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How Laptops in Education Can Help Dictators, Hurt Learning

timothy posted more than 6 years ago | from the digital-cassandras dept.

Censorship 122

holy_calamity writes "New Scientist reports on worries that the OLPC's BitFrost security protocols could hand a ready-made surveillance system to controlling 3rd world governments. The laptops identify themselves regularly to a server that can disable individual machines reported stolen — a system that hands a government a kill switch for every unit. BitFrost also has the potential to have machines attach a unique ID to every internet transaction, helping out anyone wanting to track net internet use. A freely available paper from a recent USENIX conference spells out the concerns." Relatedly, an anonymous reader points out a story at Slate about a study which examined the impact that free PCs had on poor students in Romania, writing that "giving the kids machines without a corresponding level of parental supervision just resulted in distractions which ultimately damaged academic performance. By contrast, allowing children access to machines in a supervised setting, say an after school program via school labs, might mitigate some of the negative effects."

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In other news... (4, Insightful)

oodaloop (1229816) | more than 6 years ago | (#23672421)

Dictators use whatever means at their disposal to control their people.

Details at 11.

Re:In other news... (3, Insightful)

Americano (920576) | more than 6 years ago | (#23672731)

I think the point of TFA is that the OLPC's security system can be mis-used as an assistive technology for those dictators in their efforts to control their people.

I wonder if you'd be equally glib in your dismissal if this article were about Google filtering content at the request of Chinese authorities [wikipedia.org] , or Yahoo disclosing the identities [guardian.co.uk] of people advocating democratic reforms?

Re:In other news... (1)

nbates (1049990) | more than 6 years ago | (#23672977)

Or you can avoid giving the government the control. They only have to go to your house.

Re:In other news... (3, Insightful)

Duradin (1261418) | more than 6 years ago | (#23673105)

Anything can be misused as an assistive technology for dictators in their efforts to control their people.

Pen(cil) and paper? Leaves written records. A certain Cardinal had a pertinent quote for that.

The kid sitting next to you? Would probably sell you out so he could get a bag of rice for his family that is starving.

Who do you think would employ the teachers if the dictator is that paranoid or controlling? Commit a thoughtcrime against The Most Benevolent Leader and you and your family go off on a permanent vacation.

Re:In other news... (2, Interesting)

Americano (920576) | more than 6 years ago | (#23673321)

I'm not sure I understand your point. Or are you not making one?

This system provides a ready-made, wide-scale system for any government to track your internet usage, and then decide "you, right there, you've had enough internet exposure to progressive ideas, no more internet for you. And we'll be by with cable ties & a black hood later on, so you might want to say goodbye to your family and friends."

There is a very real concern here. Dismissing it because "well, anything can be abused, really," is downright retarded. Google and Yahoo, to name 2, have been roundly slagged for making it easier for repressive governments to control their citizenry. I see no reason why the OLPC (and any other project using this technology) should be given a free pass in this regard.

Unless the point is that OLPC seems to be the Open Source advocate's wet dream, and so any negative mention of it is met with knee-jerk ranting and/or hand-waving dismissal?

Re:In other news... (2, Insightful)

statemachine (840641) | more than 6 years ago | (#23673499)

I understood his point just fine. The laptop's usefulness outweighs the near-zero access to information they had before. If a gov't shuts down the laptops (after it just paid for them?) then it's not like anything was lost.

As far as surveillance, that happens on any network, all the time. We're only quibbling about the degree, not if.

Re:In other news... (1, Redundant)

Americano (920576) | more than 6 years ago | (#23673811)

I understood his point just fine.
I'm not sure you did. His argument was that any technology has the potential for misuse - essentially, that dictators will repress their people with or without this particular piece of assistive technology. Therefore, the conclusion seems to be that any concern about the ease & scale at which a technology enables said repression is misplaced, and irrelevant.

The laptop's usefulness outweighs the near-zero access to information they had before.
The laptop's usefulness to who? Do you really think a repressive regime is going to say, "Well, we don't want you to access that information, but hey it's the internet, have at it?" Or is it more likely that people accessing "unauthorized" content will be flagged & targeted, and that this security system makes flagging that access orders of magnitude easier for the government?

As far as surveillance, that happens on any network, all the time. We're only quibbling about the degree, not if.
And so since it "happens on any network", it's not worth being concerned about?

Re:In other news... (2, Interesting)

Torvaun (1040898) | more than 6 years ago | (#23674207)

This security system increases the ease of flagging unauthorized content almost as much as it increases the ease of accessing unauthorized content.

MOD UP! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23674377)

Pity I just spent my modpoints..

Re:In other news... (2, Insightful)

Duradin (1261418) | more than 6 years ago | (#23674951)

It's the old "but it's not a perfect solution!" claptrap.

Yes, bit frost is a flawed solution.

No, there isn't a perfect solution nor will there ever be a perfect solution.

Do we sit around and wait for the perfect solution or do we try to make due with what we have available?

Anyways, a repressive regime most likely wouldn't even allow the project (which is paid for at the government level) into the country. Go find some other near dead horse to beat.

Re:In other news... (1)

statemachine (840641) | more than 6 years ago | (#23676689)

Congratulations on missing the nuances and turning this into a binary argument.

Re:In other news... (2, Insightful)

colmore (56499) | more than 6 years ago | (#23674825)

You're correct. But this isn't a special problem of OLPC and poor governments. It is merely the exact same problem that the wealthy world has with windows. Just look at the current round of copyright and internet policing legislation happening in Europe. Look at China.

This report phrases the problem as if it were specific to societies that are somehow undersophisticated.

Criticism of the report aside. The OLPC should get rid of that anti-user bull shit pronto. Thieves are going to know about it and circumvent it. As usual it makes the criminal's life only a little bit more complicated and greatly impacts the real owner.

Re:In other news... (1)

oodaloop (1229816) | more than 6 years ago | (#23673349)

Yeah, pointy sticks can be misused too. You could poke an eye out!

Re:In other news... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23674931)

There's a difference between helping someone out and merely producing something that they can abuse (without your help being needed for that).

