Was OLPCorps 2009 an OLPC Failure?


When Beth Santos presented at OLPC Learning Club DC about her OLPC São Tomé experience, her description of the OLPCorps deployment had me asking one very intense question:

beth santos
Beth Santos: OLPCorps savior

Was OLPCorps São Tomé a failure?

When Beth first went to Sao Tome to volunteer with Step Up, she didn't expect to work with XO laptops. She just wanted to help the São João school. On arrival, she found XO laptops stored in a closet, unused since the OLPCorps volunteers left.

This should not come as a surprise. We predicted that abandoned XO laptops would be one legacy of OLPCorps. Technology adoption, in any culture, requires enthusiastic supporters with a long-term commitment to change. By parachuting in volunteers for a few weeks one summer, OLPC was setting up OLPCorps to have a temporary impact at best.

Beth's surprising opinion

After Beth finished her talk, I asked her if she thought the OLPCorps program was a failure, especially since she found few XO skills or OLPC knowledge in the community when she arrived. She surprised me by saying OLPCoprs in São Tomé was not a failure because they did the groundwork that made her experience possible.

OLPCorps found the local organizations, like Step Up, schools, and people that would be excited about an XO laptop deployment. They also did the initial hardware setup and XO familiarization that allowed the school to accept the XO laptops in the classroom.

But OLPCorps São Tomé was not there long enough to get the XO laptops into the classroom during the school day. It took a follow up visit by Beth to get actual educator adoption and student ownership. It took at least six months of daily in-person interaction to effect change at Sao Joao

XO deployment critical success factor

Kim Toufectis asked Beth a great follow on question: what skill or knowledge did she bring to São Tomé that was a critical success factor? While Beth didn't think she had any unique advantage for XO deployment success, I believe she had one that's the most needed in any XO deployment: determination.

She had the will and the drive to make things happen. She wasn't going to let 100 XO laptops languish in a closet even if she didn't have a clue about OLPC or one-to-one pedagogy. She's a go-getter and OLPC Sao Tome was lucky to have her.

She also proves that if OLPCorps is to be a success, it needs to invest in communities with the right volunteer for the long-term. It needs more Beth Santos to stay on site longer.


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So, once again we learn that you CAN NOT do effective cross cultural development without spending time there!

OLPCorps 2009 visited some locations without any plans of continuing the relationship after the short term event ended.

It is a real joke when people say all the great things about OLPCorps 2009, but include those locations that now no longer use the XO.

What a waste of resources!

To their credit, OLPC has learned from 2009 and the OLPCorps 2010 program is for much longer time periods - up to 1 year.

Yes, it would've been better to re-invest in 2009 sites, but at least they're targeting their resources in high-opportunity locations. Especially where they already have strong deployments.

I plan on writing on OLPCorps 2010 shortly, unless someone wants to Guest Post about it for me.

I think OLPC put a little bit of that (spending longer time periods) in consideration when they called for the proposals. My thinking was that the essence of requesting for local partnerships and soliciting proposals that reflected some affinity or connection to the base region (like having a team member resident in the region) was meant to address the need for long term sustenance. Eitherway, this did not really reflect in the final output. I am of the opinion that the teams themselves spent a lot of time trying to come to terms with the expectations and understanding the dynamics of introducing the XO into learning such that there is no way they could have made the desired impact. But clearly, i do agree that longer term periods would have more effect; also returning corps members would even have greater effect.

The OLPCorps 2009 project I was involved in is still going strong. Although I agree that the timeline was far to short for adequate preparation and time in-country, I was happy to see that our feedback was listened to and OLPCorps 2010 will be longer. There were many details that contributed to the longevity of our project so far, but I think that two significant ones were working through an established NGO that will be able to continue the project with their own volunteers, and teacher training. We sent two of the teachers from our school to the training OLPC offered in Rwanda, and we worked with the teachers on lesson planning and how to integrate the laptops into the existing curriculum. We also worked one-on-one with the teachers to help them feel more confident teaching with the computers. We were lucky, however, to have a talented group of teachers to work with who had basic computer skills already and who had asked for more technology and more challenging curriculum long before we applied to OLPCorps 2009.

