat Linux optimized for a diskless environment – is also well thought out. But the questions of UI, content and mentoring – as well as the challenges of distributing, servicing and financing these machines – strike me as tough challenges where there’s lots of work still to be done.

3 Responses to “Alan Kay at WSIS”

  1. David F. says:

    Newsnight on BBC 2 had a report on the $100 laptop last week. They interviewed a representative from a charity (can’t remember which one) who said that money should be spent on the basics first — putting roofs on classrooms, buying pencils, buying textbooks, etc. — before charities or aid agencies start putting laptops in African schools. He also said that, while $100 doesn’t seem like much in the West, in developing countries it can go a very long way and pay for things that dozens or more students will be able to use.

    They also interviewed a woman from MIT, who wasn’t able to give any specific examples of how the laptop could be used. This seemed to be one of the reasons why the charity man wasn’t keen on the idea — she simply said that the laptop would take the place of every textbook and would allow children to discover things for themselves, and he obviously thought that it wasn’t worth paying $100 just for that. I got the impression that the schools he was thinking of don’t spend anything remotely near to $100 per head on books.

  2. I saw Alan Kay talk a couple of years ago and thought his talk made Squeak and eToys looked like The Greatest Thing Ever. Then I used it for teaching. Programming with eToys is a lot like using one of those claw machines to type. It looks simple — and it is simple for certain kinds of tasks. But it’s very cumbersome as well and you quickly find that under the simple interface, is the dark underbelly of Smalltalk. Here’s the blog entry where I rubbed up against that. I ended up having two students who used Squeak for their final project. It worked — sorta. But it was a real challenge for them — and for me to try to mentor them.

  3. Juan Freire says:

    This is one of the first posts or news discussing the real problems of the project (the teaching model and the “business model” of the fabrication, distribution and funding). I have commented more in depth in:
    http://nomada.blogs.com/jfreire/2005/11/el_prtatil_de_1.html

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