Guns don't kill people. OLPC machines don't oppress kids (or anyone). Google and Yahoo are different insofar as that they are not just there, offering a service (such as search) that gets abused, but that they themselves perpetrate that abuse.

Re:In other news... (1)

steelfood (895457) | more than 6 years ago | (#23672905)

More like:

Kids with computers will use them to play games.

Re:In other news... (3, Insightful)

colmore (56499) | more than 6 years ago | (#23674761)

Thank you.

This is a kind of report and study that I cannot stand. Laptops cause all these problems in the developed world for middle class kids as well. But nobody says suburban tweens shouldn't have the internet. I doubt very much that they are on the whole better supervised than Romanians or Africans, basing this on my own internet-connected undersupervsed childhood in the suburbs which I might add, turned out pretty much OK.

As for dictators? People in glass houses, come the hell on. Maybe not America too much, yet, but from every thing I seem to be reading about half of Europe, Big Brother has been on laptops in the developed world for quite some time.

There's such a tendency to hold the poor to standards we do not apply to ourselves. I find it kind of disgusting.

Re:In other news... (1)

dunng808 (448849) | more than 6 years ago | (#23676025)

basing this on my own internet-connected undersupervsed childhood in the suburbs which I might add, turned out pretty much OK.

OK? Is it possible to post comments on /. and still be OK? I'm not so sure ... I guess maybe it depends on the limit set by "pretty much." See, I think of /. in a Slaughterhouse-Five sort of way; if you are here you cannot be normal. And I am here.

I agree with your view; this story is fud. The concerns about abuse of security may be well intentioned but nevertheless reek of paranoia. Third world == evil dictators == child abuse. These people need to get out and travel more. As for the technical issues of key escrow, is there a better solution given the context? I can't think of one, not unless you impose a pre-requisit that all users must be highly literate and live amongst well educated adults. The way it is may not be perfect, but you have to start somewhere.

Labs (1)

simpl3x (238301) | more than 6 years ago | (#23672461)

My problem with the use of computers is that we need to use them effectively in order for them to be anything other than eBook readers. But being an eBook reader will be valuable enough. The texts are too static and do not accommodate teacher needs; allowing the computer to become the active text is incredibly important.

We all have ADD, but using this as an excuse against incorporating computers into the classroom is increasingly senseless. Shouldn't we be teaching effective skills for communicating with such distractions? And, don't we, and children, have enough other diversions to fill the void?

Re:Labs (1)

NJVil (154697) | more than 6 years ago | (#23673075)

We do not all have ADD. Yes, we all do get distracted from time to time. However, this is not ADD, and diagnosing it as ADD is not helpful.

Re:Labs (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23673801)

Birds are pretty.

Re:Labs (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23674057)

Let's ride bikes.

Re:Labs (2, Interesting)

BlowHole666 (1152399) | more than 6 years ago | (#23673261)

You are talking about a 3rd world country who may not have been brought up on the amount of technology as many people in the west have been brought up on. You think parents of kids today are clueless of internet dangers. Think about the people in some 3rd world countries. So think of it like this, someone gives a poor person 100 million dollars but says you have to not touch the money and pay attention to a boring class all day. I think you would tell the teacher to F off and you would take your 100 million dollars. That is what it is like to these kids. They have probably never had a piece of technology of their very own (besides a radio or something similar). So yes a computer in the hands of an uneducated student with parents who do not know what their kids are getting into online or in the classroom will not help kids in these countries.

Re:Labs (1)

bsDaemon (87307) | more than 6 years ago | (#23673587)

So, in Nigeria are they just called "Scams"?

Re:Labs (1)

Beorytis (1014777) | more than 6 years ago | (#23674155)

allowing the computer to become the active text is incredibly important.
Yes. That way the government can change the story at will and we don't have the documentation to prove them wrong later.

C'mon... (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23672529)

The OLPC scam is collapsing as it turns out that they couldn't make enough useless machines even if anyone wanted them. Dictators won't be controlling them any more than kids will be writing their own office software.

3rd World? (4, Insightful)

Wylfing (144940) | more than 6 years ago | (#23672533)

3rd-world dictators? Shyeah. Try "all governments everywhere."

Re:3rd World? (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23673103)

Why it's almost as if no government is preferable to another.

Re:3rd World? (0, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23673695)

Why it's almost as if no government is preferable to another.
Exactly, just ask Iraq how they prefer "democracy."

Re:3rd World? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23674601)

Do you mean "just fine"?

Re:3rd World? (1)

lordofwhee (1187719) | more than 6 years ago | (#23675429)

This is the wet dream of 99.9% of politicians. 'Nuf said.

Oh great..1st it was the Expresso machine.. (1)

h.ross.perot (1050420) | more than 6 years ago | (#23672539)

.. downloading Portman piccies.. and now my Toaster is snagging MS apps.. If my printer gets involved it will eat me out of cartidges in no time...

Re:Oh great..1st it was the Expresso machine.. (1)

Jor-Al (1298017) | more than 6 years ago | (#23672947)

.. downloading Portman piccies..
Did you forget the hot grits?

You know how it is. (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23672625)

By contrast, allowing children access to machines in a supervised setting, say an after school program via school labs, might mitigate some of the negative effects

Then again, it might not.

Little Brother - Cory Doctorow (3, Interesting)

i.r.id10t (595143) | more than 6 years ago | (#23672669)

Anyone give this a read? A way to fight back... maybe?

Thought of posting this a few weeks ago re: the tracker tags a Texas school was using, but missed out on a near-top post.

Read it...

http://craphound.com/littlebrother/ [craphound.com]

Paranoid Linux (3, Informative)

Chris Pimlott (16212) | more than 6 years ago | (#23673217)

A group of users have decided to try to implement Paranoid Linux as described in the book. It's a Linux distribution meant for use under oppressive regimes. It assumes you are under surveillance and actively attempts to veil your communications by hiding it among automatically generated random activity. Reminds me of the scheme Randy uses in Cryptonomicon [wikipedia.org] to avoid eavesdropping on his laptop while trapped in his cell.

