It Takes A Lot to Make Technology Implementation Work

   
   
   
   
   
jhai pc
Jhai PC design

I am one of the people who has made an attempt to configure computers for use in rural areas of the developing world and have tried to install a system that would work over a long period of time while owned and operated by a village. I did not succeed, but I learned a great deal (the effort has been continued by people who inherited the project.

The most important lesson was the fact that when one sets up a computer there, one must necessarily create an infrastructure which will support the system. This is a much harder job than merely designing and building a piece of equipment, but without it the equipment will fall into disuse and disrepair, and your intentions will fall into disrepute. Word will get around that you have proven that "it can't be done".

My major point of contention with the OLPC project deals with how they are, or rather are not, handling this infrastructure problem. The idea was introduced as a revolutionary piece of hardware that would embody educational advancement and raise the level of education amongst the children who used it.

Great blessings would apparently flow from the mere possession of the equipment, so no effort would be necessary to provide infrastructure supporting its use. The closest thing to a stated goal was that children would "learn learning" without the intercession of adults under a vaguely-defined theory called "constructionism".

When questions were raised, in many cases answers were avoided. The most egregious tactic was to say "it's an education project, not a laptop project" whenever questions were raised about the elements of the laptop, and to say "we're only making a laptop" when questions came up about the educational goals and methods of the project.

President Luiz Lula olpc
Brazil's President Luiz Lula ♥ OLPC

The sales effort was directed at top decision makers in the governments of candidate countries, and no one to this day knows what was promised to whom, outside the inner circle of the project.

High governmental officials, being political creatures to the core, live and breathe perceptions - the perceptions of their peers and of their constituents.

While anyone, in my opinion, who has been involved in education or in computer system development would not accept the idea that mere possession of a laptop will by itself bring about an educational revolution, it is surprising that this blatant example of technological determinism gains acceptance amongst the officials.

This is because they are not expert in either area (education or technology) and they know that neither are their peers nor their constituencies. Since the idea of advanced technology (the computer, in this case) as magic totem with wonderful powers has been spread throughout the industrial age, these politicians are keenly aware that they must not be caught on the wrong side of this perception.

OLPC's basic sales pitch can be: "If you don't show that you're a supporter of wonderful new technology you will give your enemies a weapon to use against you - now, are you with us or against us?"

OLPC Brazil Teacher
Teachers are key to OLPC success

As I pointed out in November 2005, the big problem with the OLPC project was the assumption that there is no need to work with the parents, the community leaders, and the working educators to develop the infrastructure needed to support the intended operation of the laptop.

Without such infrastructure, I contend, the project will not work. Other results (some quite distressing to contemplate) are possible, but not the ones presented as the intended results.

It appears that a few things are changing in OLPC's approach. Constructionism is no longer the watchword - it has been purged from the definition of the project. While the price has increased (not too surprisingly) the project is compensating by dropping the minimum order quantities, very much like a merchant with slightly overpriced stock.

Competition of a sort is emerging from Intel and the voice of Microsoft has been heard, softly as it always is in the beginning, forcing OLPC to claim that Windows will run on the laptop. Of course, the port of Windows must necessarily be done by Microsoft, who will thereby control the perception of the laptop within the Windows usership.

Still, infrastructure is the neglected child of the lot, as one might expect given the immense complexity and variations of culture, societies and expectations within which the OLPC laptop must function. For OLPC to claim an exemption from the infrastructure problem by saying "we are only twelve people" is to concede that they have not done and have no intention of doing the necessary homework. But they do expect a high grade.

Returning to my opening statement, I fear that OLPC's performance without necessary infrastructure will poison the official perceptions of other efforts to spread the use of computer technology in developing countries.

"Computers for those people? No, OLPC has tried it and it didn't work".

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49 Comments

"...the big problem with the OLPC project..."

lol.

Anyway, it's possible that the folks at Red Hat know something about setting up infrastructure.

Mr. Felsenstein, sorry, but you dont't know what is doing in countris like Brazil. You vision is higly Cambridge centered.

You vision is higly Cambridge centered.

...Just like the OLPC Foundation, I'd contend.

Lee,
I am not so afraid about OLPC's longterm sustainability if the first one or two years turn out to be successful.

