Top Ten Issues of One Laptop Per Child


Editor's Note: I originally published this article attributing it to Carlo Emmanoel Oliveira Ph.D. when it was the work of Edward Tse. The error is mine and I apologize to both Edward & Carlo. Thankfully, Edward sees the value in the commentary and humor in my mistake..

olpc games
Look! Its an OLPC XO!

During the past Human Factors in Computer Systems conference in San Jose, California there was a lot of attention on the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project (see a video). The project goal is: "To provide children around the world with new opportunities to explore, experiment and express themselves." In the mission statement the website claims that OLPC has been "extensively field-tested and validated among some of the poorest and most remote populations on earth". While this could be used in conjunction with current teaching, part of the goal is to support self-exploration without the aid of formal teaching.

I personally feel that technology has a large role to play in the future of education (this is already seen with the exploding growth of companies like Smart Technologies that focus on the education market) but there is a need to understand how the technology fits within the ecology of education in developing nations.

This article, first published on The Future of Digital Interaction is not meant to condemn the OLPC project as its aims are focused on goal that would benefit society as a whole. Rather it asks: how can OLPC be improved? Is this the right approach? What other approaches could be used? Before massively deploying such a technology, it is crucial that we have this debate.

Below is a compilation of ten key issues facing the OLPC project mentioned by other researchers and through conversation. There is a concern about how OLPC might fit into the larger infrastructure of education in developing nations. I think these are very important questions about OLPC attitude. I will put my personal opinion on these questions.

10. Focus: The focus of One Laptop Per Child has been completely on the technology with the goal that a new technology will change how we educate children. This is like evaluating the quality of our education based on the type of glue that is used to bind textbooks or the images on the cover pages. There is a lack of focus on education and improved learning. People dismiss the importance of teachers suggesting that comptuers and self directed learning will be a suitable replacement. Teachers, be they your peers, parents, or trained individuals are a crucial part of feedback system of learning.

9. Readability: "Many who test displays contend that in order for a display to be readable in sunlight, it must have a maximum brightness of at least 500 nits and a contrast ratio of at least 2 to 1. Some manufacturers of outdoor displays go for 1000 or even 1500 nits, but laptop and notebook screen brightness comes no where near 500 nits." [Gerber, 2005]

8. Existing infrastructure: A recent study found 97 percent of people in Tanzania said they could access a mobile phone, while only 28 percent could access a landline [Prahalad, 2004]. While OLPC does not leverage such infrastructure, a simple voting system could dramatically improve a teachers' understanding of how well their students were learning class material. Also, Internet is accessed mainly through cell phones and Internet caf├ęs in developing nations. Thus equipping a classroom, particularly one that is not in a building (e.g., children sitting under a tree) poses serious infrastructure issues.

7. Not all learning can be done with an OLPC: Studies have shown that certain learning tasks such as mathematics are very difficult to learn using a computer keyboard and mouse and consequently result in decreased academic performance for students [Oviatt, 2006]. In particular, it has been shown that using a keyboard and mouse for solving mathematical questions requires significantly more time and results in more errors than using pen and paper. Researcher have also noticed that this decrease in performance is increased among the students that are struggling the most in the classroom as they are stuck trying to master both the course concepts and the technology at the same time.

6. Lack of content: content provision is a serious issue for these devices. If it is the expectation that teachers will produce all of their own content, using an OLPC could be more work that just buying a book and sharing it among students. Content needs to be provided free of charge. OLPC claims to be providing infrastructure but without content providers it will be impossible to use. This is the critical mass problem: what good is a fax machine if only one person in the world has one.

olpc tam tam
TamTam: OLPC keyboard music

5. Keyboards: We need to ask ourselves what current practice is in the learning environment and design solutions that would fit the current practices of students and teachers. For example, if students are more used to using a slate, perhaps the keyboard and mouse metaphor of existing systems is inappropriate. Similarly, if people are familiar with cell phone technology it may be useful to develop systems to support their current practices with cell phones. Perhaps what we need are more (touch sensitive) slates and (digital) black boards rather than OLPCs alone [Buxton, 2005].

4. Scalability: Lets say a teacher wants to get all 49 of their students in a single class to perform a particular exercise. Given that the instructor cannot see all 49 screens at once, how do they gage if students are confused or not understanding the task at hand? Each student is looking at their own private display rather than looking at the teacher/blackboard making it harder to guage student engagement at a glance. Would it not be better to have a single large digital display than a classroom full of individual PCs? Take for example, the Smart Technologies Senteo system where each student can have a clicker to respond to polls in the classroom. The total cost of ownership would probably be less than the cost of a $100 laptop per student.