They appear to be in the very early stages only, but an interesting and potentially very worthy project.
paranoidlinux.org [paranoidlinux.org]

Just more practice for the budding hackers. (4, Insightful)

TripMaster Monkey (862126) | more than 6 years ago | (#23672725)

True, this all is quite a problem, but for every problem, there's a solution. For every surveillance method, there's some talented kid out there figuring a way to circumvent it.

One of the geekier recipients of these laptops will engineer a way around this BS...and then he'll share that info with his less-geeky friends. The government will have considerably less control than it thinks it does.

Re:Just more practice for the budding hackers. (4, Insightful)

mckinnsb (984522) | more than 6 years ago | (#23672837)

True, this all is quite a problem, but for every problem, there's a solution. For every surveillance method, there's some talented kid out there figuring a way to circumvent it. One of the geekier recipients of these laptops will engineer a way around this BS...and then he'll share that info with his less-geeky friends. The government will have considerably less control than it thinks it does.
And in the end, isn't that what OLPC is all about?

Re:Just more practice for the budding hackers. (1)

Americano (920576) | more than 6 years ago | (#23673037)

True, this all is quite a problem, but for every problem, there's a solution. For every surveillance method, there's some talented kid out there figuring a way to circumvent it.
Just as likely, for every talented kid figuring out a way to circumvent the system, there'll be a government agency ready to arrest him and throw him in jail [wikipedia.org] for his troubles...

When hacking becomes, quite literally, a matter of life and death, rather than a cool geek adventure like WarGames, you might be surprised at how quickly the luster fades, and how quickly you'll see that band of merry rebels shrinking.

Re:Just more practice for the budding hackers. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23673517)

And then kiddy Geek gets a bullet in the head. What's the solution to that one?

o rly? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23673837)

but for every problem, there's a solution

Solve for x:

x = x + 1

no solution, eh?

Yes, I am just being a pedant. It amused me, at least. Sue me.

Re:Just more practice for the budding hackers. (1)

Eskarel (565631) | more than 6 years ago | (#23677539)

I think the bigger point is why in the name of god do the OLPC laptops have this surveillance method implemented.

My laptop doesn't have a remote kill switch put into it to prevent "theft", it doesn't tie a unique identifier to my internet transactions(my ISP does, but that's not my laptop). There's no reason for any of this stuff to be on the laptop for some geeky kid to need to get around.

Re:Just more practice for the budding hackers. (1)

inKubus (199753) | more than 6 years ago | (#23678505)

Although it's an interesting point to think about. In a lot of third world countries, the reason the people are so poor is due to a powerful ruling class. Therefore enabling subversiveness, so the kids can learn to avoid those that wish to enslave them, might be a good goal for a computer/communications device. I mean, that's what it's all about. Change, for the better. If they've engineered the laptop to be controlled effectively by adults, kids aren't going to use it.

Supervision. (4, Insightful)

LWATCDR (28044) | more than 6 years ago | (#23672809)

The Internet is like New York City. You can find anything you want there. From great art and science to the worst filth.
The same basic rule should apply. Don't let your kids run around unattended.

This really frosts my bits (2, Insightful)

GigaHurtsMyRobot (1143329) | more than 6 years ago | (#23672835)

Such a shady system doesn't exist to help prevent theft of $3,000 laptops, and you're going to put a system in place to protect $100 laptops that are given out for free?

What a scam, and a shame, this is.

Counterproductive (2, Interesting)

EEBaum (520514) | more than 6 years ago | (#23672863)

I've very rarely seen computers useful in courses where the coursework isn't actually computer-related. Programming, digital audio, typing, etc. are all places where computers belong. Anywhere else, I've found them counterproductive to learning. The distraction factor, plus the amount of time spent getting everything to work properly, not to mention having a machine doing something for you that you might otherwise learn to do yourself, make it a waste. This includes calculators in math classes, except when the class has algorithmic concepts that must be simulated.

Re:Counterproductive (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23673087)

Have you been to a lot of courses where they have no books either? Or a chalkboard? or chalk to write with?

These are the classrooms where the OLPC will be sent. It isn't intended to replace the Airbook in some Birkenstocks wearing trust fundie's backpack.

Re:Counterproductive (1)

EEBaum (520514) | more than 6 years ago | (#23674829)

I'll somewhat buy the argument about the lack of books.

As for the rest, chalk and chalkboards, last time I checked, still cost MUCH less to manufacture than even the OLPC.

Re:Counterproductive (1)

LarryWest42 (220323) | more than 6 years ago | (#23673313)

I'll bet you had textbooks and/or access to a library for those non-computer-related courses. Maybe even some films.

How would you compare the learning productivity for such topics in situations lacking such materials?

Re:Counterproductive (1)

EEBaum (520514) | more than 6 years ago | (#23674757)

I'll half give you the point about textbooks, except in very many situations where the textbooks are worthless (the history class I learned the most in, by far, was one where the professor just lectured. No text, no overhead projector, just talking).

Access to the library is usually for out-of-classroom time, which I have no problem using computers for. Inside the classroom, though, it's distracting.

Re:Counterproductive (1)

SatanicPuppy (611928) | more than 6 years ago | (#23673981)

I always found it funny that, in instances where you could be using computers to remove some of the obscene rote memorization that is pretty much required in all the classes like the ones you mentioned as not "needing" computers, everyone seems to think computers are some kind of handicap.

But it's perfectly normal to have computers in math class, where what you should be learning is a process that you can apply.

Basically, in my world, all classes should be about the process. Memorize a bunch of history? Or spend time digging through it, learning how to find things out, look things up, learning how to determine a good source from a bad source.

Too much school is already about them teaching you to shut up and passively accept what they're telling you is true. We certainly don't need more of that.

Re:Counterproductive (2, Insightful)

EEBaum (520514) | more than 6 years ago | (#23675007)

Your problem seems to be more with memorization, which I agree, in many situations, is a bass-ackwards way of learning things.