Since they will deliver new updated hardware every year for the new school entrants they have the possibility to improve on mistakes.

I am much more concerned about their chance to be successful at the first attempt. If that fails no further improvement will be possible and as you say that might ban all computers from schools for a long time.

Patrick,
I think Lee's point was about more than technical infrastructure (although it's about that too, of course). If I am reading him correctly, the 'necessary system' he speaks about is about lots more than the technology. The concern about things falling into 'disuse' is a real one, and this isn't a bits and bytes issue. Let's assume that the Red Hat folks have all of the tech stuff in their bailiwick thoroughly sussed out -- in fact, let's assume that the OLPC people do too. It's the other stuff -- the human processes and procedures, human resources, etc. that are really difficult.

Jose Antonio,
I think your criticism of Lee being Cambridge-centric is a bit off the mark, as I am pretty sure Felsenstein lives in Silicon Valley ... although you may respond to that by saying "touche!" ;-). His criticism of the OLPC project seems to me in part to be that it is "Cambridge centered": i.e. a largely technical response to a challenge that is only partially about the technology.

That said, I think that lessons and examples from Brazil (and Thailand and Malaysia, to go a little further afield) can be very instructive here, as there is a long (for this type of thing) history and *lots* of expertise and opinion in these countries on what is needed for an initiative of the sort envisioned by OLPC (or Intel or Mobilis or whoever) to actually be implemented successfully.

One can argue that the 'other stuff' issues are not something that should be OLPC's (or Intel's, etc.) concern here -- they just build and sell the stuff. It is the certainly sponsoring government's responsibility to plan adequately for the roll-out and support of these shiny new gadgets. That said, wouldn't it be nice if their were proposed implementation guidelines emerging from Cambridge and Santa Clara related to the Classmate and $100 laptop? Agree with 'em or not, at least this would help evaluate how best to think about investments of the sort debated on message boards like this one. Now there is a deafening silence on these issues from the proponents of these and other initiatives.

"the big problem with the OLPC project was the assumption that there is no need to work with the parents, the community leaders, and the working educators to develop the infrastructure needed to support the intended operation of the laptop."

The big problem is the lack of thinking that went into conceiving, developing and ultimately selling this project.

There have been gross errors in the way every one of those stages were handled, perhaps all of them originating from the same source: regardless of Prof. Negroponte's claims to the contrary, this has been a *laptop* project all along, and issues of classroom implementation, support infrastructure, long-term sustainability, total cost of ownership, etc., were never a priority in his agenda.

The quick and nonchalant manner in which "constructivism" was eliminated as the "main goal" of this project is a clear indicator of where Negroponte's loyalties lie: the sale of his machine.

That's why he has no problem
accomodating "Bill's (Microsoft) request" for Windows on the XO; that's why he has no problem selling to Muammar al-Gaddafi; that's why he has no interest in any sort of testing;
that's why the latest excuse is that countries will "decide" what to do with the laptop.

Unfortunately for Prof. Negroponte, the way things are going, he will soon have a third consecutive failed project in his hands.


Dick Einstein

Dick,

what's wrong with Negroponte dealing with Gaddafi? Do Libyan kids deserve no better education?

Dick,

Where are the links?

Hey, it seems I have developed a loyal following!

:-)

Nice.

I just want to learn your tactics.

Jose, you are the first person ever to accuse me of a "Cambridge centered" mentality. Those who know me can justifiably accuse me of an anti-Cambridge prejudice (I live in Silicon Valley, took my degree from Berkeley, and when I worked at Interval Research spent a week at the Media Lab seeing how they handled engineering - I was not impressed).

So you can see that I am very interested to find out what prompts your comment. Since you made your statement in the comments section I hope you will see fit to share your perceptions with the others reading this.

Actually, I would be more interested to see your explanation of what you know is going on in Brazil. It's a big country, and no one knows everything, but any information would be helpful.

From looking at the pictures OLPC has made available it would seem that some work is going on to develop actual curriculum software and materials - apparently in contradiction to OLPCs implementation ideology. Please let us know whether these efforts have support from OLPC and, if not, what are the sources of support.

Also, if you can shed any light upon the political manifestations of the project (e.g., what minister was promised what to secure support) that would be most helpful to us all. How is support being developed among teachers, school administrators, and parents?

