How to learn when 53 percent of XO laptops are broken?


The whole point of the 1-to-1 concept is that each kid has a laptop of his own, to grow, explore, develop, together with others but fundamentally on his own, following his own curiosity, interests and giftings, at home, in school, "under a tree". It is (meant to be) his tool, his learning tool, and where everything else fails (school, teacher quality, access to books, etc), maybe his only tool out of poverty.

One. Per. Child.

Think about it.

That is the billboard picture. One Per Child, and then the game is well engaged. So we are told. Not much else is suggested by OLPC. Yes, connect it to the Internet. Sounds sexy, dun'it? One, Give 'em a laptop. Two, watch them flourish. Now step back, and as Calvin and Hobbes would have it, "high fives and promotions all around".

So, it's a bummer when we find out that in "Usos y Cuidados de las XO (ceibalitas)..." - study by S.Iglesias and M.García (note, it is remarked this is a provisional version) - 55% among 253 XOs delivered that year had something broken after the first eight months.

Is this for real, and if so, does it matter?

The facts: It's only one school, out of several thousand in that deployment. Yes, yes, fellows, notwithstanding otherwise unverified reports dating as far back as 2008, and a lot of circumstantial data published, and several requests in writing and in person for clarification to several people in that deployment - first response here - this is the only piece of seemingly hard data we have. Even some OLPC people, in personal and list communications, indicate they don't know much more about this or any deploy.

BTW, this deployment has published their own official numbers elsewhere in a document I wouldn't want to source from. Slide 35 there would have us believe, were we to consider it accurate and representative, that this one must be some very freak school. Also BTW, the authors of the "Usos" report honestly insist their data are preliminary, and more should be sought and shared - and I couldn't agree more.

IMHO waiting for more data is not needed to start acting - strategies need be implemented, and I don't mean an auto-de-fe or any such cornered not-my-fault tactic. Announcing nationally, as was done, that no more will free repairs be performed for twice damaged XOs and those should now be kept in-school, is not really much of a solution. Lowering the prices for repairs might help some, but that's not it either. (old prices and policies - the conversion rate is $1 USD for 20$)

We need to look at the problem. The problem is poverty, among its associate causes/effects in a circle is ignorance and what smacks of carelessness. Teaching someone to fish is better than giving them a fish, fine. But anyone involved in development work knows that enabling people involves some level of success in their owning the role to care for equipment, give their tool proper maintenance, treat it for the purposes it was meant, build local self reliance and not dependency. This is as important or even more, in the long term, than just giving them the boats, nets and tackle, to follow the metaphor.

Then, we need to inform and educate

The "Usos" report indicates only one machine appeared to have a manufacturing issue. 74.7% of the 71 surveys returned by parents indicate a broken machine. The different figure, 55.3%, came from more direct, reproducible observation. Some of these issues are old hat stories, like broken keyboards being reported by over 2/3 of the parents responding. Screen and chargers would each affect over a third of the cases. Minimal issues with the battery, good job, Richard! OTOH, the battery is the only thing that will be replaced without cost...

But, were it not for this report, we wouldn't really know where to begin - part of what they found out is that parents basically had no idea on how to follow the repair policies implemented there.

Dare we be un-politically correct?

...and run the risk of respectfully recommend that we need to work with individual teachers? Compare these three tables.

data, averaged nationally for rural areas
(no equivalent info has ever been made available about urban ones)

There is some problem, among the poor mostly, but it is sort of not terrible maybe, and we still can make believe the average Total Cost of Ownership (TOC) is merely $250 USD.

in School "2" the problem is all over the place

Merging data makes it hard to know where to start looking and what to look for.


This one, the closest table ever to raw data, thank you Caryl for pointing this out to me, tells us we may need to ask the 2nd Grade B and 3rd C teachers how they do it. Was it the basic wisdom of the poor that keeps anything valuable under lock and key? Or, this would be enormously valuable, they manage to keep the XOs running in spite of what is clearly a most deadly school environment for laptops?

