Birmingham, AL’s OLPC Project: The good, the bad, the ugly…

January 29, 2008

I have been reading with great interest about Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford’s project to bring 15,000 laptops to city school kids. The Terminal’s article finally got me going. If I push aside the “moral questions” that arise when kids in urban Alabama receive the XO laptops meant for children in third-world countries, I actually think the program is a great idea. I was lucky enough to catch a lengthy interview with Nicholas Negroponte, who founded the program. Mr. Negroponte is a very intelligent man and his OLPC foundation has an admirable mission. These laptops are a marvel of new technology that address the unique needs of a third world child (durability, connectivity, ease of use, etc). …..(And yes, he is related to THAT NEGROPONTE)

THE GOOD: For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard inner-city activists speak about “the cycle” that many underprivileged children fall into. Because they have no money, tools, or role models, they are destined to fall into the same life of crime and poverty that their parents did. If you want a child to have a chance, give them the tools. In that regard, this is a marvelous program that could have countless residual positive effects on the area for decades to come. Educated kids are less likely to commit crimes and be on welfare. All things Bham drastically needs.

THE BAD: It seems the people in charge of executing this program do not thoroughly understand what they are doing. In a blog on AL.com recently:

Birmingham Board of Education members learned today that they will have to provide wireless Internet service in every school in order to use the XO Laptop, which every student in grades one through eight will receive in March.

“What?!?! You have to pump the int-er-uh-net into these thangs so they can werk?”

That’s more than an oversight. That’s blatant ignorance. I believe they must have confused the XO’s awesome mesh network for the, uh, actual Internet, instead of a great way to network and stretch Internet connections to where they weren’t before. Yes, you can get on the net through the mesh network, but somebody has to be connected to the web. This shouldn’t be a problem, there have already been stated plans to bring wireless to more of the city. So they seem to get it… great then… I…. uh oh…..

“Depending on what type of router you buy, it’s about $39 plus a monthly fee.” from same article

Maybe I am wrong, but if I was going to set up a single router for an entire school’s worth of kids to run on, I may spring for something better than the Walmart $39 dollar variety. Just a thought. And that monthly fee could be pretty wild, given the bandwidth that could be needed. But I am sure they have their head wrapped around it now. They seem to underst….. oh no…

Board member Virginia Volker said she was worried about students accessing inappropriate Web content.

And there it is. The obligatory, porn-panic rears it’s head. You mean we are about to launch a major program for 15,000 laptops to begin accessing the web in public places, through public funds, and the only major concern raised has been “they could look up porn”???

Yes, if this is city funded, then there should be mild filters on the computers and networks so that inappropriate content cannot be accessible. No one wants their city taxes paying for eighth grade Johnny’s addiction to girlie pics. But, worrying about porn rather than worrying about whether or not you can ACTUALLY MAKE THIS WORK is backwards thinking, and again shows a lack of understanding of the technology.

Does anyone in the city staff fully understand the technology at play here?

THE UGLY: The good news is that the Ugly hasn’t happened yet. The ugly will be if a ton of taxpayer money is spent on something with great intentions, and a lack of planning/understanding makes the idea a flop. OR if, once deployed, the laptops create a major bandwidth problem for the newly created networks and people demand that we upgrade the connections. Imagine that headline: “Laptop Program Needs $xxx More Funding Than Previously Thought”.

All in all, this is a good program with great potential. But I think what is at play here is your classic knowledge gap. The people in power all know that technology can give kids a way out of the cycle of violence. But they know so little about the technology that they can’t effectively execute a plan. There are a multitude of very smart, educated people in Birmingham Metro. Maybe the new mayor should reach out to some techies and make sure this great idea doesn’t turn into a great failure.

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