The New Political Economy of One Laptop Per Child

   
   
   
   
   
olpc light
Hernan Mussa sees the light
Lee Felsenstein's counterrevolution proclaim raises a moral duty we should all keep in mind. He is appealing to the global network of OLPC developers and supporters (Let's call them The Counter-Revolutionary Felsenstein Geek Army: CORFEGA) in an attempt to avoid a Microsoft takeover and save the original Open Source spirit of the project.

However, none of the counter-revolutionary efforts would ever happen if OLPC doesn't reach the 3 million orders. So let's be clear about that: The maximum priority for all the OLPC fans (including the CORFEGA forces)should be to get governments committed with the project. Now.

Both the changing production target and size orders bring an opportunity that must be seized. Let me explain you how I see the current scenario. I am Luis Ramirez, a member of the committee in charge of the citizen-led campaign One Computer Per Child (Chile).

In my short experience showing around the computer to government officers and politicians in Chile I've learnt that the Children's Machine XO is attractive enough as such. Everybody asks me the same question: Wow, this is amazing! When is going to be ready, and how can we buy it? Until now, the second part of the answer (a 1 million order) was the end of the conversation.

olpc ucpn
un computador por niño hoy!

But if that restriction is no longer the case (now governments can buy 250,000 OLPC XO's), then a new wave of government talks should be initiated right now. All the people around the world that really believes in this project should be working hard on the political side of the campaign: lobbying, making press releases, signing petitions, and so forth. This is the most urgent task right now.

The success of the whole OLPC endeavour -at least at this stage- is not about software or hardware. It is about politics. With the 250k unit order a new economics emerges.

250,000 XO's optimistically can be delivered to most of the Latin American region at a price of $200 dollars (depending of many local factors, including trade agreements and their tax policies), which means a total amount of around $50 million dollars for the package.

Small or middle size countries now are going to be more willing to consider OLPC as an option. Let's take just one example: Peru, mentioned by Negroponte as a new potential candidate, has around 4 million students in primary education distributed in the order of 35,000 schools (official Census data).

In the year 2004 (latest statistics I found) Peru spent over 110 million dollars in goods and services for schools, including educational equipment such as computers. In the previous OLPC scenario, 1 million XO meant simply spending more than the whole budget for goods and services in just one item!

Still, $200 per XO is far away from many nations unless you split that expenditure up to four or five years (hopefully more). I believe this may be the case for the Latin American region following a Memorandum of Understanding between OLPC and the Inter-American Development Bank .

To have a wider picture, let's compare some data. The following graph (source) shows the average expenditure per student in several developing nations. For example, Peru spends $317 dollars per student per year in the primary education.

That includes from teachers salaries to chalk. With the new 250K unit order it is actually more realistic to, say (use your best Negropontian accent here): 'How about you increase in $40 dollars per year your expenditure per student over a period of five years and we give you 250k revolutionary green machines.

You can have them spread all over your nation in computer labs, say 20 per schools or, even better, cover whole schools and towns with this fantastic technology'. That's a good starting point, isn't?

Truth, most of these nations may need several years to get the whole educational system covered with OLPC, but surely they can start targeting the poorest schools in rural areas. In the meantime, Negroponte gets his 3 million production order, and so the whole project becomes something -finally- real. If that's the case, then by 2008 millions of kids will be playing around with XO's, hopefully Sugar-powered.

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13 Comments

Luis:

Why should anybody rush to press governments to buy into this project?

How responsible would it be for Peru (your example) to spend about 45% (50 millions out of 110 millions)of its annual educational budget on these UNTESTED computers?

What's wrong with doing the SMART, RESPONSIBLE thing and just wait for Negroponte to come up with a SERIOUS, RESPONSIBLE implementation plan, instead of his suspect "kids will learn learning"?

What's wrong with waiting to see what VERIFIABLE impact these computers will have on test groups throughout the world?

Why should anybody be so dumb as to spend VERY LIMITED funds on UNPROVEN technology?

The USA can afford to waste billions in Iraq; Peru CAN NOT afford to waste 50 millions on this techno-educational adventure.

Wow Troy. You seem to have a hidden agenda.

I cant recall any of your posts that say anything good about techno-education. Its not just the laptops you're against is it. Its not just the spending of money by poor governments either.

