Presidents Loving Laptops Doesn't Equal Ministers Buying XO's

   
   
   
   
   

Brazil's President Luiz Lula ♥ OLPC
Last year, when Nicholas Negroponte was first promoting the One Laptop Per Child program, he was intent on securing five participating countries, each ordering 1 million "$100 laptops".

If countries couldn't achieve a 1 million minimum, Negroponte graciously requested they find other countries to partner with and call him back when they made the million unit minimum. Earlier this year, he even suggested that he had a 10 million laptop first year goal.

Then, in last week's OLPC Analyst meeting, he revealed that the order minimum has dropped to 250,000 and he needs only 3 million in OLPC XO sales commitments to get Quanta Computer to start Children's Machine XO production. Why such a sudden and drastic reversal in minimums and goals?

I think that the OLPC Leadership confused Presidents loving the populist idea of a laptop for every child with Ministers of Education or Technology investing $150 $176 million dollars on untested hardware, laptops that don't even have an implementation plan.

No matter how much a President might agree with OLPC, that student's educational experience can benefit from the Children's Machine XO, the actual purchase decision, the check-writer, will be a Ministry or Department head. In many countries, these are very powerful people, some appointed but many career government employees not beholden to an administration's whims.

The Ministers are beholden to a procurement process that is relatively open and competitive. They must write and publicly publish a request for proposal (RFP), an RFP that is vetted through the Ministry's internal processes to make sure its comprehensive in scope and compatible in goals with the government's other actions. Once issued, the Ministry waits a minimum amount of time before judging each applicant wishing to sell goods or services to the government on a known and objective scale.

This is not a quick process, and with millions at stake, a very contentious process. No Ministry can privately sign up with a single vendor for $176 million in laptops without a loud, vocal, domestic outcry of favoritism.

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As you can read in the OLPC Analyst meeting transcripts, this proposal process is happening now in several countries, and it would be interesting to see exactly what the RFP's will look like. Will countries request a computer type that only OLPC can fill? Or will they ask for services, like a defined maintenance plan or local computer assembly, that OLPC eschews?

Regardless, I bet all will require the ability to run Windows, hence Negroponte's Windows comments. If you see an RFP, please share it with us at OLPC News.

And while One Laptop Per Child may dislike the process, and it wreck havoc with their original minimums, production targets, and maybe even their Utopian ideals, the proposal process is providing a needed reality check on the program. Each country's government and populace should analyze procurements, even $44 million for 250,000 laptops, to make sure limited public funds are being spent on the best solution, not just the best looking or best marketed one.

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13 Comments

I saw an article today about some parties in the US "pushing long-dormant legislation that would add $US10 billion ($A12 billion) to a global fund to provide education to millions of children in Africa and elsewhere."

I wonder what the potential is for some organised effort from developed countries to contribute towards an OLPC implementation for some target countries. At times it seems the will is there. From another approach, could implementation eventually be offered like child sponsorship, where for $200 each, a group of people could buy XOs for a school, particularly if this could be done in installments for, say $20 a month. There are the obvious issues about cash flow, order sizes, economies of scale etc, but I'm sure the smart people could work that out. Just throwing a few thoughts into the mix.

The quote above is from the following article, apologies for not finding a more direct source:

http://www.theage.com.au/news/people/bono-seeks-aid/2007/05/02/1177788185374.html

Naill,

Organized donations for OLPC sponsorship is an idea we've explored here: http://www.olpcnews.com/sales_talk/donors/ OLPC has a donation section on the laptop.org website too: http://laptopfoundation.org/en/participate/

The proposal by Bono & Clinton is interesting, but I do not think its OLPC-related.

"the proposal process is providing a needed reality check on the program"

Great way of summarizing the current crisis faced by Negroponte's team.

While closely following this project since its inception a couple of years ago, I have always had the impression that Negroponte completely overlooked the paradox in his strategy: he (rightfully) anticipated that his basic offer ("a fully functional laptop for $100") was so shockingly attractive that most people would not question his claims or the absence of an implementation plan. The paradox is that with the project being so attractive to so many people, questions would inevitably come, something we are seeing today.

I personally feel that this project will fail because it has concentrated on the hardware/price ratio exclusively. How to incorporate these laptops into a child's education has not been a concern for Negroponte to this day, but reality is setting in; sooner or later, people always ask the obvious question: "How do we use this thing?"

In between complete failure and complete success of a project is a wide range of different mixtures.

At the moment to me it does not look like OLPC is directly heading for complete failure. But in the current state it looks like it might not realize the full educational potential that the countries pay for.

In my opinion OLPC's success is not so much determinded by the size of the first production batch. The real success criterion is whether new countries are going to order more XO's for a second batch in one year's time because they've seen facts about the positive education effect the XO's have created in the initial countries. If that feedback is only mediocre or the results are not quantifiable then there might never be a second batch. Only then OLPC might see complete failure.

So even when now surprisingly only 1 or 1.5 mio units are ordered for the first batch that would not be the end of OLPC. Although it would be a slap in the face of OLPC's leader such a crisis could also be a chance. It could justify a further delay of a half or a full year giving the educational ministries and OLPC time to mutually advance progress in implementation, course planning, interactive learning content, score measurement etc.

Then the educational success would be much more likely and so would be further orders and the overall success of the OLPC project.

> wonder what the potential is for some organised effort from
> developed countries to contribute towards an OLPC implementation
> for some target countries. At times it seems the will is there.

Geez, so the idea is to get US foreign aid money to pay for these things?! How convenient - Negroponte can just look cute and important on stage to US intelligentsia. The recepient countries wouldn't have to pay for it, so of course they'll take them. The donor governments can glow in their "own" generosity.

