Frustrations with One Laptop Per Child Initiative

   
   
   
   
   

I have been working in the ICT area since the late 1970's - hence my userID of "lanfran" from back when email names were unix restricted to less than 8 characters. I am a big supporter of (proper) ICT4DEV, yet it was clear from the start that the OLPC strategy was flawed.

There were questions and issues raised when the project was first proposed, and those questions and issues are still being raised. OLPC has never felt it necessary to address the criticisms other than paint a rosy picture of what (maybe) could be done if OLPC could actually saturate developing countries with its computer.

The same rosy pictures could be painted if developing countries could be saturated with food, health, potable water, sanitation, jobs... whatever. The challenge is how to get which "there" from the actual "here", given the real context and its constraints.

OLPC only got going because its founders had friends in high places, and sold their story to people (funders, Ministers of this/that) who seldom understood the field and the challenges.

I was torn between hoping they would simply fail and go away, and hoping that they would learn and broaden their focus to education and human development, maybe with a bit of attention to educational equality and equity within a framework of social justice. Once or twice it looked like they were about to learn, but then they are back to their "one note song" singing the praises of one laptop for every child.

It is unfortunate since they do get the press and the attention. They have not learned from the massive revolution around the cell phone...or any other of the easily captured lessons of the past decade.

At the same time, with the computers it has distributed it seems to have only picked "poster child" examples of what this or that child/site did (sustainable or not and at what cost).

Where are the monitoring, the evaluation, the lessons learned, and the feedback that has influenced the shape of the initiative? Even those factors that have influenced the configuration of the computer have been mainly technology and supply driven and not user driven.

Where is the consultation and evaluation with educators in the field, with those who would have to incorporate this technology in a setting already constrained by inadequate educational budgets and students facing difficult social determinants of educational access and achievement? What about teacher training, sustainable salaries and usable curriculum?

Where is the evidence that OLPC uses even this website, and other sources of critical feedback and concern, for anything more than reformulating its pitch and its rebuttals to one and all?

It is a sad episode when a technology-centric pursuit of educational opportunity and equity in the knowledge age leaves knowledge out of the process. This turns education into a game where, again, the rich win and the poor are left behind. A cynic might say it doesn't work for the poor in developing countries, but it works well as a job and a position for a lot of people inside and associated with OLPC.

I prefer to believe that they are well meaning but misguided, but a persistent failure to learn leaves one to wonder what is actually driving them. It is hard to believe that they are simply naive technology fundamentalists, driven by good intentions and bad ideas, and plagued a persistent failure to learn.

Sam Lanfranco is Professor Emeritus (Econ) and Senior Scholar at York University

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19 Comments

Hola!

It has recently been shown that their poster children used are FAKE! They use women and crop the photo to make it appear as if it is a male without her chest visible, while in reality the poster child is smiling at a cell phone and not the next generation of a FUTURE OLPC XO computer!

At the same time, with the computers it has distributed it seems to have only picked "poster child" examples of what this or that child/site did (sustainable or not and at what cost).

I am in general agreement with Prof Lanfranco's frustrations. Does OLPC publish it's strategic plan, annual report, budget, and management organization or does it even have these?

**** Elementary my dear Prof.Best critique I've seen. Why has'nt the OLPC been sold to the general public with optional OS's such as XtraOrdinary? We have many poor people here who arent stupid.Indian resevations, urban Hacker spaces, freegan squatters,unemployed autoworkers,highschool dropouts, et.al.

Mike,

You really think Americans really want to have a PC that does not allow you to see YouTube or other videos shown on many web sites? Out of date technology is what most people consider of their machine that can not handle these videos. Electricity is relatively cheap in the USA, so using 13 watts of electrcity WITH my OLPC XO AND my cable modem at this time compared to 50 watts with my 19" LCD monitor with my Intel Atom desktop is not a big enough difference to give up videos! Yes, I operate Sugar off a 2G SD card from my desktop AND watch World Cup LIVE from Espn! Would Americans rather listen to a radio or watch a sporting event?

