What Can OLPC Learn From Large Education Projects?


It is not a secret that education is one of the most viable ways to improve the quality of life. That is true at several levels and for the widest variety of communities. In developed countries, and in the US in particular, access to good education stands as the most important aspect for social elevation.

In developing countries that is even more so, considering that a lack of education (in the broader sense) may be at the base of social conflicts, discrimination, impoverishment, lack of stability, prevention socio-economic reform, increase in infant mortality, and lack of health, hygiene, and sanitation standards.

OLPC goal is to tackle this issue right at its heart. By giving kids a tool to access information, the hope is that a window to the world would open up for them. As Wayan beautifully described in his column, while OLPC has succeed in bringing a large number of laptops to children in developing countries, the effort of investigating the practicalities of improving education with the XO laptop, has been minimal.

The overall idea improving the educational gap by handling a large scale, country-wide deployment of laptops is, to me, the strongest limitation of the program. I have seen many educational projects fail because their grand plan missed the idea that solutions for improving education cannot be considered as one-for-all, or a simple matter of widespread distribution of content.

So here I ask: Can OLPC use and benefit from the experience of other large scale educational projects in the developing world?

There are many available examples, but I would like to point to one in particular that got a high level of visibility: the work of Greg Mortenson in financing and controlling the establishment of schools in remote regions of Central Asia (Pakistan and Afghanistan in particular), as documented in the book "Three Cups of Tea" and the just released follow-up Stones into Schools".

Three major part of the effort I believe could be adopted by OLPC and in particular:

1. Start small, study your market

Greg Mortenson started not with thousands of school, but just one in Korpe, Pakistan. Initially, his was a local commitment to the people in the village who saved his life. However he soon found out that already building one school was already a major challenge, ridden with the ability to first seal the trust of the elders in the village, and in not to be caught by the hands of speculators.

Lesson to be learned: Start small, study your market. There is no way you can understand the country where you try to bring your new educational ideas if your only contact is with the government. Pilot programs work: When the first schools were built with strong ties and collaboration from the villagers themselves, even the Taliban regime and the most radical religious leaders were fond and extremely supportive of Mortenson's effort of secular education, yes, also of young girls.

OLPC could benefit with the same strategy, by connecting with NGO organizations that have deep roots with the local communities, and then connect directly wherever possible to local communities, in a small scale first, to grow after that.

2. It's not just about building schools

When Mortensen was asked to build the second school (note: he was "asked", given the success of the first one) the elderly in the village faced Mortensen with the dilemma of what to build first: a school or a well? He settled for the latter to build the former at a later stage. As it has been already described in a previous editorial at OLPCnews, some local realities require first a social stabilization with a working police, and a fair infrastructure.

Lesson to be learned: Within the same country, needs are different, and what works in some place may not work for others. Local communities may have some more pressing and urgent priorities than a laptop. This doesn't mean a program cannot start, but a local analysis (instead of a country wide, "blanket" deployment) may help to reach communities with a better sense of their local needs.

Again, a strong coordination of the effort with people that have a deep knowledge of the local realities, are the one to be considered and advised to be sought. Then, at that point plan pilot deployment to the specific communities.

3. Build teachers along with schools

A school is not just about raising walls. Mortenson realized that the long-term success of a school and therefore of the community, could be achieved through the proper training of local teachers. These were to act both as educators and role models, mostly for young girls in Central Asia. The Central Asia Institute (Mortenson's directed foundation) started providing and supporting long term education for local teachers, with the aim of long term sustainability of the local schools.

Lesson to be learned: children can approach self-education by themselves, but it is a proven fact that large scale education is more effective when guided though a teacher who is strongly connected to the local reality. I asked many time before two simple questions: What is the role envisioned by OLPC in teacher's training and involvement? How can OLPC combine conventional teacher's training with the effective use of the instrument in the classroom? I still cannot find an answer.

OLPC needs to learn from other projects

Mortenson's work is only one of the many, and by no means it is supposed to be comprehensive (although, if you haven't done it yet, make yourself a favor and read either one of his books). I decided to chose it because its goal is very similar to OLPC, just approached from a very different perspective.

My dream is to see a merge between such projects, or at least from one to take inspiration from the success of the others. I always considered OLPC to be, from an ethical standpoint, an educational endeavor. In my view, it has been managed as a top-down, effort in distributing hardware.

With this I do not mean to disrespect the commendable and inspirational work done locally by many volunteers, teachers and supporters. I only wish the top management were a bit more open to understand what the real challenges in education really are.

So I will turn it to you. What are other educational projects that in your opinion could help OLPC educational mission?

Nicola Ferralis wrote this post as part of the month-long look at One Laptop Per Child Impact in conjunction with the Educational Technology Debate

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Is there any relevant historical information about development of educational systems over the past few hundred years in the now-developed world? Education through highschool is now almost universal in the developed world, but it was not always so. How did it get that way? Were there any massive top-down roll-outs, or only slow incremental evolution? Are there any lessons in the historical record that could be relevant to OLPC? Was there ever any One Textbook Per Child project, maybe a hundred years ago?

An excellent article. However, olpc's basic structure is designed to sell a million laptops a year. As a consequence I don't think it is capable of following the article's advice.

But all is not lost. In the next few months we will see many sub-$200 ARM netbooks going on sale. I am guessing this will lead to many localized developing world education projects based around such machines. Olpc started the idea, but perhaps others will carry it to success.


Your questions are very good, and I think they are the main limitations in the implementation of the educational effort at OLPC. Everything that is known to work (or not) in the world of education through the years has been discarded and replaced by the somewhat unproven constructionist approach. I am not sure what the reason is, but I know for sure that the current OLPC effort appear to be a simple matter of laptop distribution. Therefore, my feeling (and that of many others) is that for the current OLPC leadership past educational experiences are totally irrelevant.

@Eduado Montez

The current distribution process based on large scale deployment is an artificial decision taken from the OLPC leadership. It doesn't need to be that way. The real question is: is this model effective to improve education? In my opinion is not, and the track record proves it. The one-fits-all model is doomed to fail, because, as I said in the article, education is not a simple matter of technology, but a complex combination of infrastructure, human resources, local traditions and resources that cannot be discarded with the arrogant assumption that what works for me should work for you. Doing local pilot tests, starting small, involving communities and teachers, is not an accessory to the goal, but the main determining factor. OLPC should not be only a technological endeavor (as it's now) but an educational one. It's not only about a super cheap computing platform, but about creating the infrastructure around it. An ARM based laptop is not the answer. The real answer should come from an accurate, careful review of past models, and the involvement of educators and technologist together.

This of course, if education is the real focus. If making a laptop is all people care (as it seems anyway: http://www.olpcnews.com/laptops/xo-3/xo-3_hardware_fantasy_distraction.html), well, that is fine, but I wouldn't call it an educational endevour.