The New Sputnik

October 5, 2007 · Posted in NCLB, OLPC · Comment 

I suspect many readers of this blog are not old enough to remember Sputnik (1957) and the massive changes that it brought to math and science education in our nation’s K-12 and post-secondary schools. But we are all beneficiaries of those changes. After Sputnik, the United States embarked on an extended emphasis on math and science that produced the technology that we use today, from computers to cell phones to GPS to the Internet. Sputnik was the wake-up call that jolted us out of our complacency and forced us to make some important changes to the way we educated our children.

In 50 Years Later, A New ‘Sputnik’ Crisis: The War of Minds, James Goodnight makes a very strong case for the need for a “new” Sputnik. The threat that concerns Goodnight–and most educators–isn’t as immediate or as obvious as Sputnik, but it’s potentially more pernicious. It’s the war for the minds of our children and the pressing need to use technology to reform education. Many countries that have invested significantly in education–China, India, Korea are cited–are producing more engineers and scientists than we are. Our students use a staggering array of technology, but very little of it gets used in school for learning activities. Where are the next technological innovations coming from–from a country of kids with iPods and cell phones or a country with advanced educational practices aided by technology?

And speaking of using technology in education, the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative seems to be nearing fruition after three years of fits and starts. For those of you unfamiliar with OLPC, it’s an effort to design a rugged, self-powered wireless laptop that can be produced in massive quantities and used by poor children in developing and third world countries so that they can gain an educational advantage. David Pogue, technology reviewer for the New York Times, has an excellent review of the XO laptop in an article called Laptop With a Mission Widens Its Audience. The article includes a nice video that demonstrates the major features of the laptop, some of which are not available on any existing laptop. I love the networking features, for example.

Would you like to get your hands on one of the XO laptops? As it turns out, you can. OLPC is making the laptops available for purchase in the United States for two weeks only on November 12. For $399, you can buy one for yourself and donate one to a child in a developing country. You get a laptop, a tax deduction, and the ability to help a child in the third world. Pretty nice Christmas present…