I have never been to Brazil, but from afar I admire the Brazilian attitude (as best I understand it), and I have hope that new and different ways of solving problems will emerge from there (look at the work of Paolo Freire, a truly inspiring thinker). To have OLPC invoking Freire's name in support of their bogus approach of "constructionism" is painful.

By all means, Jose, tell us what is happening there.

Also, the illustration of the Jhai PC was not provided by me, but was drawn by someone with very little contact with the project and was posted on the Jhai Foundation website while I was totally distracted by getting the equipment built and installed. It did not look like that - that drawing should be considered schematic in nature.

"Also, if you can shed any light upon the political manifestations of the project (e.g., what minister was promised what to secure support) that would be most helpful to us all."

Sounds like a witch hunt? That does not sound helpful to me. I'm more interested in the actual merits of the project (assuming that there are some, of course) and what is/can be done to help it's success.

Patrick,
I don't see how the "actual merits of the project itself" can be divorced from "what is being done to help its success", which includes the sausage-making that is political horse-trading. I would rather that OLPC not try to exert political muscle to make their sales and rely upon provable benefits of the technology and its pedagogy, but they have taken the approach that they can do it just by talking to heads of state and ministers, so why bother with that pedagogy stuff?

The future of the project is not solely dependent upon its excellent hardware and software design, but rests as much upon the human structures that must develop to support it. My point is that OLPC has downplayed and minimized the work they'd need to do to cultivate such strutures, instead claiming that they will develop without their involvement. Worse, they act as if they don't need to engage in any relationship with the end user stakeholders (parents, children, educators) in order to pull off thier intended goals.

To think that technologies have a life of their own and exist independent of human structures is to blunder into a well-trodden morass. "Gee, we had such smart people working on it - who could have guessed it would be a disaster?" is the signature statement of those who emerged.In the commercial world it can lead to lawsuits.

Lee,

"The future of the project is not solely dependent upon its excellent hardware and software design, but rests as much upon the human structures that must develop to support it."

At least a part of this supporting human structures are the local OLPC communities which not only lobby for government support but also prepare content, localize UIs, involve teachers etc. Unfortunately most of their websites are not in English.

Lee,

My point is that you're smearing OLPC just by the way your asking questions (and I think that you know it). If I say, "When is Lee Felsenstein going to come clean about x?" I am not making an honest statement. Not unless I really know something.

Anyway, you're assuming that a disaster is looming. You've been predicting it for a while. I personally don't think that is the case. All projects have growing pains and short-sightedness. All the one's that I've been part of. You adapt as you go and try to keep your focus on what's important. I think that's what they are doing.

I respect the points that you bring up but I expect that the people involved are aware of them at this point in the game.

Lee,

I think oplc is right to leave support to each country and the local communities. If you design a support system that is right for one place it is certain to be wrong for many others. Let the locals figure out how they want to do things. Here is an example of one way to get oplc out there:

http://www.tectonic.co.za/view.php?src=rss&id=1593

If that's your expectation then you are unfamiliar with the history of commercial computers. The landscape is littered with technical advanced computer companies that failed because some boring factor, like marketing, money or supply chain management, retail channel strategy or after-sale support was neglected.

Allen,

Please... this isn't a closed project. Everyone is watching and commenting (like you and me).

Patrick, about Lee's comments:

I do have some moral concerns regarding the "leave to the locals to decide" attitude. In my country, the decision to buy OLPC's computers is being discussed under wraps, with little or no transparency, no goals, no clear strategy or implementation plan, and with what looks like an unholy alliance between our Ministry of Education and one particular private university. Our current minister of education is the president of that university, under leave of absence but surely to return to his post when he leaves the ministry.

Is it right to conduct business under these circumstances? The absence of transparency, the potential for enormous mistakes, or the absence of a clear implementation strategy, aren't or shouldn't be at least a concern as strong as the technical issues?

I think they are. Not even development aid is given without considerations about the final recipient of the money. I know this is not a charity, it is ultimately a non-profit but there's money involved. I believe that there's a moral obligation, tightly tied to the business and technical concerns, to avoid a waste of money, goodwill and resources. While I wouldn't believe that there's an obligation to provide an implementation plan as part of the sale, it should be a condition for selling the computers that such a plan exists! At least, it would guarantee some accountability when the computers are made, delivered and waiting to be used by the kids.

