Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Memphis is a Hole in the Wall

detail from Peabody School front entranceThe children of Memphis are brilliant.

They can do anything. They can learn anything. They can create anything.

Because they can, they should have access to the knowledge of everything. All the time.

Memphis is a Hole in the Wall.

The Hole in the Wall Experiment

In 1999 New Delhi businessman Sugata Mitra installed a public Internet-connected computer in a wall that separated his company from a nearby slum. He put it in a hole in the wall as an experiment in public use, since the wall and computer faced a slum.
What he discovered was that the most avid users of the machine were ghetto kids aged 6 to 12, most of whom have only the most rudimentary education and little knowledge of English. Yet within days, the kids had taught themselves to draw on the computer and to browse the Net. Some of the other things they learned, Mitra says, astonished him.
Mitra points this out cautiously in a 2000 interview with Business Week:
Q: What does it mean? What does it say for the potential of these slum kids? After all, being able to download music isn't enough to get them a job.
I don't wish to claim that this shows anything more or less than what it has shown, which is that curious kids in groups can train themselves to operate a computer at a basic level. In doing so, they also can get a generally good idea about the nature of browsing and the nature of the Internet.... And, therefore, if they view these things as worth learning, no formal infrastructure is needed [to teach them].

But after describing an added experiment in teaching Physics, he expands the possibilities:
That's not a wow for the children, it's a wow for the Internet. It shows you what it's capable of. The slum children don't have physics teachers. But if I could make them curious enough, then all the content they need is out there. The greatest expert on earth on viscosity probably has his papers up there on the Web somewhere. Creating content is not what's important. What is important is infrastructure and access.... The teacher's job is very simple. It's to help the children ask the right questions.

Q: Are you saying that if we put computers in all the slums, slum kids could become literate on their own?
I'm saying that, in situations where we cannot intervene very frequently, you can multiply the effectiveness of 10 teachers by 100- or 1,000-fold if you give children access to the Internet.
This isn't just computer skills. It's the possibility of radically transforming education. Not schools, but how, where, when and what people learn. It could be where the printing press meets electrification.

So how can we fill Memphis' Hole in the Wall?

We fill it now with the computers we place in all our libraries and schools. We can fill it even further with One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) and municipal wi-fi.

One Laptop Per Child

Although popularly known as the organization behind the $100 laptop, OLPC considers itself "an education project, not a laptop project." Their educational proposition:
It is critically important to adequately educate all the children of the emerging world. Simply doing more of the same is no longer enough, if it ever was. If their citizens are to benefit, as they should from the spread of the technology-based, global information economy, these nations must rethink the old top-down classroom paradigm, and replace it with a dynamic learning model that leverages the children themselves, turning them into “teachers” as well as "learners.” The tool with which to unlock their enormous potential is the XO. Put this ultra-low-cost, powerful, rugged and versatile laptop in their hands, and the kids will do the rest.

More from their mission:

XO embodies the theories of constructionism first developed by MIT Media Lab Professor Seymour Papert in the 1960s, and later elaborated upon by Alan Kay, complemented by the principles articulated by Nicholas Negroponte in his book, Being Digital.

Extensively field-tested and validated among some of the poorest and most remote populations on earth, constructionism emphasizes what Papert calls “learning learning” as the fundamental educational experience. A computer uniquely fosters learning learning by allowing children to “think about thinking”, in ways that are otherwise impossible. Using the XO as both their window on the world, as well as a highly programmable tool for exploring it, children in emerging nations will be opened to both illimitable knowledge and to their own creative and problem-solving potential.

This is not about welding a new tool on to our educational system.

Municipal Wi-Fi

Access to the Internet is a fundamental part of the Hole in the Wall experiment. Connection is a core principle of OLPC.

The connectivity will be as ubiquitous as the formal or informal learning environment permits. We are proposing a new kind of school, an “expanded school” which grows well beyond the walls of the classroom. And last but not least this connectivity ensures a dialogue among generations, nations and cultures. Every language will be spoken in the OLPC network.

We need ubiquitous connection if we're to fill Memphis' Hole in the Wall. The OLPC laptops build a mesh network, even when turned off, providing neighborhood connectivity. If even one is connected to the Internet, the neighborhood mesh connects them all. Muni wifi is the surest way to connect the mesh and our children to the knowledge of the Internet so they can learn and build upon it.

It wasn't long ago that muni wi-fi would have been a tube dream -- the cost would have been too great. But the cost of the infrastructure and bandwidth decreases per second. Plus, we have an advantage by slowly and belatedly adopting technology -- its cost drops rapidly as the tech spreads beyond early adopters, becoming more of a interchangeable commodity and less of a proprietary gadget.

A commodity wouldn't seem to give Memphis a competitive advantage. Untrue! Memphis biggest competitor, foe, opponent, enemy, has always been Memphis. Our embrace of ignorance, fear, limits, and destruction (with an occasional manic swing to desperately ameliorative civic boosterism) is the real competition.

Commoditizing education and connection gives us great advantage over this competitor

This could be an application of low-cost and connected technology to Memphis' creative and human possibility.

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