One Laptop Per Child and Premature Scaling

   
   
   
   
   
olpc robert kozma
Students in Latin America

Prior to becoming an independent consultant, advising government and non-governmental agencies and corporations on the use of technology to support developing countries, I was a professor and research scientist for thirty years.

I did a considerable amount of research on the impact of technology on teaching and learning. I also developed educational software for the Macintosh. Consequently, I can attest that empirical data are the sin qua non of both scientific research and engineering design.

Scientists posit their theories as testable hypotheses and conduct experiments to validate their propositions. Engineers design artifacts to achieve goals or solve problems. They test out these designs on a small scale and refine them before implementing on a large scale. Collecting test data is a standard practices in both fields.

But apparently Professor Negroponte doesn't follow these standard engineering or scientific practices, at least when it comes to OLPC. Without the benefit of a single study in support of their efficacy, Professor Negroponte feels that developing nations should spend hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase millions of XO computers to hand out to its students. At a meeting of the Inter-American Development Bank, he claimed that developing nations:

". . . need to do things which isn't futzing around and moving deck chairs. And they can spend the next five years planning. But that's not what they should do. They have to take action. They have to take big action. To do a pilot project is ridiculous!"
Now, the suggestion that drew Professor Negroponte's ire at the IADB meeting was a rather modest one. It was made by Dr. Andrew Zucker, a former colleague of mine at SRI's Center for Technology in Learning.

Having done extensive research in on 1-to-1 computing in U.S. schools, he suggested that educators in developing countries would do well to start with a pilot program and test the use of laptops in schools against defined metrics before rolling them out to a larger group. Professor Negroponte disagreed with him. He was even more forceful in his distain of pilot tests at TED 2006 when he claimed about the OLPC:

". . . this is not something you have to test, the days of pilot projects are over. When people say 'Well, we'd like to do three or four thousand in our country to see how it works.' Screw you, go to the back of the line and someone else will do it. Then when you figure out that this works then you can join as well."
I am glad to hear that some countries are thinking of conducting pilot tests, despite Negroponte's reproach. But these have to be something more than a press event when XO machines are given to groups of children as the cameras roll. And they have to be something more than just testing the robustness of the hardware and operating system.

The kind of test that Dr. Zucker and I have in mind would involve the introduction of the XO into a small sample of schools and classrooms in a country. Children and teachers would actually use them for at least several months, if not an entire school year. OLPC researchers would observe the teachers and students periodically and collect data on the extent to which the computers are used, the ways they are used, the artifacts that students create with them, and the problems they encounter as they do so.

The observed data would be compared to a pre-specified set of desired behaviors related to student interaction with the machine and with each other and to a set of desired learning outcomes - the kinds of things the OLPC has in mind when they say the XO is an education project and the kinds of results that would make governments feel that their investment paid off.

Given the "openness" of the project, these findings should be publicly shared with the larger development and educational community. If the behaviors and outcomes are on target, it's ready for full implementation. But if they fall short of the desired set or if the students and teachers encounter significant problems, then the hardware, software, or enabling conditions would need to be re-engineered and retested.

This cycle of testing and retesting increases the likelihood of success during a full-scale implementation. Final testing by independent researchers would assure that the results were not unintentionally skewed by the OLPC researchers.

To do otherwise is both contrary to standard practice and irresponsible. Countries that adopt OLPC without pilot testing are in effect conducting a nation-wide experiment. It is a roll of the dice. If the OLPC predictions are correct, the nation and its children win.

Of course, had they conducted a pilot test first, they would have also won. Indeed the probability that they would win increases dramatically; it just would have taken a little longer and cost a little more than without the test.

On the other hand, if the grand national experiment fails, it is developing countries and their children that are least able to manage the consequences of this failure or recover from the expended costs.

This makes Professor Negroponte's dictums not only irresponsible but unethical.

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44 Comments

The XO has been tested since February in schools around the world. Over 7000 XOs are in childrens hands right now.

From what I've seen in videos that you can see at http://olpc.tv the response from teachers, parents and students so far has only been extremely positive.

Of course I would like to see and hear more from children, parents, teachers, educators, organisers, researchers involved. Hopefully we will soon see and hear more from studies from University researches like LECUFRGS in Brazil who posts videos at: http://www.youtube.com/profile_videos?user=lecufrgs

Charbax,

What's the outcome of such "tests"? As Prof. Kozma correctly says (and I have been saying for long). these countries needs more than some youTube video, showing happy kids. They need to me scientifically conducted, and reported in the same manner, through accurate reports. Not doing so is quite irresponsible. Science is about peer reviewing, and I don't see this happening for this project. In fact it reminds me of the buzz of cold fusion, something that "didn't need" to be tested, "it just worked" but that was easily debunked by the community.

As much as I want this project to succeed, I think the strongest limitation is Prof. Negroponte's attitude. It's almost arrogant to pretend his creation must and will work, with basically no proof. I would be more accommodating if there were to be an implementation plan. But since there is basically none, all we are left with is some YouTube videos, which, as nice as they can be, they don't prove a darn thing about how effective these laptops maybe in education.

Thank you, Prof. Kozma, for making the case for testing with such eloquence and authority. I have been attempting to make this case for several years, but I can not claim a breadth and depth of experience comparable to yours.

One other outcome of a widespread implementation failure of OLPC would be the denial of funding for any project in the developing world involving computers in other than institutional settings.

Early in the argument I was often confronted with the statement "I trust M.I.T." - one not heard much any more, since M.I.T. has deniability. Now you hear statements to the effect of "look at the pictures - they're all smiling!". I use the word "statements" as opposed to "arguments" because they exhibit so little content or evidence of syllogistic reasoning.

It has yet to be proven that children can learn a subject with this technology. Scratch and Mamamedia are for entertainment. Sugar applications are fun to use and the kids can use it, but it is still more like edu-tainment than serious study. I have yet to see a fleshed out lesson plan for a serious subject.

"The kind of test that Dr. Zucker and I have in mind would involve the introduction of the XO into a small sample of schools and classrooms in a country. Children and teachers would actually use them for at least several months, if not an entire school year. OLPC researchers would observe the teachers and students periodically and collect data on the extent to which the computers are used, the ways they are used, the artifacts that students create with them, and the problems they encounter as they do so. "

As someone who has worked in research, I want to say that that is wrong design in that it would overlook many of the benefits of oplc.

When children in a community are given oplc laptops, the whole community now has networked computers they can use for many purposes. So you should look at the results for the whole community, not just the students.

Bob, you can't see this because you follow the traditional development assistance model where wise experts come in from the developed world and figure out the specific uses that the natives might use of technology (yes, I know you do that in consultation with the natives, but the goal is still a set list). And since you know about development you are surely aware that there has been a great deal of disappointment in the last decade or two with the traditional development aid model.

Oplc instead follows the open source model where you assume that people are really smart and if you give them tools they will figure out endless productive uses that no expert could anticipate beforehand.

Bob, remember when you got your first personal computer? And remember how excited you were because you could do anything you wanted with it? Now put yourself in the place of the students and the other community members when they get a bunch of oplc laptops. And remember that about 5 out of a hundred students will have a real interest in computers, and one in a hundred will become a total geek. And think of, for instance, all the programs they will write to help their villages.

Yes, there are a lot of cases where careful research should preceed implimentation, but with computers, the most flexible tool ever invented, the best thing is to just give them to people and let them figure out what they want to do with them.

To put it another way, with oplc it has finally become practical for developing countries to enter the computer world and to a considerable extent overcome the digitial divide. Why in heavens name do you need research projects to determine if that is a good idea?

