Is Anybody Home at One Laptop Per Child?

   
   
   
   
   

Ivan Krstić says in his blog that he quit OLPC a few weeks ago because he was no longer to work with Walter Bender, but with an unnamed manager with no technical knowledge. Also that OLPC's kernel manager is leaving.


Walter, Nicholas, and OLPC XO

Walter is, in his own words, "out of the loop" now. Supposedly there will be a new CEO and COO sometime.

In the meantime, Nicholas Negroponte is the only person in charge, and he has nothing to do with the people doing the work. We are not allowed to talk with him, we cannot get questions sent to him for answers, and he will not tell anybody what is going on, except to make bizarre remarks to reporters about becoming more like Microsoft.

Well, all right, I exaggerate. I have sent in one communication that I was told would be passed on to Nicholas. But I don't exaggerate by much. I haven't heard a peep in response.

OLPC Potential

All through last year, when the volunteers and the tiny paid engineering staff were working miracles, I was a total OLPC booster. I never saw such productivity in hardware or software design anywhere in industry. I knew enough about educational software to be able to picture the world-changing potential of a billion or so children let loose among the riches of the Internet. That's real educational software, by the way, like the Edison Talking Typewriter or Smalltalk, not the shovelware that gets churned out and marketed with eye candy at absurd prices to clueless school systems and parents.

The potential is all still there, and some of it will unquestionably be realized, but OLPC as a project is at the proverbial crossroads, the make-or-break, do-or-die point in its existence.

The problem is Nicholas.

I'm not talking about the seemingly absurd claims that Wayan complains about, like

  1. children doing all the maintenance - we have seen five- and six-year-olds doing it.
  2. or being able to discover OLPC software with barely any teaching - we see that all the time, too.
  3. or whether teachers can adapt to the XO without training - yes, we also see that
  4. or about the costs of the program, or whether it makes economic sense for countries to finance XOs in expectation of future tax revenue.
It isn't trivial, but all of that can work. If we decide to make it work.

No, what I am talking about is the fact that Nicholas Negroponte doesn't know how to run a business, and what is worse, doesn't know how to pick someone to run a business. Now, in the legal sense, OLPC isn't a business, but a non-profit. Which means it can't sell stock and pay dividends. It's still allowed to make money.


Nicholas Negroponte of OLPC

Business errors

To manage the creation of the support network for educating a billion children, a bit of money will actually be necessary. I don't have room to make the argument in full today, but I believe that trying to reduce the cost of the laptop absolutely as much as possible is a strategic error.

Cost is only one variable, and not the one we most want to optimize. The idea is to maximize the amount of education and consequent economic and social development from the program. Making a profit from the rich customers in order to get more computers to the poor would therefore make a lot of sense. But only if done right.

Not with an incompetent order-entry and fulfillment system, no customer support to begin with, and no oversight to make sure that errors are corrected as quickly as possible.

"Mere parsimony is not economy. Expense, and great expense, may be an essential part in true economy."--Edmund Burke
It isn't actually necessary that OLPC make and spend that money. Once educated children come out of schools and take jobs, or better still, start their own businesses and create jobs, the rest can in principle follow from the inevitable growth of economies, as long as somebody has some idea of what it is worth spending on.

olpc Mongolia
Deep in Constructionist thought

There is still promise

Whether it will follow remains the question. As I said before, we can make it happen. Or Nicholas can hire the people to make it happen. Or not.

What might we make happen? We could just continue with the tired old Prussian factory-drill style of education that Horace Mann installed in the US a century ago, even with laptops. Then we can expect to have the same tired old nationalisms and the same tired old Devil-take-the-hindmost, beggar-thy-neighbor social orders that the Prussian system was designed to support.

Or we could teach children to be independent and self-reliant, able to learn new subjects even without teachers, and also skilled at cooperation. Then we might surprise ourselves.

How do you pick successful business or movement leaders? Well, if I really knew that, I would no doubt be Warren Buffett, or possibly Muhammad Yunus. I know that a passion for the customer is essential, that knowing the business is essential, and that the ability to communicate is essential. Both ways, but talking less and listening more.