We need more information. Otherwise, how can policies and changes be enacted without data? Informed decisions made? Training given? Credibility with major funding institutions established?

And the winner is....

Ugh, I don't know. Maybe someone in Capital City who is oblivious and ignorant enough to make his livelihood saying there are no problems really in doing this carelessly, and offering TOC expertise as consultants to other countries? I don't see many winners here. I see a bunch of kids who no longer have an XO that can be used. I see those among the best informed people in the field gently backing away from supporting this kind of projects. I see opportunities lost. I see the poverty cycle keep going, by default maybe, but it walks away unscathed.

A conversational interlude

let me introduce to you Simplicio Bobadilla y Comejaiba, an old friend from my Caribbean days, rather clever in his own way.

Simplicio.- You don't like self-administered surveys - but you like this one

Yama.- I believe that 11 forms, out of 18, filled out by teachers simply counting how many XOs are broken among those their own students have, is a reasonably objective approach, and I point out the parent-filled surveys returned were few

S.- How can you deal with what seems, looks, and quacks like wilful vandalism?

Y.- No sure-recipe solution, my friend. OLE Nepal makes a big point of involving the community, especially the parents and most essentially the teachers in this kind of things. Breakage there is so low their national log is two post-it notes on the wall. This deployment instead gave teachers something like a day of training before sending the XOs in.

S.- You insist in saying "this deployment". It looks silly, I saw the links, we all know who you mean

Y.- ... I'm a bit concerned, that's all, and not so much about myself. My experience there is that they prefer to blame the messenger instead of fixing the problem. An email from Ing. Fiorella Haim received the day before this note was published might mean a change in their policy on refusing to answer queries. Time will tell, will keep you posted.

further reading:
Weston and Bain, The End of Techno-Critique: The Naked Truth about 1:1 Laptop Initiatives. They suggest the approach should be "systemic and ubiquitous" in a community

Ceibal, Report 2009
"El porcentaje de máquinas funcionando a junio de 2009 era de 86.7%. La cantidad de máquinas rotas y bloqueadas afecta principalmente a los niños de contextos socioculturales más desfavorecidos, además de crecer proporcionalmente a la cantidad de meses que transcurrieron desde la entrega."

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Three initial thoughts come to mind:

(a) This 55% of broken XOs might just be an anomaly seen in one particular school at one point in time. Or it might point to larger issues that simply haven't been explored yet.
(b) Personally I still think that the 86.7% of XOs working in June 2009 is a much lower number than it should be. We might also need to look at when exactly machines are considered to be "broken" and "working".
(c) Regardless of the details and exact numbers involved: this information clearly indicates that repair and long-term maintenance must be a core-consideration for any 1-to-1 Computing in Education efforts!


Regarding to point A, I agree with your statement, it is not possible to generalize or transpose this results to others schools. I would like to remark that this investigation emerges from a work directed to a specific community, and it is a response to a problem detected and reported by the teachers of this community.

However, our work has joined other “calls attention” made by others social actors (teachers, rap ceibal) related to the same issue. Recently, it was announce by “Búsqueda” (newspaper) that LATU is in possession of 6000 to 7000 machines broken by misuse. Therefore, and in accordance to your second statement, may be signs of a widespread problem. The best way to reach a conclusion, is to conduct an appropriate survey that shows the extent of broken computers, and whether or not depends on certain variables. I believe that encouraging these actions is one of the most relevant potential of this work.

The problem should not be present in all schools in Uruguay to be taken into account, it is sufficient that this issue respond to a given population, to affect the digital divide between different groups of children.

We also must not forget that this study not only investigate potential misuses, but also shows the fragility of the keyboard. In this case the solution would be to improve this piece.

The goal here is to improve the Plan Ceibal, and for that we must not only consider the positive impact but also realize their pontencial difficulties and barriers.

