A Hubris Model of One Laptop Per Child Implementation

   
   
   
   
   

BusinessWeek's Steve Hamm and Geri Smith have written One Laptop Meets Big Business, a good article summing up the recent history of the OLPC project and it's difficulties with sales numbers, fading promises, Intel, and its internal strife over the Microsoft decision.


OLPC hubris co-conspirators?

None of that information is particularly new, but the article continues and goes in to some insightful problems with the educational model of the OLPC project formulated at 1CC, the OLPC headquarters; namely, hubris.

Hubris is a longstanding problem in development work, as William Easterly (among many others) has been writing about in sordid detail for years. If you haven't read The Elusive Quest for Growth, go to your library or local bookstore now and grab a copy. It's fascinating, disturbing, and clearly written.

The OLPC project has sadly failed to learn from the many, many missteps in large scale, top-down development projects, as we've been writing about on OLPCNews.com for years now. Without careful implementation working with in-country experts, the project will never come close to fulfilling the original vision, as BusinessWeek points out with Peru:

Even with these results, the Unified Union of Education Workers of Peru, representing some 320,000 public school teachers, is skeptical. "These laptops aren't part of a comprehensive educational, pedagogical project, and their usefulness is debatable," says Luís Muñoz Alvarado, the union's general secretary.

Muñoz never had a chance to explore the laptops, though. In what seems an easily avoidable blunder, the Education Ministry has not explained the program to the union.

So in a haphazardly, too-little-too-late fashion, OLPC HQ is piecing together an implementation plan as they go, which makes about as much since as building an airplane in mid-flight:
Recognizing the need to integrate the laptops into communities, OLPC is scrambling to develop guidelines for deployment based on the experiences in Uruguay and Peru, the two countries with the largest distribution so far. The group is also bringing in consultants to advise countries on how to integrate the PCs.

One, Edith Ackermann, a visiting scientist at MIT, says OLPC should have involved more educational experts in creating and testing the applications. Instead, she says, "The hackers took over." The result is some programs are too complex for many children to use. "Now we have to deal with this. I don't know if it's too late," says Ackermann.

One move that OLPC is making correctly is bringing in local resources to augment its roll-out capacity:

Ivan cannot do it all
While some critics have called on OLPC to hire aggressively so it can provide on-the-ground support for dozens of countries at a time, Negroponte and Kane plan instead to rely even more on outsiders. They'll forge alliances with local tech companies and nongovernment organizations that will provide deployment support.
Yet even this action can only succeed is the alliances are contractually required to help build a shared and open knowledge base that can create a community of practice and body of knowledge that future implementations of similar projects can take advantage of.

OLPC hiring internally to do this work can never be as useful as partnering with existing, local institutions who will continue to be around after the OLPC paratroopers move on to the next implementation. It's almost a sustainable plan, and it looks like there's some work to create a set of best practices:

Although each country has a different situation, they can learn from common experiences. OLPC plans on using Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, to test ideas about how to best integrate the computers with society and to create a template for other countries.
The (lack of) implementation plan is only part of the OLPC hubris on this project. Underlying that is the more insidious educational theory level of the program.


Teacher-centric approach
While this philosophy is essential to the mission of OLPC, it's also a source of tension. Current educational leaders in Peru embrace Constructionism, but most countries base their education systems on the idea that teachers pass their knowledge to receptive students.

That was a problem for OLPC in China as well as India. India's education department, for instance, calls the idea of giving each child a laptop "pedagogically suspect," and, when asked about it recently, Education Secretary Arun Kumar Rath barked: "Our primary-school children need reading and writing habits, not expensive laptops."

Now, you can argue until the cows come home about pedagogical theories, but at the end of the day you must respect a country's sovereignty and right to choose its own educational track. Despite India and China's different approaches, it would be hard to accuse either country of not achieving some impressive educational outcomes and economic growth by following their current path. To close out with a quote by Easterly regarding the OLPC pedagogy,
"It's arrogant of them. You can't just stampede into a country's education system and say, Here's the way to do it."
PS: Edward Cherlin of the Earth Treasury wrote up a different view of this article, Controversial Constructionism which covers many other angles I am not responding to here.