I have my heart divided in two.

On the one hand, being myself an academic I couldn’t agree more with Robert Kozma. We have to face the ethical and scientific ‘call of duty’ that forces us to be serious regarding the pre-tests before implementing new systems such as the one proposed by OLPC. Besides, that’s also a standard procedure from government’s the point of view as well as from any international funding body. Nobody is going to buy OLPC’s XOs in the desperate way Negroponte suggests (he even sounds a bit like Steve Jobs talking about the IPhone!)

But, on the other hand, the more pragmatic approach suggested by Eduardo Montes, which I can summarise as ‘we all know it works’, is also really appealing from the point of view of the ultimate ‘winners or losers’ of this endeavour: the children in the developing nations.

I'll give you a practical example: After months lobbying for this cause in Chile we are faced with the same conundrum from the government’s point of view. They say: Should we take the risk with a novel, unproven technology and make a huge effort to adjust our educational system to it or should we wait and take the standard way to do so (which may take 4 to 5 years)?

It’s a hard question, because if we stick with the rational (scientific) argument that links OLPC with a better education, we shouldn’t rush.

But the whole problem goes well beyond education.

In the developing world, particularly in the Latin American region (I mean, this may not be true for most of Africa) an ‘OLPC-like policy’ such as providing thousands of laptops to the kids is also a 'trigger' or a catalist that can be connected with national competitiveness, bridging the digital divide, reducing social inequalities, giving poor people a sense of dignity, and so forth.

These second sets of reasons are in fact part of a political argument, which by no means is necessarily compatible with the rational one.

Yes, we should obviously try to find a mix of both arguments, but I truly believe that we should not wait too long.

Luis Ramirez
--------------------
Un Computador por Niño (Chile)

Eduardo Montez,

"Oplc instead follows the open source model where you assume that people are really smart and if you give them tools they will figure out endless productive uses that no expert could anticipate beforehand."

This is a very attractive assumption. I actually believe it myself and have based many of my designs on the assumption. But it is only an assumption and developing countries would be wise to test it on a small scale before spending hundreds of millions of dollars.

Furthermore, you certainly can and should test for unanticipated effects (both positive and negative). But are there ANY that you do anticipate before hand? You should at least collect data on these.

Also, you say:

". . . you follow the traditional development assistance model where wise experts come in from the developed world and figure out the specific uses that the natives might use of technology"

Actually, I think it is a very good idea to have OLPC tested by local researchers, indendent of OLPC and responsive to local goals, concerns, and contexts. I think Negroponte is far more guilty of being the "wise" outside white man who tells the locals what they need and what they are to do than am I (witness the quotes above).

Eduardo, the point I am trying to make is that rhetoric is not evidence. Negroponte makes "obivious" assertions all the time as if they are established fact and anyone who doesn't accept them is an idiot. One of my favorites is:

"we all know when your cell phone breaks you give it to a 12 year old" http://www.olpctalks.com/nicholas_negroponte/negroponte_digital_life_design.html

Actually, we DON'T all know this. In fact, I have never heard of even ONE 12 year old fixing a cell phone. Have you?

Why the outlandish rhetoric? Negroponte sounds more like a used car salesman than an engineer or scientist. If OLP is going to work, it will work. All we are asking is for some evidence up front--before the hundreds of millions are spent. Why should developing countries be told to get screwed if they ask for this?

You can be sure a lot of scienfici research is being done around every single OLPC test school in Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, Thailand, Libya and Nigeria.

Since the very first day, every single government must have university researchers and their education specialists analysing in complete detail how the OLPC is being used by children, by teachers, as well as they are doing work in every country and centrally at OLPC headquarters to have a set of recommendations for how one should integrate the OLPC in the education.

Just check the http://wiki.laptop.org for specialists reports on those OLPC test schools, on how those initial 7000 Beta XO computers are being tested in actual schools in each of those countries.

I would like to see more Youtube videos with english subtitles. Cause I think a video of the kids using it, of teachers and parents discussing it, is worth more than all research papers one can make. Really we want to see if the children like it, if teachers like it, if parents like it, and we want to see and hear from university researchers on video, a well as government officials and OLPC headquarters content and educationnal strategy staff. I want to see more videos of this, if anyone can contact OLPC to ask them to make sure more videos are released on Youtube about this from the tests and research that is being done in every OLPC test country.

Tests are being done, but launching mass production will bring in more and better educational material and educational theories will better be developped by OLPC and each country, so to push it to the next level is important. Do 3 million laptops sound like much? Well who are you to decide what is much to spend for EDUCATIONAL tests. Is there anything more important than education that's worth investing in at least 3 million initial laptops and deploy around the world in actual schools for testing? There is absolutely no point in asking for delaying the deployment of massive amounts of OLPC laptops. This should start as soon as a stable hardware is ready to be mass produced. This will also bring better content, better strategy, better support and better data for research.

Charbax,

to rephrase your quote: "who are you to decide what is not to be spent for EDUCATIONAL tests."

"Is there anything more important than education that's worth investing in at least 3 million initial laptops and deploy around the world in actual schools for testing?"

Simple answer: education itself. A leap of faith is NOT education. Besides, for testing you don't need to build 3 millions units.

You are assuming it will just work. The world is not black or white. What if there are improvements to be made, what if someone comes up with great ideas during the testing session that would improve the all platform?

"I would like to see more Youtube videos with english subtitles. Cause I think a video of the kids using it, of teachers and parents discussing it, is worth more than all research papers one can make."

Videos are nice, but as snapshop of a situation they don't make a case. I can go around giving away iPhones to kids in developed countries. I bet they would all be enthusiastic. But the real question is: would their education improve? Do you base the improvements in education on a the enthusiasm of a week of use? I find that rather naive.

I admire your optimism, Charbax, however as Luis Ramirez beautifully and pragmatically said: "we should obviously try to find a mix of both arguments, but I truly believe that we should not wait too long."

Nicola


P.S. Please excuse me, apparently I am not very good at finding things in wiki. Where (in http://wiki.laptop.org) can I find the "specialists reports on those OLPC test schools?"

Charbax and Nick,

When either of you find any quality educational specialist reports on OLPC pilots, do let me know so I can post the results on OLPC News. I have searched laptop.org and I've asked OLPC insiders, to no avail so far.

I am sure Bob Kozma has made some simplifications in his post. A real test is somewhat more complicated. For one thing, you need a control group.

But this has all been done and studied. Please read this comprehensive meta study:
http://www.minedu.govt.nz/index.cfm?layout=document&documentid=5499&data=l

I think things are much too complicated for a clean, scientific, study. the Laptops will be deployed in very variable, non-standard situations. These situations will dramatically change when the study starts. For instance, we know that introducing XOs will almost eliminate truancy. How do you correct for that in the control groups?

Winter

Rob Winter,

I don't think that you can only deduce scientifically valid facts if the test group and the control group have the same rate of truancy.

In fact a significant difference in truancy is a finding of its own.

However, if both groups are tested with the same tests you can compare the difference in learning success in a few well defined areas. The difference in truancy is then included in the resulting learning difference and it should be because it is a part of the school reality.

The only thing the scientists should take care of is that truancy (and other parameters like wealth, parent literacy, rural or urban etc) in both groups are similar BEFORE XOs are distributed to one group. If this and other parameters change after the introduction of the XOs then this is most probably an effect of the laptop and should not be eliminated from the results.

"However, if both groups are tested with the same tests you can compare the difference in learning success in a few well defined areas. The difference in truancy is then included in the resulting learning difference and it should be because it is a part of the school reality."