In other words: since they are so eager to see the machines made and delivered, OLPC is morally responsible for their sale to work, not just technically, but politically in the widest sense. To avoid the hard policy issues, as well as the moral matters, is wrong.

Eduardo Montez,

"Let the locals figure out how they want to do things. Here is an example of one way to get oplc out there:

http://www.tectonic.co.za/view.php?src=rss&id=1593
"

Excellent link - thanks.

Hi Eduardo,

I would wish for everything related to OLPC to be above board.

My reason for liking the project, though, is to get technology into the hands of the gifted children around the world. I don't care how this happens as long as it happens. It's sad if it has to be dirty (I am not saying that it is dirty) but to me it's sadder for the very limited gifted people of our world to be wasted.

Please, Brazil hosts Mandriva and a sizeable number of Linux kernel developers.

I know from personal experience that Brazil has a thriving well educated research community. Brazilians do know what computers are, and what the internet is.

I am very confident that Brazil, and many other S American countries are very well able to handle the roll-out and support of such a project.

If there is a problem in Latin America, then it would be in the political organization (eg, corruption, cronyism, party politics). But that can kill ANY project, big or small, innovative or copycat. (and to a certain degree, that would plague US projects too)

Winter

Very well said, Eduardo Villanueva!

Contrast those words with those in the interview linked to by Eduardo Montez. While the interviewee describes what he is doing as a "pilot project" it would appear that it is a highly subjective trial use. There is not word about metrics here, nor of criteria for success.

Let us not forget that OLPC originally derided "pilot projects" and asserted that the only way to go was "whole hog" - all the kids at once. This has changed first to "all the kids in one grade", then to "all the kids in one grade in certain selected schools" as the orders failed to materialize.

Now they are silent as uncoordinated "pilot projects" get under way, with no stated methodology or evaluation criteria. Clearly their hope is that subjective reports will come in saying that "the kids seemed to like them", that "attendance is up" and relating some inspiring anecdotes. OLPC will then cherry-pick from these "results" to suppress opposition to their behind-the-scenes sales efforts. (If OLPC is so very "open" then why aren't we permitted to know a thing about this aspect?)

I'm sorry to offend some by dropping the word "political" into the discussion, but what else is it if the process consists of high-level, secret discussions with politicians? Eduardo Villanueva gives one good example from his own country and correctly calls it an "unholy alliance".

Those of us who want the project to succeed must shine the brightest possible light upon the flawed process of implementation so that it can be corrected in time. If we do not, then the project will sputter to a halt and the effort will be lost.

OLPC relies upon several uncritical assumptions among sectors of the public influential in the politics of candidate countries. These assumptions include "it is a good thing for kids to have laptops", "anything designed by MIT people has got to be good", "obviously someone smarter than me has thought this out", and "computers are magic". We need to make these assumptions visible and suggest better criteria for judgment.

Patrick, I know this isn't a closed project but there are some pretty large oversights that we've been tossing around and any one of them could easily doom the project. Some of them may be understandable but others suggest either arrogance or ignorance.

One of the classic mistakes that seems to be in the making is a concentration on the technology almost to the exclusion of other considerations. Some of those considerations are fairly obvious which casts reasonable doubt on how much attention the less obvious problems have received. Contrary to the old saw, if you take care of the little things you still have to take care of the big things.

Eduardo's link is to a story worth reading. It's an interview of “Antoine Van Gelder who is part of OLPC’s South African developer programme” and he's got some observations and complaints about various aspects of the OLPC program, not the computer. They are worth listening too. I wonder if anyone's listening?

Hi Patrick

I have to strongly disagree with you. The way it happens is as important as the actual happening. This is especially true since, if the process is corrupted by unholy alliances, the kids won't be getting anything.

Morality has a part to play. And the responsibility of those promoting the OLPC mantra is to be sure that things are done aboveboard and right, not just to get computers sold. While getting a good implementation is not as evidently a moral issue as not getting kickbacks, selling such a wonderful resource without an implementation plan would do a huge damage to the hopes of the kids and parents, as well as to the prospects of a better education for a lot of people in the world. The current promoters would probably move somewhere else, to something different. The money spent, badly spent, would be lost and another chance for development lost, too.

