OLPC XO: A Cost Effective Violin

tam tam olpc
OLPC violin: Tam Tam

In his 60 Minutes interview, about One Laptop Per Child, Wayan Vota said:

If you hand a child a violin or a piano they can make noise with it, right? But will they be able to make music?

And if you give a child a computer they'll be able to operate the computer, but will they really be able to learn without having a teacher, whether it's formal, informal, to help them along that learning path?

This is an interesting analogy that Charbax took exception to:
OLPC is not like a violin. It's like a box that does all instruments in the world and lets the student listen to all the music in the world, watch all the learning video courses in the world, read all the theory in the world and record and upload recordings.

I'd say the teachers are like average violin players playing on not very tuned and old rusty violins. This may be approximate music that each teacher is playing in front of the class, but it would be much more educational for the child to access complete collections of all orchestra concertos, worldwide variety of artists and the ability to try and imitate the music that is being discovered.

I am Winter and I have a corollary view. Recently, there was an article in a local newspaper that summarized scientific evidence for educational effectiveness of different regimes. The result? The only aspect of education really supported by scientific evidence is the importance of teacher guidance. Student's own initiative and choice was a second, much weaker, positive factor. Shockingly, the "transfer" of learned subject matter to real life could be as low as 10%.

The One Laptop Per Child computers are meant for regions with a chronic teacher shortage. A teacher shortage that countries have been unable to alleviate for decades. Any call for spending OLPC money on more teachers should at the least tell us how to succeed where we failed in the last decades. As a result of the teacher shortage, the children in these regions get only half the hours of teacher guidance they need.

One solution to these problems would be to let one teacher guide twice as many pupils using more efficient communication methods. This is one area the XO will increase the efficiency of education. Another solution is to allow children to do more on their own, needing teacher guidance less often. This is the often derided "learning to learn" approach.

OLPC Brazil Teacher
Teachers are key to OLPC success

But it is clear, that if half the group can master a certain subject matter on their own, the teacher can devote twice as much time to those students that cannot master it on their own. So, the OLPC tries to increase teacher efficiency and other aspects of educational inefficiencies (eg, distribution of books).

The question to answer is, whether the OLPC is (cost) effective and efficient in reaching this goal. Another question is, whether there are cheaper and less risky alternatives. What I often see is people "questioning" specific aspects of the educational and cost models of the OLPC while ignoring the main question of educational efficiency. The real questions from an educational and economic development perspective are:

  • How much does the XO increase the school's efficiency?
  • Does this amount justify the cost?
Where these questions can be quantified by contact hours/pupil and their effectiveness, number of hours pupils can work without supervision, number of books and other materials available, etc.

The cost of distribution of school books in general and audio-visual material for specific subject matters can be compared between the OLPC and alternatives. That would be a very simple accounting exercise. Also the hours spent in the classroom answering questions could be compared with the same work done on a discussion board.

I really think the cost effectiveness of the XO in education can be quantified fairly straightforward without having to implement extremely costly and risky educational experiments. It is relatively easy to collect data on the use of on-line resources, electronic communication, and computer programs in developed countries like the USA and the Netherlands (to name only a two) by interviewing students. Teachers can be asked to estimate the relation on-line work/classroom work. The cost of the distribution of books and libraries is in the books.

Another question is why One Laptop Per Child hasn't done this? Now the OLPC is but a very small organization. And all the data are locked into the educational departments of the target countries. Brazil, Nigeria, and Nepal really do know the numbers, Negroponte does not. It is really the receiving countries that can, and should, do the summs.

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I'd advice the OLPCNews.com Editor to concentrate on quality - fewer articles, but better arguments for/against OLPC would be more welcome than the latest deluge of bizarre claims, twisted analysis and unsubstantiated rumors.

Rob Winter,
investigating the educational success is crucial. We all agree on that. But how to do it? You suggest to count teacher contact time as a measure of efficiency. But you could easily reduce teacher contact to have an increase of the efficiency figure if you do not care for reduced knowledge levels.

It is the measurement of the effectiveness of the learning method that must be measured before the efficiency. And given the quite different new learning method and different weighting between creative skills and traditional skills it is rather difficult to come up with a measurement method that fairly compares the achievement levels of both.

The measurement method even has an important philosophical side. Namely the question what skills really are going to matter during the adult lives of those pupils. Will those be the same skills that were thought to be the most important for our generation? I hope not because we already proved incapable to master some critical global problems and have to hand them on to the next generation. At least we should prepare our successors better to finally solve them. But how?

Are you looking for the right problem to a new solution?

The teacher guidance experience can also be digitized onto the laptops. I imagine one of the greatest ways to use a laptop would be to watch videos of teachers talking about all kinds of topics.

You simply have the XO-1 connect to Google Video, where the government would be uploading hundreds of classes about all topics tought by the countries best educators and taking into account the local language and style of living.

