Checking our hubris with checklists: Learning a lesson from the XO Laptop

April 13, 2020 at 7:00 am 14 comments

My Blog@CACM blog post for February was on Morgan Ames’ book The Charisma Machine (see post here). The book is well-written, and I do recommend it. In the post, I say that the OLPC opposition to HCI design practices is one of the themes in her book that I found most interesting:

It takes humility to design software that humans will use successfully. The human-computer interaction (HCI) community has developed a rich set of methods for figuring out what users need and might use, and for evaluating the potential of a new interface. To use these methods requires us to recognize our limitations — that we are unlikely to get the design right the first time and that our users know things that we don’t.

How do we get developers to have that humility? There are a lot of rewards for hubris. Making big promises that you probably can’t keep is one way to get grant and VC funding.

I just finished Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto (which I already blogged about here, before I even read it). It’s a short book which I highly recommend. I hadn’t realized before how much Gawande’s story overlaps with the OLPC story — or rather, how much it doesn’t but should have. Gawande is a surgeon. His entry into the idea of checklists is because of the success of checklists in reducing costs and improving patient success rates in medicine. There, too, they had to deal with physician hubris. They saw the checklists as busywork. As one physician said in opposition to checklists, “Forget the paperwork. Take care of the patient.”

The OLPC project couldn’t be bothered with user studies or pilot studies. They wanted to airdrop tablets into Ethiopia. They were so confident that they were going to (in Negroponte’s words) “eliminate poverty, create peace, and work on the environment.” They couldn’t be bothered with the details. They were taking care of the patient!

Gawande points out that checklists aren’t needed because physicians are dumb, but because they know SO much. We’re humans and not Econs. Our attention gets drawn this way or that. We forget about or skip a detail. Our knowledge and systems are so complex. Checklists help us to manage all the details.

We need checklists to check our hubris. We have confidence that we can build technology that changes users lives. The reality is that the odds are slim that we can have impact without going through an HCI design process, e.g., know the user, test often, and iterate. The OLPC Project could have used an HCI checklist.

The second to last chapter in Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto captures the idea well that we need checklists:

We are all plagued by failures—by missed subtleties, overlooked knowledge, and outright errors. For the most part, we have imagined that little can be done beyond working harder and harder to catch the problems and clean up after them. We are not in the habit of thinking the way the army pilots did as they looked upon their shiny new Model 299 bomber—a machine so complex no one was sure human beings could fly it. They too could have decided just to “try harder” or to dismiss a crash as the failings of a “weak” pilot. Instead they chose to accept their fallibilities. They recognized the simplicity and power of using a checklist. And so can we. Indeed, against the complexity of the world, we must. There is no other choice. When we look closely, we recognize the same balls being dropped over and over, even by those of great ability and determination. We know the patterns. We see the costs. It’s time to try something else. Try a checklist.

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How I’m lecturing during emergency remote teaching Active learning has differential benefits for underserved students

14 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  April 13, 2020 at 7:43 am

    I was just an advisor to this project, so neither take nor claim credit for the good ideas in the XO: for example, the effort itself by Nicholas Negroponte, the incredible new display technology invented by Mary Lou Jepson, the terrific self adapting wireless network by Michail Bletsas, and quite a few more.

    I will say that I lost every large issue on which I had a firm opinion. For example, I was against using Linux (a gift from RedHat that was incredibly costly in so many ways), the general approach to UI and “things for children”, etc., and especially against the idea of shipping it without at least one part of it able to completely teach something important to children in their native language without the aid of an adult, and to be able to teach at least one important thing to an adult in their native language without any other help. Etc.

    For example, I started out with the firm belief that a self-contained system that could teach a 3rd world child to read and write in their native language would justify the project.

    (There were many more issues that I lost as well.)

    That said, when I look at the UIs that work “pretty well” today, I think I can recognize in every case where the ideas came from . Most — if not all — did not come out of the HCI community (at least as I think of it as being largely university based).

    Similarly, I’d say that most of the bad UI ideas in systems over the years also didn’t come from the HCI community in universities.

    I do think there is a lot to be said for certain kinds of checklists (especially that are much more about issues that must be addressed than about methods and solutions).

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  April 13, 2020 at 8:57 am

      Hi Alan,

      I’m starting a project with Brian Silverman, and he told me the story of how you, Seymour, and he tried to get a better OS than RedHat used.

