The dramatic development of K-6 computing


As late as 2002, a respected report could bemoan what it called The Digital Disconnect: The widening gap between Internet-savvy students and their schools, which observed that students were informally learning at home what their tradition-bound schools were failing to integrate institutionally.

Even earlier, now almost a generation ago as this is written, the personal computer had become a powerful tool for greatly increasing quality and productivity in editing and publishing work. And so, it was hardly a stretch to craft the parody television ad of 1990 (embedded below), in which the impact of the digital revolution on the lives of even elementary school children was anticipated. As one computer engineer writes here these days: Let me tell you, that parody ad didn't go far enough. Not only were other kids absolutely stupefied when presented with home-produced printed documents featuring proportional fonts and bitmapped graphics [in 1984], the teachers were, if possible, even more amazed.

Aside: Design software I wrote for young children a generation ago

I can add a personal testimony to the story told at the left about young children using powerful computer design software by the mid-1980s. In 1985, some US youngsters I knew (who would of course spend most of a typical lifespan in the 21st century) were using traditional "coloring books". Very disturbed that they were getting the wrong idea about how essential the use of automation would prove in their world, I was determined to teach them that if they select a color and point within an area which a machine automatically colors in, a much faster and higher-quality job will always result.

In those days, with sales of its PCjr computer disappointing, IBM withdrew the machine less than two years after its introduction, and tried to sell its inventory at deep discount to employees.

The IBM PC Jr

I bought a unit under these favorable terms which I would pass on to others. But I was rather perplexed that there appeared to be no software which exploited the available joysticks which enabled screen pointing, long years before mice became standard gear on other IBM PCs.

Thus in 1985 I spent my spare time over a few weekends one month to write a simple PCjr CAD/drawing program (aimed at small children who enjoyed coloring books) for which the joystick was an essential tool. Named Leonardo Da Video, this software used the popular medieval hymn The Song of the Ass as splash-screen theme music. (I wanted kids to learn humans shouldn't waste time doing work for which a stupid ass is much better suited.)

The program was readily learned and long enjoyed by several children under 10 years of age. Eventually I decided to donate a license to IBM as well, by posting the program on the PCTOOLS (virtual networked) disk used to share programs worldwide within the firm. I would like to say it was the most popular download during its heyday, but alas, it only made the number two spot. (At number one then was a mainframe terminal emulator - what a surprise! <G>) Yet many correspondents e-mailed me, expressing their delight that at last the PCjr joysticks were useful for SOMETHING!

Apparently a fellow named Ed Hamrick later (circa 1994) wrote a painting program for the Atari which he also called Leonardo da Video, offering the apology that "hey, program names aren't my strong suit". I had not been that ashamed of the name, and in any event preferred it to the single alternative I had considered, RAMbrandt.

- RF

Today, in 2009, it is hardly precedent-setting (albeit unusual) to provide a laptop computer to every student in an entire elementary school, or even an entire school system. And such deployments are sometimes even done in developing countries.

Consider the example of Peru, a nation with a tenth the population of the United States and an economy nominally 1% as large. The per capita GDP of Peruvians is under a tenth as large as that of Americans, and even allowing for the lower cost of living in Peru it is still under a fifth as large.

Yet Peru has committed itself to provide a laptop computer to each of the very poorest of its own elementary school children, who attend one of 9,000 tiny schools in isolated rural areas. To date it has ordered 290,000 laptop computers, with the goal of providing one to up to as many as 676,500 of Peru's elementary school cadre of 4.1 million children. Each laptop is loaded with 115 books, besides educational programs, games and teacher primers. The minister of education says it would cost five times as much to provide the books in printed form to these remote places, where many children have never had any books at all - at home or anywhere else.

The most thoughtful perspective to date on the program in Peru appears here, while a growing collection of such articles are indexed here. Below, watch a brief promotional video for this effort. (To see a version with English subtitles in another window, double-click on the image below.) NOTA BENE: A local observer in Peru offers a critique here of the untroubled impression given by such videos. The use of these laptop computers in a typical isolated Peruvian village is described in an audio-annotated snapshot sequence here. The problematic lives of the very poor people in such pathetic circumstances begs an important question examined in an essay here titled: Is institutional education economically overrated?

The XO-1 laptop computer and bundled Sugar software used in Peru was developed in the last few years by a philanthropy called "One Laptop Per Child" (OLPC) which designed the system specifically for elementary school children in developing nations, where no money can be spared to pay for extravagent luxuries, and environmental conditions, along with limited or missing modern infrastructure, make the use of conventional computers impractically difficult. Manufacture of the XO is outsourced to one of the world's biggest laptop makers, operating in China.

October 2009: a personal laptop computer becomes UNIVERSAL among Uruguay pupils in grades 1-6


As we write this, the CIA reports that Uruguay has a PPP-correctd per capita GDP which is only $11,500 / $46,900 = 25% that of the United States.

Uruguay... [is the first substantial-sized nation] ...providing a laptop for every child attending state primary school... The Uruguay programme has cost the state $260... per child, including maintenance costs, equipment repairs, training for the teachers and internet connection... The total figure represents less than 5% of the country's education budget... Around 70% of the XO model laptops handed out by the government were given to children who did not have computers at home... All the teachers have been given training, but the extent to which they use the laptops in the classroom is up to them... The annual cost of maintaining the programme, including an information portal for pupils and teachers, will be US$21... per child.

- BBC, 2009/10/16

Notwithstanding that OLPC created the XO for use in the developing world, the city of Birmingham, Alabama has now provided each of its students in grades one through five with the XO, some 15,000 units in total. This is still the only major school deployment in the United States, although Americans bought over over 72,000 units for their own use in one of the two "Give One, Get One" fundraisers in 2007 and 2008. (Earlier, when the XO had just rolled out, we had examined the potential of laptops in general to help local education in an essay here.) Below, explore a ten-minute promotional video for the Birmingham project.