Also I think it would be very revolutionnary that teachers also can improve their actual teaching by using the computers, accessing that database of suggested classes that are produced by the government or that are made available by schools and universities worldwide.

Also Documentaries, educationnal cartoons, educational games, those I am sure can have a huge "teacher guidance" effect on children, as long as they are optimized for OLPC, that they are available to kids in a Video-On-Demand, Games-On-Demand 1-click interface, and that the full screen video system would be perfectly managed over the loca mesh network as well as lots of educational video content be uploaded everyday by satellite or broadband to the school 200GB server.

sam soliathan:
"...fewer articles, but better arguments for/against OLPC would be more welcome..."

I am sure the editor would welcome such article too. Please, send them if you can.

This post was written to point out an area that has been neglected in public discussions. For the receiving countries, the productivity increase is what pays for the laptop.

"It is the measurement of the effectiveness of the learning method that must be measured before the efficiency."

Of course. But you can easily compare subject matter test scores. For efficiency, we don't want to increase the level, but reduce the costs. That is easier to measure. And I would advice to start with good educational systems in the developed world. They are accessible (go ask your local school).

"Are you looking for the right problem to a new solution?"

Technology has been the basis for all productivity increases in history. Under-development (poverty) is a very complex problem. However, we do know that those countries that escape it did so at least partly by increasing the level of education. One obvious way of doing so, lacking more teachers, is to increase the productivity in teaching. The problem is very old, only the solution is new.

"The teacher guidance experience can also be digitized onto the laptops."

I am afraid that won't work. Children need humans to teach. Biologically speaking, this can even be seen as a species specific feature: Humans are animals that instruct their children. Even in the most modern and technological advanced of countries, it is still teachers that educate children.


The best way for OLPC News to "concentrate on quality" would be for you to submit a post for publication focusing on your views about One Laptop Per Child. New writers are always welcome.

Until then, we'll keep on with the status quo, which our 1,000+ readers a day find high-quality enough.

to watch now and then a good lecture on video is ok but it should not be the main way of learning because this would still be the old instructional style that has proven to be rather ineffective and deadly for creativity and independent thinking. What OLPC tries to establish is the constructional style.

I have a different understanding of the word guidance. For me this means individual help for each child's problems. Therefore, guidance cannot come from a video. It must be delivered in person.

What do you mean by "productivity in teaching"?

Ignacio wrote:
"What do you mean by "productivity in teaching"?"

Children * learning hours / teacher hours

That is, the net amount of hours of teaching per child times the number of children tought divided by the number of teacher's hours invested.

The idea is, to measure in some way the amount of time children are actually "improving", and by how much, versus the gross time teachers spend on working for the schools.

This can be operationalized as the time each child is effectively learning something (both in class and elsewhere), the numbers of children learning, and the gross amount of hours teachers work to teach these children.

Teacher's work hours includes everything teachers invest in the schools and education, eg, administrative duties, marking exams etc. The effective time children learn should exclude all time where the child is not doing anything useful for that child, eg, time waiting for a turn or listening to explanations of things it already mastered (the latter one is a tough one to measure). Ideally, it also excludes time spend on tests (but not the time preparing for them).

For a full model, the time spend should be replaced by the amount learned, or skill improvement. However, this is really hard to quantify on the short time. Proxy measures do exist, like standard test results.


I'm afraid nothing can really replace a good "live" teacher. However, sometims economics makes private music lessons impossible. No one ever said life is fair.

"I'm afraid nothing can really replace a good "live" teacher."

The conclusion would then be: We give up on these children.

I rather support the OLPC or any other organization that tries to improve their lot.


About way of learning, personal perspective:

I learned to count around 4 years old by my need to count my score in darts game. From that time on I have held opinion that teaching is best done from the question for learners problems or subjects of curiosity/interest. This is not matter of faith to me but indisputable fact from my own experience. I think it is quite similar to constructionist view.

What that means in class situation for teaching?

Role of teacher would be guidance of finding the topics and guiding group or individual creative process to start their work, overcoming problems and providing pointers to sources of information.

During the work teacher can help the group but also the knowledgeable student should help, maybe informal way. Also recognizing fast students skills as "Advisor of Subject_X" would be nice as children need recognition for their learning.

Group should present their work to the teacher and after to other students. Good presentation tool would be useful, but maybe sharing in the activity with whole class can suffice.

Teacher could take care that the works of student would cover the topics required by curriculum and that students learn the subjects from other groups, not only their own. Some commentary and discussion amongst the class would be desirable and building next group work on the result of previous works.

Teacher's time would be divided differently and advanced help teacher students could reduce the burden in bigger groups. Also natural learning in groups would spread the skills among the students.

Also teachers should gain in skills naturally and should not feel worse than "normal" lecturing style of teaching... and students sleeping or missing :-(

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