Why Walter Bender left OLPC

Interesting piece by Steve Lohr

I sent Mr. Bender an e-mail, asking him why he left. He replied that he decided his efforts to advance the cause of open-source learning software “would have more impact from outside of O.L.P.C. than from within.”

I also asked Mr. Negroponte about Mr. Bender’s departure, and he called it “a huge loss.” Mr. Negroponte said that, in his view, some people had come to see open-source software as an end of the project instead of a means. “I think some people, including Walter, became much too fundamental about open source,” he said.

After the article was published May 16, Mr. Bender sent a letter to the Times, taking issue with Mr. Negroponte’s comment and elaborating on his own views: “Mr. Negroponte is wrong when he asserts that I am a free and open-source (FOSS) fundamentalist. I am a learning fundamentalist.”

I talked to Mr. Bender last Friday to discuss his views at more length and give them a broader airing.

“Microsoft stepping in is the symptom, not the disease,” he said in the interview. The issue, in his view, is whether the tools that bring computing to children are “agnostic on learning” or “take a position on learning.”

“O.L.P.C. has become implicitly agnostic about learning,” he said. The project’s focus, he said, is on bringing low-cost laptop computers to children around the world. “It’s a great goal, but it’s not my goal,” he said.

So what is Bender’s goal? The answer is the “constructionist” learning model derived from the work of Jean Piaget and the practical research of his intellectual descendants like Seymour Papert, the M.I.T. computer scientist, educator and inventor of the Logo programming language.

Constructionist pedadogy holds that people learn best by building things — solving problems by “constructing” answers as active agents — instead of by being passive recipients of facts and received knowledge.

Lohr goes on to say that Bender

thinks the collaborative, interactive learning environment embodied by Sugar could be “a game changer in how technology and education collide.” He says he wants to see the Sugar software run on many different kinds of hardware and software platforms, even on Windows, if the Sugar experience is not sacrificed.