      I’m not making an argument that HCI in Universities makes great UIs. I am making the argument that the HCI community knows a process that typically results in more usable and adoptable user interfaces. I’m spending a lot of my time in this literature, reading people like Allison Druin and Betsy DiSalvo. I want to build programming environments that other-than-CS teachers will adopt, and I realize that there’s a whole process that I never knew about or used before. I’m making better UIs now that history teachers are actually adopting.

      Hope you’re staying safe and healthy!

      • 3. alanone1  |  April 13, 2020 at 10:09 am

        Hi Mark

        Well, Allison was my grad student, and is good …

        But perhaps I’ve missed a “great book” about UI from the HCI community … do you know of one?

        We are safe and healthy in the middle of “the plague” here in London, and — because of my age etc — have been completely isolated since the latter part of February. The UK have done a very bad job of listening to scientists, prepping, etc. and I think it shows in the disproportionate death toll here. On the other hand, they are quite wonderful at helping one another, and we’ve not had to go out at all to get food, etc.

        • 4. orcmid  |  April 13, 2020 at 11:15 am

          Be well and continue to be safe, Alan.

          I think checklists matter, but they tend to apply best to matters of regimented routine in complex situations (e.g., manned-space missions). And there has to be a certain flexibility (e.g., “Houston, we have a problem.”). Think of all the simulation activities that astronauts, aircraft pilots, and warriors drill all with the desire that situations never happen while training for rapid and certain responses.

          In a way, I think of project management as having a critical risk management component and eyes on mitigations when some course is found to be problematic and failing an objective. That means iterations, set-back identification, and early-identification of barriers. It is unfortunate that identification of precautions and preparations against contingencies is not sexy and successful precautions (e.g., maintaining highway overpasses) have the problem of appearing unnecessary after the fact. We are living in a serious example of all the ways that failure of anticipation and identification of necessary precautions is failing our societies in “the West.”

          It seems to me your ideas provided some very simply identified proofs-of-concept and benchmarks for confirmation in opposition to the build-it-and-they-will-come hubris that plagues development of computer-based solutions looking for problems to solve.

        • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  April 13, 2020 at 11:45 am

          Hi Alan,

          I can’t say that I do. I’m mostly relying on sets of papers. I’m reading a lot from Betsy DiSalvo et al.’s 2017 book ( I also worked with Betsy, even running participatory design sessions with her. I learned as an apprentice, and now I’m working with teachers and trying to learn from papers by Allison and others. But I also haven’t looked for a great book yet. Maybe a good summer activity when not traveling.

          Hope you and Bonnie stay safe. I’ve got something now and am isolating from the rest of the family.

          • 6. alanone1  |  April 13, 2020 at 2:49 pm

            Hi Mark

            Yikes! Main thing is get better!

            As far as UI is concerned — I think this is what personal/interactive computing is about, and so I always start with how the synergies between the human and the system would go best.

            And this includes inventing/designing a programming language or any other kind of facility. I.e. the first word in “Personal Computing” is “Person”.

            Then I work my way back through everything that is needed, until I get to the power supply.

            Trying to tack on a UI to “something functional” pretty much doesn’t work well — it shares this with another prime mistake so many computer people make: trying to tack on security after the fact …

            Best wishes


  • 7. davidcavallo  |  April 15, 2020 at 10:16 pm

    Please allow me to suggest something for your checklist: If you are going to be deeply influenced by some research, make certain the research is accurate and valid.

    You wrote: “The OLPC project couldn’t be bothered with user studies or pilot studies. They wanted to airdrop tablets into Ethiopia. They were so confident that they were going to (in Negroponte’s words) “eliminate poverty, create peace, and work on the environment.” They couldn’t be bothered with the details. They were taking care of the patient!”

    Negroponte’s Ethiopia experiment was in 2011. The first olpc projects launched in 2007. In 2006 several countries tested everything with prototype machines in several schools each before the actual launch.

    How is it that this is ignored? The first 5 years don’t count? It should be obvious that the Ethiopia experiment was a total outlier compared to everything else. To use the Ethiopia example as the basis for olpc’s approach is false.

    Unfortunately, Ames’s distortions, misrepresentations, falsehoods, and ignoring data that doesn’t support her narrative were not limited to that error.

