Here in Cambridge, the XO laptop is everywhere. Or at least it can seem that way, what with the steady flurry of press coverage that attends the global One Laptop Per Child initiative and its sturdy green-and-white wonder machine. Founded by Nicholas Negroponte and “a core of [MIT] Media Lab veterans,” OLPC last fall finally realized its vision of building an affordable, creative laptop that could potentially galvanize education worldwide. At least, that’s the hope.

The XO laptop really is a wonder machine. Its practical features stagger: the laptop is heat-resistant, water-resistant, and dust-resistant; boasts unusually long battery life; has an easy-to-read screen; and a host of other features, not the least of which is its remarkably low cost. And yet, its most public testing ground demands none of these capabilities. Last fall’s Give1Get1 program raised enough money to ship thousands of laptops to children in need. As a side-effect, though, a nearly equivalent number of laptops made their way to the living rooms of families across the United States who “gave one to get one.”

Reports from these living room testing scenes have been pumping through the blogosphere for months now. However, I was especially intrigued to read Virginia Heffernan’s take on the XO laptop in the New York Times Magazine. Heffernan watched a group of kids, born and bred in the U.S. digital milieu, explore the laptop for themselves. She observed that these young people were drawn into the practical aspects of the laptop by its toy-like qualities; that in order to hold their attention, the laptop needed to be almost overtly flashy. Her conclusion is surprising and illuminating, especially in illustrating the way one adult perceives children’s interactions with technology:

If Negroponte wants to convert kids to the global information economy, he might consider the chief virtue of the XO laptop: its lights and sounds. Even Western kids, whose toys flash and squeal, are drawn with primitive wonderment to the peculiar phenomena of this computer — the distinctive hums and blinks that seem like evidence of its soul.

Is this an oversimplification? How can educational technology usefully appropriate the flash and dazzle of toys? Does technology have an inherent flash and dazzle that, as Heffernan suggests, persists even for children in an environment saturated with electronic gadgets? This intersection of play and learning is fascinating, especially since this is precisely the intersection that Negroponte and his collaborators wish to take advantage of. How do you perceive the intersection of play and learning in a digital age?

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