Nicholas has plenty of passion for the children and certainly knows more than most about tech and education, but he is one of the worst communicators I have observed in action. Well, we'll see.


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27 Comments

It is not about picking "good business people". You could put together a team of whomever you think are the best "business minds" in the history of the world and the result wouldn't be different.

The reason?

There is not a compelling product to sell, so there is no compelling reason to buy. The XO's allure is built on lies and misrepresentations. From the $100 price that magically climbed to $200 (the total opposite of industry trends!), to a rapidly shrinking list of actual features delivered.

Most of initial rosy promises never materialized (crank/yoyo/you-pick-the-name power generator, google storage, battery life measured in days, functionality equal to that of a regular laptop, access to code viw, etc., etc.) and potential customers are left with an UNTESTED device with a buggy operating system and a rag-tag assortment of applications ill-suited to the task of educating children in any meaningful way.

It's difficult to sell an un-finished, untested product, especially after you have spent years denigrating the competition and shamelessly lying about your own creation.

It would have been a different story if Prof. Negroponte had set out to fulfill his vision in an honest manner (finish the product, test it - pilot project, anyone? - and show the world how wonderful it is). He gambled that his political connections, MIT's name and a bunch of bizarre claims and exaggerations would be enough to cloud people's reasoning. He lost the gamble. Most people are not retarded, and can usually see when they are being openly lied to.

That's all there is to it.

"Or we could teach children to be independent and self-reliant, able to learn new subjects even without teachers, and also skilled at cooperation. Then we might surprise ourselves."
That is not serious. Maybe you can implement slowly something like that in western countries but not in developing countries. Teachers will not accept it, parents will not accept it and children are not ready for that too. And how do you think people struggling to survive will start collaborating ?
Edward you are a dreamer. Go to see the world. :-)

Irvin nailed it. To add insult to injury, anyone who dares to point out that the emperor has no clothes is branded a shill for Microsoft or Intel.

@ Irvin & Sracer ... have you two not looked at the value of the US dollar ($) lately? Its plummeting... therefor a $100 laptop 3 years ago is now $200 today. The price of a barrel of oil went from $50 to $112... The number one reason was not "supply problems" but the value of the United States dollar falling rapidly.

Several developers that I have talked to or heard, have always stated that the hardware is spot on, the firmware is just "okay", and the software needs a lot of work. To write off an entire program, or to criticize it as a failure is inexcusable... It reminds me of a very famous quote "Those who cannot do, criticize".

I am very happy with my XO, it boggles my mind why you two are not... This has nothing to do with Microsoft as much as it has to do with critical people who fail to take action themselves. Intending to write words rather than take physical action, they go to sleep at night with a full stomach while those this project aims to help sometimes go hungry.

I challenge you two to take a deep look at yourself and your surroundings. Is fighting over the performance of OLPC's effort worth making a stubborn point about how bad you think it is? At least they are trying!

Join the project and make a difference, personally im getting sick of hearing your useless commentary.

@Goney3.

Re: $200 laptop as a result of falling value of the dollar. Sorry, but everyone is dealing with the falling dollar and I cannot find one example of it causing the price of electronics (particularly those manufactured in Asia) to rise. But I'm willing to concede that point. $100 vs $200 is not a key issue, IMO.

Re: "Those who cannot do, criticize". I take offense to the insinuation that the root of my criticism of the OLPC project is due to some supposed inability to perform. You don't know me. You don't know what I do for a living... how long I've been doing it... nor how well I can.

Re: "I am very happy with my XO, it boggles my mind why you two are not". So... because YOU are happy then EVERYONE should be? How self-centered and arrogant! It is so beyond your ability to comprehend why anyone would not be delighted? I have never said that you (or anyone else) should be unhappy with the XO laptop or the OLPC organization. For whatever reasons, you are happy with them, and that's fine.

Re: "I challenge you two to take a deep look at yourself and your surroundings." I challenge you to be tolerant of views that differ from yours and be respectful of opinions that differ from yours.

Guys. Developers. Hackers. It doesn't really matter how competend Mr Negroponte or anybody else is. Just build the technology and everything else will follow, eventually.