You say Peru only spend $110 Million on education? No wonder their children aren't getting decent educations. Maybe Peru needs to improve their country? Increase their profitability?

I dont agree with Negroponte and his belief that kids will 'just learn' without teachers BUT the digital education advantages of electronic curriculums far outweighs paper books and lead pencils.

Children in many affluent countries around the World are now and have been using computers in the classroom for many years. Verifiable results have been out there for years. You just ignore to see the facts.

The 'unproven technology' is a laptop. It has very proven technology. Quanta churn out laptops like sausages. The capable volunteers and employees of OLPC are doing a massive job of creating a revolutionary user interface that has a minimum footprint on the minimum hardware dictated by the price point.

Slap yourself in the face Troy because Peru or any other poor country (they are that way due to poorly educated people) cannot afford to NOT spend money on educating their poor.

Well educated people see ways to turn their country around. They understand methods of socio-economic reform. They make money for their country.

Uneducated or even poorly educated people can do little more than read and write and till the soil in subsistance farming. Meanwhile Peru gets poorer. Even worse, smart investors come to Peru and employ slave labor to mine minerals that get shipped out of the country and the Peruvian government get almost nothing in return.

So tell me Troy, how should Peru get themselves out of poverty?

Great post, Luis. Let me just add in that one strong selling point is the money saved on textbooks. Nigroponte says in various transcripts at oplctalks that Brazil spends $19 per year per child, so that alone would pay for half the cost of olpc.

troy:

"How responsible would it be for Peru (your example) to spend about 45% (50 millions out of 110 millions)of its annual educational budget on these UNTESTED computers?"

You are among other things leaving out the textbook substitution savings, and failing to amortize over five years.

Also, you critize it for being untested, which is valid, but it is also true that people and countries wouldn't get very far if they only stuck with what had already been proven. To give just one example, no one would ever get married or have children since there is no way to know beforehand how it would turn out. A number of countries have looked at oplc and decided it is likely enough to succeed -- and the penalties from failure are small enough -- to give it a try.

And let me second Robert Arrowsmith: do you have a better plan? Come on now, give us an answer.

Robert,
I agree with you that education is the best and maybe only way out of poverty. And investment in education is sound. But a poor country should be very careful before it invests that kind of precious money.

In one aspect troy has a point. At least for the public it is still unclear how the XOs are planned to be used in the classroom. Will there be traditional style teaching just with e-books instead of paper-books? Or some flavor of constructionism? Will it be sufficiently more effective to justify the expense? What's the role of the teachers? In this area there is still alarming uncertainty with the OLPC project. If Peru can clarify this and gets satisfactory answers then Peru can safely invest. Otherwise it could be better to wait and see.

Of course some countries should be ready to take some controlled risks. But those better be emerging market countries who can afford additional expenditures in case of necessary corrections.

Eduardo says:

"Also, you critize it for being untested, which is valid, but it is also true that people and countries wouldn't get very far if they only stuck with what had already been proven."

I'm glad that you admit my points are valid. To further clarify: I say that risk can and need to be managed. I am NOT against countries investing on technology. I'm against countries investion on UNPROVEN, UNKNOWN technology, which is the case with Negroponte's laptop.


"To give just one example, no one would ever get married or have children since there is no way to know beforehand how it would turn out."

Not true, Eduardo. The "courtship" (NOVIAZGO, in Spanish, I think :-) period gives people the opportunity to get to know ("test") their potential spouse. Negroponte wants poor countries to buy his product without the "courtship" period.

Once again, I ask:

How do you know the highly-touted "mesh networking" will work reliably?

How do you know this revolutionary new display technology will work reliably for months and years?

Does anyone know how these laptops will be incorporated into children's education?

I could go on and on, but those are major and LEGITIMATE questions that need tobe answered before any country commits millions of dollars to this project.

"A number of countries have looked at oplc and decided it is likely enough to succeed -- and the penalties from failure are small enough -- to give it a try. "

If that is true, where are the orders?

"And let me second Robert Arrowsmith: do you have a better plan? Come on now, give us an answer. "

I DO have a better plan: keep the money until Negroponte shows what these computers can achieve in the classroom. Then, countries will be in a position to make an INFORMED decision. That's the smart way.

Robert Arrowsmith wrote:

"Wow Troy. You seem to have a hidden agenda."