Perhaps I just had different types of math classes than you, but the ones where I learned the most were ones where there wasn't a piece of electronic equipment in the room, save for pagers (late 90s), digital watches and perhaps the computer the teacher used solely to enter grades.

Heck, the history class that undid all the cute quasi-legend Americana for me and gave insight as to what really happened and likely why it happened didn't use so much as an overhead projector (OK, she did once, and almost broke it). Teacher. Pen. Paper. Of course, that assumes that you have a teacher that knows the material well enough to explain it thoroughly and effectively.

I think my problem may be with people having computers at their desk while in class. Available at the side? Sure. Your own usable during independent study time? Cool. Typing away while the teacher is talking and/or you might otherwise be interacting with the teacher and/or other students? That's where I have a problem. Granted, a lot of the time the situation is greatly compounded by ineffective teaching, but that's another topic.

Or maybe my problem is with shoddy teaching, and trying to apply computers to the problem, which, more often than not, makes things worse.

Re:Counterproductive (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23674847)

Computers are extremely useful for coursework provided they are connected to the internet and allow you to get in seconds the information you'd be searching for hours in the library. Just ask any student or professor at any university, they'll tell you the same. And that's why you should ignore the study cited in the article: they study a population where 75% have computers, but only 5% have internet access. What can you do on a computer for 3 years without the net? Educate? Of course not!

Re:Counterproductive (1)

EEBaum (520514) | more than 6 years ago | (#23675035)

I suppose my original post wasn't as clear as it should've been. My problem is primarily with computers being used inside the classroom, during class time. Outside of the classroom, as a resource, I agree they can be very effective, even indispensible.

Re:Counterproductive (1)

paroneayea (642895) | more than 6 years ago | (#23675199)

I was an Interdisciplinary Humanities major in college. I took a lot of non-computer related classes. And I was a hell of a lot more productive when I took notes using my laptop than otherwise.

Granted, I intentionally kept myself pretty restricted in the technology I used. The wireless drivers didn't work on my laptop, and I never got an external one just because I didn't want to be distracted. (I've since graduated, and now have one.) I also typed up all my notes in emacs fullscreened. I don't mean the "you can still see your panel" fullscreen, I mean the actual fullscreen, where it takes up the whole damn space.

As someone who has trouble either handwriting at a decent speed or even producing legible handwritten text, I finally was able to actually keep notes that I could use later. I also kept them, and all of my papers, under SVN. Even a year after graduating, I'm still able to return to the notes I wrote up, grep through them, and find interesting things that I only sorta remember. I can't do that with any of my paper notes. I don't even know where most of them are.

But I'm a highly distractable person, and I took specific steps to restrict myself in what I had access to. If I gave myself internet access, I probably would have been a lot less productive. My setup was also pretty nerdy, which might make it more inaccessible. But whatever, the point remains that my the courses I brought my laptop to are the courses I did best in, and the courses I still have the best data from to this day.

What the hell ? (2, Insightful)

dbcad7 (771464) | more than 6 years ago | (#23672901)

Alright, first of all I doubt a dictatorship like the one the poster is worried about is going to allow it's people these laptops in the first place.. and secondly the poster then wants to become a dictator their self in how the laptop is used...

It reminds me of well off people stressing over giving a pan handler a dollar.. how exactly will that dollar be used ? alchohol ?, lottery tickets ?. ciggarettes ? ... If it's going to stress you out so much then just don't give anything.

Re:What the hell ? (1)

Actually, I do RTFA (1058596) | more than 6 years ago | (#23673595)

It reminds me of well off people stressing over giving a pan handler a dollar.. how exactly will that dollar be used ? alchohol ?, lottery tickets ?. ciggarettes ? ...

Man, it would piss me off if he spent my dollar on a lottery ticket, and won, and could get in touch with me to give me my cut. That's why I always include a card with my home address and hours when I'm usually home when I give out cash to pan handlers.

Welcome to Londistan .. or lets trash the OLPC .. (1)

rs232 (849320) | more than 6 years ago | (#23672981)

"a ready-made surveillance system to controlling 3rd world governments"

We've had that here for ages, why did it take them so long to catch up? If not then why have I had six separate visits from the 'anti-terrorist' police and why did the "BBC", come in and photograph all the staff.

Welcome to the desert of the real [mit.edu] .. :)

Let me get it straight: (1)

Alex Belits (437) | more than 6 years ago | (#23672995)

One article decries the amount of control school (aka evil government) officials have over OLPC computers specifically made for schools, specifically designed to prevent theft and subsequent conversion into general-purpose business/entertainment devices.

Another article makes all kinds of references to the OLPC program, and cites examples of general-purpose computers in unrestricted setting being misused.

Neither article mentions the fact that OLPC specifically made an effort to design software that improves learning, and promotes students' and teachers' participation in the further development of that software.

Neither article mentions that an attempt to placate Windows fanboys in some (pretty oppressive in my book) governments by offering Windows on OLPC-supplied laptops was seen by most of developers as an idiotic proposal and abandonment of the project goals.

And, of course, this is posted on Slashdot, where countless trolls and Microsoft employees posted their demand to provide Windows on those machines.

Yeah, makes sense.

The more I read about OLPC... (1)

pongo000 (97357) | more than 6 years ago | (#23673007)

...the less upset I am that I wasn't able to get in on the OLPC "buy one and give a child a laptop" deal.

Seriously, I researched the hell out of this topic, and this is the first mention I've seen that the laptops call home (or wherever). Just what was the OLPC thinking?

Sure enough, I missed this link [laptop.org] . Wow...far more sinister than I first suspected.

Re:The more I read about OLPC... (2, Informative)

DamnStupidElf (649844) | more than 6 years ago | (#23673737)

You must have missed the part that said essentially none of the big brother security stuff was enabled on the laptops shipped with the G1G1 program. The only thing still there is the presence of a BIOS lock requiring a developer key (which you can easily get) to flash the firmware with your own image.

