Monthly Archives: May 2008

Handhelds for the Rest of Us?

Ok, it probably shouldn’t become part of my habits but this is another repost of a blog comment motivated by the OLPC XO.

This time, it’s a reply to Niti Bhan’s enthusiastic blogpost about the eeePC: Perspective 2.0: The little eeePC that could has become the real “iPod” of personal computing

This time, I’m heavily editing my comments. So it’s less of a repost than a new blogpost. In some ways, it’s partly a follow-up to my “Ultimate Handheld Device” post (which ended up focusing on spatial positioning).

Given the OLPC context, the angle here is, hopefully, a culturally aware version of “a handheld device for the rest of us.”

Here goes…

I think there’s room in the World for a device category more similar to handhelds than to subnotebooks. Let’s call it “handhelds for the rest of us” (HftRoU). Something between a cellphone, a portable gaming console, a portable media player, and a personal digital assistant. Handheld devices exist which cover most of these features/applications, but I’m mostly using this categorization to think about the future of handhelds in a globalised World.

The “new” device category could serve as the inspiration for a follow-up to the OLPC project. One thing about which I keep thinking, in relation to the “OLPC” project, is that the ‘L’ part was too restrictive. Sure, laptops can be great tools for students, especially if these students are used to (or need to be trained in) working with and typing long-form text. But I don’t think that laptops represent the most “disruptive technology” around. If we think about their global penetration and widespread impact, cellphones are much closer to the leapfrog effect about which we all have been writing.

So, why not just talk about a cellphone or smartphone? Well, I’m trying to think both more broadly and more specifically. Cellphones are already helping people empower themselves. The next step might to add selected features which bring them closer to the OLPC dream. Also, since cellphones are widely distributed already, I think it’s important to think about devices which may complement cellphones. I have some ideas about non-handheld tools which could make cellphones even more relevant in people’s lives. But they will have to wait for another blogpost.

So, to put it simply, “handhelds for the rest of us” (HftRoU) are somewhere between the OLPC XO-1 and Apple’s original iPhone, in terms of features. In terms of prices, I dream that it could be closer to that of basic cellphones which are in the hands of so many people across the globe. I don’t know what that price may be but I heard things which sounded like a third of the price the OLPC originally had in mind (so, a sixth of the current price). Sure, it may take a while before such a low cost can be reached. But I actually don’t think we’re in a hurry.

I guess I’m just thinking of the electronics (and global) version of the Ford T. With more solidarity in mind. And cultural awareness.

Google’s Open Handset Alliance (OHA) may produce something more appropriate to “global contexts” than Apple’s iPhone. In comparison with Apple’s iPhone, devices developed by the OHA could be better adapted to the cultural, climatic, and economic conditions of those people who don’t have easy access to the kind of computers “we” take for granted. At the very least, the OHA has good representation on at least three continents and, like the old OLPC project, the OHA is officially dedicated to openness.

I actually care fairly little about which teams will develop devices in this category. In fact, I hope that new manufacturers will spring up in some local communities and that major manufacturers will pay attention.

I don’t care about who does it, I’m mostly interested in what the devices will make possible. Learning, broadly speaking. Communicating, in different ways. Empowering themselves, generally.

One thing I have in mind, and which deviates from the OLPC mission, is that there should be appropriate handheld devices for all age-ranges. I do understand the focus on 6-12 year-olds the old OLPC had. But I don’t think it’s very productive to only sell devices to that age-range. Especially not in those parts of the world (i.e., almost anywhere) where generation gaps don’t imply that children are isolated from adults. In fact, as an anthropologist, I react rather strongly to the thought that children should be the exclusive target of a project meant to empower people. But I digress, as always.

I don’t tend to be a feature-freak but I have been thinking about the main features the prototypical device in this category should have. It’s not a rigid set of guidelines. It’s just a way to think out loud about technology’s integration in human life.

The OS and GUI, which seem like major advantages of the eeePC, could certainly be of the mobile/handheld type instead of the desktop/laptop type. The usual suspects: Symbian, NewtonOS, Android, Zune, PalmOS, Cocoa Touch, embedded Linux, Playstation Portable, WindowsCE, and Nintendo DS. At a certain level of abstraction, there are so many commonalities between all of these that it doesn’t seem very efficient to invent a completely new GUI/OS “paradigm,” like OLPC’s Sugar was apparently trying to do.

