The Real OLPC Debate: Laptop Project vs. Education Project

OLPC Harvard debate
Your take on the debate?

Jeremy Allison's "laptop to change the world" article reports on the reception given the OLPC laptop at the FOSDEM (Europe's free/open source developer's conference). The report is mostly about the design of the hardware and software, but it includes a brief aside addressing criticism of the project as he understands it:

Critics of the OLPC project focused on two things. Firstly, that developing countries need development, food and medical aid, not laptops. Secondly, that what they describe as "cut-down computers" are patronizing to people there.

To answer the first point, the goal is to provide education, not simply computers. Educated people don't stay poor people for long, and lack of education is behind many of the developing world's problems. The second point shows how little people in the first world -- myself included -- understand the infrastructure of the developing world.

Unfortunately, reducing the criticism to these points ignores the arguments aimed at the core assumptions of the project - assumptions that generally go unchallenged in the discussion of the hardware and software specifications.

I am Lee Felsenstein and I believe that we need to examine the contradiction between Negroponte's rhetoric ("it's an education project - not a laptop project") and his actions.

If OLPC were indeed an education project then it would proceed from the basis of an analysis as to what is wrong with education in the developing world and how it could be fixed. There would be copious and detailed references to research results, there would be pilot studies under way and a coherent argument would be advanced as to how the laptop or some other system - not just a device - would function to attain the desired results. There would even be discussion and argument as to what the desired results are and how they would be measured.

All this would be required if it were in fact "an education project". But what is happening? The whole effort rests upon a few anecdotal observations by Nick, some parables by Papert, and the boundless zeal of many computer geeks who know - just know - that if only laptops with cute user interfaces could "pop out of the box" into the hands of kids everywhere the world would be "A Much, Much Better Place"*.

OLPC debate
The central focus: laptops

Despite the disclaimer by Nick we are indeed presented with a laptop project. It was announced as such ("the $100 laptop!"), promoted using Nick's matchless political connections (just try to get the UN Secretary General to introduce your new product before the world press) and it coasts along on a cloud of unspoken technological totemism.

Walter Bender came into the project as "Chief Education Officer" quite late in the game - leading to a suspicion that an educational veneer is being added. If it were indeed an education project someone like him would have been the first person hired.

OLPC is a system project, with all kinds of systems problems, none of which will be solved or even addressed just by turning on the money flow to factories in Taiwan. If OLPC were a commercial project it would be facing some very tough questions from the "due diligence" investigators that show up with any attempt to secure funding. Deflecting those questions by saying (explicitly or otherwise) "what's the matter - are you against kids having laptops?" won't make the systems problems go away.

Thank heaven the people at OLPC Nepal aren't paying attention to Nick's way of doing things. They are actually constructing a curriculum for the laptop, based upon the existing curriculum, and are not expecting the machine to do away with the need for a curriculum. In doing so they are fitting the laptop into their educational system and are creating the chance that kids will actually benefit from the technology. And even if the laptop is never available as intended, the curriculum work could be realized on whatever platform becomes available.

In summary - think system - don't just think device! (I say this as a device designer).

Lee Felsenstein
Fonly Institute

* "A Much, Much Better Place" is title of a book of cartoons on computer themes by Dedini published by Microsoft Press in 1985. One cartoon shows an African leader exiting a plane and proclaiming "software will save my people".

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While I am on the whole supportive of oplc, I have to admit there are some real questions about the educational model, as Lee explained. Where is the research?

By the way, does anyone know how Seymour Papert is doing?

The book title should be "A Much, Much Better World", (I somehow left out the leading "A").

The OLPC as a system is a superb e-book reader. When kids do not have to have printed books but can use them from their laptop, it does not take that many books to pay for the project.

There is this economic notion that where there is a supply, there will be a demand. With the OLPC system becoming available, there will be a big demand for Free educational software. There is already a wealth of such. What is needed is the bringing together of this software. Giving the scale of the OLPC project it is doable. Giving that this a truly unencumbered piece of hardware with a matching price, it will do a wealth of good for Free educational software.. There is a HUGE demand and there is a lot of software waiting to be localised, waiting to be adapted. It being Free, it can be localised and adapted.


Gerard wrote:

>>>The OLPC as a system is a superb e-book reader. When kids do not have to have printed books but can use them from their laptop, it does not take that many books to pay for the project.

