An interesting interview with Walter Bender, the creator of the version of Linux that has been included in the One Laptop Per Child project, appears in this month’s Learning & Technology magazine. When asked whether Sugar, the Linux version developed, would be modified to support tablet PC’s and other keyboard-less devices, he responds:
But to me, the thing you want in elementary education is a tool that makes writing easy. So I am hoping that the idea of a keyboard isn’t totally abandoned. I think keyboards are the most efficient tools we have for entering text. On-screen keyboards and pen-based interfaces are nice romantic notions, but they are not very pragmatic.
I couldn’t agree more. I’m often asked in relation to my proposed Citizen Professional Toolkit why my focus isn’t more on the new smartphone and similar moblie devices. I must admit I’m very impressed with these devices and do see considerable merit in them. Indeed, I am finding I depend on my Blackberry Curve for an increasing number of activities, allowing me to travel without my laptop a lot more. But I still don’t use it to create much more than brief notes or short email messages — I can’t type 80-100 words per minute on it yet, nor doubt I’ll ever get to that speed. I’m even slower on the new iPhone than on my Curve. Worse still on pen-based devices.
Now, there is something about using paper and pencil, rather than a computer, that is undoubtedly important, in terms of motor-skill development. It’s important to interact with the physical world and manipulate things. But I don’t see it as an either-or proposition; you can have kids be doing lots of things with the physical world and also be using a computer. The big danger is not whether they are using computers instead of paper and pencil, but whether they are using iPods instead of paper and pencil. With these little touch-screen devices, rather than being expressive and making things, are they just consuming information?
I appreciate Bender’s take on what’s important here. While smartphones and other mobile devices are making great strides in becoming devices that allow creative expression, price plans, an emphasis on consuming multimedia hosted by the telecom site or their partners, and limited text input capabilities mean I can’t use my Blackberry to the extent I would prefer as a readily portable, always with me device. Laptops and ultra-mobile PCs still seem to have an important role as bridge devices, if nothing else, until these truly mobile devices reach the needed functionality level to allow for real freedom to creatively express what we’re thinking and feeling.