The problem is that the potential truant children will be "different" from the non-truant children in many ways. If you submit a paper from this study, the referees will immediately point out that the (lack of) differences between the groups are the result of the differential truancy, with the two groups considered consisting of different children.

Of course, you can counter that by making a predictive model for truancy and use that to distinguish between the subgroups.

My other point is that we are dealing with a failing educational system. And as Tolstoi wrote, all happy families are the same, but all unhappy families are different. All working educational systems "are the same", but failing ones all fail for different reasons. So it will be difficult to establish at what point the intervention acts.

And then there is the way the control group will be demotivated when they learn they are a control group and get nothing out of the study. So they will have to get something out of the study too.

It can all be done, but it will not be simple. That is my point.

Winter

Bob,

"This is a very attractive assumption. I actually believe it myself and have based many of my designs on the assumption. But it is only an assumption and developing countries would be wise to test it on a small scale before spending hundreds of millions of dollars."

But what you are proposing is not testing these assumptions in terms of all the different impacts that oplc would have on a community. Instead you want to study only the educational impact.

And why is that? I would say it is because you are a Western education and IT expert. Correct me if I am wrong. Present your reasons for why testing should not go beyond direct educational impact.

But beyond that, do you really seriously believe that overcoming the digital divide is something of uncertain value and needs to be tested beforehand?

So explain if you will two things: 1) why testing should be restricted to educational impact 2) why you think it is uncertain that overcoming the digital divide for a country is of overall positive value.

Eduardo Montez:

Where did Prof. Kozma say that "it is uncertain that overcoming the digital divide for a country is of overall positive value", or words to that effect?

To be critical of the OLPC method of implementation of is to bring down upon oneself sweeping accusations to the effect that "...you don't want kids to have laptops", and "...you think nothing should be done about education", etc. This is another such accusation not, so far as I can see, based in fact.

Eduardo,

"But what you are proposing is not testing these assumptions in terms of all the different impacts that oplc would have on a community. Instead you want to study only the educational impact. "

I did not make this statement, at all, nor do I agree with it. In fact, just the opposite. I think looking at educational impact within and upon the broader social, cultural, and economic context is essential.

What I am arguing for here is to first empirically establish that there is some kind of educational impact(boradly defined within andy by the local community) to begin with.

If one can not first establish that OLPC is having an impact on education, how can you reasonably expect that the educational impact will have a broader socio-cultural-economic impact?

Or are you just using schools as a convenient drop off point for distributing XO machines more broadly in society? If this is the case, why call OLPC an "education project"?

Wayan/Bob,
The first link in the post at the top of this thread is wrong. It should be (I believe) http://www.robertkozma.com/publications.html .
Cheers, Mike

Eduardo Montez: I want to interject my answers to your two questions:

1) why testing should be restricted to educational impact

Because the money will come from educational budgets. Simple as that. If the money would be coming from industrial development, tourism promotion or foreign relations, great, but since we're going to take money away from other educational endeavors and give it to the whole OLPC project, the main benefit should be there.

2) why you think it is uncertain that overcoming the digital divide for a country is of overall positive value.

The digital divide is an extremely vague, inexact term with little if any support from solid research. Normally it is used as the equivalent of "lack of connected computer-like devices" and it may be similar to "universal access" as used in telecom policy. In that particular definition, it's a worthless set of words, since it doesn't tell anything about what is being done in what contexts and for which purposes by exactly who. Many telecom operators, the main cheerleaders for the digital divide-ism, are happy to push it so as they promote their investments. Fine for them, useless for many. In countries like Peru, people living in even small communities (under 5.000 but more than 3.000 inhabitants) have computers connected to the Internet available for a pittance even in their income reality. Similarly in other countries of Latin America. So what? What tremendous, radical and unstoppable social and economic change has occurred? So yes, I think that (as usually defined) overcoming the digital divide is pointless. There are plenty of other approaches with more relevance and usefulness to be used here, but they are not as simple and easy to sell as the digital divide. Nicholas Negroponte told here in Peru that the main solution for the digital divide is OLPC, since the problem is current cost of computers, and that's just used-car salesman-talk.

Lee,

"Where did Prof. Kozma..."

I think it's Dr.Kozma ;)

Delphi,

Excuse me, but Dr. Kozma has achieved tenure at the University of Michigan. You can see his resume at: http://www.robertkozma.com/positions.html

To my thinking, once you attain tenure, you have the right to be addressed as "professor" thereafter. Others may not agree.

"The digital divide is an extremely vague, inexact term with little if any support from solid research. "

Not really. It means that some people have little or no access to digital communictation resources. As a result, they have more cumbersome communications (phone io email) and restricted access to information (no Internet Search, digital libraries).

Moreover, they also lack certain productivity tools, like office application and digital pictures/movies.

All these lead to lower productivity and less political influence with respect to those who do have these tools. What is indeed problematic is that the term is often used inappropriately for people who DO have some (indirect) access to these tools.

Think of the difference between people who have TV, Radio, Phone, copiers, and typewriters versus those who only have a pen and snailmail.

Seems rather exact to me.

Winter

Bob,

Lets make your suggestions more concrete. Why not start here with a research proposal for the XO?

A real research proposal is a lot of work, but you could start with the research questions, the proposed research set-up, and the selection criteria for the two groups, study and control. Add the measures for success/failure and the type of intervention.

Quantifying your questions is in general very illuminating.

Upto now I find all these calls for "Real Research" too vague to even criticize properly.

Winter

Winter,

Let me start by making a distinction between scientific research and engineering research, a distinction that I alluded to in my first posting. To do so, please bear with me for a mini-tutorial or forgive me if you know this stuff already. In the course of making this distinction I will respond to your specific request.

With scientific research you are trying to establish some generalization: that a certain causal relationship holds across situations. “The relationship” hypothesizes that some intervention (i.e., the “treatment” or the “independent variable"--the variability being treatment used [yes/no] or used to some extent [not at all > all the time]) causes some outcome (i.e., the “dependent variable”, such as truancy or learning--the variability typically being something like nothing > a lot). So let’s say we are going to test the relationship that states that OLPC results in reduced truancy, since we actually don’t know that “introducing XOs will almost eliminate truancy” but we hypothesize that it will.

This introduces two methodological requirements, relative to the design of a scientific research study: sampling and control groups. Sampling allows us to be confident that the relationship holds over a wide range of situations. Hypothetically, we could examine all possible situations but that would be impractical and cost-prohibitive in most cases. So we define the population of all possible situations (e.g., all primary and secondary schools in a particular country) and draw a sample large enough to drive the statistical analysis, randomly assigning some schools to the treatment (e.g., the OLPC schools) and some to a “control group”. This process allows us to statistically generalize the results we find with our sample to the population as a whole.

Now for the control group. Control groups are used to establish causality by “holding all other things equal” between two groups, except the independent variable and, of course, the dependent variable—in our example, the amount of truancy in each school. Sometimes the control is an alterative treatment, such as a competing intervention, or sometimes it is just the current situation, such as “traditional instruction”. Let’s say in our case, we will compare OLPC to traditional instruction but we could compare it to the introduction of the Classmate and establish not only causality but, perhaps, comparative advantage. In either case, the control group allows you to say that the difference between the groups on the dependent variable is “caused by” the difference in the independent variable. The problem, as you point out, is that schools are different and you can never hold all other things equal in the real world. And even if you could, it goes against our goal of generalizing “across a wide range of situations” because the situations would then all be the same. Again random sampling comes into play. This allows you to assume that whatever else is going on (i.e., what is called “within-group variance”) in the treatment group is the same (statistically speaking) as whatever else is going on in the control group. So for example, the number of schools that start out with a high truancy rate is likely to be the same for both groups. But if you want to be sure, you can measure some of the important things that might vary across schools (such as the initial truancy rate, socio-economic status, etc.) and control for them statistically in your analysis. And in any case, your statistical results are actually a ratio of the variance between groups (i.e., due to the treatment) and the variance within groups (i.e., due to other things). The size of this ratio allows you to say something about the extent to which the results are more likely caused by the treatment than by all the other stuff that’s going on.

