Dissertation Defense
I am thrilled to announce that I will be defending my dissertation, From MIT to Paraguay: A Critical Historical and Ethnographic Analysis of One Laptop Per Child, at noon on May 6, 2013. The first portion of my defense is a public talk and all are welcome to attend (and there will be food!). Details are below. Please add yourself to the Facebook invite or the Google+ invite so I know how much food to order and chairs to put out. In addition to (or instead of) watching my defense, join me later that afternoon, at 4pm, at Martins West Gastropub (http://www.martinswestgp.com) at 831 Main Street in Redwood City for drinks in either celebration or condolences. Note that Martins West has free corkage for Monday happy hour! Again, please add yourself to the Facebook invite or the Google+ invite so I have an approximate headcount.

Dissertation Details

Title: From MIT to Paraguay: A Critical Historical and Ethnographic Analysis of One Laptop Per Child

Abstract (short version):

One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) represents one of the largest experiments in laptop-driven learning currently underway. Since its founding in 2005, OLPC has been promoting their custom-designed "XO" laptops as a solution for learning and economic growth in the developing world. Almost three million of these laptops are in use - 85% of them in Latin America - and the project has inspired other initiatives in both education and low-cost computing.

The little green and white XO laptop has become a focal point for diverse and sometimes contradictory discourses about children, technology, education, and development, bringing unlikely groups into conversation around this charismatic object. OLPC and the educational philosophy that inspired it, constructionism, both hailing from the MIT Media Lab, frame themselves as a radical break from unchanging educational tradition. I first explore what the laptops developers intended it to do through a reading of literature about the laptop and the features of the laptop itself. I then compare these intentions with what the laptop is actually doing in a small but well-supported project of 9000 laptops in Paraguay, based on six months of ethnographic fieldwork.

In the process, I examine the role that a utopian framing plays in evangelizing OLPC and in making the XO laptop a charismatic object on one hand, and limiting its integration into the messy realities of day-to-day use on the other. In closely examining the ideas built into OLPC's laptops and the ways in which children actually use the machines, my research sheds light on the complicated and often contentious debate over the symbolic and actual role of technology in childhood, education, and development.

Directions and Parking

The defense will take place in: McClatchy Hall is on the left side of the Main Quad of Stanford Campus, close to Palm Oval. The map below marks the location of McClatchy as well as all of the visitor parking that I know about in the area. Mendenhall Library is immediately in front of you if you enter McClatchy from the front door, the one facing Palm Oval.

View Visitor Parking near McClatchy Hall, Stanford University in a larger map

Driving Directions

I've compiled a map of parking available near McClatchy Hall at http://goo.gl/maps/AIBla.

From Highway 101 North & South:

From Highway 280 North or South: From El Camino Real:

Directions to McClatchy Hall from CalTrain

From Palo Alto Station:


I can't make it. Can I watch it remotely/later?

No promises. I'd like to record it but I expect things to be a bit crazy that day, and even if I record it I may not put it up. I'm hoping to have some more publications out on the subject soon, though.

Is this your graduation?

Nope, this is my opportunity to present and defend my dissertation research to my dissertation reading committee (and to present the work publicly to whoever wants to come to the presentation). This is done in person, unlike at Berkeley, which doesn't have an oral defense. This *is* one of the last hurdles between me and graduation, in addition to filing the final draft of my dissertation with Stanford, but it isn't the graduation itself.

How does a dissertation defense work?

It's different at every university and even every program, but I'll tell you how it is at Stanford in the Department of Communication. First, I did the incredibly complicated negotiation of finding a time when five very busy professors are all available. Done!

Then, at least three weeks before that date I give a full draft of my dissertation to my dissertation committee, which consists of three professors from my department and at least one from another department. These weeks give them all a chance to read it carefully (well, ideally :)) and to formulate opinions on what might need to change for me to graduate.

The day of the defense, we all meet at the aforementioned time and location, along with a dissertation chair that makes sure university rules are followed. I give a 30-45 minute talk to my committee, the chair, and the general public, followed by around 15 minutes of questions. I organize food for it myself if I want (and since it'll be lunchtime, I will!).

Then everyone but me and the committee leaves the room. The committee asks all of the remaining questions they have for me about my dissertation research.

Then I, too, leave the room and the committee deliberates on whether I've done enough work to merit a PhD. They call me back in at the end and tell me whether I passed my "oral examination" (the defense) and what changes I have to make to my dissertation before I can file it. One benchmark they have for this is how well I followed through on the promises I made in my dissertation proposal, which my committee has previously approved.

Then, if all goes well, I'll file by June 5 and graduate on June 16!

What is it like to write a dissertation?

Arduous but ultimately rewarding (I can say this because there's light at the end of the tunnel). I started on this research project back in 2008, when I wrote a term paper on One Laptop Per Child for my advisor Fred Turner's graduate seminar. I became fascinated with the project and the promises it made, and arranged to do six months of fieldwork in Paraguay (with visits to Uruguay and Peru as well) to see how OLPC's laptops were actually being used in the world. (My department didn't quite know what to make of overseas fieldwork, and I ended up withdrawing from the program for this time, since otherwise I pay my way by being a teaching assistant.)

When I returned, I had notebooks full of fieldnotes from school observations and the audio of 133 interviews I conducted in Spanish. It took me about a year to transcribe and translate them all (well, I also got married that year, which was a bit of a distraction), and then another year and a half to write up my results.

My dissertation consists of five chapters: an introduction that includes a review of related literature and a description of my methods, three chapters on my findings, and a conclusion. Each chapter is about 50 pages long, except for the conclusion, making the whole dissertation about 250 pages.