    Ames wrote “Like Papert and other OLPC leaders, these movements would rather scrap the existing educational system and make education a “private act” where each child finds their own way to learn or, alternatively, a “market” where the savviest students have direct access to the best ideas, without the state as an intermediary.” (p. 186)

    That also was obviously false. Initially, olpc ONLY worked with governments for public education. Every project entered was for public education and to increase equality. Every project focused on providing devices and connectivity to everyone, which Uruguay expanded to include senior citizens. The market and the price gouging by technology companies left the countries in South America with a condition where 90% of the upper economic quintile had computational devices and connectivity at home for their children. That shows what people think of the value. olpc helped countries address this inequality.

    Ames writes “…One Laptop per Child promised to transform the lives of children across the Global South with a small, sturdy, and cheap laptop computer, powered by a hand crank. In reality, the project fell short in many ways, starting with the hand crank, which never materialized” and “First, there would be no hand crank; these computers would ship with an AC adapter, like any other device, collapsing the vision of the laptop leapfrogging past regional infrastructural deficiencies. Second, the laptop’s cost would be nearly two hundred dollars, not one hundred—and that did not account for costs of infrastructure (such as power and internet access) and maintenance.” [pp 3-4]

    How evocative an object the hand crank proved to be is amazing and a lesson in and of itself. However, the hand crank was not merely a design feature that was dropped for valid engineering reasons. The actual hand crank was never the point. Reducing energy consumption and reducing cost were the objectives and were achieved.

    The first generation olpc laptop cut power consumption by an order of magnitude due to its hardware and software design. The cost of the laptop, before tablets and smartphones, was also a reduction by a multiple of at least 4, and actually much more in Latin American and African countries. This reduction was not achieved by “stripping down” the machine, as some companies subsequently did with netbooks. The hardware was spectacular!

    Even if the first generation laptops did not sell for $100, the initial usd$179 price was a significant reduction, particularly outside the US. This enabled governments in countries like Uruguay to affordably offer laptops for every student. The total cost of ownership turned out to be about 5% of the yearly expenditure per pupil in Uruguay. This cost includes maintenance, spare parts, and other laptop-related expenditures.

    The original laptop could be re-charged with small solar panels. Subsequent versions could be hand-powered. Even in Rwanda, where only 6% of the country was electrified, and where a school might count as having electricity even if there was only 1 electric light in the director’s office and no energy available in the classrooms, powering the laptops was not a problem. The lack of a hand crank did not make the laptop a “failure.”

    Mary Lou Jepsen, olpc’s first Chief Technical Officer, truly advanced the state of the art of laptop hardware. She designed the laptop with a dual mode display, readable in direct sunlight, while also minimizing power consumption. We wish all devices had that capability even now. That technical achievement enabled students and teachers to extend their classrooms and use the machines out of school as well. In Rwanda we used it for teachers and students to develop meaningful, engaging local content, since, when there were texts at all, the texts were European based, not Rwandan. Moreover, the laptop enabled the availability of up-to-date texts for all students, not just the elite.

    The laptop also received the highest environmental ranking possible, while no other laptop even received a grade above B. While at the time of release, removing the disk drive and using solid state memory was somewhat controversial and required significant effort, this approach has become state of the art. While a major rationale was to remove a major point of breakdown, it proved to be a prescient and correct choice.

    The unit cost, operational cost, and quality enabled access to computation and to the internet for millions who were previously excluded. Being charmed by charisma more properly relates to being seduced by technology companies to think that laptops and smartphones must cost so much, break or become “obsolete” so quickly, and powerful bersions should only be available to the elite.

    The government laptop programs catalyzed the development and deployment of high bandwidth connectivity and other government services for rural and other excluded communities. Now, during the physical isolation and school closures during the pandemic, the inequality of access in even wealthy countries such as the US is even more apparent. The hardware was the opposite of a failure. To allege this is what? Wrong? Incomplete? Dishonest? Misleading?

    But wait, there’s more! The problems with Ames’s account do not stop there.

    When Ames refers to the work in Costa Rica launched by Seymour Papert and their government, again for public schools, and supported by IBM, she calls it a “failure” and says it occurred in 1986. Once again, this is blatantly false. The program launched in 1989 and continues to this day. The program supported computers in public schools and reached 50% of Costa Rican students in its first year, and, due to its success, expanded to eventually reach every child in the country. Software development is now an important industry in Costa Rica because children, including public school children, spent part of every day programming computers. The program was not perfect but it was far from a failure.

