OLPC is a Spiritual Experience in Learning



Zunia, the public information channel for Development Gateway, is now conducting interviews with thought leaders in development and they've just recently published a great interview with Satish Jha of OLPC India Foundation. In the interview Satish has a great response to the question of "Why OLPC laptops?":

Giving them OLPC laptops, not just any computer, transforms their world beyond what a teacher and a regular computer could achieve together. My experience is that wherever we have OLPC deployed, virtually anyone visiting those schools has almost had an "spiritual" experience of what learning learning can be.

How children can be engaged in learning by themselves, as a class and engage the teachers as well... It transforms the school from a place where children are forced to go into a place they don't want to go away from.

I agree with Satish - seeing a child's eyes light up when they get a computer is magical. And their capacity to astound you with simple pleasures of exploration and learning humbles even hardened critics like myself. Which is why seeing discarded, dust covered laptops is so soul crushing. Yes, I have actually cried when shown a stack of un-used computers.

In this time of hardware hype and geek lust, may all of us in ICT4Edu be religious about usage so we can find god in a child's eyes and not the devil of disuse.


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On Aug 4, OLPC will complete 4 years of official existence in India. It was on Aug 4, 2008 that Prof Nicholas Negorponte announced the founding of OLPC India with Mr Satish Jha as the founder President & CEO.

He gave a talk that left as many questions as it may have answered. Everyone loved the laptop but the questions of public policy were daunting. How could we give laptops when there was hunger and disease all around and the laptop cost more than what poor people earned in 12 months? Did the Govt have the budget, the machinery, the governance structure to make it happen?

Somewhere there was an impression that a large industrial house may be backing it up. That was far from the truth.

The Govt of India had already declined on various counts. The talked about reasons included "pedagogy was suspect" and the budget may be an issue. The unspoken one included that MIT Media Lab of which Prof Negroponte was a co-founder had had a less than stellar stint in India and had been asked to quit the collaboration leaving a perception of some wrongdoing.

Mr Satish Jha had been a chief editor of The Times of India Group as also an Editor of the Indian Express Group. He knew how to deal with the Government, or at least he was known to have dealt with in the past. He could have helped changed the policy.

However, for a few month there was hardly any movement. Then suddenly Kerala took keen interest and ordered OLPC for 150,000 students. Kerala loved open source. Mr Jha had known the Government leaders. The orders were passed in one day. There was no hint of wrong doing as there was no margin per OLPC rules.

That quickly led to the Govt of Manipur following Kerala. Within a week they ordered OLPC for 70,000 students. That was a huge win for a country where the Union Government had taken a policy decision not to support OLPC.

What happened after that is not known save that the Govt of Manipur ordered in March 2009 and received just 1000 laptops in Dec 2010.

That do not do much good for OLPC.

In the meantime there was news that Uttar Pradesh had decided to go for OLPC and so had Himachal Pradesh requested the central government to fund the deployment of OLPC for 250,000 children.

A major event occurred when the Chief Minister of Rajasthan decided to inaugurate the deployment at a village school for scheduled castes at the western border of Rajasthan. A former Chief Minister of Rajasthan and a Cabinet Minister of India also joined the inaugural. The program was linked to the Prime Minister's Model Village scheme. And the State Chief Minister announced that he would like every child to learn with OLPC.

And little happened as the Govt of India began pushing for its Sakshaat for $35 that later became Aakash for $60 and failed.

So how does one judge OLPC's performance in India?

When a sitting cabinet Minister of India for Education with all the resources could not take his Sakshaat or Aakash to 500 students in 4 years, then OLPC signing up with so many and delivering even 1000 was a huge victory.

All it required was to celebrate each win as a major victory.

When Intel with a full fledged team and several well resourced partners could not sell 1000 pieces to the Govt in 4 years, OLPC had already scored a huge win.

Looking back, it was OLPC's approach to only win big, not invest in India, not fund the local operation, dealing with Reliance that yielded little but got it tainted were some of the basic reasons that came in the way of building up on the momentum generated.

Had OLPC used PR, created teams to deal with each state separately, invested in showcasing the value of OLPC, the story would have been very different and millions of children may have been benefitting from OLPC and realized the dream of Prof Negroponte.

However, 4 years later, the market has vitiated the atmosphere by offering gizmos that look attractive like a lollipop, sell at a third the cost of OLPC but cannot feed the hunger for learning the OLPC could.

What lessons Prof Negroponte learns from this may help him realise his dream. He still has an opportunity to build on what his India team has achieved, something that may not be visible to most, but relative to hat lot more powerful could do, it seems like a great story to talk about.