The HftRoU require some form of networking or wireless connectivity feature. WiFi (802.11*), GSM, UMTS, WiMAX, Bluetooth… Doesn’t need to be extremely fast, but it should be flexible and it absolutely cannot be cost-prohibitive. IP might make much more sense than, say, SMS/MMS, but a lot can be done with any kind of data transmission between devices. XO-style mesh networking could be a very interesting option. As VoIP has proven, voice can efficiently be transmitted as data so “voice networks” aren’t necessary.

My sense is that a multitouch interface with an accelerometer would be extremely effective. Yes, I’m thinking of Apple’s Touch devices and MacBooks. As well as about the Microsoft Surface, and Jeff Han’s Perceptive Pixel. One thing all of these have shown is how “intuitive” it can be to interact with a machine using gestures. Haptic feedback could also be useful but I’m not convinced it’s “there yet.”

I’m really not sure a keyboard is very important. In fact, I think that keyboard-focused laptops and tablets are the wrong basis for thinking about “handhelds for the rest of us.” Bear in mind that I’m not thinking about devices for would-be office workers or even programmers. I’m thinking about the broadest user base you can imagine. “The Rest of Us” in the sense of, those not already using computers very directly. And that user base isn’t that invested in (or committed to) touch-typing. Even people who are very literate don’t tend to be extremely efficient typists. If we think about global literacy rates, typing might be one thing which needs to be leapfrogged. After all, a cellphone keypad can be quite effective in some hands and there are several other ways to input text, especially if typing isn’t too ingrained in you. Furthermore, keyboards aren’t that convenient in multilingual contexts (i.e., in most parts of the world). I say: avoid the keyboard altogether, make it available as an option, or use a virtual one. People will complain. But it’s a necessary step.

If the device is to be used for voice communication, some audio support is absolutely required. Even if voice communication isn’t part of it (and I’m not completely convinced it’s the one required feature), audio is very useful, IMHO (I’m an aural guy). In some parts of the world, speakers are much favoured over headphones or headsets. But I personally wish that at least some HftRoU could have external audio inputs/outputs. Maybe through USB or an iPod-style connector.

A voice interface would be fabulous, but there still seem to be technical issues with both speech recognition and speech synthesis. I used to work in that field and I keep dreaming, like Bill Gates and others do, that speech will finally take the world by storm. But maybe the time still hasn’t come.

It’s hard to tell what size the screen should be. There probably needs to be a range of devices with varying screen sizes. Apple’s Touch devices prove that you don’t need a very large screen to have an immersive experience. Maybe some HftRoU screens should in fact be larger than that of an iPhone or iPod touch. Especially if people are to read or write long-form text on them. Maybe the eeePC had it right. Especially if the devices’ form factor is more like a big handheld than like a small subnotebook (i.e., slimmer than an eeePC). One reason form factor matters, in my mind, is that it could make the devices “disappear.” That, and the difference between having a device on you (in your pocket) and carrying a bag with a device in it. Form factor was a big issue with my Newton MessagePad 130. As the OLPC XO showed, cost and power consumption are also important issues regarding screen size. I’d vote for a range of screens between 3.5 inch (iPhone) and 8.9 inch (eeePC 900) with a rather high resolution. A multitouch version of the XO’s screen could be a major contribution.

In terms of both audio and screen features, some consideration should be given to adaptive technologies. Most of us take for granted that “almost anyone” can hear and see. We usually don’t perceive major issues in the fact that “personal computing” typically focuses on visual and auditory stimuli. But if these devices truly are “for the rest of us,” they could help empower visually- or hearing-impaired individuals, who are often marginalized. This is especially relevant in the logic of humanitarianism.

HftRoU needs a much autonomy from a power source as possible. Both in terms of the number of hours devices can be operated without needing to be connected to a power source and in terms of flexibility in power sources. Power management is a major technological issue, with portable, handheld, and mobile devices. Engineers are hard at work, trying to find as many solutions to this issue as they can. This was, obviously, a major area of research for the OLPC. But I’m not even sure the solutions they have found are the only relevant ones for what I imagine HftRoU to be.

GPS could have interesting uses, but doesn’t seem very cost-effective. Other “wireless positioning systems” (à la Skyhook) might reprsent a more rational option. Still, I think positioning systems are one of the next big things. Not only for navigation or for location-based targeting. But for a set of “unintended uses” which are the hallmark of truly disruptive technology. I still remember an article (probably in the venerable Wired magazine) about the use of GPS/GIS for research into climate change. Such “unintended uses” are, in my mind, much closer to the constructionist ideal than the OLPC XO’s unified design can ever get.