G1G1 laptops can bypass security (1)

200_success (623160) | more than 6 years ago | (#23675933)

If you have a laptop from the Give-1-Get-1 program, you can easily obtain a developer key from the OLPC website that lets you bypass the security restrictions [laptop.org] . You can then install any operating system you want on the machine.

Limited Access may be a good thing (2, Insightful)

JoeCommodore (567479) | more than 6 years ago | (#23673027)

Back in my high school days (80s), we had limited access to the computers (the PETs were in the computer room which was usually open for lunch for free time),

When I was not in front of the keyboard I was reading about computers in magazines or planning what I wanted to do next with the computer, I wrote so much code and other ideas on notebook paper helped get my pre-planning skills developed.

I am not sure full 24/7 access is better or not for kids to appreciate computers. But I can think it can be a major distraction if it is connected to the net all the time (and not just for the nasty stuff).

Limiting network access would be a good thing. then they can think and plan on what to do while connected. And/or work on stuff while not connected without the distraction of all that stuff on-line.

NO WAY?! (1)

dclydew (14163) | more than 6 years ago | (#23673071)

You mean access to technology doesn't automatically turn kids into brilliant overachievers?!?!?!

I am shocked! Shocked I tell ya!

3rd world (1)

Threni (635302) | more than 6 years ago | (#23673077)

> ready-made surveillance system to controlling 3rd world governments

How does this differ from the surveillance in the UK, US etc?

Questionable Research (1)

balrogkernel (1019546) | more than 6 years ago | (#23673197)

According to the study, which can be found at http://harrisschool.uchicago.edu/About/publications/working-papers/pdf/wp_08_12.pdf [uchicago.edu] they used a regression analysis to determine their outcome. This isn't exactly the most powerful form of empirical evidence. In fact, it's smack-dab in the middle of the levels of evidence based practice you can have: "Outcomes" Research or ecological studies. So we're already starting off with a pretty mediocre argument. In addition, the research paper does not identify its limitations and this is an incredibly important part of any and all research; even top-notch randomized controlled trials identify the limitations of their research.

Then there is the argument that laptops are bad for a student's behavioral and academic outcomes. I'd have to strongly disagree. Technology, especially the use of computers, is an incredibly powerful tool for empowering individuals with learning, reading, and writing disabilities. As an occupational therapist who works in public schools and schools for individuals with significant developmental disabilities, cerebral palsy, and severe autism, the use of computers not only motivates many groups of students it does a great job generalizing knowledge learned in the classroom. In some cases, for example, a child with tetraplegic cerebral palsy or blindness, technology like computers with adaptive devices becomes necessary for many daily activities.

I also have a personal argument for the laptops; the quality of my public education, at least for me, was shoddy at best. Teachers at my schools were horrible at what they did; I'd say about 5% of my graduating class from high school were even taught calculus and approximately 75% of all students could barely do algebra I. It's true that a kid probably won't learn much playing Pac-Man or Space Invaders, but imagine what the kid learns when they play King's Quest (and other adventure games with the verbal command prompt), Number Munchers, RPGs that use advanced vocabulary, Balance of Power, and other games that have educational value. I completely credit knowing all of my geography from Balance of Power and Shadow President. If kids have a chance to play games that teach useful information, then it's likely that their academic and behavioral outcomes will improve.

And for the dictatorship stuff, I think that if any person or kid develops any skill using a computer they will find a way of getting around it. That's what happens anyway no matter how many restrictions are put on a computer.

Re:Questionable Research (2, Interesting)

Americano (920576) | more than 6 years ago | (#23674047)

Then there is the argument that laptops are bad for a student's behavioral and academic outcomes. I'd have to strongly disagree.[...]
I swear this is not a troll. I am asking this question earnestly hoping for a real answer, so please, read it in that spirit.

I understand, and agree, with your characterization of computers as assistive technology for children with disabilities. My mother worked as a speech pathologist in a public school system, and I got to see some of the technology she was using with some of the disabled children she worked with, and it was really amazing to see how much of an improvement the technology made in the education of these kids.

My question, however, is this: have there been any studies or research done on the educational outcomes for average children (i.e., without disabilities), to show that giving them a laptop somehow enhances their education? If so, do you have any references to them? I've had no success in finding anything that really answers the question for me.

I'm hard-pressed to believe that handing kids laptops is somehow a panacea that will ensure they all get great educations, because it seems to me like saying handing someone a paintbrush will allow them to paint like Rembrandt. I think for the "geeky" kids, who are inclined to like technology, math, science, etc., having ready access to a computer could be a wondrous thing. But I would think for the other kids, it'd be just another distraction, and I've yet to see this question addressed fully in any discussion of the OLPC (and similar) program(s).

Re:Questionable Research (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23675285)

I don't think anybody claimed laptops are a "panacea", but to use your Rembrandt analogy: if you didn't even have a paintbrush, wouldn't you rather have one than not?

As for whether it's of value to "average" kids: don't many/most people have jobs today that involve using computers? Simply by being around computers, aren't you more comfortable with it, and thus, more effective at doing your job? Imagine trying to get your never-used-a-computer grandfather to take an entry-level position today ... how well would he fare?

Also remember that it's not just a laptop in isolation. For example, today we have Wikipedia and Wikibooks. While it doesn't (yet) sound odd to ask "How can a laptop help a child's education?", it sounds a bit odd to ask "How can an encyclopedia help a child's education?", and downright nonsensical to ask "How can free textbooks help a child's education?".

We kind of have to call it a "laptop" because that's what it physically is, and we don't have a better name for what it really is, but that's unfortunate, because it makes people think "like Peter Gibbons with his PC" rather than "like Feynman with his Britannica". Britannica won't make a child into Feynman -- nor will suits and TPS reports make a child into Peter Gibbons -- but even for the most average child, you still get free textbooks. (And who knows how many Feynmans are really out there?) That sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

Re:Questionable Research (1)

balrogkernel (1019546) | more than 6 years ago | (#23678049)

I'm glad that you have a personal awareness of individuals with disabilities. Here is some stuff I found looking on the google scholar:

http://eric.ed.gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/0000019b/80/17/11/aa.pdf [ed.gov]
"Taken together, findings indicate that computers are neither a cure-all for problems facing schools nor mere fads without impact on student learning. When used properly, computers may serve as important tools for improving student proficiency in mathematics and the overall learning environment of the school".

http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/qjec.122.3.1235 [mitpressjournals.org]
"A computer-assisted learning program focusing on math increased math scores by 0.47 standard deviation." The paper presents the results of two randomized experiments conducted in schools in urban India.

