Could OLPC Sell XO Laptops to US School Systems?

   
   
   
   
   
olpc Barney
Barney wants USA $100 laptop sales

I'm Allen Majorovic and I am a computer programmer with a long-term, borderline obsessive interest in the public education system, the use of computers in education, trying to understand why neither works or works as well as it should.

Ever the optimist, I'm hoping the XO, despite some false steps, will be the computer that puts the world on the Internet in the same sense as the Model-T Ford is described as "the car that put America on wheels" and frees education from the institutional straight-jacket necessary in a public education system.

I've gone on at some length, in a number of comments, about what a bad idea it is to try to limit XO sales to the government's of developing nations. There are financial, political, social and practical considerations that argue against this course.

But if sales to government is an unbending requirement then why limit sales to governments which are poor candidates for large-scale purchases? The developed nations, particularly the United States, represents a fertile market for sales to educational institutions and many of the objections and difficulties inherent in developing-nation markets don't apply in the U.S.

With a nation-wide budget for public elementary and secondary education in excess of $550 billion (USD) the funding to purchase XO's is much more likely to found among wealthy, or even not so wealthy, American school districts. The American public education system has a long history of purchasing computers for use in education, as opposed to use in administration, going back into the late 1980's. Although the history of such purchases is, I believe, uniformly barren, the purchases continue.

Could the XO enjoy success selling into the US education market?

The low per-unit price would be an attraction although the indifference to results suggests price isn't the only, or even the main, consideration to a school district. More important might be the impression that the XO would make on technically naive school district elected officials: the XO looks like a toy.

That's not a criticism, just an observation. For my part I admire the design as an excellent example of designing for function. But that doesn't change the first word that pops into my mind when I see a picture of an XO: cute. They look more like something little girls would use to carry precious possessions.

That's unfortunate because for people who don't know better, particularly elective officials who don't know better, it's a real consideration. As in developing nations the funding for education doesn't just lie around in heaps waiting to be shoveled into any project that promises to improve education; it's spoken for.

Funding for anything contends with funding demands for everything else and in order to get funding a project must demonstrate that it's higher on the list of priorities then some other, potential, expenditure. Since funding priority is a political issue, impressions matter. Looking cute won't help.

olpc negroponte
Dr. Negroponte: a selling point?

In favor of the XO is its connection with Nicholas Negroponte and MIT. As a selling point, especially to the elective officials who run school districts, this should not be discounted.

Where there are no objective measures of value one looks to the subjective measures. Approving a large-scale purchase of a designed-for-education computer with a pedigree like that goes a long way toward justifying the purchase.

Against the purchase of the XO is the enactment several years ago of a federal law - known colloquially as No Child Left Behind - requiring the demonstration of minimal levels of attainment in basic areas of education by schools. With the unwelcome requirement that educational institutions demonstrate a minimal level of competence has come a focus on methods of attaining the mandatory goals.

It's unfortunate that the XO wasn't available several years ago, before educational efficacy became important, since it has no record of assisting in the attainment of minimum standards.

In favor of the XO for sale to American public education is the overall more favorable climate for computers. Electric power is inexpensive, widely available and of good quality. Internet connectivity, while somewhat less comprehensive then some nations is, nonetheless, widely available.

Many, if not most, American kids will need very little exposure to the concept and capabilities of computers. They've grown up with them and computers are an unremarkable part of their daily lives. The distribution mechanism, along with maintenance support, is already in place.

The basic problem faced by supporters of the XO, whether in the US or in the developing world, is that public education decisions are political decisions with the outcome determined by political considerations among which, but not necessarily the most important of which, is what the XO can do to educate kids.

Although it's an opinion shared by relatively few people, I've come to be convinced that "the art of the possible",i.e. politics, is a poor mechanism for making decisions about education. It's said that a good political compromise leaves no one satisfied. The degree of satisfaction is a function of political power and kids don't vote.

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15 Comments

Most of the discussions here (and elsewhere) were about better alternatives to improve education in the developing world, and even better, more cost effective solutions.

The big roll-out of the OLPC is (indefinitely) delayed due to the worries over the OLPC. With all those OLPC alternative distribution plans and alternatives to the XO, I have one question.

Where are the alternatives?

As far as I can see there is none in place. Not even in the planning stage.