Though a camera seems to be a given in any portable or mobile device (even the OLPC XO has one), I’m not yet that clear on how important it really is. Sure, people like taking pictures or filming things. Yes, pictures taken through cellphones have had a lasting impact on social and cultural events. But I still get the feeling that the main reason cameras are included on so many devices is for impulse buying, not as a feature to be used so frequently by all users. Also, standalone cameras probably have a rather high level of penetration already and it might be best not to duplicate this type of feature. But, of course, a camera could easily be a differentiating factor between two devices in the same category. I don’t think that cameras should be absent from HftRoU. I just think it’s possible to have “killer apps” without cameras. Again, I’m biased.

Apart from networking/connectivity uses, Bluetooth seems like a luxury. Sure, it can be neat. But I don’t feel it adds that much functionality to HftRoU. Yet again, I could be proven wrong. Especially if networking and other inter-device communication are combined. At some abstract level, there isn’t that much difference between exchanging data across a network and controlling a device with another device.

Yes, I do realize I pretty much described an iPod touch (or an iPhone without camera, Bluetooth, or cellphone fees). I’ve been lusting over an iPod touch since September and it does colour my approach. I sincerely think the iPod touch could serve as an inspiration for a new device type. But, again, I care very little about which company makes that device. I don’t even care about how open the operating system is.

As long as our minds are open.


One Laptop Per Child Was a Success

Repost of a comment to Bruce Nussbaum’s September, 2007 article about the OLPC project.

NussbaumOnDesign It’s Time To Call One Laptop Per Child A Failure, – BusinessWeek

While my comment is held for moderation, I thought I might post it here. I still have a lot more to say about these issues (and about the OLPC), and I should group everything I’ve written about that project and its outcomes. But it will have to wait for another time.

Isn’t it time to revisit this issue, now that the OLPC team and XO device are undergoing major changes?
Isn’t it time to call OLPC something?

I think the OLPC project was, indeed, a success. Negroponte was successful at giving exposure to the idea of low-cost laptops. The design team has succeeded in finding solutions to a number of technological issues, including Bitfrost security and Pixel Qi’s screen. Pilot projects have paved the way for projects by other teams. The G1G1 program brought fairly convenient subnotebooks to technology enthusiasts in the United States. And the multiple discussions we’re having about the OLPC contain a number of insightful comments about constructivist learning, constructionist teaching, the need for careful research in design projects, global inequalities, and the ways people empower themselves through the use of diverse tools.
As an education project, the OLPC worked.

But I also think the XO-1 should not, in fact, be purchased by education systems in different parts of the world.
No, I really don’t think I’m being stubborn or opinionated. I just think that this part of the OLPC project may distract us from the OLPC success.
After crash testing the XO-1 for a week and looking at a broad range of issues surrounding the machine, I would say that it’s a decent prototype to get people thinking about some interesting features (like ubiquitous mesh networking, journaling, and collaborative activities). But that laptop is too flawed to be the standard electronic device to make available to “children abroad,” let alone forced upon them through massive government purchases.
I could expand but I feel there is too much focus on the XO-1 already.

Cellphones have been mentioned several times in comments to this post and I sincerely think there’s something going on.
We need to keep an open mind, especially given the differences in how cellphones are used in diverse parts of the world.
Learners and teachers are, in fact, using cellphones in learning and teaching. For instance, cellphones are used for interactive quizzes (mobilestudy.org). Scholars at Sapporo Gakuin University and elsewhere have been using cellphones in connection with course management systems. A large part of what people throughout the world are doing with cellphones can easily be called “lifelong learning,” whether or not there is a formal structure with a teacher in front of a passive classroom.
Some people do write long-form texts (including novels) on cellphones. Some cellphones are, in fact, used to read textbooks and other (in my mind more appropriate) text formats. Making a digital drawing and putting together a music score are probably doable on several cellphones: they’re trivial tasks on a very basic smartphone. In fact, musicking with something like Bhajis Loops is as compatible with Papert-style constructionism as you can get. I dare say, even more so than Jean Piché’s TamTam on the OLPC XO (with all due respect to Jean and his team, of course).
It seems quite clear that a device design based on cellphones should at least be taken into consideration by people interested in “the rest of the world.”
Sure, some of the latest high-end smartphones can be quite costly, at retail. But even the difference between manufacturing costs for an OLPC XO-1 and an Apple iPhone is minimal. Clearly, there’s an economic logic behind the fact that global cellphone penetration already reached 3.3 billion.
I’m really not a cellphone fanboy. In fact, I’ve only been using cellphones for a few months and they have been very basic models lent by friends and relatives. But, as an ethnographer, I can’t help but notice that cellphones have a role to play, as “disruptive technology,” in helping people empower themselves. Especially in those parts of the world which were of interest to the old OLPC project.
Maybe cellphone-related devices aren’t the one solution to every child’s needs. But what evidence do we have that laptops were, indeed, the single device type to deploy to children in as diverse parts of the world as Nigeria, Peru, and Mongolia?
So, the naïve question is: if OLPC really was an education project, why did it focus so exclusively on a single electronic device? Why not plan a complete product line? Why not write a cross-platform application layer? Why not build appropriate factories in local communities? Why not build a consortium with local projects? Yes, all these things are being done now, including by former members of the OLPC team. But they weren’t part of the OLPC project. They can be potential outcomes of the OLPC project.