Robert, I DO have a VERY OPEN, TRANPARENT AGENDA: I will oppose this project unless the required testing takes place. I think it is the ethical thing to do. If Negroponte answers the obvious questions about classroom implementation and shows that the laptops will perform as promised, I'll be supporting this project 100%. "Kids will learn learning" is not enough for rational, fair-minded people...


"I cant recall any of your posts that say anything good about techno-education. Its not just the laptops you're against is it. Its not just the spending of money by poor governments either."

Within the context of the OLPC project, my points are very valid. Once again, I don't oppose Negroponte or technology in general. I oppose the idea of poor countries buying into unproven technology. The potential for long-lasting damage to the most vulnerable humans on the planet is just to big to be ignored.


"You say Peru only spend $110 Million on education? No wonder their children aren't getting decent educations."

The number is provided by the original author, not me. I don't really know what sort of education kids are getting in Peru, so I won't comment.

" Maybe Peru needs to improve their country? Increase their profitability?"

That's certainly desirable.

"I dont agree with Negroponte and his belief that kids will 'just learn' without teachers"

Glad to hear that.


"BUT the digital education advantages of electronic curriculums far outweighs paper books and lead pencils."

Where are you getting that from? Is this documented somewhere or are you just making it up? Are there any documented studies supporting your claim?


"Children in many affluent countries around the World are now and have been using computers in the classroom for many years. Verifiable results have been out there for years. You just ignore to see the facts."

Care to point us to studies where it is shown that computers in the classrom raised kids scores? I hope you provide some information, because many people are waiting for this info to emerge...

"The 'unproven technology' is a laptop. It has very proven technology. Quanta churn out laptops like sausages. "

There's far more to this OLPC project than the hardware. However, to directly counter your point: Quanta has NEVER produced THE TYPE OF REVOLUTIONARY TECHNOLOGY present in this laptop (like the display, the mesh network, etc). This PARTICULAR LAPTOP is UNPROVEN technology.

"The capable volunteers and employees of OLPC are doing a massive job of creating a revolutionary user interface that has a minimum footprint on the minimum hardware dictated by the price point."

Sounds good, but we need to see the results before we give it 4 stars, don't you think?


"Slap yourself in the face Troy because Peru or any other poor country (they are that way due to poorly educated people) cannot afford to NOT spend money on educating their poor.
Well educated people see ways to turn their country around. They understand methods of socio-economic reform. They make money for their country."

I agree 100%

"Uneducated or even poorly educated people can do little more than read and write and till the soil in subsistance farming. Meanwhile Peru gets poorer. Even worse, smart investors come to Peru and employ slave labor to mine minerals that get shipped out of the country and the Peruvian government get almost nothing in return."

That's sad...


"So tell me Troy, how should Peru get themselves out of poverty?"

I don't know, Robert (that's too complex for simpletons like me). But I DO KNOW that unproven, untested technology is not the way.

Please, Luis, you have placed me on the wrong side of the conflict. Microsoft leads the counter-revolution in my fable. I am with the revolutionary forces in opposing the counter-revolution when the leadership changes sides.

As for Robert's challenge "how does Peru get out of poverty?" (if not through education), I have an answer. It will be by extending low-cost telecommunication capability to the remotest settlement, using the economies that can be realized through VOIP and open source.

"One Telecenter Per Village" (my phrase - abbreviated OTPV) has been shown to yield immediate economic benefits where it is implemented, and creates the infrastructure (with an economic support system) with which OLPC could in the future be implemented.

I have blogged about this and it is being implemented by Inveneo http://www.inveneo.org in Africa and other places.


There are several ideas going on in the comments to my post. I will just focus on one at the moment, which is -again- the political side of the present stage.

What I was trying to say at the end of my post was that now the buying of 250K becomes a political decision that is independent of the existence of a budget. I mean, now it is a matter of allocation of the AVAILABLE RESOURCES, and not a matter of dreaming about how to get the funding (or getting caught by the IMF or the World Bank), as it was until last week.

I'm not saying that 50 million dollars is nothing for countries like Peru, Bolivia or Paraguay. What I'm saying is that they in fact have that money within their current educational budget. If they want to be included in the project, NOW IT IS MORE LIKELY FOR THEM TO DO SO (and not really difficult as it used to be).

It is now a matter of bravery, audacity, entrepreneurship or whatever you want to call the government's decision that must be taken.