I never said that computers were a panacea either; they are simply tools, just like a pencil or a piece of paper. There is no reason to call the laptops a failure and end their distribution.

Re:Questionable Research (1)

servognome (738846) | more than 6 years ago | (#23674301)

I also have a personal argument for the laptops; the quality of my public education, at least for me, was shoddy at best. Teachers at my schools were horrible at what they did; I'd say about 5% of my graduating class from high school were even taught calculus and approximately 75% of all students could barely do algebra I.
From my limited experience, technology only magnifies a person's characteristics. Somebody who wants to learn will be able to learn more, workaholics will work more, goof-offs will just find new ways to be distracted. Do you think the kids who don't care about math in the classroom will suddenly be motivated to learn online? More likely they will use the computer to actively pursue their own interests and hobbies.

but imagine what the kid learns when they play King's Quest (and other adventure games with the verbal command prompt)
They will learn no matter how hard they try, they cannot get ye flask [homestarrunner.com]

Re:Questionable Research (1)

balrogkernel (1019546) | more than 6 years ago | (#23678193)

And if those interests and hobbies can overlap with an educational game, which doesn't even have to be on the computer, I suggest that kids can be captains of the gravy train. http://www.homestarrunner.com/vcr_homsar.html [homestarrunner.com]

Problem (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23673207)

I suspect that part of the problem is that the recipients aren't like us (slashdotters). We have an abnormal inclination to computers/maths/sciences. And we use computers to do things that both directly and indirectly result in us becoming more skilled. (Where else could you find people whose idea of a good time is working on XXX OSS project? Who use LaTeX over WYSIWYG?)

To most people computers are only good for MSN. And, sadly, a lot of the people who receive the XO are going to waste it...

That's not to say that the OLPC is a bad idea, just food for thought on the impact it will have...

mod Do3n (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23673229)

of businees and was

Computers in schools... (3, Insightful)

argent (18001) | more than 6 years ago | (#23673309)

When I was a kid, computers in schools meant punch cards at universities. By the time I was a teenager, it was an Apple II in the math lab and the only people interested were the real computer nerds. I was reading about things like PLATO and computer languages designed for teaching... languages better than Basic... but they were out of reach. I figured my kids would benefit.

Then the personal computer revolution hit its peak and we got an Atari and Logo and all that good stuff, and then my kids were born, but by the time they were old enough to be really interested in computers and what Daddy was doing what they mostly had in school were IBM PCs that were running Office and used to teach kids how to be secretaries and accountants.

Computers in schools seem to miss the point more often than not.

Re:Computers in schools... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23676853)

The point is to train everyone to be a CS major?

Re:Computers in schools... (1)

argent (18001) | more than 6 years ago | (#23677339)

No more than to train everyone to be a secretary or an accountant.

Most people don't use most of what they learn in school, but you never know what 10% they're going to use.

What they're doing is the equivalent of stopping mathematics teaching at long division because most people never use trigonometry after school, then switching from teaching math to teaching speed calculator techniques because they're more practical.

BULLsheit, I live in Romania,education system=crap (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23673397)

" impact that free PC's had on poor students in Romania "

Bwhaha, what a lot of CRAP !!

Giving a kid a laptop here (in Romania) is like practically GIVING him an education.

There guys dont know what the hell they are talking about. Simple as that.

Free laptop = 5xRomanian education system.

Re:BULLsheit, I live in Romania,education system=c (1)

Amiralul (1164423) | more than 6 years ago | (#23678715)

"Free laptop = 5xRomanian education system."
Yeah, and unlimitted access to free porn also!

The idealist vs. the kid (1, Troll)

elrous0 (869638) | more than 6 years ago | (#23673475)

The idealist: Kid's will be able to use it to broaden their horizons
The kid: Alright, PORN!!

The idealist: It will educate them and open them up to the outside world
The kid: Time to scam some wealthy Westerners for more money in 24 hours than I could make doing honest work all year

The idealist: It will lead to better more educated communities
The kid: Hey, let's steal that little kid's laptop and sell it on the black market!

The idealist: ...making them better global citizens
The kid: Uh, could I have some clean drinking water instead?

Dictators will control people... (1)

jdgeorge (18767) | more than 6 years ago | (#23673783)

... by tracking and controlling internet access of young children?

Okay, so they'll have elementary school children cowed into obedience. I'm sure that'll guarantee the dictators something something....

The Slate article is rambling and incoherent. Although there is a picture of an XO-1 Laptop and there are a couple lonely references to OLPC, the article doesn't address OLPC at all; the author mostly talks about his experiences with a Commodore PET (whose value as a learning tool he implies is greater than the XO-1 laptop) and a Romanian study about the problems with a program that provided vouchers to help parents get computers (non-OLPC-related, as far as I could tell).

In short, I'd be shocked if I didn't see this kind of stuff turn up here on Slashdot, so I could then express my indignation at how far this site has... hmmm....

And I bet some folks wondered how they'd fill the great void Jonathan Katz left at Slashdot.

Completely bogus claim. (1)

Kingrames (858416) | more than 6 years ago | (#23673881)

The second a dictator disables such a pc, there will be a crack to reenable it, and the dictator will eventually fall because he THOUGHT he had removed technology from the dissidents.

a crying shame .. (1)

rs232 (849320) | more than 6 years ago | (#23674051)

A crying shame that slashdot is reduced to regurgitating this nonsense. This one has to be up there with, OLPC stealing food from the third world hungry ..

