Dennis Litky and the big picture of learning
Deb Levine revolutionizes sex ed

Derek Lomas and the Playpower Foundation

I'm tag-teaming today and tomorrow with my partner in crime (and husband) Ethan Zuckerman to liveblog the 2009 iteration of the fabulous Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. You can read about today's events at the Pop!Tech blog, or via the Pop!Tech 2009 tag at Ethan's blog and via the Pop!Tech 2009 category here on this blog.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy. Enjoy the conference posts -- not my usual fare, but hopefully interesting. (And to longtime readers: never fear, I'll return to my usual subject matter in a few days.)

CC photo by Kris Krüg.

Derek Lomas is a Pop!Tech social innovation fellow. (Here's a list of all of the 2009 fellows.) Lomas is part of The Playpower Foundation, created "to foster development of affordable, effective and fun learning games for under-privileged children around the world."

"Derek Lomas is doing something absolutely extraordinary," says Andrew Zolli. "You've heard about the $100 laptop experiment; Derek's here to tell us about the $12 computer."

Lomas asks, "What would you do if you were walking through a crowded electronics marketplace in India and someone tried to sell you a computer for only $12? I didn't buy it! I had to live in INdia for almost a year before I discovered that it is a real computer, and also that if you bargain, you can buy it for ten bucks." These computers are sold around the world, in Nicaragua and Pakistan and other such countries. How can a computer only cost $12? It uses an existing television as a screen, first of all. But beyond that, it's based on the 8-bit 6502 microchip, originally popularized with the Apple II computer and Nintendo entertainment system. The computer is effectively in the public domain because the patents on the tech have expired. Hence, it can be affordded by the emerging middle calss -- those who make between $2 and $10/day.

"I first encountered this computer while wokring in India...doing ethnographic design research on uses of mobile phones in urban and rural contexts." He decided to stay in India and teach a course remotely via Skype to students at UCSD. He bought the computer because he thought it would make an interesting class discussion. When he first turned it on, he wasn't sure whether ot be disappointed or amazed -- it works! You can compose 8-bit music, or learn to program in Basic. But most of the software was pretty low-quality, a hodgepodge of typing games and 8-bit karaoke. But his own education with 8-bit educational games was very rich: Carmen Sandiego, etc. "It occurred to me that if this platform had just a few decent games, and one good typing game, it could be economicallyt ransformative, because touch-typing can make a difference between earning a dollar a day or a dollar an hour.

The companies that makes these computers are concerned with keeping costs down -- "not educating kids." They can't design and research effective learning games. That's why we created -- a global open source community" made up of 8-bit hackers and developers. The intention is to develop 8-bit games around the world. "We are looking to move into some uncharted territory by trying to license some of that 8-bit abandonware software. It no longer has commercial value but would be incredibly valuable for our product."

Distribution network: giving this educational software away so it can be bundled instead of the 8-bit karaoke. The companies have asked whether there's any programming in Arabic. "We can leverage the existing low-cost manufacturing base and also the informal distribution network bringing these computers around the world to places where consumers are buying them."