    Indeed, Ames wonders how countries could be seduced by this charisma since every previous Papert project had “failed.” Costa Rica belies this. However, so much of my experience with Seymour and in my team’s work in the same line, had significant success, and improved from project to project. Unless you define failure as not yet achieving perfect learning environments for everyone, everywhere, then Ames’s assessment is not extreme and incorrect. Taking one-dimensional views on complex issues where there is either success or failure is poor research and thinking.

    If we take the definition of chutzpah, or hubris, as someone who murdered his parents and pleads for mercy from the court because he is an orphan, the hubris shoe perhaps lies on Ames’s foot, not Papert’s.

    Ames claims that olpc and Papert are techno-utopians and techno-determinists, as though we advocate all you need to do is add computers and everything will be fine.

    My olpc team and I worked with each country to form their own teams, to develop their own plans according to their own objectives, and then to cooperate with each other so as to not have external dependencies. In many countries, particularly Brasil and Argentina, so much wonderful work had been done on learning, computation, and even, among some, constructionism, that there was a considerable amount of expertise and experience upon which to build. The expertise and experience in those country teams is as good as or better than one finds in any other country. That Ames’s ignores this, and does not allow for local expertise and experience, is HER bias, not olpc’s. Perhaps because it happened in the region and was written about in Portuguese and Spanish, American and European researchers might not be aware and might ignore it. Their lack of recognition does not mean it does not exist. The bias that research not published in English and experiences not had in the US or Western Europe do not count is problematic.

    Rather than commenting upon the evidence from all this work, Ames preferred to allege that olpc and Papert were techno-determinists. What took even more hubris from Ames was that it was Papert in the 80s who coined the term “techno-centrism,” in opposition to the possibility of studying “what was the effect of computers” on thinking or whatever, while ignoring examining what was actually done with the computers, how it was done, and with whom it was done. Understanding takes what Clifford Geertz would call a thick description. Ames was familiar with Papert’s article, with technocentrism in the title, but does not consider the content of the article except to ridicule him, and then claims Papert is techno-determinist. That takes chutzpah.

    Unfortunately, I could go on and on about the errors, inaccuracies, and falsehoods in the book. But I’d rather focus next on a misconception about pilots as well as perhaps the most egregious and insulting error in Ames’s book.

    Ames claimed that people were not listened to. Mark, you discuss the hubris of not having pilots, even though it was not the case. There is an interesting discussion in this, some of which I tried to discuss in my Models of Growth article. In fact, when Ames sees the limitations in Paraguay over time, it could be more reasonably attributed to its non-governmental pilot status, than to olpc itself. The experience in Uruguay, which did adopt a national approach with a phased implementation, is totally different and also exists and is popular and making advances to this day.

    In 2001, my research group and I (which at the time included Edith Ackermann, Paulo Blikstein, Arnan Sipitakiat, Shaundra Daily, Anindita Basu, Georgina Echániz Pellicer, and various undergraduates) collaborated with a research group led by Roseli de Deus Lopes at Poli of the University of São Paulo, to develop a project with the public schools of the municipality of São Paulo. The Secretary of Education named our project “A Cidade que a Gente Quer” (The City We Want). We have published about it and Paulo’s excellent master’s thesis and some articles addresses this and other work in the region.

    When we first discussed the project with the Secretary of Education, he told us NOT to propose a pilot. He said he had 1.2 million kids in his school, and “quality for a few is a privilege.” We had to propose something that scaled and enabled all students to gain access quickly. What they wanted was phased implementation, not a pilot. Indeed, listening to people in Brasil and the region, they told us they had countless pilots but, good or bad, they did not scale and influence the system. That too is a point made in Tyack and Cuban’s excellent book Tinkering Towards Utopia. The idea of prototype, refine, and then replicate does not work for open, complex systems like education systems. Replication is not the right image regarding human learning which is idiosyncratic and contextual.