What's why I'm against the current implementation of the project in my country. I'm quite willing to discuss about implementation and even to be convinced, or at least to suspend disbelief, about the merits and the actual potential of the OLPC computer in Peruvian education, as long as things are done right. I'm doing my bit, but I would love that OLPC does his / hers / theirs, and get assurances that the computers are going to be carefully, honestly implemented. They are not doing this, and I do believe that's morally irresponsible and objectionable.

Lee, I fully agree with you:

"Those of us who want the project to succeed must shine the brightest possible light upon the flawed process of implementation so that it can be corrected in time. If we do not, then the project will sputter to a halt and the effort will be lost."

And I may add: a significant damage to the people supposedly to benefit from this would be done, too.

Mr. Feldstein,

I say "Cambridge centered" in sense you only analize (and criticize) the work made in OLPC HQ. But Brazil already has a good work on 1:1 approach, mainly in Cognitive Studies Laboratory -- LEC (http://www.lec.ufrgs.br). The brazilian researches on XO just consider community, parents, teachers, school managers. Brazil government already has plans to put broadband internet in ALL schools of country (even in Amazonia) until 2010. The LEC work probabily will be the model to OLPC implementations all over the world.

"Felsenstein". Sorry for typo. :)

Allen,

"If that's your expectation then you are unfamiliar with the history of commercial computers. The landscape is littered with technical advanced computer companies that failed because some boring factor, like marketing, money or supply chain management, retail channel strategy or after-sale support was neglected."

Quite correct, but this is not a standard commmercial computer. The people designing it are not in it to make money but to make it possible for the children of the developing world to have computers. And so the people distributing and supporting it are doing so not for profit, as would, say, Dell or Circuit City, but doing so for other motives and in other ways.

Eduardo Villanueva Mansilla,

"In other words: since they are so eager to see the machines made and delivered, OLPC is morally responsible for their sale to work, not just technically, but politically in the widest sense. To avoid the hard policy issues, as well as the moral matters, is wrong."

A good principle, but oplc lacks the manpower or political power to do much about that. Their strategy is basically to just throw it out there. It is in this sense similar to open source. Unlike Microsoft and Windows, Linus doesn't control who uses linux.

Lee,

"Contrast those words with those in the interview linked to by Eduardo Montez. While the interviewee describes what he is doing as a "pilot project" it would appear that it is a highly subjective trial use. There is not word about metrics here, nor of criteria for success."

Same reply as to allen. Oplc throws it out there and just hopes that countries will implement it in an intelligent manner. My guess is some will and some won't, and some of those that don't implement it intelligently at first will learn from those who did. Unlike a centrally controlled project, there is a division of responsiblity.

I think this is sensible. If it was the case that centrally controlled projects in the field of education and computing were generally highly successful, and furthermore could be implimented for oplc's number one target, children in rural areas without sufficient schools or electricity, then it would make sense to follow a centrally controlled model. But there is no centrally controlled model that is practical for the target audience, and beyond that centrally controlled educational innovations often fail. So I think the best strategy is to simply throw the computers out there and assume the governments or locals with figure out how to make good use of them.

It has occured to me that most everything people said for years about how open source could never work is now being said about oplc. This would make sense if there had been a series of laptop projects like oplc that had all failed, but there hasn't been, at least not ones similar enough to really count. When you try to accomplish something different, you have to go about it a different way.

Euardo Montez,

Does this happen?
"This product doesn't do what I need to have done".
"But we are not taking a profit."
"Well, then, I'll take a dozen!"

No, it does not. The tax classification of the vendor has just about nothing to do with the criteria for product acceptance.

Also, the choices are not simply "throwing it out there" versus a "centralized model" - there are many intermediary possibilities. An essential part of introducng a new product is the management of customers' expectations - one must teach prospective customers what to expect, so that they do not get upset (and go to court) when their expectations are not met.

Introducing a product like XO calls for an extensive dialog between the vendor and the customer (who may or may not be the user). It still seems as if there has been no such dialog that includes OLPC and the schools, the parents or the kids. What dialogs are being carried out are not being made known to us.

Sorry tocayo, but I don't agree with the "throw it out there" ethos. OLPC is investing a significant amount of money and is pressing governments into accepting its view of the future of education. In the process, they are asking governments to commit a lot of money.