Do you people even have passports? Have you been outside the US? You're talking about a computer that is supposed to enable cooperation among low-income people in rural areas: do they really need to watch youtube videos? Such ridiculous comments.
About XtraOrdinary, find out if it is completely 100% free software; if it is NOT, then it should never be included in the OLPC project or the XO fro reasons you should go find out yourself. Likewise, you cannot change the OS in the middle of a deployment project because it would also affect the outcome of the evaluations.
As for reports and other stuff, you should contact every OLPC deployment staff individually, since every project deployment has its own staff.

Hola!

I have an education in International Economic Development and have a passport. I have been to Taiwan, Hong Kong, The Philippines, Canada, Mexico, Panama, and Colombia. I have spent so much time in the Philippines and Colombia where I visited my past and present spouse's family. In both cases, the neighbors did not have computers for their children, since they could not afford to regularly use the local internet cafes.

My OLPC XO was laughed at in Colombia, since children with computer access could not see the Spanish Disney web site. My son now 2 there in Cali, Colombia views his favorite children TV shows online via YouTube. He is learning English from watching the original English versions. He attempts to sing the theme song in English as proof!

Ally Bank has a commercial that shows a child is not allowed to get ice cream, but the NEW child gets it. It says even children know that treating the New customer better is wrong! Children already know that getting an XO, without YouTube is wrong, when the rest of the computers allow it!

I don't get your point. Watching Youtube videos does not mean students will learn English. Youtube in itself is probably not what children in developing countries need; the idea behind 1:1 is not (just) to access leisure media, but to contribute data and knowledge so as to work together to solve local issues in communities. Why o Why are people so hyped up about online videos? Why do videos even matter when these kids need to learn to read and participate before they turn into Disney-channel consumers... get real.

This article was a "guest writer" for OLPC News posted to Commentary: Academia probably requested to get big picture ideas for OLPC's future.
You might want to check out what OLPCs competitors are doing.
  
www.netbooks.eun.org/web/acer/6

HP Mini 'Classmate PC' reveals itself at Computex (video) -- Engadget

Tim,

Your suggested alternatives all have the Intel Atom processor that I now use in my desktop. Sure, it messes up sometimes, but it is usuable even if I have to reboot it after visiting high memoryresource websites like Facebook, before I use my webcam with voice applications. It is liveable, if not optimal.

The fundamental reason why I expect OLPC to succeed where all other initiatives have failed is money. Netbook computers like the XO cost much less than printed textbooks. When someone funds development of Freely licensed digital learning materials to replace textbooks in every subject at every grade level, K-12, there will be no excuse for failing to deploy computers. The rest, including infrastructure, teacher training, and so on, come to rounding errors in the overall education budget.

Better education at less expense! Left and Right, rich and poor can all rejoice.

Hello Sam,

What lessons should we be learning from the cell phone revolution?

There's nothing one-note about our discussions with country teams, which tend to involve extensive workshops, preparations for potential deployments, and matchmaking with other organizations that can help them fill gaps in their proficiencies. Perhaps our public communications about how we operate need work.

Tim, we do publish our management team and goals. We don't have a public 'annual report' the way public corporations provide stakeholders, though that's not a bad idea.

We do publish material such as our deployment guides, and we link to all available research on OLPC's successes and failures:
http://wiki.laptop.org/go/OLPC_research

Regards,
Sam.

"Perhaps our public communications about how we operate need work."

+100... :)

It seemed to me that OLPC largely squandered community interest. Story after story was published on this site about people wanting to do XO pilots that couldn't order a batch of 10-20 laptops, and about how opaque the OLPC organization was, and there was no comment from OLPC personnel. Welcome, by the way: http://www.olpcnews.com/people/leadership/samuel_klein_joins_o.html

Refusing to sell to the first world, and refusing to sell to individuals, seems ridiculous. You can get a higher price selling to the first world, allowing you to cover software costs, while allowing the third world to just pay for the hardware.