3. Ergonomics: the fact that OLPC XO is designed as a laptop leads to ergonomical problems as students may not have a table that they can put the computer on. Thus they will likely have to place it on their laps for extended periods of time leading to discomfort that can also hinder learning.

2. Wrong Problem: While the One Laptop Per Child project focuses on providing technology to children in developing nations the major issue affecting student outcomes seems to be the training of teachers [Vegas, 2007]. With student to teacher ratios reaching 43:1 in primary Sub-Saharan African schools with only 69% of primary schoool teachers recieving any sort of formal training it seems that technology would only exacerbate existing issues in the education system.

Focused on the self

1. The Community of Learning vs. The Cult of the North American Individual: The name OLPC is a problem as the focus is on Personal Computers for Individuals ignoring the fact that community feedback is crucial part of learning. Self directed learning cannot be effective without feedback from peers, parents and teachers.

Even when parents and peers are not available children will often huddle around a single computer to collaborate and provide constructive feedback [Pawar, et al, 2006].

Developers can push this learning configuration further by providing interactivity for each child on the same display (through multiple mice and keyboards). Studies have shown that this configuration results in students being more engaged, faster and more accurately able to do problem solving tasks [Scott, et al., 2003].

Students need a learning community to provide the feedback needed to fully understand the material they are investigating. OLPC will likely do the opposite by pushing students away from each other to their own computers.

Although I have tried to answer the questions, this in no way means that they have been answered. On the contrary, the great contribution of OLPC is just raising these questions. By putting this perspective of having now the machines, OLPC is telling us that this excuse is no more. And is putting all these questions against each one of us. OLPC is telling, I am doing my part, how your part is going?

Where is your content, teacher training, children and community caring? Where is your commitment with the future of humanity? These questions will be answered when each one of us come, not with a well engendered excuse, but with our real effort to make it come true.

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I disagree in some aspects. For example, you said:

"Students need a learning community to provide the feedback needed to fully understand the material they are investigating. OLPC will likely do the opposite by pushing students away from each other to their own computers."

I disagree: I think OLPC will help children to share information, tips, ... among themselves (kids of the same class) and with other kids and teachers.

Carlo, quite an interesting post. It'll take a while to be full assimilated, but still, there are a lot to start with.

I do like your (almost) final comment:

"Students need a learning community to provide the feedback needed to fully understand the material they are investigating. OLPC will likely do the opposite by pushing students away from each other to their own computers."

Education is a complex process that also involves socialization; this includes, for instance, the reference frames into which you incorporate information, analytical skills, and learning as a whole. The idea that kids, just by consulting with other kids, will be well served, ignores the critical role schools play in socialization.

OLPC does have an individualistic outlook, at least from the foundations of its "learning learning" theoretical approach. It may be a serious matter if communities and nations suddenly lose their ability to "structure" the educational process. And it looks to me that this has been ignored by the intellectula promoters of OLPC.

So, OLPC fan, I think you're underestimating the role of communities in education, beyond classmate or teachers.

olpc fan,

you may be right, but I can't really see any real evidence that would be more effective than, say, a conversation between peers, or with the teacher. Again, maybe the sharing functionality of the XO will allow great intercommunication. However it is still to be tested its efficiency when compared with traditional methods. In the inquired-based learning intercommunication between the parties involved (children, teachers, etc) through active discussion is the basic building block. Discussing a math problem over a computer is all but trivial, and I am honestly skeptical that the tools currently provided in the XO will be good enough.

I think you have made several presumptions based on insufficient knowledge -- things you THINK might be true but in fact are not.

For example, you say "If it is the expectation that teachers will produce all of their own content..." But in fact, that's very much not true. In fact, among their very small number of full time employees, OLPC has both a vice president of content and a director of content, and there are many people hard at work at providing massive quantities of material for teachers to choose.

Without beating each point to death:

10: Focus: The front page of the OLPC wiki has a quote from Nicholas Negroponte: "It's an education project, not a laptop project."
9: Display: Have you looked at it? I've never seen a display that's more readable in sunlight. It actually gets better as the sun gets brighter.
8: Infrastructure: The OLPC folks understand the problem and are developing infrastructure components to go along with the device.
4: Smartboards vs OLPC: to pick only one nit, the OLPCs come with tons of reading material on the device -- how would a student use a Smartboard at home?
2: Wrong problem: The entire idea behind the OLPC is a "constructionist" model -- that the students can and should be developing their own learning. Disagree if you want, but that's the POINT.
1: Community of learning: again, the point of the OLPC is to let students work with each other and use the devices wherever they are, and communicate with each other.

