[Edu-sig] Some thoughts on the word "Laptop"

Atul Varma varmaa at gmail.com
Fri May 11 00:13:49 CEST 2007


A few days ago, Michael Tobis brought up the New York Times article
"Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops" [1] on the OLPC
Chicago mailing list.  Scott Van Den Plas then responded to it with
the question, "How can OLPC focus on educational reform and avoid
comparison to simply placing laptops into a traditional setting?"

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/04/education/04laptop.html

I responded to his question on the OLPC mailing list and Michael
thought it might be useful for me to post it here.

On 5/8/07, Scott Van Den Plas <scottv at gmail.com> wrote:
> How can OLPC focus on educational reform and avoid comparison to simply placing
> laptops into a traditional setting?

Well, I imagine it's too late to change the name of the program, but
to be honest the very name "one laptop per child" made me laugh out
loud the first time I heard it.  I think it's because of the
connotations that the word "laptop" brings: it's something that, 10
years ago, was a yuppie status symbol, and I think that's significant.
 Imagine how ridiculous a program like "one cell phone per child"
sounds--even if you try to emphasize that a cell phone can actually be
incredibly useful for communication, especially for societies that
don't even have land-line telephones, the fact is that the first thing
that pops into people's heads (well, my head at least) when they hear
the word "cell phone" is a Samsung advertisement about some new
feature-loaded monstrosity that comes with downloadable ringtones.

The word "laptop" comes with almost as much negative cultural baggage
as "cell phone".  When most people see the word "laptop", I'm guessing
they usually think of Norton AntiVirus, Ad-Aware, Microsoft Office,
porn, and Google.  Only one or two of those is generally regarded as a
really useful thing.  And when the word "laptop" and "child" are put
in the same sentence, all I can think of is MySpace and Alge-Blaster,
which are things no nation should spend millions of dollars on.

On the other hand, I *love* the term "Children's Machine", which is
what the OLPC laptop was originally called.  A "machine" is what I had
when I grew up: it didn't help me with school in any direct way, it
didn't serve as a replacement for a good textbook or a great teacher,
but it served an entirely different purpose: it was my personal little
lab where I could create things and tinker with the things others had
created.  Social scientists call it "Bricolage" or "Constructivism",
and whatever it is, it's something that I wish every child in the
world had some opportunity to experience.

So the word "Children's Machine" brings back memories of what I had
when I was growing up: it wasn't portable like a laptop, but it served
many of the same goals, I think, that OLPC is aiming for.  So I guess
my two cents to OLPC are: drop the word "laptop".  And especially
don't call it "One Laptop Per Child", because that phrase alone is
going to throw dozens of assumptions into people's heads and they're
just going to laugh at you, like I once did.

- Atul

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