OLPC Doesn't Need a Global Business Case Challenge


One Laptop per Child Association will be gathering 300 MBA, graduate and undergraduate business students to develop innovative business cases for XO laptop deployment under the auspices of the Global Case Challenge. But I wonder why.

She doesn't need a business case

OLPC Business Case is Already Evident

The business case for OLPC has been clear for years now. Governments will buy computers for their students, ICT4E assessments be damned. They no longer question the need for computers - as Nicholas Negroponte himself says:

"So there's only one question on the table and that's how to afford it? That's the only question. There is no other question - it's just the economics."

Its Business Plan Execution That's Needed

With the business case now evident, let's talk about what OLPC really needs - business plan execution. Its not sexy, its not fun, and its not a party with 300 students. Its:

  1. A clear focus on execution: Drop the XO-3 distractions and get back to basics - leveraging developed world donors to support pilot deployments of XO-1 laptops, that secure volume sales to national governments.
  2. Positioning XO laptops in educational ecosystems: Enough with the dismissal of curriculum, content, and support - OLPC needs to be honest with itself and with its buyers. OLPC doesn't have the capacity to develop the supporting curriculum, content, or infrastructure for the XO, and recipient governments will need to increase their budgets well beyond $200 per laptop to pay for it
  3. Seed pilot projects: Pilots are what convince buyers to invest the millions that an OLPC deployment costs. So make it easy for governments, even NGOs and private groups to buy smaller lots of XO laptops (100-1000 computers) to test and try out.
  4. Work with exiting government processes: OLPC's most successful deployment to date - Uruguay - happened through a (mostly) transparent purchasing process. Replicate that process with other governments interested in computers for children at scale.

Yet, Christoph brings up a great point - what does a business plan for selling laptops have to do with an education project?

Where is the Education Case?

OLPC should be having a Global Education Case Challenge, where masters students and educational leaders build new learning models, pedagogy, and content. This is what is missing from OLPC's solution set - not a business case. Let's get Sugar out of perpetual beta. Populate it with clock-stopping hot activities that rival the XO hardware, tie in with national learning objectives, and come with extensive teaching guides and learning aids.

Or here is a wild thought - what about child-parent learning activities? Break down the usual barriers between elder and youth with innovative cross-generational exercises that reinforce extra-curricular XO laptop usage and ensure it's child-owned.

Any of these educational cases would be more valuable to student and OLPC than $250 attendance fees for business competitions in Boston, London, Shanghai and Dubai. OLPC doesn't need business advice - it needs to execute its existing business plan and build out its educational impact.

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"It's a business project, not a laptop project." ;-)

I agree for the most part, they need to execute instead of dreaming. It is pretty clear they released XO-3 concepts only to counter-act the buzz about the CherryPal laptops.

I think along with execution they need to cut the political crap (ex. Microsoft, XO-3, $99 laptop promises, etc...).

Yes, its a business project, but the case is clear: students need cost-effective hardware that works and doesn't break to increase their opportunity to learn.

Negroponte and the OLPC team have made some great advancements, but they could be much more successful if the focus on reality.

Just my $0.02

The business case is closed.

XOs already cost less than textbooks in most countries, and textbooks are being replaced by Free Software and free electronic learning materials. See, for example, the Librarian Chick for what is presently available at no cost, and California Learning Resource Network for the California plan. Furthermore, we are told to expect $75 XO models within a year, for example in the Pixel Qi FAQ.

When can I buy a $75 laptop?

Pixel Qi has said that it believes a $75 laptop will be ready in 2010. However Pixel Qi isn't making a $75 laptop. We are making the screens.

Reinforcing that prediction, Pixel Qi has been developing a $100 HDTV player that requires less than 10 watts of power.


Even a cursory search of the Internet indicates that the annual cost of textbooks per child in a developing country is just a few dollars (e.g., $4 in Uganda, see "Modelling the Cost of Education in Uganda" by Ole Hagen Jørgensen of the Word Bank). The XO, in contrast, currently cost $200. If each machine lasts 4 years, and includes 10% per year costs for repairs, electricity, replacement batteries, etc., that comes out to $70 per child per year -- or more than 17 times the cost of textbooks.

Even with a $75 laptop, and an annual repair cost of 10%, the annual cost would still be more than 6 times the annual cost of textbooks -- and that doesn't even include any costs for infrastructure improvement (extending electricity or Internet connections to schools), teacher training, peripherals, etc.

As the saying goes, he who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense.

Yes, the idea of $200 textbooks in developing countries is obviously nonsense. The XO may cost less than a year's supply of textbooks for a first-world college student, but who cares? It's irrelevant to poor grade 3 children, and having an XO doesn't eliminate the need for textbooks (No, you can't just copy the books onto the XOs for free. The first world made sure copyright still exists in the third world.)

Good - So we need to get down to the norms of a new product launch:

1. What problem does your product solve? OK... this we see... low educational results in the developing world.

2. How does your solution solve that problem. OK give them a laptop. What about content? What about the curriculum? Who is gonna find that content? If the teacher just touched a computer for the first time do we really expect him/her to google up what's needed? Assuming they have a good enough net connection. And most don't. Connectivity is expensive without cheap fiber optic bandwidth.

Are we really solving the problem as it exists out there, or as we think it exists?

3. New product testing - normally has focus groups, interviews, etc. We then road test the new product with the customer and make sure that we round off all the edges. If we say that a tape player is the solution to learn a language, so where is the organized set of tapes tested with the prospective consumer?

New product testing should also lead to scientific evidence. Isn't it the same as medical drug testing, really? We have a new intervention, and we need to compare, against a control group, is this the thing that works to 'cure' the problem?

4. Once we've figured out ***all*** the parts of solving the customers problems (and that includes content, pedagogy, energy, etc) we make some really slick marketing materials. And paying for those marketing materials is legit, because if you don't, how are people gonna find out about it? How will we explain to the minister or donor what we have? Non profits routinely pay for publicity materials.

On what other basis could an organisation (government, donor, whatever) agree to pay for something? Reading the wiki is not quite sufficient.