At any rate, that’s scientific research—as you point out, a pretty complicated and expensive process. And also as you point out, control groups play an important role in this. But let me contrast scientific research with engineering research. In engineering research you are less concerned with establishing a general relationship across situations and more concerned with demonstrating that a particular problem has been solved or a specific goal has been accomplished. The engineer draws on multiple causal principals, often derived from scientific studies, to design a problem solution for a particular situation or set of situations. Engineering research is less complicated and less expensive than--or at least different from--scientific research. Because you are not interested in establishing general principals, control groups are not needed. But engineering research requires that you specify what constitutes a satisfactory solution or goal and it still involves collecting data from a sample of cases. However, instead of randomly sampling from across the population, it is more important to select a strategic sample of situations of the sort you are addressing with the design—in our example, schools with a high truancy rate. Also, because you are not trying to statistically generalize to a population, the sample does not have to be large. And instead of comparing a treatment group to a control group, you confirm successful application of the causal principals embedded in your design by looking at its use in-situ.

In our example, you would track the attendance patterns of truant students and map them onto their use of XO computers. You might look at how often they use the computers, the ways in which they use them, and the extent to which they collaborate with others in their use, and you might interview them about their use of and attitudes about the computers. If these data indicate that the design is working to reduce their truancy, you scale it up. However, if truant students are not using the XO computers or if they are having difficulty using them, or particularly if they are using the XO computers but not coming to school more often, then you have to redesign the hardware, the software, or the enabling conditions--depending on what you find with your analyses--and retest. Obviously, the data that you collect would be different if you are focusing on a different problem or goal (e.g., increasing student learning or fostering student creativity) but the process is the same. And you may want to complement your engineering research with scientific research but that would be for a different purpose--to add to the body of generalized knowledge.

Sorry for this long-winded response but I hope it helps you understand what I have in mind and why I think testing is so important before scaling up.

Winter,

"It means that some people have little or no access to digital communictation resources. As a result, they have more cumbersome communications (phone io email) and restricted access to information (no Internet Search, digital libraries)."

The first statement does not immediately produce the second. I can think of a number of situations where communication is not hindered by the absence of digital resources. Either, plenty of cases where the existence of digital resources produces the increase in communication problems and social disruptions.

Besides, what's "little". Without a firm, measurable set of indicators that are relevant for public policy work, "little or no" doesn't mean a thing.

"Moreover, they also lack certain productivity tools, like office application and digital pictures/movies."

And that means? Extreme poor in a city like Lima, may have access to a cybercafe for 0.30 USD and with that, Office / Open Office. What would that mean? Productivity tools can only be relevant in specific contexts. We would need to start discussing plenty different forms of digital divides, not just "the" digital divide. What's why it's a rough, inexact term.

"ll these lead to lower productivity and less political influence with respect to those who do have these tools."

Tell that to the peasants that have managed to stop my country through highway barricades, and the bloggers that cannot get our National Culture director to even acknowledge a campaign towards her removal. There is no causal relationship between access to technology / digital resources and increased political participation or influence; the instance you may find reflect social conditions prevalent before the actual development of technology and the influence technology brings builds on top of the actual relationships. It is not the other way round.

"Think of the difference between people who have TV, Radio, Phone, copiers, and typewriters versus those who only have a pen and snailmail."

Wonderful: in countries like Peru, and many others in Latin America, people actually are more likely to have TV, radio, phone and copiers than snail mail! The first batch are market-driven while snail mail is a public service. Funny, isn't it? A big barrier to the development of e-commerce in many countries is the absence of postal services (I know, I was in charge of reforming our postal legislation for about four months), and the cumbersome banking services. People getting IT and Internet access but that cannot buy or sell anything because no micropayments or delivery services exists is quite common. So, the digital divide doesn't exist but it is actually irrelevant for this particular realm of economic activity.

That's why is rough, inexact and inadequate. Check the work of the guys at www.dirsi.net, for one case of an attempt to create better indicators for policy work, including a slightly better notion, "digital poverty".

Winter and Eduardo,

I think you both make good points here.

With regard to "the divide", my experience with rural villages in Africa confirms Winter's point; they had "little or no access to digital communication resources". But actually, they had little or no access to any kind of communication resources. As a result, they had "restricted access to information", "lower productivity and less political influence".

I also agree with Eduardo. I found that having access to digital communication resources didn't automatically increase their access to information or their productivity. It mattered very much what information they were able to accessed. Typically, it was information on farm productivity that influenced their livelihoods and quality of life.

I think we can all agree that access to digital resources CAN increase the quality of life of the poor IF it gives them access to the information they need in a useable form. I think this a part of the equation that is not addressed by OLPC--will the information that villagers need and want be there and will it be in a usable form (i.e., in their language and matching their literacy skills)? Merely supplying XO computers to kids does not answer this question.

Beyond this, will there be tools and resources by which villages can not only access information but generate and share information, such as local best practices? I believe that OLPC does try to address this question, But it remains to be seen whether or not it is successful in doing so.

There is lots of research being made in each of the OLPC test countries where the first 7000 test beta units have been distributed since February.

But this 7000 unit test phase is not the same as when each country has at least 250 thousand units. The difference lies in the way each country will then invest in localised educationnal material, country-specific and global advise for teachers in how to integrate it with existing curriculum to improve the educationnal experience.

You can't test OLPC completely if each country hasn't yet totally invested in adapting their curriculum to OLPC, created localised Sugar Linux applications, and comes with it that each country can have a dedicated team of people suggesting on a blog, video-blog or something that teachers and local educators can consult for advise for new ideas for activities to better use the laptops in school.

So your suggestion to stay for years in initial testing phase in a laboratory isn't going to help. One needs to start doing it in a larger scale to give it a chance. And those limited number of beta test units are not as good as the final mass production unit and those few thousands cost much more to make since it has not yet been manufactured in mass production processes.

Bob,

"If one can not first establish that OLPC is having an impact on education, how can you reasonably expect that the educational impact will have a broader socio-cultural-economic impact?"

Huh? You mean that if, say, oplc was a failure in education, it would be impossible for it to be a success in the many other areas in which villagers could use?

"Or are you just using schools as a convenient drop off point for distributing XO machines more broadly in society? If this is the case, why call OLPC an "education project"?

Actually, I do think the project is making a mistake stressing education and not selling it as a general aid to economic development. That seems to be the result of how the project happened to develop. It was focused on education, and almost by accident produced a device with a thousand other uses.

"think we can all agree that access to digital resources CAN increase the quality of life of the poor IF it gives them access to the information they need in a useable form."

"Beyond this, will there be tools and resources by which villages can not only access information but generate and share information, such as local best practices? I believe that OLPC does try to address this question, But it remains to be seen whether or not it is successful in doing so."

But if you give a village a thousand oplc's, and do this for a thousand villages, then among other things you are going to have hundreds if not thousands of people with geek talents and tendencies who will learn to program and make web pages. And if the people in the villages need agricultural information, then the village geeks will set up systems to help them get it.

