New Negropontism: You Can Give Kids XO Laptops and Just Walk Away


One of Nicholas Negroponte's main belief's around OLPC is that you can just hand out XO laptops to children and they will "learn learning" and this event can happen without investing in traditional educational systems - from teachers to classrooms. This "implementation miracle" is best expressed with this formula:

At Techonomy Conference 2010, Negropote reiterated his belief in this miracle with the following declaration:

One the things people told me about technology, particularly about laptops in the beginning, "Nicholas, you can't give a kid a laptop laptop that's connected and walk away." Well you know what, you can. You actually can. And we have found that kids in the remotest parts of thew world, when given that connected [laptop], like some of the kids in these pictures, not only teach themselves how to read and write, but most importantly, and this we found in Peru first, they teach their parents how to read and write.

That's slightly different from the reality, where OLPC Peru continues to be A Problematic Una Laptop Por NiƱo Program - and that's not just our opinion. The Inter-American Development Bank as this to say about OLPC in Peru in its preliminary evaluation report:

Even though this program has only recently been implemented, this document presents a few preliminary findings that could be relevant for its future development.

On the one hand, we find evidence of better attitudes and expectations among teachers and parents; students that are more critical of school work and of their own performance; and a greater development of technological skills among girls and boys.

On the other hand, there seems to be a decrease in the intensity of computer use in the classroom, as time passes and difficulties arise in the implementation of the project. Due to the short interval of time since implementation, no impact was observed in learning.

Now does that sound like you can just give a kid a laptop and walk away? Not if you want to see any decent results.


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The Birmingham, Alabama program represents some of the clearest evidence of what happens when you give a kid an XO and just walk away. As briefly discussed in our recent paper in Journal of International Affairs (, a few months after receiving their XOs, students actually reported spending less time using computers to do research, do homework, or create and share things online than before they even had their XOs. However, they did spend more time in chat rooms.

This can't necessarily be extrapolated to other countries with very different contexts, but Birmingham represents one of the purest cases to date of what happens when you hand a kid a laptop and walk away, because that is pretty much what happened there (with a small number of exceptions of extremely interested teachers).

In point of fact, OLPC Association provides deployment sponsors with a full range of support for teacher training-technical, pedagogy and content development-as well as many other forms of support and training.

Really, Robert? Do you know this from personal experience? And if they did, it seems it would counter what their leader says is the right way to deploy technology.

I suspect Bob knows what he's talking about; he is the Association's CFO, and has to budget for that support.

Wayan, I think you're misreading Nicholas's remarks. There are two valuable things that we know for certain:

1. Connectivity and a community of young Internet users can bring remarkable change to remote communities, even where there is broken school infrastructure, and the only effective change for most children is "getting a laptop".

2. Deployments are improved, sometimes dramatically, by the continued involvement of talented technical and learning support teams; especially when those teams are local and drawn from the community of families and educators in the region.

OLPC works to facilitate the latter in every deployment, and we encourage local ownership of these regional teams. But even in places where that fails to materialize, or is not sucessful (or logistically very difficult at first, such as in the Peruvian Amazon), we see fundamental changes to education, as noted in the quote above -- including motivation to learn, attention to school as an important part of community development, and literacy for entire households.

Access to basic tools and connectivity is valuable even when the other elements don't yet exist. This is not an argument for discounting the value of support and training, which in OLPC's case occupy much of the energies of the Association. It is, in some cases (as in the 2006 discussion you link to), an argument for implementing many parts of such a deployment in parallel. As Uruguay demonstrated the following year, this can strengthen an overall plan as each part of the implementation creates a supply for some parts and a demand for others.

SJ, I'm not misreading his comments. He's said it often, starting back in 2007 - laptops themselves, independent of teacher training and support, will positively impact education.

Now if that's not what OLPC as an organizations espouses or does, you might want to let your dear leader know so he can stop saying one thing while y'all do another.


I appreciate that the OLPC Association appears to be putting a bigger effort into social support of implementations than previously. And the vision that you put forward is very inspiring. But it doesn't appear to be backed up by solid evidence.

I only know of two large (10,000+) OLPC programs that have been investigated by rigorous external evaluation, that in Birmingham, which I referred to above (one more comment on that: there was also a decrease there in the percentage of youth who said they wanted to go to college after getting their XOs.)

The other investigation was carried out by the Interamerican Development Bank ( of the program in Peru. The IDB evaluation in Peru did not find any gains in literacy among even the children who owned the laptops compared to children who didn't get them--what evidence is there that their households had gains in literacy? The IDB evaluation also found that students' attitudes toward school and homework declined after getting the XOs.

Lack of evidence for claims of benefits is perhaps one reason why OLPC is losing steam. Outside of Peru and Uruguay, which signed on years ago, there have been no other major deployments. Meanwhile, even countries that want to integrate laptops into education on a one-to-one basis, such as Argentina and Brazil, are choosing other machines than the XO and other approaches than OLPC's.

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