So, it’s time to call OLPC a success. And move on.
Let’s now look at other projects around the world which are helping kids learn, with or without some neat tools. Let’s not lose the momentum. Let’s not focus too much on the choice of an operating system or on the specific feature set the “educational technology version of the Ford T” may have. Sure, we can and probably should talk openly about these things.
But there are so many other important things to take into consideration…


L’imaginée

Follement douce

Doucement folle

Forte

Joyeuse

Profonde

Simple

Libre

Amusante

Ouverte

Insouciante

Aimante

Tendre

Respectée.

L’imaginer est agréable. L’atteindre est concevable.


And We’re Still Lecturing

Forty years ago this month, students in Paris started a movement of protests and strikes. May ’68.

Among French-speakers, the events are remembered as the onset of a cultural revolution of sorts (with both negative and positive connotations). As we reached the 40 year anniversary of those events, some journalists and commentators have looked back at the social changes associated with the Paris student revolts of May, 1968.

The May ’68 movement also had some pedagogical bases. Preparing an online course, these days, I get to think about learning. And to care about students.

As I was yet to be born at the time, May ’68 resonates more for generational reasons than pedagogical ones. But a Montreal journalist who observed some of those events 40 years ago has been talking about what she perceived as irrationality surrounding such issues as abolishing lecture-based courses («cours magistraux»).

This journalist’s reaction and a cursory comparison of the present situation with what I’ve heard of pre-1968 teaching both lead me on a reflection path about learning. Especially in terms of lecturing.

As a social constructivist, I have no passion for “straight lectures.” On occasion, I bemoan the fact that lecturing is (still) the primary teaching mode in many parts of the world. The pedagogical ideas forcefully proposed more than a generation ago are apparently not prevalent in most mainstream educational systems.

What happened?

This is an especially difficult question for an idealist like me. We wish for change. Change happens. Then, some time later, changes have been reversed. Maybe more progressively. But, it seems, inexorably.

Sisyphean. Or, maybe, buddhist.

Is it really the way things work?

Possibly. But I prefer to maintain my idealism.

So… Before I was born, some baby-booming students in Paris revolted against teaching practises. We still talk about it. Nowadays, these teaching practises against which students revolted are apparently quite common in Paris universities. As they are in many other parts of the world. But not exactly everywhere.

Online learning appears more compatible with teaching methods inspired by social constructivism (and constructionism) than with “straight lecturing.” My idealism for alternative learning methods is fed partly by online learning.

Online lectures are possible. Yet the very structure of online communication implies some freedoms in the way lecture attendees approach these “teachings.”

At the very least, online lectures make few requirements in terms of space. Technically, a student could be watching online lectures while laying down on a beach. Beaches sound like a radically different context from the large lecture halls out of which some ’68ers decided to “take to the streets.”

Contrary to classroom lectures, online lectures may allow time-shifting. In some cases, prerecorded lectures (or podcasts) may be paused, rewinded, fastforwarded, etc. Learning for the TiVo generation?

Online lectures also make painfully obvious the problems with straight lecturing. The rigid hierarchy. Students’ relative facelessness. The lack of interactivity. The content focus. All these work well for “rote learning.” But there are other ways to learn.

Not that memorization plays no part in learning or that there is no value in the “retention of [a text’s] core information” (Schaefer 2008: xxi). It’s just that… Many of us perceive learning to be more than brain-stuffing.