Aside: A tragic irony

The MIT Media Lab student featured in the video at the left, Shaundra Daily, aspired as a high school student to become an FBI agent, but later turned her hobby of helping kids use technology into her profession. Well, it happens that the Birmingham mayor featured in the video, Larry Langford, was arrested in late 2008 by the FBI
on federal charges including conspiracy, bribery, fraud, money laundering and filing false income tax returns... [A] 101-count indictment... alleges criminal activity while he was a county commissioner, said U.S. Attorney Alice Martin.
In March 2010 former mayor Langford was
sentenced to 15 years in prison and fined $360,000 by a federal judge.
One imagines Mrs. Daily did not make a big mistake by changing her occupational goals! But appreciate that perhaps one is always wisest to admire acts - and not persons.

And now South Carolina (SC) may be entertaining similar plans through a partnership of the state education department and the Palmetto Project NGO. At a website titled An Education Laptop for Every Student in South Carolina we read:

Our vision is to provide educational laptop computers to all elementary students in South Carolina to accelerate their learning, improve their academic skills, and inspire them to do great things in their lives.
Below is a four-minute video featuring SC's State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex explaining a pilot program.

Other US-based OLPC activity is cataloged here and a collection of articles on this topic is indexed here. In Georgia, Creek View Elementary School in Alpharetta acquired 10 XOs in August 2008, with which it is piloting a lending program. While public schools in the US could easily afford more conventional laptop computers beyond the reach of developing nations, a compelling reason to provide the XO to small children in the US is that such physically robust machines have traditionally cost thousands of dollars, rather than under $200 each.

Some communities in Georgia, like Douglas County, now aggressively incorporate modern information technology into their educational program. A recent development which can help to propagate such practices to other places in the state is the creation of a Georgia affiliate of the International Society for Technology in Education.

As of this writing, the lion's share of a million XOs have been shipped worldwide. [Update - There were roughly 2.5 million XOs in the field as of January, 2012.] Recent extended third-party accounts of the program with most of their facts correct appear here and here. To conclude, check out the four-minute critical review of the XO by David Pogue of The New York Times from late 2007, available immediately below.


The Democratic Leadership Council, the center of the political movement which came to be known in the 1990s as the New Democrats, now offers a (July 2009) paper here in which Thomas Z. Freedman makes the case for what he calls an urgent conversation about mainstreaming eBook appliances into K-12 education in America. Briefly, he offers the following arguments:
[There is an] important... debate over education reforms such as merit-based teacher pay and charter schools... [and] putting great teachers in classrooms is essential, as is focusing on the science and mathematics skills that will make our students competitive...

[But] we shouldn’t wait a decade or two to begin to achieve what is inevitable - an education system where each American schoolchild has an eTextbook... Amazon’s Kindle, and other eBook devices, demonstrate the potential of new technology to help readers carry easy-to-read mini-libraries with them everywhere... The most important benefit of eTextbooks is their ability to improve educational attainment...

In New York State... the average... school library book... publication date is 1986... [whereas] eTextbooks can be updated instantly and universally... eTextbooks provide... flexibility... eTextbooks... help integrate classroom learning...

It is common knowledge that spending per student has skyrocketed each decade. Average spending per K-12 student in 2007 was $9,683... [a]fter inflation... 55.7 percent higher than 1985... Putting a Kindle-like tool in every backpack will improve education while lowering its cost.

Of course, the new DLC proposal begs the question of why not provide students with low-end laptop computers - one of whose most important functions is to host eTextbooks. That is the point we made during 2006 in an essay here. The new entry-level market segment known as "netbooks" - laptops intended mainly for use as Internet terminals - is growing rapidly. As we write this in July 2009, long-established, reliable online vendors sell single new units starting at $260, with prices expected to dip below $200 by year-end, when new models based on microprocessor chips now used in smart cellphones hit the market.

A relevant comparison is a survey of the devices of comparable or greater price and computing power which Americans already enjoy in their homes today, often merely for entertainment. According to a Nielsen study among its National People Meter sample to Q4 2008, the following fractions of households contain the indicated appliances:

ApplianceFraction
Digital video recorder28.9
Video game console39.0
PC with internet access73.8
Satellite/cable TV (box)89.1

eBooks: a short history of their "overnight" success

The present writer has been trumpeting the inevitability of the eBook revolution for more than 15 years, as evidenced by things like a widely-read letter published by Byte in 1994 and archived here here. ["Linkrot" mended 200912] By the late 1990s, commercial eBook appliances began to appear. And when the premature demise of the eBook was announced at the start of the century, following the DotCom economic bust, he offered the more realistic long-term perspective in commentary you can read here. The eBook concept was given enduring credibility when Google began to digitize millions of printed codices in the middle part of the present decade.



Selected educational computing news

Haralson County High School distributes netbooks - Tallapoosa Journal 09.17.10

All Korean textbooks to go digital by 2015 - eSchool News July 1st, 2011

Which Low-Cost Laptop is Best for Education? - Educational Technology Debate, 13 July 2011

Last major US bookseller retreats from the codex and refocuses on electronic media - Wall Street Journal, 20 July 2011

India's Aakash (formerly Sakshat) project bears fruit at last: a 7" tablet PC running Linux-derived Android, sold for Rs.2,250 (about US$50). College students, not small children, are the intended end-users. A sampling of the promised production run of 100,000 units was to have shipped to IIT Rajasthan mid-2011. One source suggests that the design was greatly inspired by the Hivision SpeedPad PWS700HA, a Chinese computer which was shown in March 2010.
Summer 2010
Autumn 2011


Originated Spring 2009; last partially updated February 2013