It may look like open source, but actually they are selling something and trying to change education in the process. That's completely different to just release code for someone to use it.

Eduardo Villanueva Mansilla,

"OLPC is investing a significant amount of money and is pressing governments into accepting its view of the future of education."

Does it? I can't see any evidence that the client countries are required to employ Constructivism as their educational model. In fact the argument OLPC uses is that XO will be, first and foremost, an excellent replacement for books (and ..._hoping_ that Constructivism in action will be the natural _consequence_ of kids having such a direct access to a versatile and powerful tool - hence somewhat unfortunate, I admit, analogy to a 'Trojan horse') regardless of the actual model employed.

Eduardo Villanueva Mansilla,

I think Euardo Montez has point there. There are parallels to the open source movement. When production quantities of XOs will have become very high OLPC has announced they will allow local production (not only assembly) in the target countries. Then OLPC will actually be distributing just the design of it which is equivalent to source code. Just now at project launch OLPC is forced to bundle the production in one place for the best scale effect and have the target countries buy them from abroad.

We could spend the rest of our lives discussing whether the OLPC is truly Open Source, whether the software works or not, whether the hardware works or not, what the project's true objective or cost are, etc.


Defenders of the project will say - as has been done already - that by creating the OLPC Project, Prof. Negroponte has succeeded already. Critics will rightfully claim that failure is not success.


The reality is very stark, though: a complete lack of orders presents the harshest indictment of Prof. Negroponte's project.


Why doesn't the world share Prof. Negroponte's vision?

That is a most puzzling question for followers, while critics see it as evidence that the project's many shortcomings are not being overlooked by prospective buyers.


El Chato

Just a quick word inspired by the comment that brought up the issue of working with Gaddafi. Naturally one should not endorse a technological or educational isolation of a country without a democratic regime yet IT DOES strike me that 'firm' interest for the OLPC project comes from countries that do not have a democratic government. In other words the OLPC goes through as a project in territories with low standards in financial transparency and political accountability. Territories with restricted flow of information and limited public dialogue. Gaddafi Junior for instance met with Negroponte at a five star Symposium in Greece in 2005 (a meeting *arranged* by George Papandreou whom Negroponte has been trying -quite successfully!- to use as a middleman). When young Gadaffi returned from Greece, Gadaffi father most likely cheered: "Yes bring me 2,000,000 laptops. I want to impress my fellow Libyans!” I'm not sure how valid of an endorsement that has been but I am sure it paid off for the time Negroponte spent in Greece listening to political blabber that did not interest him a bit. (It was paid by Greek Tax-payers money anyway!) Now, we should not be surprised if tomorrow Gaddafi finds out he hasn't got a budget for such luxuries and he cancels the project. (I don't think Negroponte would take him to court just for being at breach of agreement? Besides to what court? The court at the place of domicile of the defending party?...) Negroponte has been building on unstable ground all along and at all levels. Despite his lobbying skills. And as Lee Felsenstein has been pointing out if he fails, ICT4development will be thrown behind for decades.

Roland, sorry but in this case I don't get your point. What I'm saying has nothing to do with manufacturing but with the fact that OLPC sells the computers as part of a development strategy, and as such, it is liable to at least be certain that the development strategy is there, unless you believe that "computers in the hands of children" is so good that any other consideration, including good governance and the avoidance of graft and corruption, is irrelevant.

I don't think there will be many chances for a country like mine to manufacture computers like the XO; most probably it will make more economic sense to buy them (re: my critique about the venezuelan computer projects). But now, currently, in this time and space: OLPC is selling a thing, saddled with hopes and opportunities. Selling under the wrong circumstances will do a lot of harm.

Delphi: point taken, so let me clarify. Since the abandonment of the Constructivism principle by OLPC (not long ago, BTW), the only emphasis is in the urgency of having computers as a way to make education work and to bridge the digital divide. When Mr. Negroponte came to Lima he said little about e-books and a lot about the digital divide and how education can only function properly with computers. You may not consider it a hard sell, but it sounds like it when you go to the right places (for instance, ill-informed journos with little or no background on these issues) and ask for softball questions.