In the end, the children in South America, Africa and South Asia seem to get nothing instead of an XO.

(And NComputings limited contract in Macedonia doesn't count as the OLPC targets children much poorer than those in South European countries like Macedonia)

Winter

One of the main barriers to this plan is the idea of mixing a new platform with one or two existing ones already in use in a school district. I have seen our local district move from a Mac shop, then to a Unix, thin client shop, followed by a layoff of the IT guy championing this approach, and then to a PC shop with some Macs and rooms full of machines pulled out during past purges.

Perhaps a few narrow pilot projects in some districts and new charter schools but not wholesale adoption of the XO.

Possibly the "give one get one" offer could be extended to school boads with the thought of giving one, and demostrating to students with the other one, what this could mean to children in under developed countries. Young people have a much firmer grasp on the use and future of computers than most adults. The idea of establishing "computer pal's" with kid's in developing nations would be a wonderful way to open communication.

Author asks:

"Could OLPC Sell XO Laptops to US School Systems?"

Not a chance with the current model.

It will take a few well-documented pilot projects and substantial improvement of the XO features/performance before a successful sales pitch can be made to the school authorities in the USA.

If a school system has decided to use a technology solution and they're looking for cheap laptops XOs are as good as anything. However, they probably won't go with the rest of OLPCs ideas, they'll just take the laptops and use them in a way that fits the school system's needs.

You'll find a district here or there that'll take a chance on the XO for whatever local reasons apply but in general it'll be a tough sell due to the lack of Windows and the presence of Linux.

To people who aren't tech-heads using Linux for anything important seems a bit like your beloved uncle Walter's heart transplant surgical team using a heart-lung machine built out of old automotive parts by people who enjoy building hear-lung machines in their basement.

In case that's not clear enough, it doesn't inspire confidence.

@allen:
"To people who aren't tech-heads using Linux for anything important seems a bit like your beloved uncle Walter's heart transplant surgical team using a heart-lung machine built out of old automotive parts by people who enjoy building hear-lung machines in their basement."

This reminds me of "In the Beginning was the Command Line"
by Neal Stephenson

http://project.cyberpunk.ru/lib/in_the_beginning_was_the_command_line/
(white on black)
http://www.spack.org/wiki/InTheBeginningWasTheCommandLine
(black on white, with content list)

This is the best description I have seen about Open Source systems, centered on Linux.

The story about "MGBs, Tanks, and Batmobiles" is a little dated, but still valid.

A quote about a construction quality drill versus consumer versions which still holds as a comparison between the latest Linux versions and Vista:

"A smaller tool is dangerous too, but for a completely different reason: it tries to do what you tell it to, and fails in some way that is unpredictable and almost always undesirable. But the Hole Hawg is like the genie of the ancient fairy tales, who carries out his master's instructions literally and precisely and with unlimited power, often with disastrous, unforeseen consequences.

Pre-Hole Hawg, I used to examine the drill selection in hardware stores with what I thought was a judicious eye, scorning the smaller low-end models and hefting the big expensive ones appreciatively, wishing I could afford one of them babies. Now I view them all with such contempt that I do not even consider them to be real drills--merely scaled-up toys designed to exploit the self-delusional tendencies of soft-handed homeowners who want to believe that they have purchased an actual tool. Their plastic casings, carefully designed and focus-group-tested to convey a feeling of solidity and power, seem disgustingly flimsy and cheap to me, and I am ashamed that I was ever bamboozled into buying such knicknacks. "

Winter

Good for Mr. Stephenson. What's that got to do with the difficulty of selling a computer to a school district that ships with Linux installed?

@Allen:
"Good for Mr. Stephenson. What's that got to do with the difficulty of selling a computer to a school district that ships with Linux installed?"

Read it. The allegory of the dealerships on the cross-roads is Stephenson's description of exactly that problem.

Quote (again):
"Imagine a crossroads where four competing auto dealerships are situated [MS, Apple, Be, and Linux]. One of them (Microsoft) is much, much bigger than the others. It started out years ago selling three-speed bicycles (MS-DOS); these were not perfect, but they worked, and when they broke you could easily fix them."

But if you don't appreciate Neil Stephenson, just ignore this suggestion.

