Back in March, I gave a talk for Engineers Without Borders about appropriate technology in development and used One Laptop Per Child as an example. (My slideshow is here). The talk reviewed technological, logistical and cultural aspects of the project:
The technology is strong, with good adaptations for difficult environments and constructionist learning. It was certainly over-hyped, with promises about resilience and battery life, among others, that don't match reality, but that doesn't diminish the impressive technological accomplishment.
Logistically, as is now clear, the project was in trouble and not paying attention. There was no plan to support the distribution, provide tech support, train repair technicians or provide spare parts, provide materials to support teacher training, and the list goes on. There are some relatively wealthy countries that may be able to provide these logistics themselves, but many cannot.
Finally, the talk examined the cultural questions around OLPC. Will children use and care for the laptops in the long run? Who owns the laptop, the child or the parents? How will teachers react to a project that changes the nature of their authority in the classroom? What about privacy?
The talk concluded that OLPC has a lot of work to do to get on to a path for success. The first step is to hire staff who understand international development rather than technology or education and who have field experience running international development projects in the least developed countries. Once people who understand the problems are on staff, the project can work on solving them.
The recent staff cut suggests that OLPC is indeed going through difficulties. Unfortunately, cutting staff may help the budget, but it's not going to solve the core problems unless new staff with international development experience are hired.
Yaacov Iland is a technology consultant working with not-for-profit organizations.