OLPC Should Hire International Development Experts


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.

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though I believe you are right in many respects, Id dont agree with your suggestion. It is countries who should be responsible for having the right teams and the right sources of information, and OLPC has just to build, sell and support devices. Thats what they are good for, and not trying to support large scale deployments in developing countries and if they knew something about it.
We are collaborating with several countries in planning deployments of ICTs in education and strive to develop and disseminate tools they could use.
Id like to suggest 3 tools countries could use to plan their OLPC deployments:
1) "1:1 Technologies/Computing in the Developing World - Challenging the Digital Divide" about the educational considerations http://www.gesci.org/files/docman/1_to_1_Technologies_Computing_in_the_Developing_World_by_M._Hooker_GeSCI.doc
2) "Practical Guide to Pilot projects and large scale deployments of ICTs in the Education Sector - Guidelines on deploying IT in schools at a regional or national level" http://www.gesci.org/files/docman/pilot-ICT-projects.pdf
3) and TCO manual and tools for 1:1 large scale http://www.gesci.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=37&Itemid=43

Hope this helps! regards

Excellent points. I assume you mean EWB-ISF (canada), as there some references to Waterloo...

As a member of that organization, I feel that OLPC is sometimes misrepresented in their capabilities and desires. Sure, "one laptop per child" is the eventual goal, but this is simply not possible with the current xo-1 and deployment strategies. To use political incorrectness, it's more designed for first and second-world countries (developed and developing) rather than third world (underdeveloped). I don't feel it's appropriate for countries like Zambia or Malawi, until greater education infrastructure (teachers?) are more prevalent.
IMHO, anyways. I'm all for the Peru and Nepal and Birmingham deployments.

Roxanna, thanks for the comment. I agree that governments are better suited for carrying out the solutions to many of the logistical and cultural problems than OLPC. However, unless OLPC has a deep understanding of these problems, they won't be able to effectively cooperate with governments to find the correct solutions. OLPC is also best placed to organize sharing of knowledge between governments, but will only do so if it has staff that understand the value of that sharing.

Dax, yes, the talk was done for the Waterloo professional chapter of EWB-ISF, a canadian organization. I agree that the circumstances that OLPC is appropriate for are misrepresented, often by Nicholas Negroponte, but I think that even in first and second world countries, the issues identified in my talk will be significant barriers to success.