Unfortunately, that is not the result of magical powers. People in their countries must act upon the political forces involved in the government (congress, parties, NGOs)

Truth, it is an unproven technology. But from the point of view of the developing world, most of the 'modern inventions' were actually tested in our lands first. So nothing new for us. Besides, we are not talking about a nuclear reactor for child. We are talking about a multi-purpose portable machine that they somehow already know. Even in the poorest areas (barrios) you find ciber-cafes and kids playing in computers. All we are going to do is give them a better tool for learning, playing and networking. So, even if it's risky, I think it is worth the risk (and the price). We should go fot it.

Thanks for all your comments,
LUIS

Note1: The CORFEGA is obviously a joke :)
Note2: The guy in the picture above (Hernan Mussa) is not a Guantanamo Prisoner, but a good former student of mine just having a bad day...

There is a lot of doubt floating around about the effectiveness of the OLPC for School, Fun, and Profit.

The basic question asked is always: The OLPC has not been tested, so there is no evidence that it will actually improve the education of children. That is, it is unproven technology.

I think I can make a very easy counter argument:

Can anyone point out a single instance in the whole history of humankind where improving (reducing the cost of) the communication between people, men, women, and children, did NOT improve their educational, economic, and general quality of life?

Be it writing, movable print (books), coach services, postal services, journals, newspapers, radio, television, telegraph, telephone, cell-phones, email, internet, they all revolutionized society and education.

I have never heard a single example where children getting access to communication technology of any kind did NOT improve their knowledge and adult economic productivity. The early introduction of computers in education often failed beccause they reduced the ability to communicate between students and teachers (and the world) more than augmented it.

If anything, the OLPC is about COMMUNICATION between children and with the world. Internet access is not just a gadget, it can replace (actually give access to) postal services, telephone, newspapers, radio, television, and libraries. And this for children that currently have little if any access to any of these services.

So claiming the OLPC is unporven in education, seems odd as libraries, post, television, radio, and (mobile) telephone all are well proven technologies with a major impact on children's lives. And they are all currently inaccessible to the target communities.

The question is not whether the principles behind the OLPC are unproven, they are proven. The only real question is whether the cost of the OLPC matches the increases in children's access to communication and knowledge.

Winter

Winter,
I'm afraid you confuse telecommunication with education.
Your argument is that the XOs are proven as telecommunication systems. That may even be the case. However, this does not mean it is yet proven to be a more effective education medium.
E.g. you mentioned telephone and cell-phones. Both are very proven telecommunication systems. However, both are still today not generally used for education. In some schools cell-phones are even prohibited to allow actual education without disturbance.

Communication does not equal education.

I've been out of the loop during the week, and have not been following this particular discussion. As a Peruvian, I feel I have a couple of things to say:

1. Maybe Negroponte knows something we don't know here, but there is not a single mention about our government considering the XO. I've check the papers and talk to a couple of more or less well connected friends.

2. Peru has the single worst public educational system in South America, and according to standarized (sp?) tests, only Haiti is going worse in the region. Our current president invested a significant amount of money in the 80's to buy a large number of French computers for educational use, and they didn't do anything at all to stop the slide down. There were a bunch of other reasons, I know, but the political climate in Peru right now is so overwhelming complex thanks to too many economic demands from all quarters, that I can hardly think of a worst time to spend political capital (not that he has a lot) in a project that appears to be so grand and vague at the same time. He's a very calculating fellow, our President, and he knows that there are only a few things he can spin at a time.

My country is poor and a shambles in many ways. Our education system is really bad, among many reasons (but maybe right the foremost one) because the teacher's union is one of the most radicalized, backward-looking ones around. Our government is trying to force change, and it has the upper hand right now. Politically speaking it would be a big mistake to shift the terms of the discussion into an investment so easily to torpedo.

I've said it many times: I don't believe in the OLPC project. But if I did, I wouldn't recommend this particular time to get on board, and I'm sure that there are a bunch of political consultants ready to just tell the same to our Prez.

Today the Minister of Education has been announced Peru is part of OLPC. The OLPC will be used by peruvian kids the next year.

I've just read the news. I'll check the story and the backstory and post something about this during the week, just news and some inside scoop. There are so curious but consistent mistakes in the reporting, like our government signing an agreement with the MIT and the computers costing USD 100, as well as saying something like the computers already transforming others countries' educational systems, that I believe require some research before saying anything.

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