Great comments!
May be OLPC is not clear if its a business or non-profit.
If its a non-profit, it has to raise money to distribute as well.
If its a business, there are clear ways of doing business.
What OLPC needs is a CEO who has done business. Not investing in a huge market like India where every fourth child on planet earth is grossly under-educated and wasted for life should be a priority for Prof Negorponte. Instead he has been heard making statements that may be OK at a dining table, do not look respectable from a great man like him. He should support his India CEO with resources and raise funds to support India's children. Its not about his ego problems with the elites of India. Its about supporting the children who have nowhere else to go and get their mind wasted.

Its clear that most of the [email protected] initiatives for schooling the children in the infrastructure challenged rural India have helped only the vendors of desktops, makers of diesel generators, sellers of UPS, printers and projection screens.

Few children or teachers have gained much, if anything, from nearly $1.5 Billion spent by MHRD and another 20% of that by the State Governments.

Its also clear that OLPC does work in the villages. Despite the attractive hardware, it has had some challenges in Peru and Uruguay as well but even if 30% laptops did not work, 70% did.

In the case of [email protected], even if the desktops worked for a few hours a week, they were more like a once a week lollipop rather than the daily staple diet that education is supposed to be.

Leave aside the fact that just the power consumed by these computers, the pollution created by them and 10 pieces per school instead of 50 OLPCs they could buy for the same price, makes the whole exercise look suspect.

If OLPC has not made much headway in India, it has itself to blame. India understands things in its own way. OLPC had to appreciate that. Its India head was clearly a power person who knew nearly any and everyone in power. But he did not have the resources to work with the system.

When Intel went about donating its educational laptops, OLPC could not donate any. As anyone knowing the Indian system will tell you, all it had to do was to follow the recipe for success:

Start a school in the constituency of the Union Minister for HRD with OLPC laptops.
Pick another school in the constituency of the UPA President or her son Rahul Gandhi.
Another school in the constituency of BJP leader and yet another inaugurated by Narendra Modi of Gujarat.
One more in West Bengal and another in Kerala.

That will give it a across the party line, high visibility schools running on OLPC.

That will not cost much at 100 laptops per school. Surely, OLPC India must have paid a lot more on salaries alone to its staff in the past few years.

Secondly, tie up with a private sector organization that supports the government in technology deployment. SaCouto of Portugal tied up with Educomp and so did Intel because they were proactive.

OLPC needs to know that while it believes it comes to people as a Messiah, it looks clueless beggars in a country where they lay the red carpet for those with means and close their car windows on the beggars.

The biggest coup OLPC pulled off was in Manipur. Mind you, despite a staff of a few director level sales persons, Intel has made no sale to the Government in India, whether at the State or the Central level, as yet. But despite the opposition of the Union Government, OLPC bagged a few orders in India. Manipur is a visible case of deployment that has not been talked about much. But here is a Government that took the initiative while knowing fully well that the Central Government was not in OLPC's favour. OLPC did not leverage that either.

Another coup was to get the Chief Minister of Rajasthan inaugurate the deployment in his state. Not only that, as the media reports suggested, a former chief minister of the state and currently a cabinet minister joined him as well. And the program was showcased under the Prime Minister's Model Village Scheme.

As anyone knowing India knows, these coups are far from easy to pull off without significant resources or goodwill. Considering OLPC is not a resourceful organization, it may have been the goodwill of its India leader who used to be a prominent editor in his younger days.

But OLPC blew all this up.

So who can help OLPC if its powerful India head could not. His passion for OLPC has been publicly praised by some government leaders. But does OLPC deserve him? It has clearly not managed to support him build on the coups he pulled off.

So who can?

The private sector is busy making money regardless of creating a full scale value. Not one corporation or business house has come out to support OLPC the way it could. OLPC does not like and support NGOs.

So what is it's future in India.

India needs OLPC but India's policy makers function in a certain way and to succeed OLPC has little choice but to learn that. India will not change for OLPC. It has many bigger fish to fry for its elites than worry about its poor who are pleased with one lollipop here and another there just before the elections are held.

OLPC has to stop thinking with its white skinned approach and begin to understand India. It already has someone who knows India as well as any. All it has to do is to build on its achievements in a visible way. It has to invest in India. A couple thousand laptops, a dozen full time employees and a world of a billion dollars opens up to it. If they cannot do that, they can forget the dream to change the future of children in India. They should take a leaf out of the entrepreneur's book rather than just wishing things happened!

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