It is true that the project gets much more momentum with some real organisors, people how know about marketing and people who are able to talk to governments. But this is and never was the main point. Building technology that has the potential of helping people will eventually come to the attention of these people. Nobody ever told China to use Linux. Still, Red Flag Linux is getting funds from the chinese government.

You already have the hardware and you have large companies trying to copy it. If you get the worst bugs out of the software, people will notice it. People will use it. Nevermind Negroponte.

I want to be the first to thank Irvin for making such a useful contribution to the topic the arictle author wrote about. Negroponte exaggerates? He's a bad communicator? You must be joking. :-)

If it weren't for the prose I'd think Irvin is a bot. Written by some grad student that Negroponte verbally abused at some time.

Don't get me wrong, NN IS the problem. If anybody knows him personally (not you, Irvin) I would strongly suggest to him he read Wayan's "if I were NN for a day" thread.

Almost every post mentions the same solution to most problems plaguing OLPC today. (We'll omit the communication problem since that has been covered exhaustively by the author, countless members of OLPCnews and forum.laptop.org, every techno ezine in existence, and OLPCnews' favorite jaded pupil)

The problem is the number of XOs available to people who can best help OLPC's mission. Namely, developers and 'rich' people.

Developers to get more ('production' ready) software in the field. Rich people to bring down the cost of XOs (via volume) and/or fund further deployments (via G1G1).

People dumber than Nick, people smarter than Nick; it doesn't matter. Everyone, but Nick apparently, says get machines (whatever they may be) into the hands of MANY more people so that OLPC's mission can be accomplished.

sracer,

"Re: "I am very happy with my XO, it boggles my mind why you two are not". So... because YOU are happy then EVERYONE should be? How self-centered and arrogant! It is so beyond your ability to comprehend why anyone would not be delighted?"

Well, looking at the relevant thread on the OLPC Forum [1] looks like overwhelming majority of the people who got XO are rather happy with it. Perhaps you and Goney3 take rather extreme, if opposite, views - although if we transpose your response perhaps your own stance is even more extreme:

So... because YOU are NOT happy then EVERYONE should be? How self-centered and arrogant! It is so beyond your ability to comprehend why anyone would be delighted?

Lighten up buddy ...;)

[1] OLPC Forum - How do we like it now?
( http://olpcnews.com/forum/index.php?topic=2101.0 )

Edward Cherlin,

"In the meantime, Nicholas Negroponte is the only person in charge, and he has nothing to do with the people doing the work. We are not allowed to talk with him, we cannot get questions sent to him for answers, and he will not tell anybody what is going on..."

I think you expect too much if you think Negroponte will have time for any Tom and Harry wanting to talk to him. And when you say "we" surely you don't mean people actually working for OLPC...

"... except to make bizarre remarks to reporters about becoming more like Microsoft."

His statement was in the context of looking for a CEO - ie. transforming OLPC from a very much R&D unit into more business-like entity being able to deal with the educational market in more professional way - surely a very much needed transformation...

Negroponte has always been outspoken - I guess it comes as a package with his 'can-do' attitude. But perhaps that's why OLPC actually managed to create something like XO, and for others to follow, at all. And the fact that they have already 500,000 as opposed to less that 100,000 Classmate PCs from Intel, regardless of their billions and thousands of employees, should be telling us that, even with Negroponte's overestimating educational market's readiness, he's actually doing not bad at all...

BTW. So how's that book on XO [1] going - as it's been over a year now I'm sure must be pretty much finished by now. Kids are waiting... ;)

[1] Edward Cherlin's One Laptop Per Child Book Proposal
( http://www.olpcnews.com/content/ebooks/edward_cherlin_laptop_book.html )

My XO arrived 3 April in Lubbock TX. I got an email today stating that it would be shipped soon.

I have a friend who is an absolute authority on computers. He says it is great. Other small ones are available but he says the XO is the best for developing countries. I have lived in 2 countries and taught in 17 more and I agree. Took it to an elmentary school computer teacher and she says it is great.

I told them I wish that OLPC would hire someone who knows marketing.

We want to purchase 100 for members of The church of Christ to take on trips to other countries for schools, etc. They emailed me today that I have to purchase 100 @ $299 each plus $20 airmail and OLPC will donate 50 to one of four countries. I told them that we will purchase them based on our requirements; not OLPC. We will buy the 100 if they will ship us the extra 50 [we pay postage], also.