I was one of the interns on the ground in Sao Tome (Sao, not San; Portuguese not Spanish) this past summer responsible for setting up the school. You can read my summer blog at http://xomike.blogspot.com. The blog was written to cover my entire stay for my family, not to be any academic or insightful talks about our every training session. The major obstacles we ran into were that Sao Joao, the school the minister of education and STeP UP recommended for us, had more sixth grade students than we had laptops. In addition, the teachers teach by subject, not by classroom so each teacher was now teaching both XO empowered classrooms and normal classrooms.

We arrived as the students started their summer term so we could not teach while they were in the classroom but what we did was try to give the students a foundation for how to work the computer and the teachers ideas and inspiration to use the computer in the classroom. We knew that we would not be able to make enough of an impact in 8 weeks but that was the reason for the OLPCorps requirement of partnering with a local NGO like STeP UP. While we were disappointed to hear that STeP UP did nothing to stop the computers from being put away, it was their job to continue training and ensure the effective use of the laptops.

It was never OLPC's nor the intern's intention to have an 8 week deployment suffice for many years of deployment. OLPC required us to show that we had a local partner and selected applicants based on the strength of the partnership. Other groups from the University of Illinois have been working in partnership with STeP UP and we chose them because of this partnership. At the time of application, there was a class which visited Sao Tome in the summer to setup computer labs at various plantations and public sites. Our intention was that they could continue training the teachers and challenging the teachers to use the computers in new ways. As you probably already know from working with Geekcorps, not everything went as planned or as well as it could have. We did what we could to lay the foundation for the school. There is only so much we can do as interns to get the teachers and students as well as our partner to buy into the idea and to spend their resources on the idea.

Of course it is beneficial to spend years on site with a deployment but if only a few students stay in school longer is it worth it? It is difficult to read this post and have you allude to my failure when less than a year has passed. OLPC is working in new territory and to shoot them down before you can even measure one class' performance is, in my opinion, foolish and irresponsible journalism. When my team was planning where to deploy, we were promised and assured of many things from professors at our university that had worked there for several years. Not everything was truth and we did what we could to best help over 80 students.

I did not conclude that Sao Tome was a failure, Mike. I asked the question expecting to hear it was, but Beth convinced me it was not.

I'll also change the spelling. Beth had it as "San Tome" probably based on her Spanish background.

Last but not least, oh how I do know the big difference between what is promised and what's delivered in deployments. I learn it daily, still. So kudos for y'all for accomplishing what it did. My issue is with OLPC having such a short timeframe for you to begin with.


Your message basically shows a lack of planning for the OLPC project.

1 Showing up when the students are gone.

2 Too few laptops per child.

3 Your NGO not buying into the project to keep it going.

4 Using older students, instead of younger ones.

Having good intentions, yet improper planning leads to foolish and irresponsible projects.

It's not bad planning, it's just not being able to control every aspect of the project. We weren't about to go against the wishes of the minister of education and go to a different school or a different grade. Do you know what the government structure is like in Sao Tome? Do you know the way the schools are structured? If you do, then head on over to Sao Tome and do this right.

There are only so many things a team can plan for. If we were there when the students were in session, it would have been harder to get time away from their curriculum to work with them on the computers. There was also no way of knowing how our NGO would actually respond to the project (and assigning Beth to continue the project shows that they do have an interest in it). If you have further questions for me, rather than accusations just send me a message. mrstein2-@-gmail-dot-com.

If there were a way to do this right, a formula which we could recreate then we would do it but the fact is that dealing with people and cultures will create some barriers. A deployment that has ways it could be improved is not a failure, it is not necessarily poorly planned nor is it a waste.

How would you have done this deployment Greg? How would you do any deployment?

OLPC basically let you down!

They were not able to say to the government that their methods would end in failure. I have seen in a local implementation nearby that OLPC let a local school target the older students first!

The statements that you have mentioned in your last post reflect OLPC letting anything happen. I provided a simple checklist already, but where was OLPC directing the operation? It sounds like they wanted you to learn by mistakes made on the ground, instead of OLPC pointing out the required procedures.