What's worse (2, Insightful)

koan (80826) | more than 6 years ago | (#23674073)


What's worse is that with an electronic device like a laptop or a "Kindle like" device, information can be easily "updated" to read however the current power structure wants it to.
Is anyone else nervous that Rupert Murdoch's Corp has taken an interest in electronic textbooks?
When history gets in the way of some future political power they can simply "update" that e-book or laptop and then it will read as they want it to.

At least when you printed a book it stayed that way...now information is malleable it's going to become untrustworthy.

Forced "updates" for "security reasons" and no trustworthy source of information.

Re:What's worse (1)

Arimus (198136) | more than 6 years ago | (#23674499)

History has always been written by the victor...

Let's Play! (1)

Yo_mama (72429) | more than 6 years ago | (#23674077)

This is slightly off what the intent of the post (but I think not the article) is, but I question the parents of the kids in Romania... how many of them thought the laptop would focus their child, or really could understand what their kid was doing.

Most children are going to use anything you give them as a toy first, and a lot of American parents lament the loss of free time to "just be kids" these days... it's very possible that the lost productivity they mentioned was the digital equivalent of kids being kids.

Given a wooded backyard, kids will play with that; given a laptop, what do you expect them to do with it?

holy_calamity from Intel or MicroSoft? (1)

peter303 (12292) | more than 6 years ago | (#23674093)

Souch negativism. Sounds like wanting to end the project.

Kids Distracted by Computers? (1)

andrewd18 (989408) | more than 6 years ago | (#23674133)

"giving the kids machines without a corresponding level of parental supervision just resulted in distractions which ultimately damaged academic performance.
I call bullcrap. I've never had a problem turning in a university project because I've been distracted by my... yay, my Alterac Valley queue is up!

Fp s4It (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23674179)

Whodathunkit? (1)

RealSalmon (177174) | more than 6 years ago | (#23674259)

. . . a study which examined the impact that free PC's had on poor students in Romania, writing that "giving the kids machines without a corresponding level of parental supervision just resulted in distractions which ultimately damaged academic performance.

Hmmm . . . really? They needed to do a study on that? Because . . . ummm . . . well . . . DUH!

The Study is Absolutely Irrelevant (5, Informative)

R4nm4-kun (1302737) | more than 6 years ago | (#23674551)

First of all, I am a CS bachelor from Romania, and I'd like to state some facts about the study that's referenced here:

1) The Euro 200 program was just a PR stunt of our goverment to get more votes, it was never ment as an educational program.
2) This program consisted just in giving a 200 euro reduction to children from relatively poor households if they bought a computer. It was never associated with an educational program, or any educational software(as in programs, ebooks, or anything at all).
3) The children who benifited from this program being mainly poor children, so even if they wanted to learn something, most of them didn't have the money to buy software, or to pay for an internet connection.
Adding to this most of the computers you could buy in Romania would come readily installed with a pirated version of Windows and full of pirated games and other pirate booty.
So let me explain it clearly:

The study is absolute *insert word here* because:
Even if those kids wanted to do something else but play pirated games on a pirated version of windows, they couldn't have done it, they didn't have any learning material or an internet connection.
On top of which there was no educational program that would allow the schools to help the children use the computers for educational purposes.
(OK, in order to avoid comments, there was and is a computerized educational program in Romania called AEL [advanced e-learning or something like that], which consists in a crappy CMS that's practically unusable, and has such a restrictive licence that you're not even allowed to look at it, not to speak of taking it home, at least this was the case 3 years ago)

The Euro200 program is totally oposed to the OLPC initiative wich consists in giving children small low-performance linux laptops(at least that was the idea not to long ago) full with educational software and an educational program that makes full use of those notebooks as an educational tool.
The idea is not in giving children computers, it's in giving them the oportunity to use them as educational tools.
If you give kids a relatively powerfull desktop with windows and full of games do you really expect them to study all day or to play games all day.
On The other hand, if you give them low-performance laptops, full with educational software and help them and require them to use these laptops for educational purposes, then you really can expect results.

a little critical thinking please (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23674575)

why would you need to worry about theft and security measures if everybody has one .. wasn't that the idea .. everybody gets one? OLPC

ask yourself a question or two .. as an example:

why did 80 million germans go along with hitler's invasion of poland and the extermination of the gypsies,the poor, the hebrews, etc. note: only about half of those exterminated were hebrews ..

how many germans were employed in the then military industrial complex or were generating their fortunes through the war effort ..

or maybe three ..

how effective would the nazis have been with access to modern technology?

plausible (1)

posys (1120031) | more than 6 years ago | (#23674631)

good point

Two things. (1)

Lerc (71477) | more than 6 years ago | (#23675205)

Two things. The XO has a led indicating when the camera is operational.

The camera doesn't work if you put a sticker over it.

PDF of the USENIX paper (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23675347)

Can be found here:

https://www.cosic.esat.kuleuven.be/publications/private/article-1042.pdf

Lets see if I get this right... (2, Insightful)

rickb928 (945187) | more than 6 years ago | (#23675605)

- Government gives out laptops to schoolchildren

- Laptops can be 'controlled' by government

- fear that bad behaviour (in the eyes of the government) will result in laptops being disabled, and schoolchildren punished.

Wow. Sounds a little like Maine's http://www.mainelearns.org/ [mainelearns.org] MLTI initiative...

- Hand out laptops

- Monitor them, after all even though they are inside a protictive proxy server, sometimes bad things get past that...

- Cut off the entire school system, if necessary, to protect the students.

- Fear among students that anything interesting will be blocked. taking the laptops home only requires their parents pay for insurance against damage/loss. At a very reasonable (for the insurer) cost.

- Effective control of the laptops, since they actually belong to the government.

Well, maybe I'm being a bit harsh. Though I wonder how much OLPCs would cost v. iBooks, and how much more/less useful they would be. The OLPC could use a big Stateside order, eh?

Don't hold yer breath, chummy...

Chilling Effects and the OLPC (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23675759)

The paper as presented paints a grim picture - the effects of loss of agency on children in the intended target population (ages 6-12) can be catastrophic if maximizing a belief in personal liberty is your goal. However, not all hope is lost for the OLPC.