Otherwise, we are not interested.

Yes, NN is not a good executive, but he realizes it and is looking around for someone better. As for his ability to find someone, remember that he has some of the top tech companies in the world, like Google, AMD, Ebay and Red Hat, on his board, and surely they can give him some valuable assistance.

Well, the one thing that is really special about the XO is the screen. That it is semi-impermeable to the elements is certainly nice, but it requires nothing new in terms of technology. The Linux OS is great, Sugar, IMHO, stinks and should be put out of it's misery. The project is doomed to failure (and always has been) because it is run like a political movement and not a business. I just hope they can keep it going long enough to get one good update out the door followed by as much documentation as they can muster.

I believe the XO will survive in spite of OLPC. It has to as it is worth saving. I wish that I could take over the marketing of it. I could have thousands of them out by the end of the year. Their sales thinking is backwards. They tell me how I can buy them; the customer is always right and I want to purchase 150 on my terms based on their price.

off topic: here is a nice piece on olpc teacher preparation training for Nepal:

http://blog.olenepal.org/index.php/archives/239

I got it from here, a great resource:

http://planet.laptop.org/

I think you're right on with your analysis of Negroponte, Edward, with one exception: he knows nothing about education. Indeed, his philosophy is an "anti-education" philosophy: get the school systems and teachers out of the way, give kids exciting computers, and they will learn on their own. I have never heard such deprecating remarks about teachers and schools as those made by Negroponte. The problem is, he's not peddling XO's on the street corners, educational systems are his market. This is his downfall; you can't insult your customers (something Negroponte does so well) and expect them to turn around and buy your product. Technology will not change education by itself. If you want to change the education system, you need to educate the educators, who will change the education system. This takes empathy for educators, not contempt.

Bob, look at my comment above yours and you will see that olpc is working closely with teachers, and they love it.

On the larger issue, I think NN is sort of stuck in the middle. He wants to bring education to hundreds of millions of developing world children who at present get no education or very little. The problem is that there is no way to do this by just extending the standard education model. So he is pushing constructivism because it has the promise of success with far fewer teachers, and even to some important degree with none at all. I think his long term plan is to have the XO be so cheap that families will simply buy it on their own, and children who don't go to school or do so only a few hours a week will learn on their own.

But to get to that point he needs to first sell tens of millions of XO's and develop lesson plans customized for each country, and to do that he needs to go through the government education systems, with the added side effect that he thinks (as far as I can tell) that constructivism in the hands of teachers is better than either standard model education or XO's used on their own. So he is sort of doing one thing, while in pursuit of a partly diffrent goal, and so winds up speaking out of both sides of his mouth.

Bob, do you have an alternative plan for improving developing world education? Maybe we need two or more plans here. You talk about "educating the educators," but what does that mean, and how will it solve the problem that there just are not nearly enough teachers, classrooms, textbooks, and so on, for the target population?

By the way, this link helps explain why developing world education is so bad.

http://www.cis.org/articles/2008/back308.html

I think what NN is trying to do in the long term is an end-run around the government.

I heard from Brightstar today. The only way they will sell me the XOs is that I purchase 100 @$300 and pay $2000 postage. They will donate 50 to a developing country. We have to raise these funds among members of The church of Christ and the XOs will go to schools and churches in developing countries. I told Adrian that we would pay $33,000 for 150 shipped to us and they will be sold at that price to others to take abroad. Otherwise we will pay a little more and purchase other brands that are on the market or coming. I believe after we get that 150 XOs out there, we would be ordering even more.

Some of the emails above talk about failure and they are probably right.

ken hargesheimerwrote on April 14, 2008:

I heard from Brightstar today. The only way they will sell me the XOs is that I purchase 100 @$300 and pay $2000 postage.

:Ah, they have changed their terms yet again with no public announcement. I have given up on them until I see leadership at OLPC that comes to grips with these issues, and makes Brightstar shape up or ship out. Unless, of course, this particular strain of incompetence is coming from within OLPC (which has made the serious mistake of officially launching yet another program for which it has made no preparation). In which case a few people at OLPC need to shape up or ship out.

