Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Accessibility in the News today ...

Accessibility involving computing has been quite a topic in the news today. I will just highlight a few noteworthy examples here, not all of which involve education but can be argued provide the potential to increase the diversity of the user population of computing (hint: diversity and accessibility are connected by more than the theme of SIGCSE 2008 :-).
Providing a low-cost computing device to make information and the Internet more accessible -- who could argue with that? Well, apparently, there is competition in this area.

I am not an economist, so I am not going to comment on the relative merits of such competition. But as a teacher, I think the discussion itself has merit in computing education, especially when we read about the anticipated high demand for computer science people (or "High-demand employment requires high-caliber education") and the benefits such access can provide to all, including those in developing countries (yes, there are consequences too, which is why the discussion is non-trivial).

And clearly accessibility is not limited to those with mobility, vision or hearing issues either. I would be happy to be involved with a SIGCSE conference that facilitated discussion(s) on access around the world, the issues that arise across cultures and political systems, legality, social impact -- hey, I work at a liberal arts college, and I believe computing has much to offer these discussions.

Still, the resources (time, space, energy, pages) at a SIGCSE conference are limited, no matter how many "threads of discussion" are processing. I look forward to learning about initiatives to provide low-cost computing around the globe, and SIGCSE 2008 can be one of the places where I learn more about this topic.


Joe said...

Hi J.D. -- it's me, Joe Huttner, your student and Haverford Computer Science major writing from Argentina. Just thought I'd pass along some OLPC news and commentary, specifically about how the project is going here in Buenos Aires, AR.

Upon arrival in Buenos Aires in July '07, I met with a woman named Laura Serra who is the OLPC program coordinator for Argentina, which is one of the pilot countries. The pilot was supposed to get rolling in early October and consist of 800 pilot students/machines, but as of today, November 19th, it still hasn't gotten started. Ah, Argentine politics!

Some of the problems have to do with the cost of the project, which the OLPC directors at MIT hope to compensate for by offering the 2 for 1 plan (People in developing countries buy two laptops - they receive one, and the other goes to the developing country) and part of the problem is just general disorganization here in Buenos Aires.

Either way, the project offers a lot, but I think the original implementation scheme is flawed--too expensive and very support intensive. Teaching kids how to use the computers, preventing them from getting sold/stolen, paying for satellite internet access in non-wired locations are costs that OLPC planned to pass on to national governments, but with the laptop now costing $188 instead of the planned $100, costs have almost doubled. Part of the power of the project is in the scale of production, and by not having the price around $100, governments like the Argentine one, I think, are a bit reluctant to go forward with this thing full throttle. The idea is great, but without a good implementation model, it's going to be hard to get this bird off the ground.

Furthermore, the OLPC puts a lot of faith in the governments of the participating countries to continue providing internet access and support once the MIT people pack their bags and move on to the next country. It's hard to imagine the Argentina government, which is tremendously corrupt and disorganized, being able to sustain such a project. Am I overly pessimistic? I sure hope so, but for now, I don't see the OLPC project as a means to change education in developing nations.


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