I am lucky enough to be a personal friend of the main author's and spent a good half-hour discussing the paper with her while it was being written. I reached two conclusions about Bitfrost and the impact of this security policy on the future of the OLPC project.

One, this was a compromise decided upon by fanatics. I am a fan of constructionism just like the OLPC policy board, but I do not automatically believe that teaching children with constructionist methods will produce a population ready to fight tyrrany and produce enlightened government. I'm not exactly sure that the advisory board thinks this explicitly, but Bitfrost seems like the kind of compromise one would make for the sake of an authoritarian government's paranoia if one believed in constructionism uber alles.

Two, Bitfrost is a defeatable protocol. The way to defeat Bitfrost is to cause the customers who would most want the protocol to remain unchanged to themselves ask for a modification in favor of privacy. During the discussion I had with the author, the problem of non-government misuse of the keypairs came up. Instead of being used as a surveilance system by an authoritarian group, a NGO member could come in, infiltrate the physical location of the server, and remove the keypairs to provide a form of cover for various activities or remotely deactivate machines to cripple local education initiatives and raise tech-support costs, if nothing else.

This lead to the key to defeating Bitfrost - the black hat textbook printer attack. If a method can be shown whereby someone who stood to lose from an OLPC adoption, like a textbook printer, could send in an agent who could disable all laptops within an area while leaving few or no traces, even authoritarian governments would be willing to tolerate a change in the policy away from full-keypair transmission to protect their rather pricey investment. If someone can show how to perform such an attack, preferably with code, it will force Bitfrost to be revised.

How you measure learning. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23675797)

If they don't consider what the children learned from their "distractions" as academic, then their academic scores will reflect the time and energy "wasted" on what is not academic. This "waste" may include how to play solitaire, how to find porn, or how to program an operating system that beats out microsoft in the server market.

Academic performance (1)

bluefoxlucid (723572) | more than 6 years ago | (#23675927)

Measuring academic performance doesn't help; maybe school is boring as fuck but there's something interesting on the Internet, and by the time I've failed all my classes I know a damn lot about electronics and mechanical engineering. I did this with computers and security, so did 80s hackers...

Re:Academic performance (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23676905)

i agree 100%
what is the value of test scores based on rote learning?
why can't the self driven research/exploration and skills learned from that be quantified?
this article is so far off base- i feel like i was sucked in by flamebait in sheeps clothing!

True cost of a Princeton education in the OLPC era (2, Insightful)

Paul Fernhout (109597) | more than 6 years ago | (#23676791)

The OLPC project has multiple issues. That "security" choice is one of them, as in the Sugar GUI (as
opposed to plain Gnome desktop). Having said that, the rest of the article is FUD.
These cheap laptops are revolutionizing the possibilities for planet-wide democracy and education.

It is true children do better with adult involvement. But kids learn by themselves as well
when adults can't be present. The "Hole in the Wall" project by Sugata Mitra project shows that:
    http://www.greenstar.org/butterflies/Hole-in-the-Wall.htm [greenstar.org]

And work by John Holt and John Taylor Gatto and others call into question the political underpinnings
of the entire enterprise of compulsory education:
    http://www.holtgws.com/johnholtpage.html [holtgws.com]
    http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/underground/toc1.htm [johntaylorgatto.com]
    http://www.newciv.org/whole/schoolteacher.txt [newciv.org]
    http://www.social-ecology.org/article.php?story=20031028151034651 [social-ecology.org]

Here is an essay I wrote on "The true cost of a Princeton-style education in the OLPC era":
    http://www.pdfernhout.net/the-true-cost-of-Princeton.html [pdfernhout.net]
"This essay suggests that the cost of just one year of elite college education across the top fifty elite schools costs about the same order of magnitude as what it would cost to educate the poorest billion children on the planet K-12 using networked laptops. And that's just one example of the upcoming transition to a "post-scarcity" society we are in the middle of right now as a planet."

People can decry specific problems which have fixes, but the bottom line is that we can now
educate billions of poor kids on the planet for a fraction of the Iraq war and are not yet doing so.

Another related essay:
    "Post-Scarcity Princeton"
    http://www.pdfernhout.net/reading-between-the-lines.html [pdfernhout.net]
"And those trends continue to the point where, say, for *only* US$600 billion (plus some more for communications infrastructure in some places) everyone on the planet can have a personal laptop with access to all these services and others, including free-to-the-user voice communications. US$600 billion is about a fifth of the current projected total cost of the Iraq war. And if a family shares one laptop, this might only cost about $200 billion, or about the size to a recent mailing of "rebate" checks to US Americans intended to prevent recession. And the potential benefits of a connected planet to help everyone become prosperous together in a diverse and democratic way is enormous. Even just one breakthrough innovation, like, say, a general cure for cancer, developed by, say, a woman in Africa studying pond water who might otherwise not have received an education, might pay back that $200 billion investment a hundred fold. And, if $200 billion still sounds too expensive right now for a chance at world peace and prosperity, in another ten years, it might only cost US$20 billion ($10/laptop) to give every family such a laptop. And in ten years after that, US$2 billion ($1/laptop, same as some electronic greeting cards now integrating paper, printing, and circuitry). Or, essentially, at that point twenty years from now, the laptops are free, compared to the benefits and other cost savings (like not needing to mail paper as often)."

I tagged it fud (2, Insightful)

Vexorian (959249) | more than 6 years ago | (#23678009)

I am not a good fan of OLPC anymore, but really, this is ridiculous. I guess later we'll see a take of children laptops' contribution to global warming.

giving the kids machines without a corresponding level of parental supervision just resulted in distractions which ultimately damaged academic performance. By contrast, allowing children access to machines in a supervised setting, say an after school program via school labs, might mitigate some of the negative effects
Bullshit. Of course self-learning has a negative effect in that you cannot indoctrinate children as easy as before, call it "a disruption in academic performance" if you wish, but really, the kids are probably doing things that are more interesting and helpful than the stuff they were doing in school. Not really the laptop's fault, at least not entirely...
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