There is this economic notion that where there is a supply, there will be a demand. With the OLPC system becoming available, there will be a big demand for Free educational software. There is already a wealth of such. What is needed is the bringing together of this software. Giving the scale of the OLPC project it is doable. Giving that this a truly unencumbered piece of hardware with a matching price, it will do a wealth of good for Free educational software.. There is a HUGE demand and there is a lot of software waiting to be localised, waiting to be adapted. It being Free, it can be localised and adapted.

This is the exact type of rethoric that the original post criticizes: a lot of assertions based on...NOTHING!

How can it be true that "where there is a supply, there will be a demand"?

If that were true, no business would ever fail.

The rest of your post goes downhill from there: a lot of conclusions based on empty/false premises.

I presume the project initiators have some education model feedbacks from the projects with conventional laptops they previously set in various places like in Cambodia.

This computer is cute. I hope they will rapidly set a distribution system for westeners, like the 2 for 1 system through Ebay promised by N. Negroponte (you pay 2, get one and one go the sponsored child). Even at 300$ + shipping, it's still bang for buck (I like the screen, the wifi ears, the size, the autonomy and the fanless feature).

As to what the kids would do with such a computer, I don't worry much. In the 80s, I was given a ZX81 with a huge RAM capacity of... 1 kbyte (extended to 16 k bytes), "mass" storage on a tape, the family TV as the monitor and I spent days writing Basic and assembler programs and learning computer way before knowing sophisticated maths or mastering reading. All by myself, no teacher or IT courses at school. Many IT professional may have knowned those glorious times, lol.

Imagine now what a network of millions of kids can do with OLPCs, not to say when they'll be connected to the web with its huge information resources.

The frightening thing would be the unexpected consequences on the authority relationships between teachers and children. I hope we haven't opened a pandora box but in any case, the march is on.


So essentially you're point is that governments should spend hundreds of millions of dollars on OLPC because:

1. They might have some feedback from Cambodia
2. The laptops are cute
3. Kids will probably find some use for it
4. OLPC is coming anyway


"I presume the project initiators have some education model feedbacks from the projects with conventional laptops they previously set in various places like in Cambodia"

And what if that feedback shows that Papert's constructivist model of education doesn't work? I agree with you that there are lots of good things about olpc, but there really should have been research done beforehand.

A poster I once saw shows Linus, the intellectual kid from Schulz' comic strip "Peanuts" proclaiming: "No problem is so big or complicated that it cannot be run away from".

I think we're seeing a lot of that in and around the OLPC project. Witness Frederic's closing comment "I hope we haven't opened a pandora's box but in any case, the march is on".

This is a great example of technological determinism - the philosophy that things happen because the technology makes them happen, and that people with their messy political and personal motivations do not enter into the picture.

Neither Federic nor I are lemmings, and if "the march is on" we still have the responsibility to step back, apply our critical faculties and not remain silent when we discover that things are not as represented. Those who do remain silent should reflect upon Dante's statement that "the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of moral crisis, remain neutral".

I urge Frederic and everyone else to think critically and fearlessly, to understand that we are collectively the creators of our machines and not driven by them. If there's a Pandora's box about to be opened, we must bring our thinking to bear upon that situation and try to prevent or mitigate it. Not to do so will be reprehensible.

Lee Felsenstein

I don't see where I may made you think I don't "think critically et fearlessly". And I didn't say we are about to open a Pandora box. NOBODY knows how it will end up, just like the internet inventors or the first cellular manufacturer didn't know how thing would be ten years later.

The OLPC must be weighed in terms of cost versus benefits. To me, costs (in any sense) are far outweighed by benefits. Nothing scientific about this, just a POV like any others.

But I understand that people who are against the project since its inception don't see this that way. Collective polarization works both way ;) .

@ Wayan
My points were

1. There ARE educational feedbacks from Cambodia and maybe some other places
2. The laptops are cute
3. Kids WILL find uses for it, not only in education
4. OLPC is coming anyway

Wonderful, Frédéric, I am glad to know there ARE educational feedbacks from Cambodia. Mind sharing them with us? Educational feedback from controlled experiments with clear and objective measurements.

The only educational feedback publicized so far are a few anecdotes from Nicholas Negroponte about increased attendance and screens lighting homes. Not enough to stake a $150 million minimum buy on by any measure.

Indeed, if there is anything other than unsubstantiated anecdote from the Cambodia laptop experience, please (someone) do tell.

