One Laptop Per Child: A Sub-Hundred Dollar Folly

   
   
   
   
   

By Eduardo Villanueva Mansilla,
Lima, Perú - November 16, 2005

It is one of the ideas that normally catch the attention of a lot of people looking for the next big thing, or sincerely concerned with alleviating world poverty, or indeed both. Why not provide the world children with a really inexpensive laptop?


OLPC XO: Folly or Future?

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, by the Media Lab's resident guru Nicholas Negroponte, will surely become the darling of nerds, geeks and policy wonks around the world, and will turn into the next wonder to illuminate the sincere hopes for development and poverty-busting that the First World cradles.

It will also be a folly, and a very expensive one, that will create more problems than it will solve.

I really don't care about the nitty-gritty: it can be stolen, it can malfunction, it can be forgotten at home. It may or should be replaced by second-hand computers, or perhaps telecenters should be given preference instead of this approach. It certainly may turn into the biggest source of kickbacks many of our poor, corruption-ridden governments of the Third World would see. But those aren't the real issues.

We have too many real ones to consider before getting into the details; unfortunately, the details look to be the focus right now. So let's get into the heart of the matter. Why should the world poorest governments, or even the so-and-so poor governments, spend megabucks into providing their children with computers? It is just because

"Laptops are both a window and a tool: a window into the world and a tool with which to think. They are a wonderful way for all children to "learn learning" through independent interaction and exploration",
as stated in the FAQ of the project?

I heartily agree with this idea. I have provided my son with a laptop too, a kiddie model for him to practice basic math and Spanish. He enjoys carrying it with him and getting to work next to me, both with our laptops topping our laps. It is great. But I have also provided my son with cuddly toys, books, an abacus, Bionicle kits, swimming lessons and plenty of opportunities for developing all of his potential.

olpc andes
One computer, many tools

Fortunately, we can afford it. Many kids around town cannot. They deserve better, in terms of basics like housing, food, sanitation and the like, and also in terms of the same things my kid takes for granted. But first and foremost, they deserve the chance to explore and develop their potential through decent but complete, integral schooling.

This goal demands significant investment, but also good planning, good use of scarce resources and a very proper and honest consideration on how to provide all the things they need with the smallest investment possible.

To develop learning and discovery in the cheapest possible way is very valid objective for poor nations, and it not only brings the benefit of new generations with better tools to deal with the future, it also develops local capabilities to deal with local problems from a local point of view. And one of the most important things the developing world needs to develop is the ability to create solutions to their own problems, and to build the right tools for those solutions.

To transform education in the developing world will demand a solution to many problems, but the last ones to be considered would probably be the tools to be used. The OLPC project starts the other way round: we have the tool, now change everything else to fit the tool. The few resources left will be used to adapt everything in the educational system to work with the tool, being software, adequate security measures or teacher training.

And the original goals will be changed to fit the tool. Considering that many developing countries haven't reached the point where the goals of education are clear and understood by all those involved, the main danger of a project like this one is to create a huge mirage of understanding, one where the main thrust of education is to turn kids into techno-savvy individuals with the potential to find and understand all the information they need for themselves, without consideration of little things like social cohesion, a common historical frame of reference for all, development of local knowledge, promotion of aboriginal languages, and a really long list following.

School is about all of them, not just the nice but narrow focus that OLPC has. Also, the purpose of promoting this very specific tool as a ways to achieve objectives of self-learning and discovery does disregard the notion that there are plenty of ways to do that with less expensive, locally produced tools, and also forgets that a computer can be a wonderful way to waste time.

olpc games
Did you see that?! OLPC XO games!

Just one example: replacing books with the sub-hundred dollar computer could mean the end for local publishing houses, and that is certainly a very unfortunate unintended consequence.

Another example: exploring and discovering could mean just to pass the day IMing your friends instead of properly discovering mathematical reasoning, and googling your way out of school work, specially with poorly trained teachers without the needed skills for differentiating a real school paper from a downloaded one.

Undoubtedly, many kids will take advantage of the new opportunities brought to them by the computers, some for good, some for bad. Again undoubtedly, many computers will end up in the black market, used for different purposes, turn into mobile porn theaters or boom boxes, and so on. That's not the issue. The thing we really need to deal with is this new-brightest-idea-under-the-sun, that the problems of world education can be solved through a specific technological innovation and its transformational, revolutionary potential.

This new tool, in the best possible scenario, will force a poor country's whole educational system into becoming a very different animal, without consideration of the goals looked after and the possibility of reaching them through lesser, although cheaper and locally produced and locally enabling, means. And in the worst possible scenario, this gadget will end up changing nothing, and the poor will get the chance to receive the worst education possible in full color.