Bob, you make the same mistake over and over again. You pose a problem and then assume that it can be solved only by university trained experts, and that the villagers, even with laptops connected to internet cannot possible be intelligent or creative enough to do it themselves.

I have been thinking about this disagreement we have and have come up with an analysis. To start, go back to the 1960's when computing meant a million-dollar mainframe that ran one program at a time, located in a data center. Computing was very expensive and so it was tightly controlled to make sure it was used efficiently. So to use a computer you had to belong to the organization that owned it, you had to register with the data center, and you had sign up for every time slot you wanted to run a program. Call this the hierarchical control for efficiency model. It was a useful model, but the benefits of computing were very restricted.

But then technology -- Moore's law, etc -- made personal computers possible, and so computing became much cheaper. There were still data centers, but people could own their own computers, and they ran them according to an egalitarian, laissaiz faire (in a broader sense than the economic meaning of that phrase) model. People wasted as much time as they wanted, like runing video games, but there was an enormous explosion in useful programs, and computers came to contribute much more to society than they had in the old days. Among other things it lead to countless new businesses.

Something similar happened with networking. Originally it was under the hierarchical control of the data center, and highly restricted in its use. With the internet cheap, vastly flexible networking became available to everyone, and again it was under an egalitarian, laissaiz faire model, with a incredible explosion of creativity that lasts to this day.

While all of this was going on, many developing countries wanted to join the revolution, but the problem was computers were still much too expensive for most of their citizens. So many of them spent some money buying a limited number of computers for general citizens to use, and set up hierarchical control programs that restricted computer use to its most effecient purposes. And that is where people like Bob come in. The governments needed advice and research to determine what would be the most efficient use of their limited, expensive computer resources, and so they brought in consultants like Bob.

But most developing countries, as far as I can tell, don't see this as the ultimate goal. The plan was to encourage economic development through the use of computers and other programs, so that average income would eventually, say in two or three decades, reach the point where most people could afford their own computers. And indeed you can't get anywhere near the maximum benefit from computing unless most people can afford a computer.

The mistaken assumption here is that computer prices would stay constant. But thanks to Moore's law et al, the amount of money needed to produce a reasonably functional computer was steadily dropping. But this fact was hidden from the public because the component manufacturers, the big oems, and Microsoft, in order to keep up their profits, conspired to keep raising the power of the lowest-end computers on sale until they were far above that needed for basic functional computing.

But if you get past that and look at component prices themselves, you see they were steadily dropping, and far faster than incomes in developing countries were rising, so the cross-over point would come much earlier. In fact, oplc shows us that it is is now here, or will be in a few months when it is launched. Oplc has produce a functional personal computer that a significant portion of developing world people can afford (especially if you are talking one computer per family, rather than one per student), and in the next few years, as its price drops, an ever-larger portion of the developing world public will be able to enter the computing age.

And that means computing in these countries, like it now is in the developing countries, will operate largely according a laissaiz faire, egalitarian model, instead of the hierarchical command for efficiency model the governments have been promoting, and will bring vast benefits.

Bob, you don't see this because you have spent decades working in the developmental world hierchical control of computers model. But think back to when personal computers were introduced in the US, and how the data center people thought they were toys that would never spread beyond geek hobbyists, and would never be important. But they were wrong, and look at what happened.

Now with oplc it is finally possible for something similar to happen in the developing world. But you are in a position similar to that of the data center people in that you are used to working in a hierachical control model and so you are very dubious about a country suddenly going egalitarian and laissaiz faire in computing.

I think you are mistaken. Give millions of villagers their very own networked computers, and they will think of an endless variety of creative, beneficial uses for them, just as has happened in the developed world.

Charbax,

"So your suggestion to stay for years in initial testing phase in a laboratory isn't going to help. One needs to start doing it in a larger scale to give it a chance."

I'm not sure if you are refering here to anything I said but if you are I never said anything like this. In didn't say laboratory; I said schools. And I didn't say years; I said months.

Beyond that, you say:

"You can't test OLPC completely if each country hasn't yet totally invested in adapting their curriculum to OLPC, created localised Sugar Linux applications, and comes with it that each country can have a dedicated team of people suggesting on a blog, video-blog or something that teachers and local educators can consult for advise for new ideas for activities to better use the laptops in school."

I think this begins to describe the full complexity of OLPC as an education project. However, the implication of what you are saying is that a country must first spend $175 x 250,000= $43,750,000 as an initial buy in to jump start all these other changes and nothing can be "completely tested" until all this happens. The second part of this claim is valid on the face of it.

But the question is, can you "partially test" (or pilot test) some critical parts of this ahead of time so as to have some reason to believe it might work when all the parts are in place on a large scale?

I believe you can and it would be wise to do so.

Secondly, is buying hundreds of thousand of computers first the only or even best way to bring about change? This, I doubt.

In response to both questions, I think you can start with a pilot and bring about change iteratively. You can work out a hand full of lessons, train a subset of teachers, and try it out in a sample of classrooms that have XO computers. With this approach, you design, test, revise, and retest if necessary before you scale. At the same time, you are building an experience base and human capital that you can draw on as you scale. This is standard practice.

As I mentioned in the beginning, to do otherwise is a grand national experiment and a roll of the dice. Are you willing to gamble with the future of your nation's children without first knowing the odds?

Eduardo,

First, “You mean that if, say, oplc was a failure in education, it would be impossible for it to be a success in the many other areas in which villagers could use?”

Actually, I mean that as an “education project” it can hardly claim to be a success if it doesn’t demonstrate an impact education. I agree with you that “the project is making a mistake stressing education and not selling it as a general aid to economic development.” But I think more that as an education project, OLPC is making a mistake by stressing computer density and not thinking through the various other resources that are needed to bring about educational improvement.

Second, “Bob, you make the same mistake over and over again. You pose a problem and then assume that it can be solved only by university trained experts, and that the villagers, even with laptops connected to internet cannot possible be intelligent or creative enough to do it themselves.”

Please reference my earlier posting on OLPC and Economic Development. I’ve spent the last two years volunteering in African villages precisely because I believe they can solve problems that they identify, if they have the resources that they need to do so. And I have worked with them to identify what those resources are and how they can be obtained.

Third, “Bob, you don't see this because you have spent decades working in the developmental world hierchical control of computers model.”

This is where you really have me wrong. In 1986, long before I became a consultant, I developed one of the first educational packages for the Macintosh—“Learning Tool”. The whole concept of Learning Tool was not to use the computer to teach students by supplying them with information but to give them a well-designed tool by which each student could construct his or her own understanding. As computing evolved, I developed other packages in which students collaborate in networked environments to co-construct knowledge.

Eduardo, I think that you and I agree that the reason people in the developing world aren’t progressing quickly is because they don’t have the resources they need to do so. I think where we disagree is that you believe that the only resources they need are lots of computers and everything else will take care of itself, whereas I believe that computers are only one piece of the resource puzzle and perhaps a relatively small one at that. Along with computers, people in the developing world need appropriate software tools, training, and information in a form that is useful to them.

But this is a testable hypothesis. Let me propose another experiment. With one group of villages we hand out thousands of computers. In another group of villages, we hand out fewer computers but we also include access to the internet, a radio station, radio receivers, and some cell phones. We also train them in the use of these tools, develop digital resources that they say they need, and provide a means for them to develop and share local best practices, as well. To be fair, let’s say we spend no more on this second set of resources than we do on the thousands of computers handed out in the first case. Then we collect data a year later on the impact these interventions have on the livelihood of villagers. Which one do you think will win? Which one do you think we will scale up?