Please learn more about the project. You might be pleasantly surprised.

My experiences with peer-to-peer communication between (high school) students are excellent. Compare OLPC with On Mobile Phone per student. Children, parents and teachers (outside of the classroom) are VERY glad if the children each have their personal mobile phone. That has nothing at all to do with a cult of individualism.

In my neighbourhood, children will use MSN (IM), email, and community websites to communicate between each others. They use email, blackboard, and school web-sites for communication with teachers. The internet at large for information (ie, as a library).

These children are privilidged, they have libraries (school and public), mobile telephones, good school buildings, their own rooms, computers, and transportation available. So all the electronic communication means are "redundant".

What I see is that the children are able to work an order of magnitude more efficient electronically than moving around personally.

Homework problems are solved over IM and email. Instead of waiting days for getting a limited number of books from the library, they can collect relevant, and often much more, information in hours. They all have personal mobile phones, and will talk over points that cannot be handled comfortably over text.

In short, electronic communication reduces many of the inefficiencies of travelling around and organizing meetings. They still do travel around to meet face to face, but less, and much more work is done in the mean time.

At least about the benefits of this aspect of the OLPC (or other means) I am very confident. Furthermore, the eBook function is a no-brainer. If you have no physical books, an eBook is the next best thing.


almost all of your post relates on the classroom situation. However, OLPC's XO with its software was not primarily designed to be integrated in classroom activities. It is mainly intended for playing/self-learning after school whether that makes sense or not.

This is connected with the trojan horse approach of Prof. Negroponte. He tells the ministers that their school methods do not need to be changed and that the XO is just a replacement for books. All other capabilities of the XO are for spare time use.
Negroponte: "[The XO]... appears gently as a textbook and then at night the kids come out and use it as a laptop."

To your point no. 7:
I find it problematic to generalize findings from one laptop project to be valid for all others too. The actual findings depend on so much factors like which type of software was used etc. Many school computer projects still use mainly office tools like PowerPoint and Excel. So the findings from one ill-conceived project should not be applied to another differently ill-conceived one.

Point number 8 seems a bit odd. The laptops mesh network using wifi, no access point required. Even if the internet isn't available in the classroom, the teacher can save pages from it and share it for students on the ad-hoc wifi network.

As for the voting system example, The XO uses Python. Python is the new basic, it won't be long before a ton of new applications for this little device start appearing. Programming a voting system that uses the wifi network should be fairly trivial.

Point number 7 might be valid, but a bad example is given. The XO uses a touchpad and stylus. Entering math equations using it is fairly similar to just using a pen, from what I understand.

Point 4. See point number 8. Making all the student laptops display the contents of the teacher's presentation would be simple using Python.

9. Readability: I am currently using the XO B2 machine under a bright sun. Backlit or not, the screen of XO is practically readable.

The display is of course a dual mode display.
Many people do not understand what that means in practical terms.
In transmissive mode the backlighting is on and (I think) its in color mode (800x600?).
In reflective mode the backlighting is off and is in black and white hi resolution for book reading (1200x900).

10. Focus: "...This is like evaluating the quality of our education based on the type of glue that is used to bind textbooks or the images on the cover pages."

No, it isn't. To make this connection is just to start a disagreement. Using technology *at all* changes the way we educate children. This I can tell you from going through K-12 in the US over the last decade and a half. Education style did change, I watched it. Using technology to *this extent* revolutionizes the way we educate children. This isn't a single purposed tool like a pen or a stick of glue, whose brand changes only marignally the quality of the work it is used to produce. This is a general tool that reshapes the way information itself is presented, absorbed and created. How is that *at all* like a stick of glue?

9. Readability

Have you used the display outside?? Who cares what the numbers say, the test of readability outside depends solely on the "reading it while outside" test. Hey, guess what, the displays are completely readable with ease [1]. To say otherwise is to ignore the facts.

8. Existing infrastructure:

Read about the infrastructure plans. Read about how each school will get a (likely satelite) uplink to the Internet, avoiding all national infrastructure or lack thereof. A voting system? You mean you want an ability for teachers in the field to communicate to their central government? Heck, if only we could give them a technological commuications device... Like a laptop with email.

6. Lack of content:

This is a no-win. If we did provide content, it would be "US centric" nationalism pushing our values on them. If we don't, then we are a hollow project that ignores need for content. You can spin it either way. The reality is, many countries (Mexico, for instance) own all the textbook content, so digitizing that is a rediculously simple, if not already completed, process. Other countries create microcontent (course plans/lessons) every day of every week for decades. What does it matter if the teach uses a webpage to upload a 1 page outline as a reference to her day's plans instead of writing it in a notebook or keeping it in her head? She is doing the work either way, and the new way creates a colloberative community of teachers that can share with eachother in new ways.