Without doubting for a minute the good intentions of those involved in the project, it is impossible not to think about the whole idea as a world-changing attempt just like many that the computer has brought, and a sort of good intentioned but massive ego trip.

The computer has changed the world in so many different ways but for those imagined by the apostles of computing. This could be the final proof required to make the entire computers-will-change-the- world meme finally moot? I certainly hope so.

There's nothing more urgent for developing nations than to stop paying attention to hype and start thinking about the real issues. The OLPC project does exactly the opposite, and that's why it is such a bad idea.

Related Entries

8 Comments

Thank you, Eduaordo, for an incisive and well-articulated argument. You provide the best counter so far to the proposition that OLPC will spawn a wave of "tech-savvy" individuals from which will emerge (a small number of) new titans of the IT industry and, presumably, a larger number of back-office workers at good salaries.

Even granting this argument, what of the rest? Your argument that the implementation of OLPC will force the educational system to become "a very different aniumal" cuts to the heart of the matter - what kind of animal would this be?

Negroponte has made no bones about his vision for self-education using the laptop and how that would somehow result in a generation of self-motivated, self-educated students (excuse me, "learners", since the word "student" implies the existence of teachers, and teachers are obsolete in Negroponte's constructivist model).

I am old enought to recall the "free schools" movement of the late '60's and '70's, though I never participated. I recall a conversation with a woman who was a product of those schools, and who wept when she thought of her missed educational oportunities. No, simply "letting kids express themselves" is not a sufficient replacement for exposing them to ideas, teaching them skills and honing their intellects by introducing them to the tools of reason and discourse.

While many will no doubt point out that such pedagogy is lamentably rare in developing countries (as it is rare in some industrialized countries e.g, the US), that fact does not negate the desirability of designing and funding the system to provide the necessary pedagogy. But this is not what OLPC sets out to do.

If OLPC is intended to create a revolution in the education of children, are we not entitled to see the plans for the post-revolutionary order of things? Your article, Eduardo, has opened the best window so far to what must pass for these ill-considered or non-existent plans. Many thanks for your well-crafted words.

Eduardo: "To transform education in the developing world will demand a solution to many problems, but the last ones to be considered would probably be the tools to be used. The OLPC project starts the other way round: we have the tool, now change everything else to fit the tool."

No, oplc started with Seymour Papert's constructionism education philosophy, and the developed the tool. And for those countries that don't like constructionism, it wouldn't be very hard to adapt the laptop to some other educational philosophy.

"Considering that many developing countries haven't reached the point where the goals of education are clear and understood by all those involved"

Well, they have had decades to do this, and if they haven't achieved this so far, what reason is there to believe they ever will at any point in the future?

"This new tool, in the best possible scenario, will force a poor country's whole educational system into becoming a very different animal, without consideration of the goals looked after and the possibility of reaching them through lesser, although cheaper and locally produced and locally enabling, means."

Again, if they have not figured out how to do this after all these decades, what are the odds they will now, if oplc would only get out of the way?

lee: "No, simply "letting kids express themselves" is not a sufficient replacement for exposing them to ideas, teaching them skills and honing their intellects by introducing them to the tools of reason and discourse."

My understanding is that constructionism includes exposing children to ideas and the other goals you mention. And again, if it doesn't, the laptop could be adopted to this.

--the other Eduardo

This is a pretty tired argument. You can sum it up as "Poor kids don't need laptops, they need food and medicine." The int'l aid community has been doing exactly that for the last 50 years and I fail to see if that has actually helped any of the recipient countries.

This Eduardo also mentions "local means" to help kids but fails to mention any.

Really it is a tired argument.

Eduardo, download one of the emulation images and try out TamTam and Etoys. It won't end your concerns about OLPC but it will show you how powerful open content can be.

I appreciate your comments.

Bryan, may I disagree with you? I'm not repeating the "Poor kids don't need laptops..." argument. Please note that what I say is that the OLPC focus on a replacement for education based on a tool and an educational model transported without much concern for local circumstances is what's wrong.

My concerns are not with open content or with the potential for the OLPC computer to be altered into a different tool, my namesake; that's a great possibility, that will demand more resources and that may not be possible with only volunteers doing it. I do believe that it may work with a bunch of alterations, qualifications and localized content, and that it may be a wonderful tool when set up adequately, with the right kids, and considering all the resources needed, and striking a balance with the whole needs of the population.

My principal concern is with the rather excessive "this will change the world" attitude, that demands that we clear the decks of any other consideration, project or even doubt, to change our whole educational system (as I've said) to fit the tool. I'm pretty sure that the XO may be a wonderful toy, in the right sense of the word, for a number of bright kids. But that's not a good reason to just throw everything other consideration and dedicate almost all the scarce resources a country like mine has into this particular project.