    Our project in São Paulo built upon and benefited from the Technology for Learning Group of the municipal education department. Most of this group entered the school system when Paulo Freire was the municipal education secretary. He launched Project Genesis in 1991, the computers for learning project, stating that he had provided clothing and meals to children, but then needed to bring them into the 21st century for learning. Teachers who worked with Freire on this project remained in the public system after Freire left. We worked with this team, who had incredibly strong understanding and experience in pedagogy. Our project pushed on their understanding of expressive and constructive uses of technology, and to not only use technology to transmit information. Without that group and its experience and expertise, we could not have done that project in the same way. The cidade project was successful. That is a pilot experience. More properly, that is an experience that helps facilitate systemic evolution.

    But, more importantly, all the work done by Brasilian teams since the 80s is much more relevant, much more powerful, and, most often, successful. Those experiences are also pilots to be learned from and built upon. José Valente of Unicamp and Léa Fangundes of UFRGS in particular worked since the early 80s on constructionist uses of computers for learning. They are world-recognized authorities. However, there are so many more incredible people with expertise in technology and learning, utilizing a wide variety of methodologies. The culture in Brasil for learning assisted by computational technology is incredibly rich. This is also the case in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama, and other countries in the region. To ignore this is what? Colonialist? Prejudiced? Poor research? All of the above?

    My point is that people in Brasil, in the government, were aware not merely of our project, but were much more aware of the many projects, constructionist and not constructionist but with computers, people in Brasil had done since the early 80s. olpc helped facilitate for the countries to leverage this local expertise, and did not impose anything. Ames appears to act like the prior work by Brasilians and didn’t exist and governments were persuaded by charisma. Ames asserts that olpc did not try to mobilize and build upon local expertise and merely tried to impose something. Ames ignores what olpc actually did. Ames ignores what the countries did. That is unbelievably dismissive of the thinking and agency of people in the region. Yet Ames wants to save them from being seduced by the charisma. Please.

    From a different angle, again listening to people in the region, after our proposal to pilot uses of technology to improve education in South Africa, Nelson Mandela told Seymour (they were friends) that after the injustice and inequality of apartheid, the new government could not be seen as privileging one group over another. Mandela told us that any new efforts must be for all and could not even initially be limited to a few in order to avoid the perception that the new government was no different than the previous, just favoring a different group over another, and not trying to make a just society.

    The same occurred with olpc in Rwanda. We proposed phasing in the project in small clusters. The government objected for the same basic reasons as South Africa. After the genocide, the government had to unify people and provide equal opportunity. We were told we could not pilot and had to have a countrywide deployment again so that opportunity and treatment were equal. We argued that a phased implementation was important so as to debug and adapt the process, but the Rwandan government insisted that building unity was more important. Naturally, we accepted their view as it is their country.

    So, to allege that olpc did not pilot but merely imposed is false. To research olpc and not notice this activity is poor research indeed. Your checklist needs to account for such work and not be seduced.

    When discussing the olpc project with government officials, they almost always would ask for the evidence that computation could help education.

    I would tell them that, at the time, there was more than 40 years of evidence of using computers for learning. The work showed that there were good things to do with computers for learning, and bad things to do. I encouraged them to look at the excellent work of others, explicitly telling them about people like Elliot, Roger, Alan, and many others, from many countries, and not just to look at work from MIT. All of the work to date could be considered pilots as it demonstrated the ideas and results in context. Does anyone think they did not examine this? I know they did.

    The Brasilian government, and the advisory planning board I urged them to form, including Brasilian researchers with whom the government was not familiar but whom I knew to have done incredible work, was familiar not only with our previous projects, but, more importantly, with the work of Brasilian researchers, educators, and NGOs. It is a large and incredibly strong group. The governments had already formed nuclei in every state to assist schools and educators to incorporate computers into schools. The Brasilian plan was to build upon this. While I have been emphasizing Brasil, the same is true for Argentina and Uruguay. Moreover, olpc brought all of them together, plus others, in order to share experiences, help develop thinking, and brainstorm about whether and how to implement in their particular countries.

    Does Ames tell you about these efforts? When Ames discusses the region, she totally ignores Brasil and Argentina. They launched one laptop per child programs at the exact same time, motivated by olpc. So did Portugal with Project Magellan. Brasil bought 300,000. Argentina, I am told, bought 5.5 million laptops.

    Uruguay, Argentina, and Brasil all opened public bids for laptop purchase so as not only to not have corruption, but to not even have the appearance of corruption. Brasil and Argentina wound up buying Intel laptops. Why is this ignored?