"how will it solve the problem that there just are not nearly enough teachers, classrooms, textbooks, and so on, for the target population?"

That's the paradox of OLPC's position. Children don't have these things because their government refuses to fund those things. But that same government is supposed to fund the purchase of XOs.

Anyone who lived through the tech boom will recognize these signs all too well. Fanbase or no, the OLPC foundation is unlikely to recover -- especially given their unwillingness to ask this community for help. Luckily, their long string of major failures is well-documented -- and their important successes are open source (or close enough.)

With apologies to Asimov, I'm putting my faith in the second foundation.

@Maddie
"Children don't have these things because their government refuses to fund those things."

This is the "paradox" of development. Things get cheaper, but services not. It takes a single teacher a full day to teach a class of 30 kids. Just as it did 100 years ago. However, in almost every industry, a person can create orders of magnitude more "things" than 100 years ago. In effect, it has become relatively more (enormously more) expensive to teach over the years.

In the developing world this has the effect that a fully qualified teacher can earn much more money working in industry, in the city, than teaching at a rural school. It is almost impossible to solve this problem with money. The USA has a weaker version of this problem and has difficulties solving it.

Just blaming "bad politicians" for this economic quagmire is not justified.

The teacher shortage in the developing world is chronic and largely unsolvable. It really hampers economic growth. The laptops are an attempt to increase teacher productivity:
http://www.olpcnews.com/use_cases/education/olpc_xo_improve_teachers.html

This has been explained by many people many times. Personally, I suspect this is one of the many gratuit accusations against the OLPC. It does show a contempt against third world communities. I cannot but suspect that those repeating this accusation actually don't care about what the OLPC actually wants to accomplice.

And some isolated one-liners from NN in the press don't cut it. The policies of the OLPC are documented on their wiki sites and their deployments. Only if these wikis show that they don't want the teachers to be involved, do you have a valid complaint.

Winter

@Winter,
For a country to fund one laptop per child (and everything that goes with the laptop) is a tremendous amount of money. No country in the world (including the US) is going to spend that kind of money. I'd love it if they did. If they were willing to they would have already. It's not contempt, it's reality.
I think it's a very 'first-world' mindset that $100 is affordable to everybody in the world.

@Maddie
"For a country to fund one laptop per child (and everything that goes with the laptop) is a tremendous amount of money."

5% of GDP is a tremendous of money to spend on education. No country will spend such amounts. Except, that most do.

The problem of the developing world are manifold, but one that comes up every time is the unwillingness of health and education workers to work in rural areas and slums. It is sheer impossible to get trained staff to work there. The only solution yet found is to go for IT. Used trained nurses and phone in on the hospital. And now using the XO to help out the teachers.

Your original remark was that the teacher shortage was:
"Children don't have these things because their government refuses to fund those things. But that same government is supposed to fund the purchase of XOs."

And that is not fair against those governments.

Rob

@ Winter,

OK, if you say they're buying XOs for all of the children then I guess they are. My mistake.

You say that no developing world government will spend enough for full XO deployment including teacher training and so on.

What I said above was that NN's plan is to get the XO so cheap that developing world families can buy it on their own.

winter wrote:

> 5% of GDP is a tremendous of money to spend on education. No country will spend such amounts. Except, that most do.

We've been down this road before.

In a public education system all expenditures go through a political process in which their value to the education process and to the nation at large is measured against other possible expenditures. In other words, it's a contest of political influence. Having the facts on your side is good but having a politically influential constituency is better.

Even if you could prove beyond any doubt that the XO is an education miracle - and so far no one's proven that - you'd still run up against the political process and the quite legitimate demands of other constituencies not to mention the less legitimate demands of constituencies that won't be persuaded to forgo their opportunity to get a slice of the budget for any reason let alone the unproven promise of the XO.

Eduardo,
I wish NN all the luck in the world in getting the price down. However, I think one way to accomplish that is to let the people who can afford to pay $200-300 subsidize those that can't. However OLPC seems to be dead set against that. As ken hargesheimer stated above, OLPC makes the process so tedious and aggravating that people just buy eee's instead.

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