Regardin to point B, broken machines was regarded as those who have problems like:

Keyboard: Missing keys, keyboard out, does not work the keyboard or some keys
Screens: It does not work, divided, half not functioning, distorted picture
Charger not working
Battery Problems
Cut wires
Broken antenna
Can not connect to internet
Camera malfunction

Take a careful look at this table:

I wonder what the questions were and how they were posed in order to arrive at that very strange chart. And, no, it is not a matter of me not understanding Spanish - I'm a native Spanish speaker. The problem I have with the chart is that it's very hard to envision what the questions and possible answers were in order to aarive at those numbers.

I hope someone can shed some light on this...


I wanted to let everyone know that Google Translate allowed me to see the PDF file translated from Spanish into English.


There was a good point about teaching someone to fish, instead of feeding them the fish. What happens when the people never ate fish?

The issue of poverty as a cause for damaged XO's may include how some children might damage the computer just from being curious. A younger sibling could attempt to peel off the rubber keys or write on the screen with a pencil, like has happened among G1G1 machines.

It would be great if someone could explain the chart displayed in this article. The numbers and captions do not make any sense.

Take the heading, for example:

"State of conservation of the XO according to the school's socio-cultural context (Countryside %)"

What does that mean in plain language?

I hope I'm wrong, but it looks like a lot of gibberish, a lot of poorly made-up, unrelated data.

:-) it is teacher-speak, sometimes harder to understand even if you are a native speaker of the language.

OK, lessee, left-to-right, richer to poorer schools. This used to be measured by the proportion of kids that qualified for state-sponsored breakfast, sort of what in the US is to count kids who get free lunch.

dark green, XOs that cannot be used because they are broken, light green, cannot be used because of a full Journal. Dark blue can be used although damaged (probably a key or two missing, or an antenna)

Dear "me", that report you point at was not meant to be informative, but rhetorical, a sort of a group hug on how well we are doing.

you say 38, let me see... ??? Expectativas?
Hmmm, I meant 35, "algunos desafios..." Expectativas is interesting, and very, very sad, on how much hope people have that Ceibal will better learning, especially among the poorest, 93% expect an improvement in learning thanks to Ceibal, 67% of them expecting learning to be not just better but "much better". Interestingly, it is not the richest that are the most realist, but that might be influenced from the make-believe world we also have here in the US among people who feel sure about their own food and shelter.

@GregYohn Very good point. I was just reading about how some Somali pirates justify what they do because big commercial fishing vessels have destroyed their livelihood. Following the metaphor, there is fishing for fun, a very wasteful operation when you "need" a high-power fancy boat, zillions on tackle. When I do fish, it's for the table, and I use a soda can with a line, sinker and hook - I used a small net where that was legal.

Curiosity guiding little and big kids to do very stupid things is not limited by age... I could make a whole point on how pulling off keyboard keys is an early proof of scientific method (research on tear resistance, etc), but that better be done with sticks or pieces of paper, not with this very special item. Guidance and culture and so on do make a difference.


When I make Excel VBA programs, I try to make things idiot proof! I will have fat fingers, but if I made a mistake, I am warned that I have not made a balanced accounting transaction before being allowed to continue.

I have noticed that the new version of Sugar shows the amount of memory is left, so the Journal is not filled up so easily. I think they may not be using the latest version of Sugar in Uruguay, or they're not acting before the computer runs out of storage. When turning on the computer, a percent of remaining storage would be good to be seen. I used to fill up my Journal with big videos and photos before reflashing my XO to repair it.

Greg Yohn - what is a VBA program? What does it stand for?

The laptops may or may not be typical in terms of damage rates, what is VERY typical is that maintenance, support and replacement fees are often under-estimated or outright ignored in school technology programs. This leads to a common, but extremely disconcerting, outcome of unrealized investments and little or no educational benefit of the technology. Until the focus turns to the total cost of ownership, broken computers and untrained children will be more the norm than the exception in developing countries.