I have been able to find precious little (actually nothing) other than unsubstantiated anecdote.

Andy Carvin blogged a little about this a long time ago at

"Negroponte told the story of building schools in Cambodia. He gave students laptops to bring home, but they came back the next day, the laptops unused. Their parents would not let them use them because they were worried they'd break it. The students went back home with a note saying they didn't have to worry about the cost of the laptops; the parents loved them because they were the brightest lights they had in the home. In the first three years, only one laptop out of 50 broke (though all the AC adapters died). "Why is that? It's because of ownership. The kids polished them, made bags for them; they certainly wouldn't get broken."

Way back in 2000 there was a report from an American volunteer at the 'Elaine and Nicholas Negroponte School' in Cambodia:

Support for this school was/is certainly laudable. But it is rather specious to extrapolate from an isolated experience in rural Cambodia using uncorroborated anecdotes to justify massive investments in laptops for 'educational' purposes.

Maybe more to the point would be the results from the Maine Laptop Technology Initiative, the other project often cited as offering 'proof' for the OLPC concept?

The MLTI is, according to a press release on its web site, "still considered the single largest 1:1 educational technology program in the world" ... “The strength of the program is that the focus is on education. This is an educational project, not a technology project.” (Sounds familiar! The project was actually prompted by a discussion that the Maine governor had with Seymour Papert about the need for 1-1 computing to transform education.)

The last evaluation reports I have seen on MLTI are from back in 2005; you can find them on the University of Southern Maine web site at

There are some good things here. But most of the 'impact' cited here is based on student and teacher perceptions of how things have changed since the introduction of the initiative. Change in perceptions is an important thing to measure, but it is rather dodgy to use this a simple proxy for actual change in behavior (let alone change in outcomes!). This is not to denigrate the work done at USM -- many other evaluations of computer use in education suffer the same limitation. (And it is not my intent here to criticize the MLTI either!) But this hardly offers compelling guidance for a department of education in a 'developing country' to spend over $100 million in scarce resources on the OLPC.

If/when the OLPC actually does get rolled out somewhere, I do hope that it will be accompanied by a rigorous, independent, longitudinal monitoring and evaluation study (or series of studies). The OLPC people don't have far to look for guidance here: MIT's own Poverty Action Lab is a pioneer in using randomized studies to gauge impact. The scale of the OLPC roll-outs apparently planned would offer an ideal laboratory for the type of independent, randomized research that the Poverty Action Lab (and others) champion.

Wow: Now *that* would be revolutionary!

Sorry I may seem confrontational but I don't understand your point. You or I can speculate whatever we want about feedback, usefulness, appropriateness or any fitness, NOBODY can prove anyone of us wrong (how can anyone define an education feedback level qualified as "sufficient"). Nobody can prove any of our predictions wrong accept time.

What's arguable is facts.
Fact is the OLPC is being fabricated in huge numbers.
Fact is a lot of geeks is gathering to provide content nobody would ever dream of 1 year ago.
Fact is orders have been passed for the first million OLPC.
Fact is the majority of people (as far as I can't see the interviews, even on your rather "cautious" blog) who have seen the OLPC love the computer and the concept.
Fact that a kid can use an OLPC without monitoring for plenty of tasks, reading, learning mathematics or a foreign language, discovering hobbies or why not programming (like I did in the 80's with the antiquated ZX81).
The rest is wild guess, don't you think ?

BTW, the "minimum" order of 150 M$ may seem impressive on a personal scale. But on a governement or UN scale, with payment spread over several years, why not with a 5% credit rate the World Bank would be glad to grant, it's a trifle. I don't find it a really valid counter-argument against the OLPC.


All your facts point to one giant assumption: that OLPC is the best use of $150 minimum per child. I would say that its a fact that the best use of educational spending - any amount of it - is on motivating and training one dedicated teacher per classroom.

And if you think the money is a trifle, you might want to run the numbers for Nigeria. 73% of the entire government's income isn't trifle to Nigerians.

The reason why ethnographic studies, pilot projects and rigorous, peer-reviewed analysis exist is to reduce or remove the element of wild guesswork. Without them the facts Frederic cites reduce simply to: "we're doing it because we're doing it - besides, it'll be fun".

Living with the results, though, may not be as much fun. I assert that OLPC won't deliver on its stated goals - reduction of poverty through improved education - and there will be reactions to this as well as to other consequences. It will eat up money available for computer-based projects in the developing world and will poison the well of public and organizational perception about all such projects.