The losers? Taxpayers, for getting stuck with the bill; and the children, if the device does not live up to the hype.

troy:

"How to incorporate these laptops into a child's education has not been a concern for Negroponte to this day, but reality is setting in; sooner or later, people always ask the obvious question: "How do we use this thing?"

Actually, oplc has an approach to this, it is just an unconventional one. In oplc's constructionist philosophy, children are natural learners, and so what you need to do is give them the circumstances that encourage and make possible self-motivated learning. That is what the oplc hardware and softward are designed to do, and the role of teachers is to be co-learners with the students. Furthermore, the specifics of how this will be carried out have been left to each country to determine according to its unique situation.

As to how well all this will work in practice remains to be seen, but it is not at all as if olpc has simply neglected the question of implimentation. There is a lot on this in the various transcripts at oplctalks.com.

As to the idea that the project is failing because only maybe half the original goal will be met, I think that is the wrong way of looking at it. The original goal was extrordinarily high. World production of laptops is 47 million a year, from what I understand. Even 2.5 million the first year would make it the most popular single model in the world, an extrordinary achievement.

Nonetheless, Roland is quite right that the real question is how well things go in the first year of deployment. I wonder what criteria the education ministries in the various pioneer countries will be using to evaluate success?

Eduardo wrote:

"Actually, oplc has an approach to this, it is just an unconventional one. In oplc's constructionist philosophy, children are natural learners, and so what you need to do is give them the circumstances that encourage and make possible self-motivated learning."

That sounds pretty good...until you realize that we have NO EVIDENCE WHATSOEVER that this OLPC machine constitutes "the circumstances that encourage and make possible self-motivated learning".

That's why every rational person would expect Negroponte to VALIDATE (through a few pilot projects throughout the world) his nice-sounding theories before any poor country shells out the money.

"That is what the oplc hardware and softward are designed to do, and the role of teachers is to be co-learners with the students. "

Once again, it sounds good. What about making sure that "the OLPC harware and software" can actually do what they are "designed to do" by conducting a few tests before anyone buys?


"Furthermore, the specifics of how this will be carried out have been left to each country to determine according to its unique situation. "

I don't think people are buying this thing without a clear implementation plan. Yes, there might be a corrupt/ignorant country biting the bullet, but most countries will not fall for this "blind offer".

"As to how well all this will work in practice remains to be seen, but it is not at all as if olpc has simply neglected the question of implimentation. There is a lot on this in the various transcripts at oplctalks.com."

That's exactly why the pilot programs are needed!

"As to the idea that the project is failing because only maybe half the original goal will be met, I think that is the wrong way of looking at it. The original goal was extrordinarily high. World production of laptops is 47 million a year, from what I understand. Even 2.5 million the first year would make it the most popular single model in the world, an extrordinary achievement. "

The project is falling because there are no takers. And there are no takers because responsible, knowledgeable people are not getting clear answers for the obvious questions. Who's going to buy something NOBODY has seen working? (and no, a couple of pictures of poor kids holding a laptop DOES NOT amount to proof that this project will deliver its goals in fact, Negroponte's record with this project is one of not delivering much: almost twice the price, no implementation plan, delayed production schedule, un-tested features and hardware, incomplete software, etc., etc.).

troy say:

> Yes, there might be a corrupt/ignorant country biting the bullet, but most countries will not fall for this "blind offer".

What country you talking about? The Enrol/Worldcom/Bush country?

troy,
I share your concern about the uncertainty of the implementation more than that about hard- and software.
Compared to the much better level of information OLPC provides about the development progress with HW/SW there is vanishingly little about teaching content and classroom integration. No surprise that many outsiders become skeptic and suspicious.

Eduardo is right that there are some (vague) hints on that in the transcripts. But even with those hints it's like trying to see the picture with just a few given mosaic stones. The picture that I see at present is rather discomforting. And it is unsure whether more mosaic stones would make a more comforting picture or whether they'd confirm the discomforting one.

Maybe OLPC is not publishing the full picture because some countries are also discomforted with OLPC's proposals of implementation. Perhaps that could be another explanation of the delayed and maybe less numerous orders. But lacking solid information this remains guesswork.

Why not inform the public? Of course this would create a public debate. But usually more good than bad things come from a well informed public debate. If there are sound supporting facts the public might as well support even an unconventional new teaching method. To push something through without convincing facts and without public support is risky because often the people are not so stupid and - acting together - quite powerful.

Roland wrote:

"The picture that I see at present is rather discomforting."

Well said, Roland.

Thanks Troy for being the voice of reason in this debate. A lot of the OLPC project is still pretty much wishful thinking - we need proven results and a decent implementation plan to even start seriously discussing if poor countries should shell their scarce money to buy XOs.

By the way, has anyone seen anything about the "XO server"? Negroponte promised that they were going to be manufactured in Brazil, but it looks like they are all vaporware at this point.

José Antonio Meira Rocha, I don't know which country troy was referring as "corrupt/ignorant", but Lula in Brazil fits quite well in both labels.

Marcus,

Here's the school server detail we've been able to find: http://www.olpcnews.com/countries/brazil/one_server_per_school.html While not 100% vaporware (they have one server running in Cambridge now) there isn't a production-level spec or real design that we know of.

I agree with the general drift of comment here. What is becoming clear is that the OLPC is a not the solution but a starting point for development. This project needs to be handled in a sensitive way. Different needs and cultures must be addresses properly. Only then will the One Laptop Per Child project be a success. Right now is an exciting time for technology, particularly mobile technology covering laptops, mobile phones and PDAs. Also the web and they way they all work with the web.

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