While your comments about the OLPCorps program being hasty and underplanned are plenty valid, I'd like to point out the entire field of international development has been run this way. All over the world there are abandoned development projects, hospitals without doctors, computer labs without users, dams without the irrigation canals they were built to fill, chlorine tablets sitting idle in a cupboard while villagers drink from the river. Some of these projects are more invasive than OLPCorps and some are less. While I question the morality of performing pilot projects without full regard to their potential damage or benefit, it is undoubtedly the tradition of development projects worldwide and does not point to any particular failing or mismanagement by OLPC. Each OLPCorps site has a different culture and economy, and to make generalizations about the success of all 30 teams is grossly unfair. Some were very successful and some were not, and this hinged on the local support given to the project after the original teams left. There is no checklist that can be followed to ensure a successful deployment, and as with any development project, the most successful are the ones that are embraced locally and fill a community need. And the sad truth is that even local NGOs often do not represent the best interests of the community they serve. If an OLPCorps team was promised support by an eager NGO, how were they to predict that this commitment might wane? Even with greater planning and attention to detail, there would still have been circumstances beyond the teams' control.

It saddens me that OLPC was not willing to make a long-term commitment to its pilot sites, but as Wayan said it is trying to learn from 2009 and institute farther reaching programs for 2010. I look forward to seeing OLPC develop into a more responsible organization as the years pass and it continues to improve its methods.

Suggesting OLPC can be lousy by saying other international development screw up as its defense, just is wrong!

OLPC could have done its planning. IT DID NOT WANT TO GET INVOLVED! As already stated it in the example shown in Sao Tome, college students were attempting to lead an implementation while a Minister of Education wanted something different.

Donors would love to hear how OLPC operates! They toss something on the wall and see if it sticks. Real Smart! They sold the idea that they had well organized groups using the XO. WOW, 30 groups and let's say half are well run! It is those 15 that will show that OLPC is just gambling! Flipping a coin is not a proper method to determine the success of a project.

Some of you may remember the OLPC 2007 G1G1 in the US. OLPC seemed to leave those owners on their own. I had a defective XO and no one from OLPC notified me. Without the OLPCNews Forum, I would still be with my original broken XO. I also had to find someone else to sell me a 2nd battery, since my original one never gave me a full charge. I say these things, since they reflect the nature of how OLPC operates or does not operate!

OLPC did get involved and we spent two weeks training with them. Part of the reason for not defining what and how was so that we could create new ideas. One project that was implemented in South Africa was a student created newspaper. At the Sao Tome site, we incorporated a MediaWiki installation so that the students can learn from each other and in the future, learn from previous classes. We knew we couldn't impart 10 years of computer experience in 8 weeks so we equipped a local partner to help and they sent Beth who helped.

You don't know how many sites are being run well so to assume that 15 are dysfunctional is foolish. I don't understand your purpose in picking apart OLPC. If you have a better way of doing it, do it! I'll sign up to help you. Everyone that has worked with Sao Joao school in Sao Tome does not think it is a failure. How you can sit behind a computer and judge a project halfway around the world that you've never seen is beyond me.

it's good that OLPC has given people smthing to analyse, but the truth is that they took the initiative to get smthing done. failure or not is no big deal, after all the program doners, i suppose, did not and could not have expected outright success. Anyway, the following, i believe, are some of the reasons why our deployment attracted so much attention in Bonsaaso-Ghana:

1. controlled use of funds: most teams were made up of too many members all of whom used part of the limited funds as travel expenses and stipend. the KNUST team-Ghana was made up of only two members and so cut down on the expenditure. no wonder we still have about 2000 ghana cedis in our account to keep supporting the project.

2. well established NGO: the local support should not be from just any group but a well established one. the millennium villages project(MVP), with support from the UNDP, is spread through about 8 countries in Africa with focus on; IT, Agric, infrastructure, environment, business, health and community development with coordinators and facilitators in all these fields. such is the might of the NGO backing the knust team.

3. Plan for continuity: i don't know about other teams, but the KNUST team had this worked out long before rwanda, such that even when i was posted to the city for my national service, i had to fight to be reposted to the district where the MVP is situated and eventually to posted to the MVP itself where i have now assigned special duties to oversee the OLPC implementation in other villages and strengthening of the current one in Bonsaaso.

though we are dealing with diverse cultures, there remains several lessons we can all learn from each other to make the world a better place. KEEP THE OLPC SPIRIT ALIVE.

Americans tend not to think much about how travel costs eat up project costs. The sad fact is budgets tend to not point out that travel is not helping people. It gets all lumped together. I have seen how the American Red Cross operates and how they waste money, but that is not present to external donors. People in the US tend to say they are doing wonderful volunteer work going off to poor countries to help for a few weeks, instead of giving the travel money to pay for locals to do the same job.

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