I've played with a lot of educational tools, I do it all the time both at my day job as a lecturer at a university here in Lima, Perú, as well as a father with a 9 year-old at a rather demanding school; I don't pretend to be an expert but it is not that I don't know anything about it. Also, considering my kid is being taught PowerPoint (it doesn't get sillier than that) I would love for him to have a good, well-designed machine as part of his toolkit. But I wouldn't allow his school to stop investing in everything else as to allow for all its 1200 kids to have an XO. He, and all the other kids around, needs a lot of stuff together with a computer, not in exclusion of anything but a computer.

Again, I appreciate your comments. Let's continue to talk; granted, I may not change my mind, nor you will yours, Bryan. But besides the intellectual exercise, it may help others make their own minds, and that's what we're all trying to achieve.

Another thing, regarding other Eduardo comments:

""Considering that many developing countries haven't reached the point where the goals of education are clear and understood by all those involved"

Well, they have had decades to do this, and if they haven't achieved this so far, what reason is there to believe they ever will at any point in the future? "

There are two possible responses to your argument: one is that it's moot to the question at hand, since it doesn't invalidate my own argument, that one good reason not to implement the XO would be the absence of a clear understanding of educational needs, and the XO would bring none of that, just a model to be proven by demonstration that may or not work.

But my second response would be: do you really believe that local understanding and definition of issues and solutions is that irrelevant, since the solution brought by OLPC will work that well? There will be a significant disagreement, since my experience (as a educated observer, not an expert) is that the countries where political and institutional solutions, developed to work in long periods, are those where education is actually working and achieving results, and those without these consensus (or where the consensus has collapsed) are not doing that well.

It looks like the technical development of the olpc laptop (the actual device) itself is going quite well and is becoming an important technical achievement containing many innovations.
I agree that the main project risks seem rather in the field of deployment, usage and maintenance.

However one must bear in mind that the OLPC project has no direct control in these fields. At best it can take influence. These fields are under control of the countries' educational administrations. All countries keep their education systems (however good or bad) under close control because the teaching contents always have more or less subtly embedded certain values, common understandings etc. that the current government approves of. No government would ever allow a foreign organisation to take too much control over their educational system.

Therefore the OLPC project can only try to execute their limited influence. But the actual success or failure of OLPC (the education project) will be much more determined by the way the governments put the OLPC laptops to use in their education systems. E.g. by the quality of creating teaching content, of training teachers, by the internet access policies (ref. to China) etc.

Unfortunately the OLPC project might get the blame in the case of failure even if the local government has actually caused it.

OLPC "only" provides opportunities by its IT tools and teaching concepts. But it is the governments that will actually make or break the educational success using the OLPC opportunity.

Probably a handful countries will start with OLPC eduction this and next year. If they are successful the OLPC will continue to grow. If not OLPC will fade away quickly. So lets see and hope for the best. I think the potential benefits are worth the risk.

Rolando,

To your quote of "I agree that the main project risks seem rather in the field of deployment, usage and maintenance. However one must bear in mind that the OLPC project has no direct control in these fields." I would have to completely disagree.

OLPC has a great deal of influence over how the Children's Machine XO will be used in the field, through its very design and through a well thought out implementation plan, no matter who actually implements the computer.

We can use the idea that children should be able to take apart the OLPC and fix it themselves as an example.

The XO is designed to be open and changeable; OLPC is inviting children to explore the computer's innards to learn about how things work. Walter Bender speaks of the ability of kids to take it completely apart with a simple screwdriver. But right now, parents, teachers, and administrators will fear that once taken apart, the computers will never be reassembled correctly by children - Humpty Dumpty on a million unit scale

If OLPC developed an implementation guide that emphasized training teachers how to facilitate the controlled exploration of the laptop innards, children would learn not only how to take the computer apart, but also how to fix it and rebuild it. In this way, OLPC could stimulate the inquisitiveness of a child while allying parents' fears.

And unless they provide a plan, a guide to remove the fear of massive disassembly - the computer assembly exploration dreams of OLPC will be dashed by teachers, parents, governments issuing stern decrees that the computer is never to be opened by a child.

Few months ago I changed my mind to the open source software and all that is related with it. I am a student, a teacher talked me about the OLPC and all its super functions. I just want to improve my learning to develop knowledge and share it, and also spread the open source thought. So that's why I am asking for at least two OLPC, because i want my brother starts working with one OLPC. Thank you for your attention.

XO Tablets for Sale

Buy Your XO Tablet on Amazon.com
OLPC is selling the new XO Tablets on Amazon.com for just $149. Buy yours today!

xo-tablet-amazon.jpg

Discussions

Recent Comments

Community Forum

Close