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9 Comments

As most of you know I am a OLPC fan. I am also a USA teacher. I teach k-8 educational technology classes. I have a Masters but no Phd- so I offer my opinions humbly. In other words be gentle with me!

I have been following the OLPC program from concept to implementation, to the G1G1 program and have read about the New York implementation, and followed much of the deployment in Peru and Mongolia.

IMHO the OLPc Laptop is a "tool". A powerful educational tool-but in the end a tool to aid in education. If we can agree that this laptop is a tool for education we can get past the debates on constructism, Window or Sugar, and concentrate on the potential of the laptop as a tool.

Regardless of what OS operates on the system there are a few great selling points.

1. The Xo is a low cost educational tool that can work in both a traditional and constructusm environment. In a more tradition setting the laptop can aid in research, online document sharing, authoring without the need for paper and pencil, access to online sites with a variety of web 2.0 tools, and comes loaded with software so additional expense is not necessary.

2. The learning curve for kids learning how to use the laptop is really short.

3. The construction of the case is solid and very kid friendly- (Mine has been drolled on, stepped on and is still working.

4. The Mess feature allows students and teachers to work together.

Constructivism By it's nature...

For some children the laptop may indeed provide a wonderful learning laboratory. My ten year old loves programming in Scratch, and enjoys many of the gcompromise stuff.He doesn't like saving to a flash drive and moving the info to dad's computer to print. He is by nature a kid who loves science and exploring-so for him the XO is cool.

For some of other children I teach, they have needed more support using the XO and establishing a comfort level. They are not by nature the kind of kids who love to explore.

So as an everyday educator-I woud suggest OLPC take a second and stop and think. Kids all over the world have different learning styles. A great explanation of learning styles can be found here http://www.ldpride.net/learningstyles.MI.htm Basically kids learn from hearing, seeing, and interacting. What does this mean for OLPC deployment? While some kids may pick up the computer and do amazing things all by themselves others will need some teacher led direction and instruction.

My Humble Advice ( Please don't blast me)
First of all get some real, average, everyday, classroom teachers from the US Canada, Peru ect to develop some kick butt inservices for the classroom teachers. The Phd people, computer tech's are great-but no one can relate or explain things to a teacher, better than another teacher.

Second Listen to what the educators in the country have as goals. I am betting regardless of their goals a case can be made for a lowcost kid friendly educational tool that will empower kids. Let's consider the Cost benefit ratios. If you look at the total cost of ownership for the XO is knocks everything else right out of the ballpark at this time.

Third OPLC needs to work on development and implementation and hire a really good company to handle distribution. The G1G1 caused more bad PR than any organization should ever have. For a company selling technology, they dropped the ball in using technology effectively to get orders filled. To the everyday person-no one cares if it was Brightstars problems-or whoever they just want to order something and get it. My school would have ordered 50-but got scared off by the delays and bad news blogs.

Fourth let the customers pick the OS-if they wish to make Bill Gates richer- so be it (NOT I said the cat). Personally I would charge more for Windows and make Microsoft support it. Let those of us happy with Sugar keep it (If only I could get webkinz to work).

Finally I would suggest dropping G1G1 and instead sell the laptop outright for $300. With classmate and others now selling for 400- the average person is buying the laptop for their child or their school. If the price point was 300 OLPC could undercut the competition, sell more computers and use the 100 overage to supplement their program. Above all I would suggest NOT calling it G1G1 again.

Just a few of my rambling thoughts for all of you out there with more knowledge and experience than I to consider.

My summary of the BusinessWeek article:

The OLPC finally created a product that is useful enough to complain about. Until the XO arrived, no product was even worth complaining about. So now they will complain to their hearts content.

