MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte On Tech, Schools And The Covid Crisis

The founder of the legendary MIT Media Lab and the "One Laptop Per Child" project on understanding and misunderstanding technology and why your kid's phone is a terrible tool for learning. 'The real challenge is to create intellectual appetite and passion."

Nicholas Negroponte at our 2019 Disruptive Technology Summit at MIT.

As America heads into the Fall, perhaps the most important question facing every company leader has nothing—at least on the face of it—to do with business. It has to do with schools. For a host of reasons, from overall community health to child care to worker productivity to the potential long-term impacts on kids’ education, the ability for the United States to successfully pull off the 2020-21 school year has significant stakes for everyone leading a company.

At the heart of the issue is technology. Whether it’s access to the Internet or strategies for distance learning, there isn’t a parent or teacher in America that isn’t wondering about the how best to teach kids via their ubiquitous devices. For some quick insights, and perhaps some fresh ideas, we turned to Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the legendary MIT Media Lab and one of the foremost thinkers on technology of the last 50 years (read a useful interview with him about “How to See The Future” at our sister site, Boardmember.com.)

Most famously, he launched the “One Laptop Per Child” program in 2005, an effort to develop a low-cost, ubiquitous portable computer that would allow students around the world access to the Internet—and a whole new kind of learning online. In an email conversation, we asked him about the current situation: When it comes to learning and technology, what works, what doesn’t, and what opportunities we might be missing right now?

You’ve devoted your life to pushing the boundaries of technology in everyday life and democratizing its use. What’s surprised you about the way we’ve used technology in the Covid crisis? What’s been disappointing, and what’s delighted you to see?

Surprised by the sudden absence of blaming the Internet for anything bad that happens in society or the world. Disappointed by the knee jerk response that on-line learning is inferior to face-to-face, as it need not be that way. Delighted by finally seeing how self-evident “one laptop per child” has become, after almost 20 years.

One Laptop Per Child seems to have, in some ways, been built for this moment. What did you learn from that project about how technology and education might adapt to the current crisis for schools? What, perhaps, should we be doing that we are not doing with tech and education to be sure that kids are not being left behind?

With regard to devices, we learned that cellphones are not in anyway the right devices. They are foveal, thumb-based, and keyhole devices (not windows into the landscape of knowledge).

Tablets can be the right size, but are primarily consumption devices, more appropriate for reading than making, not well suited for what we called constructionism. Laptops afford the best opportunity to create and manipulate.

Obviously, tablets with keyboards or laptops with removable displays are equally good options for children.

The key is ubiquity of devices and connectivity, something we notice more strikingly in a Covid world. I am often asked about content, content for education, to which I reply that Guttenberg did not write the books. Others will do that.

Yet it seems most organizations are simply using technology to recreate virtual or watered-down versions of the status quo, rather than really exploiting the possibilities of doing something new in this time. What could business and societal leaders be doing differently—or better? What’s the missed opportunity? What boundaries should we be pushing here?

The history of new media is filled with examples of the new copying the old at the beginning, before a new medium gets its own stride. Photography engaged in portraiture and still life during its infancy. Movies, likewise, started with a stationary camera looking at a stage.

Computers, especially computers in education, are in that early phase. People who mistakenly believe that learning is about teaching or that thinking is about knowing, will find it easy to use computers for such. By contrast, if the most important thing to learn is learning itself, then the real challenge is to create intellectual appetite and passion.

Consider the first five years of a child’s learning — learning by playing, by trial and error, and by experiencing the world. Computer augmentation that kind of learning is the opportunity and is very hard.

How do you think this period in time will shape our use of technology over the long haul? How will this influence us culturally, and what might be the 2nd-order implications we may not be thinking about right now?

This period has forced many people to catch their breath, do less of one thing and do more of another. Without question, people are discovering themselves and their families in multiple and different ways.

A larger cultural influence, by virtue of being on-line so much, hopefully could include some blowback on nationalism, a pandemic of its own. For example, the current anti-Chinese sentiment is a misguided fear, based on an assumption of national adversaries—one where competition trumps (sic) collaboration.

Dan Bigman
Dan Bigman is Editor and Chief Content Officer of Chief Executive Group, publishers of Chief Executive, Corporate Board Member, ChiefExecutive.net and Boardmember.com. Previously he was Managing Editor at Forbes and the founding business editor of NYTimes.com.