Back to basics - if you see something and you want to convince other to build something based upon what you see, you are expected to write a report describing the events, listing the raw data, and stating your conclusions in order to convince others of the validity of your conclusions. The fabled Cambodia experience has never been documented this way - that has been stated to me in front of others by Mihail Bleitsas. So no more need be said about it - the information is not available except through Nick's selective anecdotal retelling.

Every chance I get I try to ask OLPC advocates to show me where the data, arguments and conclusions on the educational aspects of OLPC can be found. I've had no success so far.

Frederic, the burden is not on others to prove OLPC's assertions wrong (have you not heard that proving a negative is impossible?) - it lies on them to prove their assertions correct. A critical thinker must pursue the truth with the best tools at hand - not simply argue that the proposition has not been disproved.

And to say "what can we do - it's going to happen anyway?" is to give up the only tool one has - the ability to analyze, construct and test arguments and to communicate one's conclusions.

I perceive this as an educational project, not a "how cheap can we build a laptop" project.

I'm amused by how some people consider food and medicine to be the only things people need. If we can improve education, then eventually we'll stop having to throw food and medicine at residents of the third world, as they'll be armed with the skills to solve their own problems.

Being able to feed and treat people is one thing, but education is incredibly important too. It's hard for people to make a contribution in life if they don't know anything.

My question is, why is this project not also being aimed at the United States? *I* went to school with plenty kids that didn't have a computer, and that was during the '90s (I'm 22 years old). I would like to see projects like this aimed at aiding students in the 'States as well. While the U.S. is often referred to as the "World's Richest Nation", many of us live in poverty.

Hi Lee,

Long time no see.

Do I detect a note of sour grapes, because governments aren't interested in your overdesigned computers for the poor? Come on. You could be improving the OLPC XO design instead of crabbing about it.

You cite these criticisms:
"Critics of the OLPC project focused on two things. Firstly, that developing countries need development, food and medical aid, not laptops."

No, they need development, food, and medical aid, *and* laptops.

Laptops are cheaper than textbooks, and provide content not just for one set of courses but for everything a child or the child's community might want to know about. They are also vehicles for development, by giving access to markets, market information, and production technologies. (I, as a contractor, would not be able to function in Silicon Valley as I do without access to the job listing service.) Laptops provide food by giving access to agricultural information, better markets for selling crops, and trade opportunities to create more balanced diets. They provide extensive medical and public health information, and access to public health services and doctors. Most of all, they provide a voice in the conversation about our shared future, and in the governance of their countries and the world.

"Secondly, that what they describe as "cut-down computers" are patronizing to people there."

Well, if these people prefer cursing the darkness to teaching people to make candles, on the grounds that the rich countries use electric light, that's their problem. "A good designer knows that he is finished not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."--Antoine de St. Exupery

"If OLPC were indeed an education project then it would proceed from the basis of an analysis as to what is wrong with education in the developing world and how it could be fixed."

This is quite insultingly patronizing to the poor, and to the educators and researchers who have laid the foundations for OLPC over decades of work, including Alan Kay and Seymour Papert. Yes, we and the poor do know what is wrong with education in the developing countries, and it is unethical not to provide the remedies.

* They can't afford information. The laptop gives them access to the Internet, to free education materials such as those developed by Commonwealth of Learning for distance education, to Free Software, to Free Textbooks, and to Free Journals.

* They have no way to talk to the rest of the world. The laptop gives them e-mail, the Web, chat, Webcams, VoIP,...

* Children in many countries are subject to kidnapping (for war or sex), murder, genocide, mutilation, rape, collateral damage, sale (for labor or sex), sweatshops, domestic violence, disease, starvation and malnutrition, the depradations of corrupt governments, terrorist recruitment, orphanages, refugee camps, and a multitude of other sins. They need to be able to talk to us about these issues, and show us on their Webcams.

* Largely due to government economic mismanagement, there are no jobs in many countries for successful graduates. Laptops provide access to international markets.

Apart from that, there are dedicated teachers and bright, hungry children everywhere eager to learn if they can get the chance. Until they get trained out of it, little children are absolute sponges for learning skills and information. Parents everywhere want peace, and opportunity for their children, and are prepared to make considerably sacrifices for them.