Eduardo Villanueva Mansilla ,

"Since the abandonment of the Constructivism principle by OLPC (not long ago, BTW), the only emphasis is in the urgency of having computers as a way to make education work and to bridge the digital divide."

There's no "abandonment" of Constructivism by OLPC project - if you look at the history of people involved in the project (and I've been following some of them for last 25 years) there's no question they're very much committed to Constructivism - some of the OLPC PR language could have changed to alleviate the irrational fears of the bureaucrats and educators but, I believe, the OLPC leaders strongly expect that Constructivism in practice, due to students' XO ownership and the unique features and content of the machine, will happen by default even without Constructivist model being explicitly intended by the educators involved (hence, again, the 'Trojan horse' analogy).

Delphi, formally speaking (as well as in practice, as you yourself have said) OLPC is no longer pushing constructivism. That's why I'm saying it's abandoning the principle. They may still believe in it, they even want it to happen by stealth, but nobody is telling potential customers that the machines are great constructivism devices.

That makes the "trojan horse" even worse, IMHO.

Eduardo Villanueva Mansilla,

my point was that OLPC has parallels to an open source project since it delivers the design for a digital education infrastructure which the countries can buy and for whose implementation the countries are mainly responsible themselves. So the main effort for implementation must be done by either the countries's government or a local OLPC community or both.

Of course it would be helpful if the OLPC headquarter could offer some advice how to effectively use this equipment. It is also a part of my criticism towards OLPC leadership that this has not happened (at least it is not been published).

However, it must also be said that to directly interfere with national education systems is a political mine field that potentially can harm the OLPC project in most countries more than help. So I do not expect OLPC to do the implementation for the target countries. But I do expect OLPC to publically tell how they think their preferred implementation would look like as a recommendation.

Roland,

"But I do expect OLPC to publically tell how they think their preferred implementation would look like as a recommendation."

More or less what I expect, with the addition of a strong insistence that no sale should proceed unless there's a clear, workable implementation plan. It's in the interest of everyone, including OLPC.

"More or less what I expect, with the addition of a strong insistence that no sale should proceed unless there's a clear, workable implementation plan. It's in the interest of everyone, including OLPC."

How much you or I might disagree, the OLPC owes us nothing. Their only allegiance is towards their partners and their clients. And these will be rather uninterested in our opinions.

Winter

They may not owe us anything but the issues being raised here are the same issues any responsible public official would raise. The answers being offered, here, are not the sort of answers that would satisfy any public official, responsible or not. If the answers being offered by the OLPC management are the sorts of answers that would satisfy public officials then lay 'em out because I haven't read any of them here.

I haven't even read a back-of-the-envelope calculation that justifies selecting the XO over spending the money for additional, conventional books-and-teachers education.

-Since the XO doesn't replace teachers you still have to train and pay them. Heck, it may *increase* the costs associated with teachers.
-It may replace books but a demonstration would be confidence-inspiring.
-It won't do away with schools so those still have to built/maintained.
-The public education bureaucracy won't be eliminated so that expense doesn't go away.
-The number of XOs to be bought is not the number needed since some allowance has to be made for "loss".
-XOs will break. What's the cost of an adequate stock of spare parts, people trained to make use of those spare parts and more XOs for those that are lost, stolen or too damaged to repair?
-What's the cost of packaging, shipping, insuring, unpackaging and distributing the XOs? If there are 250,000 of them it won't be pocket change.
-How long will it be before the *additional* spending that XOs require will generate additional benefits?

Since the deployment of XOs results in a net *increase* in budget for the education agency - remember, same of teachers, facilities, bureaucrats - how much more value to the nation will result and when will that result become measurable? How long before the investment in XOs turns the equivalent of a profit? Why shouldn't the money be used to hire additional teachers, build additional schools and buy additional books?

Why should the country buy XOs at something rather in excess of $180 per computer instead of dredging and upgrading harbor facilities? Building some fairly substantial number of miles of good roads? Why the XO instead of one of the numberless other worthwhile uses for the money?

That is the underlying question and I can guarantee you that every minister of education will ask that question. I can also guarantee you that, unlike on this list, dismissiveness and insults won't be acceptable as a reply.

Winter,

As a taxpayer in one of the countries considering the acquisition, I consider myself one of many potential clients. Obviously, it's my government who should be listening to us, but in these times of corporate social responsibility I expect any vendor to act ethically. And that includes being sure that the acquisition is not tainted with any potential act of graft, and the implementation of such a large acquisition is done soundly.

