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Education and the cloud at Ars Electronica

Pablo Flores has been instrumental in the spread of the OLPC laptop in his native Uruguay, helping communities learn how to use these new computers to blog and communicate to the wider world. (See this blog as an example of the work he’s doing with the support of Rising Voices.) Through Project Ceibal and One Laptop Per Child, 350,000 laptops are being distributed to children from 6-11 years old in Urugay. There’s also a widespread project to build wireless connectivity to support those laptop efforts.

At Ars Electronica, Pablo focuses on the thorny social questions necessary to answer if we’re to bring people like a young shepherd, pictured holding his OLPC, into the cloud. He posits that we need, at minimum:

– health, food, a roof
– functionging homes and educational systems
– access devices and internet access

But that’s probably not enough. For people to really take advantage of cloud intelligence, we need both good tools and a culture of accessing and making good use of the cloud in the real world. He points out that most Uruguayan parents aren’t using the internet without external help – they wonder why it would be helpful. We also need a culture of sharing knowledge, a culture that includes a careful, responsible approach to online publishing. This culture emphasizes support, including peer support – he cites an conversation between Brazilian and Uruguayan students which started as a peer support effort and turned into a conversation about culture in both countries.

Finally, Pablo suggests that we need to avoid black box technology. The success of OLPC in Uruguay has to do with the openness of the Sugar system, and he points to the ability for people to add onto and expand WordPress as a reason his blog work has succeeded.

Andrés Hernández of MIT Media Lab is a great guy to talk to about open, expandable systems. He’s working on Scratch, a programming environment that encourages people to learn Smalltalk, a powerful and extremely creative programming language. He sees Scratch, which is designed to let people share and explore each other’s code online, as a step towards democratising cloud computing. “Most people don’t have the knowledge necessary to build cloud systems,” but systems like Scratch may change that balance over time.

Scratch has gained a great user-base – there are 320,000 registered members, who’ve posted 500,000 projects including 12 million scripts. The largest userbase is young teens, between 12-14, but there are a lot of adults in the community as well, and they often end up mentoring younger users.

There’s a fascinating virtual team aspect to Scratch – Andres shows us a collaboration between young kids in different countries who’ve jointly started a software design company, collectively building games. It’s an amazing peek at a cloud future and what it might mean for kids.