“The ideal college is Mark Hopkins at one end of a log and a student at the other.” Now we will be able to run a log from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Winneba, Ghana, or Cox's Bazaar, Bangladesh.

I offer you the same challenge I make to all the naysayers and doom-criers, including our host Wayan Vota: Put up or shut up. If you can do better, show us. What's your plan for educational research, and educational software, and textbooks, and economic opportunity, and health, and all the rest? OLPC has a plan, whether you approve of it or not, and six countries have so far recognized that OLPC is the only game in town, or more accurately, on Earth. I happen to like their odds.

I understand that this point was taken under a scientific approach. I might mention the pharmaceutics industry that takes years doing scientific studies and tests to release a new drug in the market. Because science will give then enough evidence to defend the industry of been sued if the drug goes wrong. Nevertheless, thousands of people die because the drug has not reached them, but they can not sue the industry for not providing it, because in any case the drug does not "exists" yet. Well in the educational point of view we could make a research to see if books make any kind of difference in education.

We keep some test communities without books for ten years and provide books to a selected test set. Then we can make a vast research report telling the benefits and misuse of books. If this tests were made in any developing country the result will not recommend the books because a large amount of them does not reach the children. They are been traded even as recycling material by the local authorities responsible to supply the books to their schools. Although this being the case here in Brazil, the government insists in spending three hundred million dollars each year to provide seven million children with educational books.

Well, I do not think that the scientific studies to prove the book efficiency in education were made. Instead this money is being spent without any further prove of result of investment, just for an empirical belief that schools might not work well without books. If this is just the case, the laptop is a very economical alternative to paper books. Paper books can barely resist five years use, and after one year it is already in a bad condition, not to mention phased out information for a fast changing world. The laptop, as being designed, can reach a ten to twenty years life span.

Well, I myself have a CoCo 64 bought in 1985 and it is still working. Just to replace the books the laptop would repay itself in five years. But the laptop is not just a book replacement, it is a passport for freedom. Of course this is central point, the most controversial one, the one that engages the most opponents to the project. Is the first world ready to outlive freedom? Just tell me, is MIT so clever that it outwitted all the big computer industry into making a hundred dollar laptop? If they really wanted they could come even with a fifty dollar one.

With all this technology, why computers do not drop price? Because they must not. The five hundred line is devised to keep undeveloped countries out of the reach of computer education. If I say India it will be enough to understand the issue. But OLPC is not just a cheap machine, it is a free machine. Free of energy supply companies, telecoms, software vendors, government restrictions for freedom of thought. Well, this is frightening, isn't it?

One freedom is left to conquer, the hardware vendor. But when the big ones realize that this can not be stopped any more, they will come with their offers. Countries educated with the laptop can even make their own. But the article has still a very good point to question, the central point. Where is education in the laptop? Is it not the central point in the laptop proposition? Why it has been left behind? This is in fact another point of freedom in this laptop.

It does not come packed wit any educational content and indeed very few educational software. It is up to each country to provide its own content and software, respecting the local culture. Go to OLPC page and see that they are providing funding for that. I, myself, am amassing my students at University of Rio de Janeiro to provide software and content fit to our local needs.

Will it work? Will it really make any difference in education? I really don't know, but I am not waiting for the scientific test. People in Brazil are hungry and sick for knowledge, and I am willing to give out this untested medicine.

Carlo Oliveira, UFRJ (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro)


I can see how Brasil desperately needs the OLPC project, with universities having "professors" of your intellectual caliber...

Enough said.

Edward Chernin: No, they need development, food, and medical aid, *and* laptops.

You forgot "education". As OLPC do not fail to mention at every turn; this is an education project, not a laptop project.

Moreover, may I remind you that - until proven otherwise - laptop!=education.

Troy, I hope you're not one of the OLPC critics who complains that the OLPC project is patronizing of developing countries, because then you'd be a enormous hippocrate after making such a patronizing statement like that. "Enough said."

As the dude said: put up or shut up! What is your better solution? Where do you draw the line at witholding the technology until it's scientifically proven? Do you refuse to let your own kids use computers until conclusive results proving their efficacy are published in peer reviewed journals? How much of your own time and money have you put into carrying out or supporting the extremely expensive, difficult and time consuming research that you and Lee are calling for? I am all for academic research and scientific studies, but please don't trivialize the work of Seymour Papert and Alan Kay, who have taught kids how to program, and invented the future we currently live in.