Allen wrote:

"That is the underlying question and I can guarantee you that every minister of education will ask that question. I can also guarantee you that, unlike on this list, dismissiveness and insults won't be acceptable as a reply."

You're absolutely right, Allen.

The absence of orders is the greatest proof that your points are right on the money.

Even Prof. Negroponte has been forced to change his demands for a minimum number of units to be purchased (down to 250,000 from the initial 1,000,000) and the deadline to do so (the last one passed - without a single order - on May 31, 2007).

Dick Einstein

"I haven't even read a back-of-the-envelope calculation that justifies selecting the XO over spending the money for additional, conventional books-and-teachers education."

Except that that has been tried for decades now. It hasn't worked. Why? Somehow it proved impossible to get teachers and books for the children.

The OLPC was founded BECAUSE it proved impossible to supply the children with teachers and books. Currently, there is no plan B.

There are not enough teachers and books. If the laptop projects fail, then its just continue as before, no improved education.

What I hear here over and over again is that computers can and did not improve education in the west, so they can't do it in the developing world. The former statement is false, as I see every day around me. The second comes from people who in general display complete ignorance about education and technology.

I agree with anyone who states that these laptop programs are expensive and could be risky. But the arguments brought foreward here are in general completely beside the point. I remember a villification of Constructivist methods for months. Then someone posted a dozen or so links to scientific studies that showed that constructivism with technology worked. And teh same people go on and on denying this evidence.

The same about the technology. Mesh networking has been demonstrated time and again. The OLPC is currently doing all kind of stress tests to tune the drivers. But the same people villifying the constructivists are writing it isn't working yet.

So the fact that the OLPC is on schedule should hardly be a reason to advice people to jump ship.

Winter

Let's do the arithmetic, OK?

Nigeria's education budget 2006 (from http://tinyurl.com/249k43 - I can't vouch for the accuracy of the figure but close enough is good enough in this case) is N166.6 billion. For my benefit, that translates into $1,329,396,744USD

N37,389,441,082 capital budget (same source)
Primary school aged population - 22 million (http://tinyurl.com/2jmj2a)
Adjusting for attendance estimates of 60% - 13,200,000
250,000 XOs = $43,750,000USD = N5,678,312,500

N5,678,312,500 / N166,600,000,000 = 3.41% of total education budget for 250,000 XOs
250,000 XOs / 13,200,000 = 1.89% of primary school attendance.

13,200,000 * $170 = $2,244,000,000USD = N291,248,760,000
N166,600,000,000 + N291,248,760,000 = N457,848,760,000

To buy an XO for 13,200,000 primary school children would result in a 275% increase in the entire 2006 education budget of Nigeria.

Since buying XOs would be a capital item the increase in capital budget would be 879%.

All the above are using the $170/XO figure which I deliberately chose to make the calculated expenditure as conservative as possible.

I confess, I'm a bit shocked at the enormity of the expenditure. The notion that, under almost any reasonable conditions, the budget of one government ministry could triple, it's capital budget increase by an order of magnitude is just, plain silly.

Nobody has to listen to us, the numbers speak for themselves.

I don't know what happened but a reply on Winter's "they owe us nothing" comment did not appear. In case it's lost forever, here I go again:

As a taxpayer in one of the countries considering the acquisition of OLPC's computers, I do think I have both the right and the obligation to ask questions and get answers about the usefulness of the whole program, not just the computer. No matter how good is the machine, it will fail if everything doesn't work as it should.

Even more so, in this day and age, with all the corporate social responsibility talks we hear all the time, I do believe that it's in OLPC side to provide for a good implementation and for honest usage of the money involved. I've mentioned my country's case as a sad example of doing things wrong. Is this being even thought about by Mr. Negroponte?

And Winter, I don't believe that computers cannot improve education in the poorest areas of the poorest countries of the world. The argument most of us have been advancing is that _this particular_ implementation of computers in education is not going to be successful. It's not even about the computer itself, at least from my point of view. And I say this as someone that not only knows quite a few things about computers, education and computers in education, but also about governance and politics in the Third World, and that lives in one of the countries defined as target.

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