One Laptop Per Child program has a new twist for small deployments. Rather than selling XO's to already funded projects wanting 100 or so XO's for programs that have committed community buy-in and long-term project plans, OLPC is going to develop:
OLPCorps Africa - $3,500,000 for 100 teams of college students to get $35,000 in support for 10 week projects in Africa. Each group gets 100 XO laptops, assorted hardware, a $10,000 stipend, and 10-day training in Kigali, Rwanda, before being sent out to projects they need to have arranged by March 27th.
While the OLPCorps Africa is a great idea - similar to the Peace Corps or Geekcorps - 10 weeks is wastefully too short, college students, while meaning well, are the wrong implementers, and $3.5 million could be much better invested in small deployments.
10 weeks is way too short
From painful experience as director of Geekcorps, where we sent mid-career ICT professionals to the developing world to effect change as volunteers, I can say that nothing of consequence happens in 10 weeks in Africa.
For an intervention to be effective (vs. a photo op), you need to have long-term presence in the community. It takes at least 10 months for a team of volunteers to get from idea through implementation to acceptance by the recipient community. And that's long before any measurable outcomes are apparent.
Ideally, you want the community to spend at least 10 weeks just thinking through why they want a new technology and how they will integrate it into their existing social interactions and cultural mores before you even start implementation.
College students are the wrong implementers
College students do have the time and enthusiasm to spend 10 weeks in Africa for OLPC. But with all due respect, that's all they have. They often lack the experience to understand the nuances of change management that a new technology introduction requires.
And that very enthusiasm means they often lack the patience to allow a community to come to terms with change in their own time, or to reject change all together, for what to that community are very valid reasons.
Last but not least, a two week training course is way too short to teach the required project management and educational pedagogy skills. The Peace Corps trains volunteers for three months before they go into the field alone.
At Geekcorps, volunteers overlapped with each other to cross train, and were directly supervised by international development experts on every project.
A better investment: supporting small deployments
But I'm still wondering why OLPC is investing $3.5 million in unproven student projects to be somehow transitioned from dream to reality in just 10 weeks?
There was a process to support already established small deployment opportunities. Initiatives that had funding to buy XO's, not have them gifted, willing to invest their own money for training and implementation, and spend much longer than 10 weeks with the community. $3.5 million invested in those self-organized small deployments would go a long way.
Oh right, OLPC ended support of small deployments, citing the cost to manage them. And 100 teams of college students will be less work?