New Zealand should invest in education in the Pacific Islands, says expat

Professor Barry Vercoe says Pacific migrants could fill skills gap

New Zealand could benefit from investing in education in the Pacific Islands, expatriate New Zealander Barry Vercoe said at the recent Digital Future Summit in Auckland. Educating people before they come to New Zealand could potentially contribute to easing the skills crisis and have a positive impact on the economy. Immigrants from the Pacific Island are generally not skilled in technology, said Vercoe. An enlightened policy for New Zealand would be to educate these people before they arrive, he said. Vercoe, who has created some of the software included in the One Laptop Per Child laptops, believes that the OLPC programme, aimed at children aged 6-12, could lead to a new generation of immigrants already familiar with technology and ideally suited for jobs in the IT industry the moment they arrive.

"It's a case of believing that young minds within any culture are able to soak up new ideas far better than they will ever do later as adults," he says. Vercoe, a professor of music and of media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, grew up in Paeroa. He went on to study maths and music at the University of Auckland and then left for the US in the 1960s. In 1984, he was one of six founding professors of the MIT Media Lab. The professors at the Media Lab are all in very different fields, but there are no walls between these fields and the students soon learn the art of lateral thinking, which wasn't a plus in 1985 but is a winning concept today, Vercoe told the audience at the Summit. The Media Lab has around 100 sponsors, each one paying between US$200,000-$700,000 (NZ$255,000-$895,000) a year to be members of the Lab. Sponsors get no promises about what the Lab works on, but on the other hand, they are allowed unlimited visits to the Lab and a royalty-free licence to commercialise any research they find interesting, said Vercoe. “Essentially, we are doing what we want and then run a peep-show. And it seems to work,” he said. Innovation comes from a clash of cultures, the integration of various disciplines and a high tolerance for failure, Vercoe said. “If you succeed, you probably haven’t tried hard enough,” he said. One of the deterrents of innovation is middle level management, which is generally risk-averse, and that tends to suppress innovation, he said. In 1985, Vercoe developed Csound, a programming language designed and optimised for sound rendering and signal processing, which is widely used by computer music composers. It is written in the C programming language, and is free under the GNU Lesser General Public Licence. Vercoe used Csound to make a karaoke machine that was able to slow down or speed up depending on how fast the singer sang. In addition, if the singer sang a wrong note, the software would correct it, he said. In fact, you didn’t even have to sing at all, you could talk in rhythm and the software would fix it and make it come out in tune with the music, he said. The very same software is now part of the One Laptop Per Child XO laptops. OLPC is a not-for-profit organisation, created at the MIT Media Lab but now a separate organisation. The US$100 laptop is built using components from Red Hat's Fedora Core 6 version of the Linux operating system. Besides Csound, it supports four other programming environments: Python, an object-oriented programming language; JavaScript for browser-based scripting; Squeak, a version of Smalltalk embedded into a media-rich authoring environment; and Logo, a programming language designed to be easy for children to use. The little laptops are made for networking; they employ a mesh network that interconnects all laptops within range, using the laptops' “ears”. Connection is one of the most important ideas behind the initiative, said Vercoe. Children in some of the poorest and most remote regions of the world will be able to be connected both to one another and to the internet, and so will their families. The graphical user interface (GUI) allows the children to see what their classmates, friends or teachers are doing, for example, using the internet, chatting, or using a drawing program, said Vercoe. It is like a virtual playground, he said. Vercoe was recently involved in sending XO laptops to a school on Gatokae Island in the Solomon Islands, where there are no roads and no electricity. When he went there to visit, he found that the children were very quickly picking up on how to use the laptops and then teaching each other, even though they have generally had little, or no, exposure to computers. This is largely due to the interface that has been created for the XO laptops, said Vercoe. The interface is very different from that of mainstream laptops, he said. Microsoft Excel, and Word, for example, are just not designed for kids, he said. The OLPC laptop features a 7.5 inch, 1200×900 pixel, TFT, sun-readable screen; three USB ports; and an integrated video camera. The XO has no moving parts, and it can be solar or foot powered, either using a crank, a pedal or a pull-cord.

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