5. Keyboards:

A slate? Really? Or a cell phone? How many 6 year olds do you know that use a slate or are so comfortable with a cell phone 10-key that they would be completely incapable of learning this new keyboard metaphor? Me? None. These are kids. We give them a clicker and they'll learn morse code so long as they can play a game to do it. You think a 6 year old, capable of learning more and understanding more than almost any other point in life would have any trouble learning a keyboard system in more than 20 minutes?

4. Scalability:

Social problems need to be solved socially. Technology problems should be solved technologically. You know what my 3rd grade teacher did to know if we were on task or not? She walked around. She watched us. Being on a laptop or not in no way changes this.

2. Wrong Problem:

See point 6, where teach training because an entirely new system of collaberation. Beyond which, the idea of the laptop is that there should be no "stop energy." A teacher, a book, a classroom, none of those things should be a limiting factor in education. The laptops let kids delve deeper and more broadly than any other educational system has ever allowed in the history of civilization. Teachers won't be able to stop children from learning.

1. The Community of Learning vs. The Cult of the North American Individual:

This argument makes no sense in the context of the OLPC. If we were handing out Windows machines, it would, as all those applications (by and large) are very single-user-centric). None of the OLPC aplications are, rather, they focus heavily on sharing, collaborating and immediate feedback.

Kids will be able to sit next to eachother, talk with eachother and edit on the document together. Each kid will have their own keyboard, making their changes and discussing them as you would expect... Now,they will even be able to do all those things from across the town, country or world.

There are many interesting points in the answers. I agree with some of them, to some extent at least.

The question about scalability is a good starting point. Even without agreeing with the concept behind the OLPC project, I can see that there are a number of things that the XO, or any computer whatsoever, is not going to do, like for instance replacing "showing of hands" or pencil and paper for simple math. I haven't met (yet) the geekest of geeks that believe that everything has to be done through the computer.

But there's some differences when you move into the content arena. While, for instance, arts education may be better off without any software, unless you plan to teach a different kind of music, history, literature, reading and writing, the humanities as a whole, do demand content that works in a computer. There's a whole set of issues, from IP to actual digitalization of content (not necessarily easy or affordable even if the country does have a centralized schoolbook production system), that may hinder the success of any computer.

You may say that there are a number of alternative, free / open resources available, and I would say that there might not be a right replacement, creating a sort of competition between the old, printed sources and the new, free / open digital sources, that may create some conflict and potentially hinder education in the long run.

Some may say that in the end, this doesn't matter, since the purpose of the XO is to allow children to learn outside the school; but since the money to play for the computers (any computer) would come from the educational budget and is embedded in the political process, some consideration to political and policy repercussions have to be taken into account, even if we accept the premise that education outside the school is more relevant than inside of it.

This brings us to the whole "kids will do it by themselves" idea. Not even getting into the pitfalls of imagining education as a kid-conducted process (which is not), I do have to say that it is actually an individualistic outlook. As I've said in a previous reply in this particular conversation, the understanding of community that concerns (as I believe) Carlo is different from the one many of you are expressing. When you say (quoting Michael) "Kids will be able to sit next to each other, talk with each other and edit on the document together", the stress is on the individual agency, even if there is collaboration between the individuals. As I understand it, Carlo's original post, and my comment, is concerned about socialization and the actual "meshing" of the school process into a community of learning, created from the interaction of kids, teachers, parents and the community at large.

We may discuss if that's the right focus or not, but maybe we should start by defining our concerns and acknowledging them. At least from my point of view, the technical issues are pretty much solvable; the content questions are still to be clearly asked; but the purpose concerns, including socialization and the linkage of education into actual communities, is still to be acknowledged as an issue.

Uh.. what the hell. The webpage that you link to, and the post that you plagiarised belongs to my friend who sits two desks over, Edward Tse (google him and see!). Maybe this is why you aren't defending any of the above criticisms, because you have no idea what the article was really saying.



Edward just contacted me and we've straightened out the confusion. I mistakenly attributed this article to Carlo when its the original work of Edward during an email exchange where Carlo was submitting a response to the post.

The error is mine and there will be a correction and apology appended to the post shortly.

I would like to add to this interesting discussion from the student's point of view.

