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OLPC: It’s about the Kids, not Open Source

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People have been in a tizzy over recent executive changes at the OLPC (One Laptop per Child) project, but its founder, Nicholas Negroponte, in an e-mail to the group’s members on April 23rd wrote, “As we reach out to engage a wider community, some purism has to morph into pragmatism.”

Things started heating up at OLPC when Walter Bender, the former president of software and content, was first moved to the job of director of deployment. This was seen by some, such as OLPC Director of Security Ivan Krsti, as a demotion. Because of this, and what Krsti saw, as he described in his blog as “a drastic internal restructuring coupled with what, despite official claims to the contrary, is a radical change in its goals and vision,” Krsti resigned from OLPC in mid-March.

Then, the fire ignited when Bender resigned from the OLPC on April 21st. In a note to the OLPC membership, Bender wrote, “After more than two years without a break at One Laptop per Child, I have decided to take some time to reflect on how I can best contribute going forward to the goal of giving children around the world opportunities for a quality learning experience.”

Bender wrote that he was looking forward to the “goal [of creating] a complementary effort to broaden the reach of the software and pedagogy–a free and open framework in support of ‘learning learning,’ I hope to continue working with the great team at OLPC as well as the various groups that have formed around the world in support of one-laptop-per-child deployments.”

It sounded mild enough, but the war of words was on. Wayan Vota, a technology marketer and a writer for One Laptop per Child News, declared that Bender’s leaving OLPC was no less than the start of a war for the soul of OLPC.

Vota divided OLPC into two warring parties. On one side, “Walter Bender will be leading a one laptop per child global education movement focused on constructionism, as personified through Sugar, the Open Source user interface developed specifically for children.” While, on the other, “Nicholas Negroponte will be leading a One Laptop per Child laptop project focused on expanding XO sales worldwide, using whatever means necessary to achieve that.”

Negroponte had another take on this purported civil war. In his note, Negroponte wrote, “OLPC’s commitment to Sugar has changed. It is now larger, not smaller.”

By that Negroponte means that “Sugar is a very good idea, less than perfectly executed. I attribute our weakness to unrealistic development goals and practices. Our mission has never changed. It has been to bring connected laptops for learning to children in the poorest and most remote locations of the world.”

The OLPC’s mission is not, however, Negroponte continued to “to advocate the perfect learning model or pure Open Source. I believe the best educational tool is constructionism and the best software development method is Open Source. In some cases those are best achieved like the Trojan Horse, versus direct confrontation or isolating ourselves with perfection. Remember the expression: perfection is the enemy of good. We need to reach the most children possible and leverage them as the agents of change. It makes no sense for us to search for the perfect learning model.”

For Negroponte, that means, “Sugar needs a wider basis, to run on more Linux platforms and to run under Windows. We have been engaged in discussions with Microsoft for several months, to explore a dual boot version of the XO.”

Moving on, Negroponte wrote, “We are not a business, but need to be more business-like: meet schedules, manage expectations and fulfill promises. To do that, we need to hire more developers, work more together and spend less time arguing. Because of public attention, anything we say will be quoted out of context. We can only speak with our actions and those are only one: a reliable and ubiquitous Sugar.”

He concluded, “As we reach out to engage a wider community, some purism has to morph into pragmatism. To suggest that this forsakes Open Source or redirects our mission is absurd. Kids will be the agents of change and our job is to reach the most of them. That is not just selling laptops, but making Sugar as robust and widely available as possible.”

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