Have Faith in One Laptop Per Child Miracles


I am Jonah Bossewitch, a technical architect at Columbia's Center for New Media Teaching and Learning and a graduate student in Communications at Teachers College.

I have been following One Laptop Per Child for quite some time, especially since the issues around this project lie at the crossroads of the purposeful use of technology in education and social action.

Sometimes I find commentary on OLPC overly pessimistic. It is really easy to conjure up dystopic scenarios for the Children's Machine XO. I have thought of some myself.

I see OLPC miracles

But I also see the positive side, and I have a different viewpoint on what OLPC News has dubbed the "OLPC implementation miracle."

While OLPC News sees Negroponte's reliance on miracles as naively self-destructive, I think an examination of the processes governing OLPC reveal the underlying advanced mechanisms which appear like magic to the casual observer.

It is critical to recognize the culture and heritage which OLPC draws upon. Its processes have been honed over decades of development in the free software communities, and are embodied in the tools it uses to run its operation. As I say in Free Laptops: Creating, Producing and Sharing a Revolution:

The road to OLPC’s success is not only paved with good intentions, it has been fortified by structures and processes which have evolved to embrace and accommodate change.

These practices rely on honesty and transparency to achieve accountability and sustainability. These rules have supported communities with the capacity for agile, responsive, and self-determined growth. If OLPC can maintain the humility and self-awareness that mature free software projects have mastered, then they should succeed in spite of its critics.

Of course, the criteria for success will vary across countries and cultures, over space and time, and according to the eyes of the beholders.

Surely the problems OLPC confronts are complex, and it is impossible to predict their precise impact and outcome in advance. This is why a process for handling change over time is more important than any specific plan. The ecology that OLPC has evolved from has demonstrated the ability to improvise as a team, which is more important than any particular dissemination plan or assessment measure.

Ultimately though, believing in the possibility of this miracle to succeed under these particular circumstances is a matter of faith, but why is that such a bad thing? If the faith is well placed, as I have argued in my essay that it is, then we have the power to shape its outcome. I believe that the impact of the OLPC will be partially influenced by people's perceptions and expectations, which in turn are influenced by the media, including OLPC News.

Another leap of faith

An overly fearful and pessimistic stance my actually hurt this project, just as a cheerful and optimistic one (realistic, not naive) can help it succeed.

A good friend of mine related these ideas to Kierkegaard's writings on Faith in Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, Compiled and Edited By Charles E. Moore:

Faith, therefore, requires a leap. It is not a matter of galvanizing the will to believe something there is no evidence for, but a leap of commitment.

"The leap is the category of decision" – the decision to commit one’s being totally to a [an idea] whose existence is rationally uncertain and whose redemption is utterly an offense. …

[Free Culture] is not a doctrine to be taught, but rather a life to be lived.

It is all too easy to be seduced by The Power of Nightmares, but the world desperately needs miracles right now. Dreams need nurturing and participation to be actualized.

Do you believe in the OLPC dream? And if so, how are you helping to make it happen?

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I second that. Reading olpc news and all the 'how will we throw them out environmentally?' is missing some perspective:
1) Hopefully, it should decrease paper/textbook garbage
2) Considering the amount of waste/child over a 3-5 year cycle, the laptops are insignificant compared with average daily waste
3) Why obsess over HOW TO THROW A LEARNING TOOL AWAY as a blocker. Would all the waste generated from mumps/rubella vaccine administration be a blocker? give me a break.

> Do you believe in the OLPC dream? And if so, how are you helping to make it happen?

It is conceivable that the way to bring around the OLPC dream state (millions of happy kinds teaching themselves or whatnot) may be brought around by a project other than OLPC.

I'm not saying that this is the case. But it is a possibility that should challenge the attitude that OLPC's good intentions place them above criticism.

Hi Anonymous,

Sure its conceivable that other projects might bring about this dream state. Its also conceivable that other projects perpetuate the world's existing state of affairs, or worse. Funny thing about counter-factuals is that they can't be assigned a truth value. ;-)

But what I really want to understand is why these other (vapor?) efforts can't swallow a little pride and piggyback on OLPC. OLPC is one of the few kinds of projects like this that isn't be driven purely by market forces, giving it a shot to be responsive to the needs of the community, not the just shareholders.

I think what is really needed here is a better understanding of freeculture. Nobody needs to ask the OLPC foundation for their permission or blessing to develop programs around the laptop. Just as MS windows was designed to be a business tool, and now has a plenty of educational uses, anyone can use OLPC for anything. It is a free (as in speech) general purpose computing platform. Go to town.

You might also enjoy the essay I wrote in preparation for the one cited here, "Plato and the Laptop: Prescribing Educational Technology for Society's Ills" ( http://pocketknowledge.tc.columbia.edu/home.php/viewfile/18940 ) where I grapple with the challenge of introducing deliberate changes to complex systems, like society.


agree with post, thanks.. olpcnews energy put into lampooning the OLPC learner-centric approach might be better spent, at least in part, by considering the possible upside of a billion creative kids sharing a network..

