Constructivist Theory and the One Laptop Per Child Project

Cross-posted at the ClassLink blog.


Benjamin Mako Hill, in his recent article, “One Laptop per Child Liberation” explores the philosophy behind Nicholas Negroponte’s XO laptop’s operating system, and the OLPC project. Hill writes in response to news reports that Microsoft (see latest announcement) is working to get a slimmed down version of its operating system running on the XO.


The entire OLPC project’s underlying philosophy, according to Hill can be boiled down to the following statement:

…technology will define the terms on which students communicate, collaborate, create, and learn. These terms are dictated by those with the ability to change the software — by those with access to computers, the source necessary to make changes, and the freedom to share and collaborate.”

Hill argues that the OLPC’s commitment to free software was not just meant to keep costs down. In fact, the primary reason for an open source system was meant to create a powerful, ‘Constructivist’ learning environment…

“… that could be used, tweaked, reinvented, and reapplied by its young users. Through these processes, the XO becomes a force for learning about computation and an environment through which children and their communities can use technology on their terms and in ways that are appropriate and self-directed.”

Constructivism, Hill continues

is about putting powerful tools and control over those tools into the hands of learners. It is about learning through exploration and creation — about shaping one’s own educational environment. Constructionist principles bear no small similarity to free software principles. “

In our schools today, educators, not students, create school learning environments, develop the curriculum, decide on the tools, choose the pedagogies…with no input from the student learners. Consequently, students feel dis-empowered and not accountable for their own learning.

Free software and constructionism put learners in charge of their educational environment in the most explicit and important way possible. They create a culture of empowerment. Creation, collaboration, and critical engagement becomes the norm”

Hill feels that the educational transformation that the OLPC project seeks to create is embodied in the philosophy of empowering learners and teachers alike to access free, open source systems that they can control. In so doing they take control, and responsibility, for their own learning.


He goes on to summarize his hopes for the future:

We can help foster a world where technology is under the control of its users, and where learning is under the terms of its students — a world where every laptop owner has freedom through control over the technology they use to communicate, collaborate, create, and learn.”

It’s a lot to ponder, and perhaps this transformational aspect of the OLPC philosophy needs to be explored by all educational leaders who are planning for, or are in the midst, of ‘one to one’ laptop initiatives.



2 thoughts on “Constructivist Theory and the One Laptop Per Child Project

  1. Pete,

    I might recommend looking at this more closely. OLPC and Negroponte are proponents of constructionist learning.

    Not constructivist.

    There’s a difference, and please don’t go to Wikipedia to figure it out, the articles there are not terribly good.

    Either way, you seem to use these two terms interchangeably and that cannot be done.

    I might posit arguments against both of these theories, personally, but either way the laptop is just a tool to be used in many ways in different situations. It’s not about the technology, it’s about the instructional design.

    Submitted for your thoughtful consideration…


  2. Thanks for contributing to my learning, Chris. After doing some reading up on the terms I like both approaches.

    Like you I believe that the discussion is more than one of technology or tools. However, I think it goes beyond instructional design…to empowerment.

    I would like to see students take much more ownership of their learning, much like I would like to see teachers do the same for their own professional development.


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