    Perhaps the most egregious and maddening error in Ames’s work is her dismissal of people in the Global South she claims to be helping not to be seduced by charisma. Are we to believe that they had no intelligence, experience, or agency and simply fell prey to Negroponte and Papert? Are we to believe they never thought about computers for education and never did anything prior to olpc? She’s the one who ignored their experience, expertise, and decision-making capability, not olpc.

    It is beyond insulting to ignore all the work, people, and experiences in the region and to think that people were blindly seduced by charisma. It is colonialist. It is paternalistic.

    Sorry to go on so long, but given how important education is for social justice, equality, and human rights, that this imaginary narrative is catching on with people that I respect, with people who blurbed the book but should know better, is troubling exactly because it pushes a false narrative, negates good work by ignoring data and misrepresenting positions, is beyond disturbing.

    We all know how difficult non-monotonic reasoning is. Once we form conclusions based on something, when that something is disproven, it is difficult to undo all the dependencies and conclusions formed.

    There is work to do regarding learning, learning and computation, and achieving equality and justice, particularly in countries and populations that have been exploited for centuries. There is work to do in the US, where the inequalities on ethnicity and class are immoral.

    To do this work well, we need to learn from actions, to critique, to reason, to debug, and to brainstorm honestly and compassionately. We need to be more discerning about what should influence us.

    • 8. orcmid  |  April 16, 2020 at 1:06 am


    • 9. alanone1  |  April 16, 2020 at 4:02 am

      For those who don’t know David Cavallo, he is one of the most dedicated and careful and energetic and truthful people I’ve ever met. From many decades of knowing him, I would accept what he says as being an honest assessment, and without exaggeration.

      Beautifully written David! I just ordered the Ames book to see what it says — and will get back here as soon as I can with my impressions.

      So far, the attributions to Ames don’t sound like what I witnessed from my lesser involvement in the project. For example, I did have quite a bit of contact with the work in Argentina, Uruguay, and Brasil, and all is as you describe, not what she apparently claims. Similarly, it sounds like the long involvement in Costa Rica was misunderstood, perhaps even misrepresented.

      But why? Maybe I’ll find out by reading her book.

      • 10. alanone1  |  April 17, 2020 at 6:05 am

        Well, I just read “The Charisma Machine” (TCM) by Morgan Ames (wonderfully ironically on a Kindle via the Internet, because that was the way I could get it the fastest to reply to this blog post!).

        Halfway through I decided that I also really needed to read her PhD thesis (Stanford 2013) on which TCM was based.

        What we have here is a whole world view and a whole different world (one that e.g. doesn’t include any mention of writing or the printing press as educational technologies that changed the world, or what it takes to learn them, nor mention of McLuhan, nor Montessori, nor Bruner, nor much much more).

        I wrote quite a bit about this before I decided it was not worth it, and needed to look for something much shorter to say here that could help.

        The most direct thing I can think of is that there is no discussion of why we teach reading and writing for educational purposes, and especially whether the new technologies really do have such important new properties and possibilities for education as to be worth the troubles of learning how to teach what’s important about them.

        If the answer is “no”, then there is no need to criticize the OLPC effort — except possibly as wasting time and effort that could be better used elsewhere.

        If the answer is “yes”, then the OLPC effort should first be criticized along the lines of what -should- be possible if done well enough. “Yes” also means that doing an above threshold version of a “dynamic medium for thought” for children and adults is an extremely important project that needs more attempts by more concerned and able people.

        I glean that Ames thinks the answer is “no”, but she didn’t do the work to come to that conclusion in any reasonable way that is put forth in either the thesis or the book.

        At the next level down some of what she said is accurate from the parts that I personally witnessed, and much is not. But given the larger problems here, I think these are moot, as are complaints I have about how it was written.

    • 11. Mark Guzdial  |  April 16, 2020 at 10:28 am

      Hi David,

      Thank you for engaging so deeply with my blog post. I appreciate your thoughtful response. You have so much to add to the story that Morgan Ames is telling in “The Charisma Machine.” I do hope that you publish your response in more visible places.

      I do recognize, though, that you’re mostly not responding to my post. You’re hijacking my post to attack Ames. For example, your lengthy comment includes defenses of Mary Lou Jepsen and Seymour Papert, when my post doesn’t mention them at all. I’m happy for you to defend them — I critiqued the book for clumping all of these people together in my Blog@CACM book recommendation referenced at the start of the post. But let’s be honest about what you’re doing here.