"miraculous" googlicious collaborations may result from simple math: more creative kids communicating and collaborating, more chances unimaginable value may emerge..

this is not to say that critical thinking is bad, but it might also be applied toward http://www.johntaylorgatto.com traditional educational systems and their resulting product: some research has concluded that "un-creative
behavior is learned" http://www.creativityatwork.com/articlesContent/Currency.html..

if human creativity may be our greatest natural resource, then creative skills maybe should be a primary goal of education.. as such, the OLPC aims right for the heart.. and now more than ever..

real ecological nightmares are looming, (exacerbated by above-cited political nightmares http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Power_of_Nightmares ) is there much time
to test all implementation scenarios, or is it smarter to boldly roll out where no education project has rolled out before?

who knows? olpcnews.com repeats ad nauseum ridicule of the olpc implementation miracle.. maybe olpcnews.com could focus a bit more or even equal energy to communicate possible implementation upside..

maybe by publishing an interview with someone who thinks about network effects, like maybe David Reed? http://www.reed.com/dprframeweb/dprframe.asp

maybe interview an informed, critical educational speaker who also happens to be hilarious: Alfie Kohn http://www.alfiekohn.org/topics.htm

or maybe interview someone who has tried "minimally invasive education".. please interview
Sugata Mitra, who gives computers to ghetto kids in New Dehli with neither instructions nor explanations.. gets real results.. no miracles.. from kids' natural curiosity, creativity.. and equal access..

Jonah Bossewitc

I believe in miracles, and that “the world desperately needs miracles right now”. I also believe in the good intentions of olpc and the buyers of olpc..

I also believe in the good intentions in thousand of project-failures through the last decades in the third world, and I believe that it is important to learn from them.

Sometimes I find commentary on OLPC overly optimistic and funded on little or no knowledge on what is the real problems in the third world. It seems that technocrats are blinded by a techno-light, and forget that someone wery poor has to pay a risky olpc-bill here.

Is it not a strange thing to give the third world this huge bill, and ask for a miracle that it will be worth it? Is it not strange to mean that olpc need a miracle to succeed, and that it is a kind of at duty for everyone to pray and ask for this – cause anything else is to increase the probability of failure ? In the end, will this mean that the critics are to blame, if the olpc-project turns out to be a disaster?

Would it not be more natural to focus the effort on proven ways to reach the goals, where no miracles are needed ?

Yet I also will pray for a miracle:
“OLPC is to use PC-labs with the OLPC as clients, with a Thin-Client server and Thin-Client boot media on the OLPC. This costs USD 10.000,- per school (5% of OLPC). This is by far the best choice for the OLPC project today. Not only does it reduce the investment cost by a factor of 20, in fact making the OLPC model viable, but it also reduces the technological risks of the project considerably, as including a thin client in OLPC will enable it to run any needed application via the server from day one.”

best regards
terje tjensvoll

The above comment links to nonsense. "use PC-labs with the OLPC as clients ... this costs USD 10,000 per school". The numbers don't make sense; by their own calculation, a PC-lab costs 20,000 per school, and they're adding (some unspecified number of) OLPCs to that? If every child gets an OLPC, then they're back to the original OLPC price, PLUS some Windows PCs.

How do they think they can reduce the cost of the OLPC by making it a "thin client"? The OLPC is free to act as a client to any server reachable on the network -- either using Web protocols or using the X Window System. But it is not limited to being a client. Kids can use it whether or not they're near a network, and whether or not some specific server is running.

John Gilmore

the goal is to get the third world up from the diital darkness as cheap as possible for them, and at the same time do it in a way that is proven to give results ...

as in EU and US we use PC-labs in schools, and we can not see why why this is not good enough for the third world ...

if we use not to give every child a xo, but use them as thin clients in pc-labs, .. offcourse it will be cheaper ... how can it not .. when the alternative is to for each school to buy 40 XO instead of 1 thousand?

how do you mean that FAIR's numbers dont't make sense

from the pressrelase: " The costs in all three alternatives include 40 computers per school, network equipment and servers. With respect to recycled equipment, re-installation costs and shipping are included, and recycling also adds the benefit of being the most environmentally friendly.
... a regular school of 1000 pupils need to invest more than USD 200.000,- to join the OLPC programme. ....One solution is the preferred solution in rich countries today, i.e. to use PC-labs of new Pentium 4 (or equivalent) computers. This costs USD 20.000,- per school (10% of OLPC). Another good solution we are experienced with is to use PC-labs with recycled Pentium 3 and Pentium 4 computers. This costs USD 1.500,- per school (1,5% of OLPC).
The solution we believe is preferable for OLPC is to use PC-labs with the OLPC as clients, with a Thin-Client server and Thin-Client boot media on the OLPC. This costs USD 10.000,- per school (5% of OLPC). This is by far the best choice for the OLPC project today. Not only does it reduce the investment cost by a factor of 20, in fact making the OLPC model viable, but it also reduces the technological risks of the project considerably, as including a thin client in OLPC will enable it to run any needed application via the server from day one."


John Gilmore

There can be many good reasons and good intentions to let poor countries buy Xo too every child, but doesn't cost and risk seem to high .. when there are other ways to solve this, a way that is documentet very well that is effectiv .. and much cheaper ...

why experiment with customers that can't afford a failure

why risk a failure at all when there a proven cheaper solution

with the third world in focus

best regards

Follow-up - here is the OLPC presentation that I ultimately presented at the Teach, Think, Play Conference: