Is OLPC East Africa for 20-30 Million Children For Real?


Recently, One Laptop Per Child and the East African Community announced they are partnering to try and bring OLPC to the 20 million children in the Republics of Kenya, Uganda, the United Republic of Tanzania, Republic of Rwanda and Republic of Burundi.

Ambassador Juma Mwapachu, Secretary General of the East African Community, said via a press release:

Multiply by 20-30 million XO children
"If you want to build a knowledge economy, you must have a computer literate population, starting from primary and secondary school children and all the way to university... This is a very ambitious project for which we will have to partner with various people and institutions to mobilize and fund the resources required to meet our objectives by 2015."

Then Tim Unwin, a noted expert on ICT4D, published his OLPC EAC response: 8 reasons why OLPC is "fundamentally flawed" and "a delusional concept" for East Africa:

  1. Cost
  2. Pedagogic model
  3. Lack of content
  4. Monitoring and Evaluation
  5. Distribution
  6. Top-down approach
  7. Sustainability
  8. Technology

For greater detail on the OLPC East Africa idea and a 10 million jump in the projection of children reached, we now have an interview with Walter de Brouwer of OLPC Europe: How OLPC plans to give 30 million laptops to Africa by 2015:

TR: It is both a highly exciting and massive commitment to say that you want to deliver 30 million laptops in the next five years.
WDB: Yes, well if you are talking about one-to-one computing and you look at the number of kids in the region, then that is the amount that you arrive at. So spacing it over a period of five years is certainly doable. We have done the calculations and if you look at giving one child a laptop - and take into consideration all the necessary server and connectivity costs - then it would come to less than $1 a week over a five-year period. So if you spread it out like that - and we have institutions that can help us do this like the EU, like the World Bank and many others - then you are really setting up the 'intellectual infrastructure' across the region.

TR: So what is that $1 a week that you mentioned? How do you calculate that?
WDB: Well we calculate that you would need $250 per child to provide them with an XO laptop (inclusive of deployment costs, electricity, servers, connectivity and so on). So if you are budgeting for a $1 a week per child then you are really on target there, because you have to take those things like electrification and connectivity into account. These are problems, but they are not insurmountable - as we have already seen in some African countries. There is the willpower, if something happens, they put in electricity. And there are always e-government services that we can adapt for improved connectivity. As long as things move - it is the law of increasing returns.

But enough of these folks - what do you think? Will East African countries really come together as one to promote OLPC? If they do, can the East African Community find enough funding to cover 20 or 30 million children? Or is Tim Unwin right in his negative critique of the idea?


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I have been working in the ICT area since the late 1970's - hence my userID of "lanfran" from back when email names were unix restricted to less than 8 characters. I am a big supporter of (proper) ICT4DEV, yet it was clear from the start that the OLPC ... [more]


Fascinating. We had illusory commitments for 8 million XOs before production, which came down to perhaps two million ordered since. What are we to make of a commitment to 30 million units in the absence of announced funding?

Don't hold your breath.

It's possible, but in development projects, nothing is real until it happens.

Nevertheless, woot!!

If the laptop costs 200, the 250/5years means that the following associated neeeds will cost $10 per year per computer:

School Server
Teacher Training
Curriculum development
Internet Access
Deployment costs

We also know that this estimate is not accurate at all, so it is easy to arrive at the most logical conclusion: this is Negroponte's latest attempt at cheating his way into scamming poor people.

Just criminal, no matter how you look at it. And if his intentions are not to defraud, why the need to so blatantly lie about the real cost of implementing his 'idea'?

Ok, well I definitely don't think Negroponte is trying to scam poor people (what on earth would he gain from that??), BUT I'm not totally on board with this, primarily for Tim Unwin's reasons 2 & 3. I've beaten this dead horse a thousand times, but it just drives me nuts how there really is no content or teacher training to along with OLPC.

On the other hand... maybe 20 million XOs around E Africa is what it will take to kick the local tech community into high gear and build up a sweet ecosystem of educational content in Swahili, Amharic, English, etc. The pedagogy might be... significantly more challenging. And my "might" I mean "absolutely will."

Consider XO 1.75 based on ARM is out soon for $100 and XO 3 tablets within a couple years for $50.

The funding has to come from Obama and the EU. Now is the time for them to show the money.

30 million children times $250 is 7.5 billion. That's a lot of money.

from the interview: "The problem that we have in several countries in Africa is that you really have to think a bit beyond the laptop, beyond the computer itself, in terms of – what do we have to do? There are vast amounts of land where there is no schooling, where there are no teachers, no buildings – how are we going to try to solve this over the course of a couple of years? It requires a completely different approach.

What OLPC thinks is that 'education' should be replaced by 'learning' – and that by giving each child a laptop and organising this we are also counting on community involvement, that something else should come from this. We want to start these developments, because otherwise nothing will happen. "

Is the idea that you don't need school and the children will learn on their own? Or am I misunderstanding this?

"Is the idea that you don't need school and the children will learn on their own?"

Um, yeah, Eduardo, that's a basic tenant of OLPC from the beginning - that children should learn learning everywhere and you don't need a physical school or actual teacher to do it.

I would love to see any quotation (that will not need further "interpretation"...) on that.

Because from what I read here, it says that when there is not really a way to have proper education ("in the vast lands" etc) the XO scheme is even more appropriate.

Now if someone believes that _nothing_ can be done without "proper schooling", every idea of alternatives is considered as a statement that schooling is useless (eg if you are not with us, you are against us).

However the question is:
if proper schooling can not be achieved. Period. What do you do? Is the XO a viable option?

The answer can be yes or no, but it should be about the XO and the variables involved in its deployment, not about "proper schooling"

tenet, wayan...tenet...

Eduardo montez says:

"30 million children times $250 is 7.5 billion. That's a lot of money."

Yep. It seems veritable Professor Nicholies, in a most natural fit of financial desperation, has finally joined his Nigerian friends...

7.5 billion over a 5 year period for 5 Africans countries is lot of money? Compared to the budget for guns, bullets, and others useless military equipments, this amount is a drop in the bucket. More importantly, those kids will have to pay the accumulated debts anyway, so why not spend it on something useful to them?

Is "proper" schooling or any schooling really needed? Is Sugar/XO an option, with or without schooling?

As usual Mavrothal touches a major capstone issue. (have I ever said that if we are in a team debate competition I want to be in your team? you're good at pointing out the real deep points).

Anyway, this sits at the core of M&E of ICTs for Education, and so far, I dare to say, many supporters of the official OLPC party line can still gloat because any answer falls squarely in the role of education in development, which can only be addressed indirectly, and sometimes with little certainty.

AFAIK it works this way:
- What we really care about is poverty reduction and what we can do about it.
-*MANY* indicators of poverty *TEND* to be linked with low access to formal schooling. That is, you will see that richer people are most usually those who have more schooling.

It is not straightforward, by many means. Actually there are much stronger indicators, like your chances at being rich are enormous if your parents, community and country are rich, and viceversa. There are rich people in L|bya who make sure their kids get born in Switzerland, to make sure of all the best chances for them.

Often education is the only way someone from a poor family, neighborhood, etc., can make it up (and it often involves emigrating or even taking a role as abuser of their own people, alas). As an aside, that is why at OLE we give special focus to girls education, because they tend more to come back and raise the level of their own village instead of moving away.

Any way, we end up with a mostly unanswerable "what is education?", and even worse, "what kind of education *reduces* poverty?".

Those of us not uncomfortable splitting hairs (though we fear multiple negatives) honestly admit we actually don't really know. We know education is not same as learning. Fine. What then? What *can we do*?, for crying out loud?

It is rather useless but at least somewhat honest, to "agree to disagree", hopefully being very strong in our own opinions, because, for all anyone *knows*, we might be right! (I grudgingly have to admit that despite all evidence or the lack of, it could be NN is right)

Evidence so far is that XOs and other one-to-ones do not really contribute that much to "education", as measured by what happens in school, which apparently for XOs is actually quite little, or at least not enough to really make a difference we could go "wow!" on. And since what happens in school is what many had already agreed is *the indicator* for better-chances-to-get-out-of-poverty, we can safely extend the reasoning, and say with me, as-is and mostly, XOs are not helping (big exception in Nepal, duly noted).

That they have improved attendance is a weak argument, but pretty much the only objective one around. You could probably improve attendance many easier ways.

It has been proven beyond reasonable doubt that most people like XOs and have a lot of hope in their role in education. This of course also indicates that most people have no idea how that is playing in reality for their own kids' education. Yet, hope is good, hope in education helps, but doesn't fix the question, which is whether XOs have pretty much anything to do with education or even schooling. Yes, school is where they get handed out, and where they are used mostly way too little, and where they generally stay disconnected with whatever else is going on there.

The big argument the official OLPC party line proclaims, and AFAIK totally unproven and very hard to prove, is that "somehow" "something" happens with XO Sugar, and kids do get that magic happening and communities can now better pull themselves by their bootstraps and "make it", and as Nicholas has pointed out, despite the schools or teachers, which, we agree, are mostly not that good really, worse off in poor neighborhoods or nations.

What we think we *do* know doesn't really agree with the official OLPC stuff.

We already know that the synergy XOs-school is not yet, by a big measure, several years after, especially because that is not part of the OLPC line or priorities.

Sound evidence, solid, hard data is still very much not there for us to believe, despite our wish it were so, that this here XO/Sugar is a better paradigm that trumps schooling, despite disconnected anecdotes. A very pretty one, recent

first, thanks for the compliment (assuming you do not imply "sophism"... :-)

I really do not know if 1-to-1 computing can help education in its traditional or modern form.
The value that I see in XO/sugar is really 2 fold and is not necessarily related to a specific educational scheme.

First, it allows you to "brake up your toy to see what's inside" it!
Many kids do it, or would like to do it, though is strongly prohibited by parents/teachers etc, because they do not want the toys "wasted/destroyed".
The XO/Sugart provides this opportunity (both physically and metaphorically) in a relatively safe way and at a very early age. I think is the most important contribution that it could have in "education".
However, this would be hard to identify in any kind of standardized tests simply because this is not necessarily a desired quality and people do not test for it.

The second is that allows you to explore and find the information yourself (mostly through internet or through collaboration).
This is a double edge sword, because you can easily derail to useless, murky waters. But if you have some guidance in the beginning or enough resilience and focus, you may come up on top.
It is clear (to me) that the most important quality that today's students must acquire is how to keep learning through out their life. Today's world and societies (even the "underdeveloped" ones) evolve so fast, both in structure and needs, that every young- middle age- or old dog will be asked to learn new tricks throughout its life.
That's a quality that XO/Sugar should help develop, though I'm afraid is also not tested in the "standardized" tests.

So I'm not really terribly disappointed if the XO/Sugar is not well integrated in the classroom. Yes, would be better if more of the standard curriculum could be channeled through XO/Sugar, as long as the two aforementioned qualities are not strangled by it. And would be great if exploring and self-learning could be promoted and integrated in the curriculum. But till then I'm OK if they just sneak by :-)

One cannot help be frustrated with the OLPC initiative. There were questions and issues raised when the project was first proposed, and those questions and issues are still being raised.

OLPC has never felt it necessary to address the criticisms other than paint a rosy picture of what (maybe) could be done if OLPC could actually saturate developing countries with its computer.

At the same time, with the computers it has distributed it seems to have only picked "poster child" examples of what this or that child/site did (sustainable or not and at what cost).

Where is the monitoring, the evaluation, the lessons learned, and the feedback that has influenced the shape of the initiative, beyond those that have influenced the configuration of the computer itself?

Where is the consultation and evaluation with educators in the field, with those who would have to incorporate this technology in a setting already constrained by inadequate educational budgets and students facing difficult social determinants of educational access and achievement?

Where is the evidence that OLPC uses even this website feedback for anything more than reformulating its pitch and its rebuttals to one and all?

It is a sad episode when a technology-centric pursuit of educational equity in the knowledge age leaves knowledge out of the process. This turns education into a game where, again, the rich win and the poor are left behind.

Hi guys,

This is an Aspirational goal. Since when is it wrong to try to improve things?
We all know enough now to jump on board and help them achieve a large part of this.
What a buzz to be part of it.

Of course there will be naysayers. But what is their aspirational goal? Do nothing?

I say "Go the visionaries" and let the practical guys get in and help.

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