(from newsletter)

Very likely if you’re reading this, you love shiny new toys. Especially intriguing are the clever ones: the iPhone’s, Wii’s, and XO laptops. Handling a new inspired design is a little slice of Christmas morning, a reminder of a time when gadget play was all that mattered.

The XO is quite an eye-catcher. One look and you know it’s something to pick up and explore. Like so many toys that make our daily grind a bit better … Bluetooth headsets, touchscreen remotes, talking GPS nav … the XO excites our imagination with its swivel screen, mesh networking, and low low cost.

But here’s the thing: it’s just a box. Through all the press and praise and endless talk, the XO is merely a wrapper around the real Christmas present. Contained within its rugged plastic case, you’ll find the means to make your own toys. Forget the distractions we’ve come to crave, this little machine holds the power to fundamentally change how we think and learn.

But only if we unwrap the surprise inside, the crown jewel of the XO laptop: Squeak Etoys. As software pioneer Alan Kay has said, “The computer is simply an instrument whose music is ideas.” Etoys lets you play “idea music” with an unexpected grace. It helps you visualize and explore abstract ideas, which makes the lesson learnable. With Etoys, you make models as real as Rubik’s cubes, then tinker with them till new truths are found.

Waveplace teaches how to teach this. Just as music is best learned while working closely with a music teacher, the magic of Etoys comes across best while working with an enthusiastic mentor. Waveplace trains mentors to encourage purposeful play, to engage children in their own learning, to guide their discoveries. This transforming magic, what we call “spark”, is the shiniest toy of all.

Yesterday in a talk with OLPC, we were again confronted with their “airdrop model” of laptop distribution (the term is mine). OLPC advocates a “full saturation” approach to giving laptops to schools and countries. When Waveplace then says, “Our plan is to start with a smaller pilot and scale teacher training to assure effectiveness”, they counter with their belief that larger numbers have a magic all their own. Their experience is that full saturation is more important than scaled training.

Now these are smart guys with a lot of experience at this, so I’m tempted to believe them. I’m also aware that this airdrop model has been a chief criticism of OLPC’s approach. While I agree with making a laptop that’s “better than a bad teacher, or no teacher”, I’d have to say I’m with Alan Kay when he says, “you can buy pianos for a school, but they work better with music lessons,” so much so that it’s the chief mission of Waveplace. We make laptop lessons. Moreover, we’re following Alan’s advice with a one-to-seven teacher/student ratio, which seems opposite of OLPC.

So here’s the question … does OLPC’s airdrop model have merit? If you drop a thousand laptops on a school system so that every child has one, does a kind of kid-to-kid ecosystem really emerge that’s beyond the reach of adult interaction? Or does it just seem so because we’re increasing the odds of incredible anecdotes from a small percentage self-starter students?

Been a pretty cool week so far.

On Monday, Viewpoints Research contracted Immuexa to redesign their Squeakland website. Given that Etoys is the crown jewel in the OLPC lineup, we’re pretty excited. We’re hoping to launch this winter.

On Tuesday, OLPC started mass production of the XO laptops. I’ve been a fly on the wall listening to their team talk for months. Having been entrenched in development mayhem much of my life, let me simply say it’s a big accomplishment. Congrats to all.

On Wednesday, we launched the beta of Blazemark 2.0, which is being shown at a fire-fighting convention in Las Vegas. This most recent fruit of our labors may actually save lives, which is humbling and gratifying.

Today, I’m loading my XO with the newest build and shipping it to Saint John for our pre-pilot, where our team will teach one student in preparation for our full pilot in December. It’ll be sad to see the little tyke go. My two-year old is particularly fond of TamTam.

Tomorrow, I’ll be signing the final papers for the creation of Waveplace Foundation Inc, a new 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to bringing digital media skills to West Indian children. We’ve got nine board members steering the ship, all of whom are true believers in all things OLPC.

Next week should be even cooler. I’m traveling to Boston to meet with Walter Bender, Jim Gettys, and SJ Klein at OLPC headquarters.

Stay tuned.

Yesterday we received our very own XO laptop from OLPC to play with. We’d seen one up close at Squeakfest last August, but now we’ve got time to get to know it and show it off to others.

Here Paula’s trying Squeak Etoys on it:

As you can see next to her 15″ MacBook, the XO is made for little hands. I was very pleased with its performance. Fedora & Sugar booted in a minute and Etoys loaded in about ten seconds which is plenty fast enough.

Also very impressive was the reflective display. You really can read things in full sunlight, which I had heard about but didn’t really appreciate till today. It’s a wonderful thing to behold, and saves power as well.

There’s too many things to note in one post. Tonight I upgraded to the latest build and talked with some of the developers. They’re inches away from code complete, which is always a heady time in any software project.

An excerpt from IRC:

<Mitch_Bradley> has NN seen the new screens?   I need affirmation.
<cjb> You're a unique and beautiful snowflake.
<jg> does that mean he melts and becomes all wet?
<kimquirk> I think it was just the flake part...

Anyway, today I make my first Etoys tutorial movie. More tomorrow.