VBA means Visual Basic for Applications.

It is the programming language that Microsoft Office products use to automate their actions. What takes some people 50+ hours, I can reduce it down to two hours using custom Excel VBA programs. I can retrieve information from an Access database and paste it into my Excel spreadsheet without my supervisor knowing I know anything about Access! LOL!

These data are from a single school. A careful reading of the entire report will show that the major problem is with the fragile keyboards ripping. Hopefully, this problem has been solved in the new XO-1.5 which is reputed to have a keyboard made of sturdier material.

Another interesting observation in the report that applies to all of the schools is that the success of the program seems to be dependent on the support of the community. The schools with the fewest problems have the best home/school relationship. The enthusiasm of the teacher is also mentioned.

When I talked with 2 teachers in Montevideo in February, they mentioned the keyboard problems. I showed them a simple repair on our wiki that could even be done by students. They had been unaware of what is on the OLPC wiki and were very pleased to have the information.

Good to know!

"Another interesting observation in the report that applies to all of the schools is that the success of the program seems to be dependent on the support of the community."

But that is a general prerequisite for ALL schooling success. Everywhere in the world.


There is conflicting information in different reports about breakage rate. The national reports suggest a lower rate. And we need to distinguish between laptops that were broken and then repaired and those that simply cannot be used.

However, from having studied first-hand another OLPC implementation (in Birmingham, Alabama), I believe there is a contradiction between (1) Seymour Papert's vision of each child having their own individual laptop at school, and (2) children owning the laptops themselves.

If children own the laptops, it is natural that some will break, and they won't have the resources to fix them. As a result, teachers will not be able to guarantee that they have a full working set at school and it will be difficult to carry out 1-to-1 activities (In the classrooms I visited in Birmingham, in no classroom did even half the students have working computers with them).

Of course a lot can be done with shared computers at school, but a shared situation in which one child OWNS the computer and other children do not own working computers is not an ideal situation. And, the XO, which its very small screen, is also not the ideal computer for shared work.

This is one of the contradictions that is at the heart of the OLPC program and which helps explain the discrepancy between amount of school laptop use in a typical OLPC program (very little) compared to school computer use in other school laptop programs (usually a lot).

It may be the case that OLPC programs result in more home use of computers than other laptop program; that depends in part whether the other laptop programs allow students to take the laptops home or not (some do, some don't). However, my own feeling is that students get a lot more out of integration of computers into the school curriculum (which occurs in other laptop programs), rather than from use at home (which may occur in OLPC programs).

"my own feeling is that students get a lot more out of integration of computers into the school curriculum (which occurs in other laptop programs), rather than from use at home (which may occur in OLPC programs)" Mark dixit.

I agree with the central premise, i.e. that students would and do get more out of integration with the curriculum - I'd go further, to integration of school AND computers AND community. I would agree with the secondary if when we say OLPC we mean Boston- or Kigali-guided procedures, which are NOT integrated to the curriculum OR community except my chance.

I hope it doesn't necessarily need to be that way, though so far that is the overwhelming evidence. I do recall the work in Provincia San Luis, where kids that are part of the one-to-one there using Classmates did a fascinating piece of research on the community's carbon footprint and balance.

Also, the XO-based work in Nepal, where there was no doubt from the beginning for all the stakeholders that these machines were for school work, anything else gained being gravy.

"In the classrooms I visited in Birmingham, in no classroom did even half the students have working computers with them"

great point, Mark. Would you share with us if you saw use of computers integrated to the curriculum? especially, was such integration beyond just looking up data on the Internet?

As pointed out in the Aramburú report, such higher-level integration to the classroom learning activities happens here an average of a little less than once per week (the place I saw it more integrated it is used about 3 times per day)


How many of you remember hearing that the XO was about indestructible and could last 5 years?

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