I must say, back when I was a student in a school, what I did was "studying" things teachers "teached" me, instead of "learning" things I'm interested in. Thus, discrete subjects I studied back then was very difficult to be understood as a functional whole in the real world context. But as I found out later on, independent learning by following through my interests (through reading books, newspaper, watching good TV shows and discussions), and connecting it to real world contexts, the understanding I obtained was a far more "whole" than what I've studied at school.

At a later stage, when I became proficient enough in English (it's not my first language), had an Internet connection and a computer, my independent learning certainly far outweighed those I can obtain from school textbooks, teachers, parent, radios or TVs.

I can pursue a much more lively learning through virtual conversations in maling lists or instant messaging with people of the same interests, which is not very easy to do when one is confined to a specific geographical location (due to road infrastructure problems, lack of transportation budget, etc) and can only meet a certain number of people with similar interests, and access so little number of books.

And compared to 15 of the best teachers in school, and the biggest library I've ever visited, the access to knowledge, to learning, to understanding, is so much easier with English, Computer and Internet. Here, I must mention that Prof. Google is my most favorite and most reliable place to ask questions and get satisfactory answers in the shortest time possible, for the least financial cost. If only we can find a way to sufficiently pay good authors to release their good books for free on Google Books . . . (dreaming) But even for this purpose, by "asking" Prof. Google about a newly published book using "[book title] review", one can get a pretty good idea about the important points the book is making.

If I could get my hands on those three tools (english, computer, internet) and an independent learning mindset much earlier in life, a homeschooling approach would prove much more efficient, effective and cheap for me, and others like me. After all, the institution we call "school" itself has inherent flaws, among them could be as fatal as "killing" the "learning" spirit, the sense of wonder, the imagination of children.

With this in mind, I would assess your ten points thoughts on OLPC :

10.Focus: Humans are born curious. In the digital age, an internet-connected off-grid computer such as the XO is among the best tool to satisfy this need. English is a must. And lots of books and libraries comes next. I believe the OLPC project is an education project more than a technology project because they provide a very good tool (a way to access content) for independent learning.

9.Display: I currently use a standard laptop (about four years old) with standard 12inch TFT display, and is more than satisfied by it's readability (I used it mainly indoors though). If I were a kid, a laptop with this kind of standard display will be more than enough (I don't mind using it indoors or under a cool big shadowy tree). Let alone the (provenly) far superior display of the XO.

8.Infrastructure: I believe mesh networking in the XO and perhaps a structured high-bandwidth internet access point (via satellite perhaps) would be less costly than a full blown mobile telephony network. A FON like approach in cities would also be cheaper than standard mobile telephony operator. By the way, people in developing countries, and developed countries also (I live in Indonesia, but have lived in Japan for several years) prefer text messaging than voice calls. And even a low bandwidth internet, coming from low quality mesh networks, is more than enough to get the job done. And it can even prevent high-bandwidth porn-surfing which is so rampant in high-bandwidth countries (such as Japan, where broadband internet is far cheaper than in Indonesia).

7. Not all learning can be done with an OLPC: Ofcourse, but then again what tool/system can provide all learning ? When the sheer amount of learning is of concern, the internet has no match. By the way, that's why they call it "life-long learning", and the internet outperform even the best open-universities.

6. Lack of content: English proficiency would be my answer. Teach children around the world English, and we may be three steps closer to global citizenship. Give each an XO machine, we'll be 10 steps closer. Or better yet, teach english through the XO machine (have they thought about this ?) we'll instantly have global citizenship.

5. Keyboards: In the world of ideas, handwriting can not keep up with the speed of keyboards. Try finding an 80 words per minute handwriter. And mind mapping softwares is far superior than rearranging pieces of papers.

4. Scalability: Good points have been made by other commenters. I just want to add a little. In a room full of XO-equipped students, the right to raise a hand and ask a question still exist right ? and the same can be used to facilitate polling I believe.

3. Ergonomics: Are you joking ? not having a table ? Even the poorest people in the world can afford to find a flat surface to put XOs on, even if that means the dirt floor. Or better, just pile up dirt and stones, whala you have a table there. But anyways, I don't think XOs are meant for people who can not afford a table. For them, food must of course comes first.

2. Wrong problem: Nation-wide educational TV and one XO per child would be interesting to try. Therefore, children education and teachers education would progress simultaneously. That should be far cheaper and faster than manual on the ground education of teachers. By the way, do we have a good model for this kind of educational TV anywhere in the world now ?

1. Community of learning: the Internet provides you with that community, even when your teachers, your parents, your friends and your neighbours fail you. But then again, an XO-equipped kid still have access to these standard communities right ?

That would be it, with another reminder that, English proficiency would be the best partner for an internet-connected XO machine.