      Where you do respond to my post is to say that the research on which I’m basing my argument is flawed, “If you are going to be deeply influenced by some research, make certain the research is accurate and valid.” You then provide a list of flaws that you find in Ames’ work.

      First, no, that’s not part of any checklist. That’s not the idea of a checklist. But that’s besides the point — as I said, you’re purposefully hijacking my post for your own purposes.

      The challenge you’re facing is that you are both well-informed and biased, David. You know a lot about the subject, far more than Ames. But that also makes it hard for you to see the forest for the trees. There are no non-fiction books without errata. But her book (or my post based on her book) is still interesting, valuable, and insightful. Our mutual friend, Amy Bruckman, argues that all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books ought to be burned. I read every book that Gladwell writes. Yes, there are flaws, but I still find his perspective valuable and insightful. I find “The Charisma Machine” valuable and insightful.

      Let’s take the first item on your list, that the Ethiopia tablet drop should not be connected to the OLPC project. MIT said that the Ethiopian tablet drop was an OLPC project (MIT Tech Review article linked here). The Ethiopian tablet drop had even less of a human-centered design process than the XO Laptop. So it’s not just relevant, it makes the point that the OLPC organization did not define or use a process systematically and uniformly that involved users and checked for the flaws in their designs.

      You make the argument that prior work counts as a pilot study:

      I would tell them that, at the time, there was more than 40 years of evidence of using computers for learning. The work showed that there were good things to do with computers for learning, and bad things to do. I encouraged them to look at the excellent work of others, explicitly telling them about people like Elliot, Roger, Alan, and many others, from many countries, and not just to look at work from MIT. All of the work to date could be considered pilots as it demonstrated the ideas and results in context. Does anyone think they did not examine this? I know they did.

      No. Absolutely not. We simply don’t know enough about how to design technology that leads to learning, is usable and useful, and fits within contexts (which includes cost and classroom culture). These are my teachers and mentors, too, David. I recognize the limitations of what we know. It’s not a critique of this prior work. People in general and learning in specific is far more complicated than just 40 years of research will tease apart. In my research here at Michigan, I’m working with teachers to ask them why they don’t adopt programming in their classrooms, and I’m learning things that we haven’t learned previously. It is simply wrong that we can just point to prior work and say, “This should just work” or worse “This will work.” That’s exactly the kind of hubris that we in technology are prone to. That’s exactly my point.

      “The Charisma Machine” should not be the last word on OLPC. I hope that you do publish your perspective. It’s important and interesting. I believe that we get closer to the truth through dialogue. You should participate in the dialogue through a forum more public than a response to a blog post.

      • 12. davidcavallo  |  April 18, 2020 at 11:40 am

        First, I hope you, family, and loved ones are all well.

        I would like to apologize that you think I was hijacking your blog. It was definitely not my intent and it won’t happen again.

        I’d like to clear up one thing though. I did not say that Nicholas’s Ethiopia endeavor should “not be connected” to olpc.

        I am saying that it should not be taken as definitive of olpc’s approach, given that it came after 6 years of work where olpc did deeply engage and co-develop with the various governments, teachers, students, and relevant authorities.

        To take the position that Ethiopia should define olpc’s approach is not a good use of evidence, (i.e. ignoring the vast majority of evidence in order to tell a preferred narrative and drawing thin straight lines from premise to conclusion when a ticker description is required), but was typical of Ames’s approach regarding not just this, but techno-determinism, technically precocious boys, constructionism, social imaginaries, etc.).

        Stay well and best wishes.

  • 13. davidcavallo  |  April 16, 2020 at 9:49 am

    Thanks, Alan! I deeply appreciate that.

  • […] Back on my last blog post referencing Morgan Ames’ book The Charisma Machine, Alan Kay said in a comment, “What we have here is a whole world view and a whole different world.” I’ve been thinking about that sentence a lot because it captures what I think is going on here. A Kuhnian paradigm shift is happening (and maybe has already happened) in research around education and educational technology from the world of Papert and Bruner to the world of learning sciences. I am going to take a pass at describing the change that I see happening in the field, but I encourage you also to read the International Society of the Learning Science (ISLS) presidential address from Victor Lee here, which describes the field more authority and with more authenticity than me. […]


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