"Without careful implementation working with in-country experts, the project will never come close to fulfilling the original vision, as BusinessWeek points out with Peru:"

There are hundreds of countries. None of which were involved (or willing to be involved) in the inception of the OLPC. We are talking about thousands of in-country experts that should have been brought together. Most not speaking a common language. Somehow, I do not see how the logistics could have worked.

I understood that after a country signs up for the XO, there is a strong local involvement in the roll-out. And if they have their own software, I have not seen the OLPC block it.

"Instead, she says, "The hackers took over." "

Alan Kay might (also) be a hacker, but he is also an educational expert. Educational experts had a strong position in the design team. Sugar is NOT the brain child of some geeks. On the other hand, world renowned educational experts are rarely good interface designers and programmers (and vice versa).

This hole part is 20/20 hindsight. Unless there is a usable product, there simply is nothing to chose nor to improve. Even Sesame street incited a lot of criticism when it was exported. Some of the same complaints are now leveled at the XO.

Conclusion, there is now a product that you can complain about. Which is a huge improvement over the earlier situation. The existing products and current alternatives were so awful, even complaining was a waste of effort.

The case in point is the ClassMate. I do not exactly see it taking off explosively. I see no articles about it's success, nor seems anybody interested in its failure. Why DO newspapers write about failures in the developing world before they even happen? (the roll out is still going well)

"Muñoz never had a chance to explore the laptops, though. In what seems an easily avoidable blunder, the Education Ministry has not explained the program to the union."

Can anyone explain to me why the Teacher's Union should be involved in the content of the curriculum? Is the union the only communication channel between the government and the teachers? Does the OLPC affect the salaries or work environment of the teachers in a way the Union should get involved in the selection of the laptop OS and GUI?

Maybe the Peruvian teacher's unions do set terms on curriculum content. I would not know.

"Now, you can argue until the cows come home about pedagogical theories, but at the end of the day you must respect a country's sovereignty and right to choose its own educational track."

That means we should expect the XO to be NOT a good investment in countries that strongly believe children should not display too much initiative in education. It has been well known that computers do not help much (are a waste of money) in Drill applications.

I cannot see why the OLPC should morph the XO into something that won't improve education, eg, an office computer. Other companies can help those countries waste their education money.

@Kelley:
"If you look at the total cost of ownership for the XO is knocks everything else right out of the ballpark at this time."

Why do you think a media outlet which calls itself "BusinessWeek" ignores this point?

@Kelley:
"Fourth let the customers pick the OS-if they wish to make Bill Gates richer- so be it (NOT I said the cat). Personally I would charge more for Windows and make Microsoft support it. Let those of us happy with Sugar keep it (If only I could get webkinz to work)."

They can already do that.

@Kelley:
"For a company selling technology, they dropped the ball in using technology effectively to get orders filled."

Retail is a difficult, whether it is bricks-and-mortar or on-line. Technology is only a small part of it and companies selling technology are never better in it than those selling marshmallows. They should have hired a better on-line retailer, indeed.

Winter

@Kelley : You and I are mostly in agreement

@Winter : Bizweek may be late to the game, but you know as well as I that we've been complaining about the lack of any strategy for implementation (Beyond parachuting the hardware in) for, well, years now. Yes, the technology is good (and low-cost!), yes, the software has some great promise (Sugar, at least, Windows... well, we know that "promise"). However, you still need to work with the teachers and create curricula. So what if the country is dead-set on rote learning? We were too not that long ago. As much as I hate the Trojan Horse approach that OLPC has mentioned, it has some value in that situation, but I think it should be laid out instead of snuck in -- "yes, this laptop support many models of education, including your Drill model, but also constructionism, chalk-and-talk style... etc.

I maintain that OLPC is the bottleneck. Quanta has a proven track record of being able to churn out laptops; so create a for-profit to manage the laptop production and sales and support, and maintain the Foundation to manage donations, international-usecase-focused R&D, and ICT4D work.

@Jon:
"Bizweek may be late to the game, but you know as well as I that we've been complaining about the lack of any strategy for implementation (Beyond parachuting the hardware in) for, well, years now."