As should be obvious from my tone and previous posts, I count myself as one of those who perceive lectures to be too restrictive. Oh, sure, I’ve lectured to large and medium-sized classrooms. In fact, I even enjoy lecturing when I get to do it. And I fully realize that there are many possible approaches to teaching. In fact, my observation is that teaching methods are most effective when they are adapted to a specific situation, not when they follow some set of general principles. In this context, lecturing may work well when “lecturer and lecturees are in sync.” When students and teacher are “on the same page,” lectures can be intellectually stimulating, thought-provoking, challenging, useful. Conversely, alternative teaching methods can have disastrous consequences when they are applied haphazardly by people who were trained with “straight lecturing” in mind. In fact, my perception is that many issues with Quebec’s most recent education reform (the “competency based program” about which Quebec parents have been quite vocal) are associated with the indiscriminate application of constructivist/constructionist principles to all learning contexts in the province. IMHO, a more flexible application of the program coupled with considerate teacher training might have prevented several of the problems which plagued Quebec’s reform.

Unlike ’68ers, I don’t want to abolish lectures. I just hope we can adopt a diversity of methods in diverse contexts.

Back in 1968, my father was a student of Jean Piaget, in Geneva. Many of Piaget’s ideas about learning were quite compatible with what Parisian students were clamoring for.

Beyond the shameless name-dropping, my mentioning Piaget relates to something I perceive as formative. Both in my educational and in my personal lives. My mother had much more of an impact on my life. But my father supplied me with something of the Piaget spirit. And this spirit is found in different places. Including online.

The compatibility between online learning and lecture-less teaching methods seems to be a topic for frequent discussions among eLearning circles including LearnHubNing, and the Moodle community. Not that online technology determines pedagogical methods. But the “fit” of online technology with different approaches to learning and teaching is the stuff constructionist teachers’ dreams are made of.

One dimension of the “fit” is in terms of flexibility. Online, learners may (and are sometimes forced to) empower themselves using personal methods. Not that learners are left to their own devices. But the Internet is big and “wild” enough to encourage survival strategies in learning contexts. Perhaps more than the lecture hall, the online world makes critical thinking vital. And critical thinking may lead to creative and innovative solutions.
Another dimension to the fit, and one which may be more trivial than some EdTech enthusiasts seem to assume, is the “level of interactivity” afforded diverse online tools. You know, the Flash-based or other learning objects which should make learning fun and effective. I personally like the dancing mice a lot. But my impression is that these cool tools require too much effort for their possible learning outcomes. I do, however, have high hopes for the kind of interactivity common to the “social platform” sometimes known (perhaps abusively) as “Web 2.0.” Putting things online is definitely not a panacea for adequate pedagogical practise. And while “School 2.0” is an interesting concept, the buzzwordiness of some of these concepts makes me take pause. But, clearly, some students are using adequate learning strategies through the interactive character of online communication.

As I’ll be teaching online for several weeks, I’ll surely have many other things to say about these learning issues in a pseudo-historical context. In the meantime, I assume that this blogpost may bring me some thoughtful comments. 😉


Moving to a Faster ISP

Recently moved from Austin, TX to Montreal, Qc. The move implied an ISP change and I was wondering what the results would be.

My previous ISP plan was AT&T Yahoo’s Pro DSL (3.0Mbps/512kbps). It cost 25$/mo. (without a contract). Here were the results from DSL Reports using that connection on a MacBook through WiFi (802.11g).

In Montreal, I’m now using Vif‘s ADSL Monthly (5.0Mbps/800kbps). It’s 30$/mo. (no contract). Setup was very easy (nice to be able to choose your own PPPoE username and password!). The connection seems reliable enough. And it is, in fact, much faster than what I had in Austin.

Using the same MacBook and WiFi router, I now get the following results:

Latency is the same, upstream is 50% faster, downstream is 140% faster.

Thing is, though, I’m not really sure I see much of a difference. Sure, it can be quite useful for some downloads and, since this connection will be shared with somebody else in the house, it might make things easier. But it still feels a bit like overkill.

The other issue is whether or not this connection gets throttled at all. Vif itself won’t throttle. But they use Bell Canada’s lines and it seems possible that Bell throttles third-party ISPs using its lines. Though I don’t use much “peer-to-peer” directly, throttling can be very problematic.

Anyhoo… The ISP switch looks like a good thing so far.