One Laptop Per Child: Vision Vs. Reality


Editor's Note: I've asked Ken Kraemer, lead author of "One Laptop Per Child: Vision Vs. Reality" (PDF version), recently published in Communication of ACM, to give us an understanding of the article and opportunity to critique it.

Background of the paper

Given that our industry research center focuses on the PC Industry, we were interested in the OLPC project and the XO, both of which seemed exciting and innovative developments. We occasionally read about the project in various media, but did not seriously follow it until it appeared that original forecasts for the project were wildly out of sync with reality.

We then decided to examine the project closely and studied the rich material created by the OLPC organization, the OLPC News web site, project participants, journalists, doctoral students and both formal and informal evaluators of this grand experiment.

One XO laptop future

Summary of the article

The article "One Laptop Per Child: Vision Vs. Reality" published in the Communication of ACM in June 2009 presents our analysis of the successes and failures of this important innovation. We examine the OLPC Project from the perspective of diffusion of innovation in developing countries, which emphasizes the importance of fully understanding the context into which technology is to be introduced and used.

After examining implementation, cost and distribution issues, Jason Dedrick, Prakul Sharma, and I conclude that the OLPC vision is laudable and the XO laptop is an innovative product, but both are compromised by failure of the OLPC organization to sufficiently consider the operational, social and cultural realities of diffusing the technology in developing countries. In addition, OLPC's innovation threatened PC industry incumbents who subsequently introduced competing products.

The greater resources and infrastructure of PC vendors suggests that these netbooks and other low cost devices might well supplant the XO and bring closer to reality the vision of widespread diffusion of low cost computing to the world's poor children.

We are currently looking at OLPC as a Computerization Movement, which provides yet another research lens to understand the factors contributing to the successful diffusion of such technological innovations. OLPC is a prime example of a Computerization Movement, but it also illustrates the notion of a counter-movement as and when the PC industry introduced competing products, and a counter-counter movement when the OLPC organization opened the XO architecture for anyone to use. It will be interesting to trace these developments for what they might suggest about diffusion.

About Personal Computing Industry Center

The Personal Computing Industry Center (PCIC) at University of California, Irvine is a key source of knowledge, objective data, independent thought and networking about the rapidly changing PC industry.

The center conducts basic and applied research and is an ongoing resource for understanding industry trends, analyzing emerging markets and technologies, and providing insights about new developments in the PC industry. The center was established by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.


Would be nice to be able to get access to the full paper. Usually authors have earlier draft versions that they can communicate without infringing copyright laws.

And of course discussing/evaluating a paper that you have not seen would be preposterous

The article appears to be available on the author's website. Just follow the link provided in the article, and look for "newly published" in the right hand column. I will probably read the thing tonight, so no comments yet. :)

I'm still disappointed that the article links prominently to instead of the actual site:

re: V / R Hola i'm typing away at my Eee PC sitting next to my g1g1g2007 OLPC which crashed during insertion of a thumb drive last summer. i hope to fix it,sooner or later,and re-boot with Ubuntu.Meanwhile i've been following OLPC developemnt and it seems the above report is a perfict reality check and i hope is well received and understood.

Disruptive innovation (and OLPC was/is disruptive in many fronts – hardware specs and price, UI concept, educational approaches) usually takes foot gradually and bottom up, filling mature needs. Despite Apples 1984 famous commercial, disruptive innovations are not driven by a sledgehammer the way OLPC dried it. That is probably because: “The fact that OLPC was much stronger in developing innovative technology than in understanding how to diffuse it may reflect the engineering orientation of the organization and its lack of understanding of the needs or interests of the nontechnical people who will ultimately buy and use the innovation” (p71).

Future deployments (assuming that will be some) should seriously consider the so far “Lessons” pointed in the article. The only problem I see is that identifying the issues does not mean that you can also identify a feasible solution. Particularly considering that the only driving force behind deployments is the “itch” of few people, being visionaries, innovators, politicians or volunteers. Would be nice if in future papers specific implementation directions would be discussed.

However, despite all of the shortcomings, one way or another the XO is on the ground today in few places. As the authors rightly conclude in their article: “The potential significance of the XO, as well as of other IT innovations, in developing countries calls for systematic, independent evaluation—a true “grand challenge” for the computing and social science communities”.
_This is what ultimately will make or break the OLPC idea_

Given that decisions on economic policy or education cannot be taken on individual basis this is the only way to establish or discredit a need for this “innovative disruption”
The problem is if the computing and social science communities will pick up on the “grand challenge”. Or more specifically who is going to fund this kind of research and why?

I've just finished reading the full article in a borrowed ACM. I think Ken Kraemer and his team were very accurate in their analysis and draw out 5 lessons we could all do well to remember:

1. new technology adoption requires understanding the local environment
2. innovative technology is disruptive and there will be pushback
3. ICT does not stand alone, it needs an ecosystem
4. Understand total costs and benefits of new technology
5. adopting orgs need to have capacity to absorb new technology

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