Indeed. But I still do not see how the OLPC can accommodate a one-hundred country teacher love in. If a country is interested, they deserve the royal treatment. But that will only come up AFTER a (marginally) useful product has been produced.

Remember that for the first 2-3 years the main criticism was that the whole project was doomed to fail for technical and commercial reasons.

Wayan was truly foresighted when he criticized the lack of implementation models (and he was almost alone in this). Really, discussion here at OLPCnews were dominated by rants about the impossibility of price point, completing functional screens, GUI, and mesh for the XO. And, obviously, by people who drove home the opinion that computers were useless in education.

So, now that there is a functional product, people start complaining about what can all be improved, and why they were not asked for approval before the project started.

I agree that a lot can be improved at the OLPC. But the real point is that there is something to improve AT ALL. I see it as evidence that people start to WANT the thing. (or really want to stop it for "political" or "budget" reasons) I can see a Union being convinced the money would have been better spent on teacher's salaries or working conditions and training, than on children's laptops. But that is a political opinion that the OLPC cannot help to solve either way.

@Jon:
"So what if the country is dead-set on rote learning? We were too not that long ago."

Then I should say to shop elsewhere. This country won't benefit from a laptop program anyway. But you are right, the OLPC just sells the laptop. If the country wants to use it for other things than it was designed for, that is their prerogative.

But why should the OLPC use their scarce resources to sell these people a useless product?

@Jon:
"I maintain that OLPC is the bottleneck. Quanta has a proven track record of being able to churn out laptops; so create a for-profit to manage the laptop production and sales and support, and maintain the Foundation to manage donations, international-usecase-focused R&D, and ICT4D work."

Ok, that would be better for commercial distribution. But we all know how "free" the computer market is (try buy a Linux laptop).

But I do not see how this "commercial" direction solves any of the educational problems discussed in the article. I still do not see Peruvian and Nepalese teachers coming together to design new educational software or curricula for the XO.

The basic problem was that there is no "standard" way to create CAI software for the developing world in a community fashion. Especially not for a device that wasn't available a year ago.

Winter

OLPC is going to go by the wayside,Negroponte is getting greedy, so Microsoft has once more destroyed one more Linux Project. They are trying to do the same to UMPC laptops also, until the computer manufactures get out from under the control of Microsoft, and just say no to them, like the European Union is doing, they are going to continue controlling the market with high prices.
The US Goverment has got their nose stuck up Microsoft's money hole.
Everytime Linux gets a edge in a area, here comes Microsoft with a wad of money and there goes another crooked U.S. politican.

As to rote learning, see the report on XOs in Ethiopia, at http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Academic_Papers. In just a few months, with little Constructionist training for the teachers, the XO is breaking up the culture of rote learning without questions.

Wow, teachers feels 'threatened' because of change, color me surpised, news at 11 :) However, it is basic psychology - government had to to something about that, because teachers would be those people who will use OLPC as teaching tool. Afaik, I don't see it as much as OLPC mistake as simple ignorance.

However, saying that, argument that their "usefulness is debatable" indicates that there's something else going on. Also indication of such strong language while speaker actually haven't seen or used XO means that someone suggested him to say so. So...it could be easily Intel or Microsoft proxy, even without knowing this.

And in final, I agree with several previous posters - ok, it was wrong to put them out of the loop, but now they can try to hear and see what OLPC has to offer and work on that, suggesting changes. OLPC is still very open about implementation of Sugar and it's activities, so roll ahead.

It was an interesting article over at Business Week, and thoughtful analysis here, along with some valuable commentary in the comments section.

If anyone is interested, I've dugg the Business Week article, and put a link to this article in the comments:

http://digg.com/tech_news/One_Laptop_per_Child_Meets_Big_Business_Intel_Microsoft

@Peteris: Well, there's a lot of evidence so far that computing doesn't really have much statistically discernible impact on educational outcomes; see http://www.joncamfield.com/blog/2008/01/a_review_of_one-to-one_laptop.html or the book it reviews, _Laptops and Literacy_ by Mark Warschauer .

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