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XO: At the Intersection of Play and Learning

Here in Cambridge, the XO laptop is everywhere. Or at least it can seem that way, what with the steady flurry of press coverage that attends the global One Laptop Per Child initiative and its sturdy green-and-white wonder machine. Founded by Nicholas Negroponte and “a core of [MIT] Media Lab veterans,” OLPC last fall finally realized its vision of building an affordable, creative laptop that could potentially galvanize education worldwide. At least, that’s the hope.

The XO laptop really is a wonder machine. Its practical features stagger: the laptop is heat-resistant, water-resistant, and dust-resistant; boasts unusually long battery life; has an easy-to-read screen; and a host of other features, not the least of which is its remarkably low cost. And yet, its most public testing ground demands none of these capabilities. Last fall’s Give1Get1 program raised enough money to ship thousands of laptops to children in need. As a side-effect, though, a nearly equivalent number of laptops made their way to the living rooms of families across the United States who “gave one to get one.”

Reports from these living room testing scenes have been pumping through the blogosphere for months now. However, I was especially intrigued to read Virginia Heffernan’s take on the XO laptop in the New York Times Magazine. Heffernan watched a group of kids, born and bred in the U.S. digital milieu, explore the laptop for themselves. She observed that these young people were drawn into the practical aspects of the laptop by its toy-like qualities; that in order to hold their attention, the laptop needed to be almost overtly flashy. Her conclusion is surprising and illuminating, especially in illustrating the way one adult perceives children’s interactions with technology:

If Negroponte wants to convert kids to the global information economy, he might consider the chief virtue of the XO laptop: its lights and sounds. Even Western kids, whose toys flash and squeal, are drawn with primitive wonderment to the peculiar phenomena of this computer — the distinctive hums and blinks that seem like evidence of its soul.

Is this an oversimplification? How can educational technology usefully appropriate the flash and dazzle of toys? Does technology have an inherent flash and dazzle that, as Heffernan suggests, persists even for children in an environment saturated with electronic gadgets? This intersection of play and learning is fascinating, especially since this is precisely the intersection that Negroponte and his collaborators wish to take advantage of. How do you perceive the intersection of play and learning in a digital age?

How to Engage Students?

Diana had a great post last week about Ben Chun’s use of Moodle in his classroom. While there has been a lot of talk about teachers finding innovative ways to use technology, the conversation seems to often focus on motivating teachers rather than students. The prevailing attitude seems to be that students will automatically flock to an online discussion forum to discuss schoolwork.

There are many inspiring successes out there (click for an example),but I think the availability heuristic is a source of some bias. When classrooms don’t successfully use new technology, we don’t hear about it. And if we do, it’s easy to put the blame on the adults with generalizations like this:

From Corporate Power

Information technology causes stress on the campus, simply because no one can always keep up at the cutting edge of technology. Even younger faculty members who have grown up with the Internet feel stressed due to the fact that information technology is not user-friendly.

In my own admittedly limited experience, I would argue the same could be said of students who have grown up with the Internet. It is often students who are reluctant to engage in discussion in online forums. Several of my classes have had online blogs, forums, or wikis, which are all very easily incorporated on the official course website. Despite mandatory online discussions, the infrequency of student participation was a source of frustration among professors. Students would often pose their own questions, but few took the time to respond to others’ questions. The interaction that makes such technology so great was sorely lacking.

Without getting into the controversy of the term, perhaps we, the current college students, are not Digital Native enough? Certainly few, if any of us, were accustomed to posting homework online in elementary or middle school. Maybe there’s this line in our heads that the classroom ends when we step out the door. I pose these questions because this is an issue that has bothered me for some time. What are some ways to get students to participate in online academic discussions? Is this less of a problem for younger students who are more in tune with digital learning?

-Sarah Z.

My favorite DIY videos

There’s been so many great videos this weekend – hats off to the DIY curatorial team for really putting together a great show!  It’s been great fun to see the videos usually seen in tiny little windows on the big screen.  A few videos particularly stood out to me, and not too surprisingly, many of them made by young vidders.

Chongalicious:  a great spoof on the song “Fergalicious”

Slip of the Toungue:  A girl at a bus stop responds to the question ‘what is your ethnic makeup?’

Black Doll White Doll – a strong and sad discussion of race by talented young girls.  Pre-schoolers still choose the white doll.

In My Language – an incredibly original, eloquent and powerful vlog by an autistic woman.  Watch it.

Ballad of Black Mesa  –  this piece that will blow away most of the videos on MTV.  The program describes it as “Half-Life 2 meets iPod commercial meets stomp.”

Bush vs. Zombies – George Bush addresses the zombie threat.

Mad as Hell – walking manifesto about work, life, and vlogging

Bomb, Bomb, Bomb.  Bomb, bomb Iran – scary. funny. scary.  watch this if you’re even thinking about voting for John McCain.

George Bush don’t like Black People – very cool remix about Katrina

The summit will be putting many of the videos screened up on their site soon.   Be sure to check them out!

– Miriam Simun