Pilots have been tried for years, and since February with the XO beta units. And reports are only positive ones. Even in a class that basically has teachers improvising the integration of the laptops and of the Internet into the education, the results are only very positive.

Sure enough, the OLPC and the OLPC pilot countries researchers should publish more broadly their studies, but you can be sure there is all the research being done that is possible to be done in the curcumstances of testing out beta units in different kinds of OLPC pilot schools.

Now mass production can start: http://olpc.tv/2007/07/23/olpc-starts-mass-production/

Bob wrote:
"Let me start by making a distinction between scientific research and engineering research, a distinction that I alluded to in my first posting. To do so, please bear with me for a mini-tutorial or forgive me if you know this stuff already. In the course of making this distinction I will respond to your specific request."

Thanks for the illuminating explanation. (as you suspected, I was aware of the distinction, but I am not the only reader here and I always value a good explanation)

I must say I agree with this and all your other comments in this post so far. My question is two-fold:

1 What is the difference with the current practise of the OLPC?
They are introducing XOs to target schools and are also collecting data. Obviously, they are NOT sharing raw data before they analyzed it. I myself encounter universal surprise when people find out I post raw data on the internet (a haystack is a good place to hide a needle ;-)).

2 The main problem is getting a good sample of teachers. There is only one teacher on 40+ students. That is on every 100 students there may be only 3 teachers. And the initial sample from the target schools is bound to be highly atypical as they mostly self-select.

But I agree, field tests are indispensible. But again, these are done now, so what is your point exactly?

One point made over and over again on OLPCnews is the discussion between people who consider the XO a tool teachers and children can use and those that consider the teachers and children unable to use the tool productively.

I want to rephrase it to an analogy. the OLPC want to give carpenters a power drill and electricity. Others maintain that they will be unable to use them without instruction and pre-drawn furniture designs.

Personally, I expect third-world carpenters to be able to make very good use of power-drills if they can get their hands on them. And they certainly won't need our designs. And indeed, all the reports today show that the children at least are very well able to make the XOs useful for themselves. We haven't seen the teachers, though.

Winter

Winter, the point you make about the power drills is a perfect example of why the term "Third World" is so confusing and misleading.

With the exception of very few artisans living quite away from populated centers, most of the professional carpenters in Peru, as well as in the rest of Latin America, have power drills. Even if they don't have electricity, they have car batteries to power them. Not that they used them all the time, agreed. But they have them. That's because most Latin America's countries are urban societies, with more people living in cities (especially the capital city) than in the rural areas. They have access to a lot of things, but it's the kind of usage, the implementation, the way it has been institutionalized, where poverty and lack of opportunities manifest.

Third World, as the "rest of the world", is a generalization that can really hinder our understanding of the world.

"Third World, as the "rest of the world", is a generalization that can really hinder our understanding of the world."

Please, do not consider this analogy as a take on how the third world actually "is".

I know people from South America, Africa, and Asia and I would NEVER even dream that carpenters there have no access to power drills or mobile phones and internet cafes for that mattern (although I know of regions where this is actually true).

I just used this hypothetical example to give an idea about the difference between supplying a tool and thinking you also need to tell the people how to use it and what to make with it.

Winter

Bob,

"Please reference my earlier posting on OLPC and Economic Development. I’ve spent the last two years volunteering in African villages precisely because I believe they can solve problems that they identify, if they have the resources that they need to do so. And I have worked with them to identify what those resources are and how they can be obtained."

You are again assuming that people can't figure these things out for themselves, and so need your expert advice.

"But this is a testable hypothesis. Let me propose another experiment. With one group of villages we hand out thousands of computers. In another group of villages, we hand out fewer computers but we also include access to the internet, a radio station, radio receivers, and some cell phones."

I have always assumed, because that is what oplc says, that it will include internet access. I am therefore very puzzled that you assumed I was excluding it. And once you have mesh networking and internet access, you can have voip, which partially replaces cell phones, and it is not hard to get radio access going.

"Eduardo, I think that you and I agree that the reason people in the developing world aren’t progressing quickly is because they don’t have the resources they need to do so. I think where we disagree is that you believe that the only resources they need are lots of computers and everything else will take care of itself, whereas I believe that computers are only one piece of the resource puzzle and perhaps a relatively small one at that. Along with computers, people in the developing world need appropriate software tools, training, and information in a form that is useful to them."

I have never said laptop would solve all problems, just they would be an enormous benefit, and more cost efficient than any other approach. The problem with training etc for everyone is that it is far too expensive for developing world countries to afford, while oplc laptops, at least one per family, is not. Or, if you follow the model for the proposed experiement that you presented, the number of laptops is so few that each person gets to spend very little time on the computer and so derives much less benefit.

Once you give people internet access, they don't need training from outside experts. They can learn everything they need from the internet or developing their own materials. We developing world people use the internet for an endless variety of purposes, and few if any of us had any training. Just give people a list of useful sites like like Google and Wikipedia, and let them go at it. Again, you are assuming that villagers are not smart enough to figure out what we white people did on our own. As to training people in how to use cell phones, who ever needed that? And as to developing needed resources, as I stated before, oplc means they will develop the means for doing that, too (or someone in the capital develops it once, and puts it up on the web).

That is because of the point I made before about oplc meaning many villagers will learn to program (and also develop web pages). Bob, I think it would be very useful if you presented your views on this.

My position is that if you give out laptops widely, about 5 in a hundred people will get an interest in programing (and also developing web pages), and about one in a hundred will fall totally in love with it and become very proficient.

That means for a million laptops you would get about ten thousand village geek programers. And these programers would write lots of programs, including ones that would be helpful to the villages, such as training programs, and also would join in open source projects like at sourceforge.org, and become village IT consultants, and many would eventually become employed in the field, and many would start their own businesses, including Web 2.0 enterprises.

My reasons for believing this are, first of all, human groups always contain people with a variety of talents and interests, and this always seems to include a small but significant portion that are born programers. And once born programers are exposed to programing (and remember oplc includes a lot of programing resources), they fall in love with it and do it as much as possible. And then they make use of their abilities in the ways described above.

Bob, where do you stand on this? First of all, is this something you have thought about? When you are out there in Africa and working in a village, do you think about whether some of the people in the village have the interests and the ability to become proficient programers?

And do you agree or disagree with my position on this? From your previous replies, I am guessing you think it is uncertain if I am right. And if that is so what are your reasons? Do you think it is possible developing world populations don't contain a significant proportion of born programers? Or do you think that they do but for some reason if they are in the developing world they won't fall in love with programing when exposed to it? Or that they will fall in love with programing but not become proficient, or will become proficient but won't write programs and the other activities I described?

And do you agree that if you got ten thousand village geek programers for every million laptops who were busy writing programs etc, it would yield great economic benefits? If not, why?

And how do you feel about all this? Suppose you walked into an oplc village a couple of years from now, and it included a club with a group of village geek programers who were busy compiling the Linux kernel and doing various other computer geek things. Would you feel good about it? You know, third world development is about having a dream and then figuring out the practicalities of getting there. Does your dream include the possiblity of village programing geeks, or is that possiblity left out?

Bob,

A slashdot commentator is taking it even further, responding to a comment that we will find out in a year or so if oplc is a success:

"In a year or so? What exactly do you expect to happen in a year or so? The end of starvation and civil wars in Africa?

"I think a more reasonable time frame is 10 or 15 years. I remember using BBSes in the mid 90s and dreaming about an internet connection and one of those funky email addresses with an '@' symbol in it. I would never, *never*, *NEVER* in a million years predicted technologies such as Wikipedia or Bittorrent. Nobody did -- not Bill Gates, not Negroponte -- not any of the Powerful Old Men in computers. It takes a generation of new kids who can think outside the box and have the free time and audacity to try something that everyone knows could never work. Even now very few wikipedia proponents would ever say that they thought it would be as successful as it is.