Winter

I understand all about allegories, revere a good example of onomotapeia and appreciate a good metaphor. I'm charmed by artful alliteration and enjoy a good limerick. I like good tools although I won't rhapsodize over them and didn't care for "Snowcrash" finding Stephenson far too circuitous in his approach to any conclusion for my taste none of which has the remotest relationship to circumventing the inherent difficulties of getting government agencies to utilize open source software.

If Mr. Stephenson has some means of solving that problem then I'm interested although I'd prefer a synopsis of the idea rather then a 5,000 word treatise.

@Allen:
"If Mr. Stephenson has some means of solving that problem then I'm interested although I'd prefer a synopsis of the idea rather then a 5,000 word treatise."

Ah, a synopsis spoils all the fun.

What you need is solid endorsement, like:
NASA tests Linux for spacecraft control
http://www.linuxdevices.com/news/NS5714800202.html

Or:
NASA tests Linux-based planetary surface exploration robots
http://linuxdevices.com/news/NS4892438264.html

But Neil explained also that wouldn't work.

Actually, he explains why there is no argument that will convince a middle manager that free Linux is a viable choice. That is, really, according to Neil, no amount of solid technological, economical, ergonomical, security, or educational evidence will convince him/her to chose Linux.

With one exception, a big (USA) corporation must SELL it to them, eg, Red Hat or Novel. Because the point is not that Linux might not be better in every measurable respect. But that it is not sold for money.

Personally, I think Neil is somewhat pessimistic. But on the other hand, I am afraid he might know the people better than I do.

But, anyhow, the OLPC does not sell Linux, but a fully loaded XO. So something IS sold, for money, by a USA based organization. Based at the MIT at that.

Winter

I don't need an endorsement, I've been using open source software almost exclusively for about five years and for five years before that on a regular basis.

NASA's use of Linux isn't helpful because most school districts will, quite rightly, assume they don't have the technical resources that NASA has and then jump to the conclusion that they can't make use of Linux. I know that's not true because the underlying objections aren't technical but legal and political.

The bad news is that there's no swift and certain way to overcome that resistance.

The good news is that over time there's no way to stop the spread of open source software.

The bad news for public education bureaucracies is that they won't seize on the advantages of open source as quickly as private schools since they have recourse to the public purse and thus no good reason to innovate.

The good news is that those innovations are likely to be most avidly seized upon in the areas targeted by the OLPC - poor people in poor countries. Of course that's predicated on a really good reason to use computers in education. So far there's nothing you can do with a computer that can't be done better by a compentent teacher.

There's some chipping around the edges of the problem with the computerization of administrative functions associated with running a class with software like Moodle and that'll help but it isn't the computerized holy grail of education. That's yet to be characterized.

> Actually, he explains why there is no argument that will convince a middle manager

Obviously, Dr. Negroponte didn't consult with Mr. Stephanson. Otherwise he might have tried to make some preperation for what Mr. Stephenson quite correctly identifies as a tough sell.

> But, anyhow, the OLPC does not sell Linux, but a fully loaded XO. So something IS sold, for money, by a USA based organization.

Yes, but not at retail. Retail buyers, especially retail buyers buying a $200 dollar computer, aren't going to expect anything other then performance. They won't care whether it's Intel Inside or Microsoft anywhere that provides the performance because they won't be buying a business computer. They'll be buying an e-mail, web browsing, music-playing, picture-taking, telephone-call making computer. For $200 they won't care what's inside as long as what's outside is their satisfied smile.

Trouble is of course that the whole project might not have gotten off the ground as a commercial venture. A considerable amount - maybe most - of the talent came on board with the promise that they'd be involved with a do-gooding project. If if were a commercial venture the talent pool would've had a very different make-up. It quite likely wouldn't have happened at all.

To allen - Have you interacted with one of these laptops or actually done any further investigation beyond seeing the operating system is Linux-based? The software of the machine was specifically designed to meet the needs of students and education. The fact that it is based on Linux does not mean it is unsupportable. Please look a bit closer at how the software on the XO has been designed before you throw it out just for being based on Linux.

This poorly researched and out-of-date. OLPC DOES sell to US educational system.

http://wiki.laptop.org/go/OLPC_Birmingham

Ther are also some other pilots being started in South Carolina and a few other places.

Maybe you should realize you're reading an old post. In September 2007, this post was both well-researched and up to date.

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