Yes, distributing individual laptops is more costly and more difficult logistically than selling batches of 1000+... so what? Bump up the price to cover those costs and hire some people to manage distribution! I figure there must be people out there interested in volunteering to write software for the XO, and that pool of individuals must shrink dramatically when you tell them they can't buy an XO. G1G1 was good, but some people aren't willing to pay double (expecially if buying more than two laptops), plus there was only a narrow purchasing period.

I'm just an observer in all this, but I worry for OLPC at this point. Disabling mesh networking... minimal hardware upgrades and no price reduction after 3 years... people voicing the same frustrations today as two years ago? Hrm.

With the split of the software to Sugar Labs, does this bring hope for a bright future for the content? Sugar in its own right looks a winner to me. Or am I missing something?

I do not really know if OLPC is doing as much as it could with its deployments. What is becoming evident is that without the proper guidance and control any project/medium can be turned on its head...
http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/jun/20/internet-plagiarism-rising-in-schools/print

I agree with Mavrothal that OLPC could do more to communicate how OLPC works and I tried to find ideas suggested by Sam at wiki.laptop.org. The OLPC organizational basics might be there in the myriad, scattered information available, but perhaps the reason is "The 2008 economic downturn and increased netbook competition reduced OLPC's annual budget from $12 million to $5 million and a major restructuring resulted effective January 7, 2009. Development of the Sugar operating environment was moved entirely into the community, the Latin America support organization was spun out and staff reductions, including Jim Gettys, affected approximately 50% of the paid employees. The remaining 32 staff members also saw salary reductions.[23][2". How many volunteers are active in Sugar? Perhaps OLPC needs a turnaround.

In 2007 OLPC was partnered with Intel, but according to OLPC News, split in 2008 because Intel was getting too much of the glory as well as selling Classmates and chips to low cost laptop makers. Now the Intel Classmate design is being manufactured in many nations.

Acer is a fast growing netbook manufacturer using Intel/ASD chips in European Schoolnet's Educational Netbook Pilot with 31 Ministries of Education in a structured/progressive approach.

Is OLPC coordinating with Classmate or Schoolnet? With similar goals sharing information on what works best would improve the results of all concerned. ICT for education involves many areas in addition to laptops such as solar power, projectors, whiteboards and free content libraries for classroom presentations and textbooks. What is OLPC doing in this area?

My main interest is in Tanzania. I found 2 deployments to Tanzania listed for 2008 to Dar es Salaam and Iringa and neither had follow up information. Stanford OLPC Corps students had a deployment near Arusha in 2009 but the results are not listed. I also checked Nigeria- New minister of ed unfunded OLPC projecft because of Classmates and ASUS EEE PC competition

Kenya announced netbook competition for university students using specifications for netbooks. OLPC news announced 30 million OLPC laptops for EAC and laptops for North Korea a few months ago, but there has been no followup news.

I worry that even with good intentions and technology OLPC's Approach is Like Throwing Seeds Out of a Moving Truck.

I don't get your point. Watching Youtube videos does not mean students will learn English. Youtube in itself is probably not what children in developing countries need; the idea behind 1:1 is not (just) to access leisure media, but to contribute data and knowledge so as to work together to solve local issues in communities. Why o Why are people so hyped up about online videos? Why do videos even matter when these kids need to learn to read and participate before they turn into Disney-channel consumers... get real.

You got that wrong about YouTube videos!

My son is 2 and saying ENGLISH words after watching YouTube videos! He lives in an all Spanish home in Colombia!

You can pontificate all you want, but if the children laugh at you, the XO will not be used!

The issue is very simple: people won't spend 200+ on a very subpar device, when 350 will get them a real computer with technical support, warranty, availlable parts, etc.

Prof. Negroponte's idea has never given real value to prospective buyers. It was never a bargain and it is not a bargain today. Why should anyone buy an XO? (I know some geek will find an esoteric reason, but I'm talking about your average non-computer person)

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