If millions of kids spend their formative years with a completely hackable, programmable, peer-networked computer, we are going to see a complete revolution of computing technology. It doesn't matter that they have brown skin, speak no English, or live in a jungle hut. They will do amazing things with programs and computers that the last generation would never think of. If there are millions of OLPCs distributed, the internet will be totally different 20 years from now."


http://hardware.slashdot.org/comments.pl?threshold=1&mode=nested&commentsort=0&op=Change&sid=254319

Charbax.

"Sure enough, the OLPC and the OLPC pilot countries researchers should publish more broadly their studies, but you can be sure there is all the research being done that is possible to be done in the curcumstances of testing out beta units in different kinds of OLPC pilot schools.".

We would rather welcome some proofs of your totally unsubstantiated claim. Proper research is documented, not claimed. If you can't provide it, please just avoid making such claims.

Eduardo Montez:

"My position is that if you give out laptops widely, about 5 in a hundred people will get an interest in programing (and also developing web pages), and about one in a hundred will fall totally in love with it and become very proficient."

That's merely wishfulthinking. We can all wish similar things but to base public policy on wishes, well... your reasons are not "reasons", they are expectations based on your wishes. And even if they work the way you wish they work, there's still the reality of what normally happens when people get the kind of marvelous skills you think they'll get: they leave the village, to get a better paying job at large cities. Maybe the economy of the country cannot absorb them, maybe companies prefer standard-trained engineers to self-made hackers. Whatever.

The issue here is simple: even if your dream of a thousand flowers blooming and a thousand programmers geeking out at villages happen, there's no causal connection between that and village-development or national development. There are too many other variables at hand, that can make everything fall down, from the completely overwhelming (war, ecological disaster) to apparently smaller but still significant disasters, like brain drain. What you propose is like putting all the money on one horse: nice if you like betting but lousy as a development strategy.

"third world development is about having a dream and then figuring out the practicalities of getting there"

And you base this observation on exactly what country that has left underdevelopment based on which successful dream?

"There are too many other variables at hand, that can make everything fall down, from the completely overwhelming (war, ecological disaster) to apparently smaller but still significant disasters, like brain drain."

Just as many factors determine health. Diseases have so many forms. But good health always starts with good food and clean water.

So there are a myriad ways development can fail. But to succeed, you need education.

Winter

Eduardo Villanueva Mansilla,

Quoting me:

"My position is that if you give out laptops widely, about 5 in a hundred people will get an interest in programing (and also developing web pages), and about one in a hundred will fall totally in love with it and become very proficient."

"That's merely wishfulthinking."

No, it is not wishful thinking. It is based on the fact that this is what has happened whenever a population gets access to computers. If you think there is a good chance that it won't happen, then you need to respond to the set of questions I posed to Bob, like is it that you think developing world villagers don't include include people who have the inborn ability and intersts to fall in love with programing.

"And even if they work the way you wish they work, there's still the reality of what normally happens when people get the kind of marvelous skills you think they'll get: they leave the village, to get a better paying job at large cities. Maybe the economy of the country cannot absorb them, maybe companies prefer standard-trained engineers to self-made hackers. Whatever."

It is a good point that a lot of them will get jobs in cities. But I am sure a lot of them, especially while they are still adolescents, will stay in the villages. Also, if as you say, the jobs are not there in the cities, then they will stay in the villages. If they are there, then that is good for national econoimc development since the country will have a lot more programers.

"The issue here is simple: even if your dream of a thousand flowers blooming and a thousand programmers geeking out at villages happen, there's no causal connection between that and village-development or national development. There are too many other variables at hand, that can make everything fall down, from the completely overwhelming (war, ecological disaster) to apparently smaller but still significant disasters, like brain drain. What you propose is like putting all the money on one horse: nice if you like betting but lousy as a development strategy."

I didn't say all other strategies should be abandoned, I just think that oplc should become a very large part of the mix. As to unforseeable disasters, if that is the basis for your analysis, then you will wind up in despair and do nothing.

So what is your plan? As far as I can tell, you don't have one, at least one that might realistically be adopted and be successful. I have been watching conventional economic development plans, and leftist economic development plans, for decades, and seen them consistently fail in many (not all) areas of the world. And you have seen the same thing, but are dedicated to opposing anything new and different.

Development is greatly dependent on technology, and here is a radically improved technology, and you think it should just be ignored. I think you are wrong.

Winter,

"So there are a myriad ways development can fail. But to succeed, you need education."

Cannot agree more with you, even though this doesn't necessarily mean that everyone needs to succeed for a country to become developed. Also, I don't think that access to computers provides for a better education.

Eduardo Montez:

"It is based on the fact that this is what has happened whenever a population gets access to computers."

Please tell me where do you got the information. As far as I'm aware, there is no single case that proves your point, although if you know of such a case, I'll be happy to acknowledge.

"But I am sure a lot of them, especially while they are still adolescents, will stay in the villages"

Based on what? Villages are net exporters of talented, trained people all over the world. Simple as that.

"So what is your plan? As far as I can tell, you don't have one, at least one that might realistically be adopted and be successful."

It's quite pretentious of you to assume that I don't have "a plan". We're discussing OLPC here, not national strategies for development; and I don't think it's possible to have "a plan" for the Third World.
I do think about a set of policies that may bring better quality of living, more equal distribution of resources and better possibilities of education and wealth creation for my fellow country people, the one place I'm more or less able to think this big. OLPC, even if it works as advertised, would be just a part of the many different things needed to be done for education in my country to work, and even that is just part of the equation.

"Development is greatly dependent on technology, and here is a radically improved technology, and you think it should just be ignored. I think you are wrong."

Development is, among many other things, dependent of the successful adaptation to local conditions and market realities of a variety of technological systems. Any subset of a big technological system, which is at most what the OLPC is, may have interesting impacts, potentially fostering innovation and transformations in consumer and factors markets, and plenty of unforeseeable consequences / unintented effects, but would not be critical to the long term development of one country, especially if the main developmental handicaps lie elsewhere. I'm not going to start a long lecture on social, economic and cultural conditions of my country, but if you want I can provide a very long list of scholarly work on the subject. I don't and won't talk about development as a whole, because each country needs its own debate.

And just for the record: not sharing your enthusiasm for OLPC technology doesn't mean to ignore it. It means that I think that it deserves a long hard look, going beyond the excesses of hype and hope. Sorry you dislike this particular approach, but I think that to do otherwise is wrong.

Slight return: what I intended to say in my response to Winter was that I don't think that access to computers automatically or necessarily provides for a better education.

Sorry

Wow, I really like the richness of this conversation. But it does make it difficult to respond. Let me try to respond to several specific questions here and reserve for a separate posting a more general treatise which I found myself writing about the underlying theoretical or philosophical issues that I think are at the base of some of our disagreements. Going off in that direction has delayed my response and I apologize.

Winter,

“What is the difference with the current practice of the OLPC?” And, “so what is your point exactly?”

I am glad to hear that there are active pilot tests of the sort I've described, although I have not been able to locate them on the Web and would appreciate any pointers you might have. I can understand that they may be in the early stages and not yet shareable, given the newness of the XO, and I am happy to wait for the results. But given the lack of published studies, I was left to respond to Negroponte's outlandish statements against the need for pilot studies. That, indeed, is the difference between current practice and the OLPC and that is the point.

Eduardo Montez, on your July 23 resposne,

“I have always assumed, because that is what oplc says, that it will include internet access.”

Actually, the mesh network allows the XOs to communicate with each other. This does not automatically include internet access. At least one of the XOs must communicate with a server and, of course, the server must communicate with the internet. This is less of a problem for Latin America but in east Africa, where I worked, it was a big problem. There is no fiber optic backbone to the eastern half of the continent. All communication with the internet must be via satellite through Europe. This is expensive and slow: about $2,000 to install a dish and $250-$400 a month in tariffs for 28k-64k bandwidth (ball park estimate). Consequently, for Africa, access is less a problem of shear number of computers and more one of connection to the internet. Furthermore, I have not seen an analysis of the effectiveness of the mesh network when distributed across a low-density population, such as that in rural villages. Even when you have one computer per family, can access be maintained when houses are far apart and there is only one access point located at the school, for example?

This difficulty in connecting to the internet also seems to make problematic your statement that, “They can learn everything they need from the internet or developing their own materials.” This difficulty is compounded by the fact that there is no information on the internet in Luo, the tribal language of the village where I worked, and very little in Kiswahli, the national language of Kenya.

“Bob, where do you stand on this? First of all, is this something you have thought about? When you are out there in Africa and working in a village, do you think about whether some of the people in the village have the interests and the ability to become proficient programers?”

Actually, when I met with the villagers and asked them what they wanted, they said access to information that would allow them to improve the productivity of their crops so they could grow more food to eat and have enough left over to generate income that they could use to pay for uniforms and tuition so they could send their children to secondary school. They felt that a learning center and computers might help them do this but they weren’t sure. So they asked me to go to other villages that had such resources to find out. Not one of them mentioned an interest in becoming a programmer, nor did I ask them. So I can’t respond to your question with any confidence but I doubt it. They seemed more interested in becoming better farmers and they wanted help doing that.

More generally, I believe that villagers CAN be significant contributors in the generation and sharing of information that they need and want. I don’t think they need to become programmers to do that but it would be helpful to have some local people with technical skills to support their efforts.

You suggest that with a “. . . million laptops you would get about ten thousand village geek programers. And these programers would write lots of programs, including ones that would be helpful to the villages . . .”

I suppose that is one way to produce a technical group that would help the villagers but I’m not sure it is the best way or most cost-effective way. Nor am I sure that it is a sufficient condition for development to have tens of thousands of programmers. Like you, I doubt that outside experts can solve the development problem but I am sure that programmer geeks generating Linux kernel can not.

(p.s. And I don’t believe in “born programmers”.)

As to your July 24th response:

“So what is your plan? As far as I can tell, you don't have one, at least one that might realistically be adopted and be successful. I have been watching conventional economic development plans, and leftist economic development plans, for decades, and seen them consistently fail in many (not all) areas of the world.”

I agree with Eduardo Villanueava Mansilla that there is no ONE development plan; each country has to figure it out. But I don’t agree with you that before the OLPC there were no successful development plans. Please look at the history of Singapore, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Ireland, Chile, and Finland. We don’t think of these as developing countries because they are not. But 30 years ago they were. They all developed differently but their plans had one thing in common: education. Technology also plaid a part but the development of these countries was not driven by programmer geeks generating Linux code.

I hope to get you my thoughts on underlying theoretical and philosophical issues in the next few days.

For more information on how difficult it is to connect to the internet in Africa, see:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/22/business/yourmoney/22rwanda.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

Note that toward the end of the article it references OLPC but doesn't say how they are going to be any more successful in connecting to the internet than anyone else.

Bob,

"This is less of a problem for Latin America but in east Africa, where I worked, it was a big problem. There is no fiber optic backbone to the eastern half of the continent."

That is a good point. So it seems that for oplc to meet its full potential it would have to include improving internet access.

"This difficulty is compounded by the fact that there is no information on the internet in Luo, the tribal language of the village where I worked, and very little in Kiswahli, the national language of Kenya."

From what I have read, when Ministers of Education look at olpc one thing they emphasize is that the software needs to include instruction in reading English.

"(p.s. And I don’t believe in “born programmers”.)"

Oh come on. You know perfectly well that if you put a bunch of people through a course in programing some will be far better at it than others, and will find it far more rewarding. In born ability and interest are highly variable. Would you be happy, for instance, if future doctors were selected at random from the population?

regarding villagers becoming programers:

"Actually, when I met with the villagers and asked them what they wanted, they said access to information that would allow them to improve the productivity of their crops so they could grow more food to eat and have enough left over to generate income that they could use to pay for uniforms and tuition so they could send their children to secondary school. "

You are misrepresenting what I said. I did not say that if you ask villagers what they want to do, one percent will say they want to become programers. I said that if you expose them to computers, and ones that include a lot of material on programing (including that amazing button that allows you to see the source code and edit it), then about one percent will become programing geeks.

"Nor am I sure that it is a sufficient condition for development to have tens of thousands of programmers. Like you, I doubt that outside experts can solve the development problem but I am sure that programmer geeks generating Linux kernel can not"

I didn't say it would solve all development problems, only that it would help alot. And don't forget that oplc has a great many other benefits that feed into development, including full sets of textbooks for students and telecommunications for everyone. I have noticed that when you are evaluating olpc you have a tendency to look at only one piece at a time and not the whole package, and that is not the right way to go about it.

"More generally, I believe that villagers CAN be significant contributors in the generation and sharing of information that they need and want. I don’t think they need to become programmers to do that but it would be helpful to have some local people with technical skills to support their efforts."

I didn't say that all villagers who want to contribute information need to learn programming. Obviously many can do that without programing skills. But it goes better if some of them -- my one percent -- do. And I say the most monetarily-effecient way to produce people with the technical skills you agree are useful is to give a lot of people X0's, and let the natural-born techies train themselves.

"I agree with Eduardo Villanueava Mansilla that there is no ONE development plan; each country has to figure it out. But I don’t agree with you that before the OLPC there were no successful development plans."

I didn't say that (do you have a reading comprehension problem? You keep reading in things that I didn't say, and miss what I did say). Lots of development plans have succeeded, and lots more haven't. I am interested in the great many countries that have had development plans and have failed. One thing that is sure is that they need to do something different than what has failed in the past. Olpc is something different, and I think it has great potential. And I am not saying everything else a country might do to promote development should be abandoned, only that oplc should be part of the puzzle.

"They all developed differently but their plans had one thing in common: education."

We agree on that. But I am saying the olpc can contribute to education and also many more areas.

Bob, the question I would put to you is what contribution your own approach can make to development. You go into a village, ask the villagers what then need, and help them get it. I am sure that is all very useful.

But now look at it from the national level. Your approach would help the development of a state as a whole only if the government decided to send people like you to do similar projects in all the villages in the country, and if futhermore that resulted in a significant increase economic growth.

As far as I know (correct me if I am wrong) no nation has ever tried that, and it seems unlikely it ever will. I therefore conclude that as a way of improving national development it is not a workable plan.

Olpc is much more workable in part because it is so much more likely to be adopted. Look at all the big organizations behind it, including the UNDP (which knows a thing or two about development). And as the price of the laptop drops, it will likely be adopted by more and more countries. In fact, if it gets down to $50, developing world country people are just going to start buying them on their own, just as they buy cell phones today.

Bob, you are working in IT in the developing world, but one problem in your approach is that pc's were not designed for this environment. Now we have a new sort of computer that is. Instead of giving a long succession of reasons it is unlikely to be of any use, why don't you use your own experience and expertise to figure out productive ways of using it?

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