Before you blithely insult all univerity professors in Brazil again, you should take a look at the amazing Lua programming language, which was developed at the Computer Graphics Technology Group of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

According to the Debian Computer Language Shoot-Out, Lua is one of the fastest AND smallest dynamic interpreted scripting language, hands down. Lua has been widely adopted by the computer game industry because it's so efficient and easy to integrate (see World of Warcraft, for example), and it's used in many other scriptable applications (like Wireshark and Adobe Lightroom). Lua totally smokes JavaScript. JavaScript was developed at Netscape, deep in the cargo-cult worshipping cess-pool of the Silicon Valley dot-com culture, with no regard to proper language design or implementation efficiency, the bastardized result of a political game, a reaction to the Java Juggernaut. Maybe rich people in the first world dot-com bubble can afford to piss away their dual-core fan-cooled mega-mips on incredibly inefficient AJAX applications interpreting layers of JavaScript, CSS and XML.

But developing countries like Brazil, without countless resources to piss away, are able to appreciate the value of sleek efficient design. Maybe that's why the OLPC's low power consumption and open software appeals to them. Can you propose a better design that's more efficient and open?

I sense the need to point out to Ed Cherlin and others that I do not necessarily endorse criticism of OLPC that are included in articles I quote. I got a lot of back-talk about "what people need" when I was developing and seeking funding for the Jhai system (that Ed calls "overdesigned".

I recommend that Ed looks at my blog, wherein I discussed many of these issues, before letting loose on me here. You can find it at Start at the beginning (a link is provided) and follow through to Dec. 2006. Anyone interested in my motivations will find an explanation that I hope will be adequate - I don't feel the need to repeat it here.

Please note the entry on "Alan Kay Comes Through", all those who brandish his name to banish criticism. Kay's five-layer hierarchy of design is something you should all examine when considering whether OLPC is being done right.

I am pressed for time right now but will return to discuss some of the other comments.

I'll bite, Don. Here's my "better solution" for the target countries:

Keep your money until this OLPC project has determined how these laptops will serve their intended purpose of helping kids achieve a better education. Keep your money until you make sure these laptops will work as advertised.

All we have, so far, is the nebulous: "kids will learn learning".

More is needed, as any reasonably objective person will notice.

It really annoys me that people ignore the obvious.
On-line learning is a reality right now. Millions of people with internet enabled computers take courses with on line Universities and study any of several thousand different subjects.

Why is that so different to a classroom of students with XO laptops working their way through maths, science, language, chemistry?

It also seems that MIT has now put most of their courses on-line for people to use for free. I'd bet a lot of that course material is likely to find its way into OLPC Servers.

I have pointed this out several times now: Brazil is doing a pilot project in April independently of how the OLPC people feel about this issue. 1000 each of the XO, Classmate, Mobilis and off the shelf laptops will be distributed to various schools and the results will be compared with each other as well as schools as they are now.

I wish this were a bit more scientific (the different machines will be going to very different regions of Brazil making direct comparisons more complicated) and am not sure that what will be seen in a month or two will be representative of what will happen over five years or more. But it is better than nothing and should provide some of the data people are asking for in the previous comments.

I think it's great that Brazil will do a side-by-side comparison and evaluate the results. I just hope that the country doesn't have to commit hundreds of millions of dollars to get their hands on any OLPC laptops. I hope that other countries will await the results before making their commitment. I can imagine what OLPC people will be saying about this prospect, though.

Surely you don't mean to imply that the existing courseware from MIT and other universities is sufficient to serve the elementary school children of many countries who are neither proficient in English nor familiar with the Roman alphabet.

Remember, Nick is making the assertion that the kids will just pick up the laptops and "learn learning" with no assistance from teachers or any adults. My argument is that it will require much more preparation than that. Note that I have congratulated OLPC Nepal for starting work on a curriculum of courseware for their children, unwilling as they are to accept Nick's nihilistic pedagogy.

I don't believe that I am arguing that computers should be "withheld" from kids until scientific proof is obtained of their efficacy. There's a big difference between "witholding" and "not imposing" laptops on populations of children. The difference is participation by adults in the decision to shift the educational curriculum from teachers to the laptops.

Lee Felsenstein

Troy says: "Keep your money until you make sure these laptops will work as advertised."

OK, then how you define "sure"? How much research is required to make "sure" of anything? How much money would it cost to make "sure", and how do you balance spending money on research on finding the optimal solution, versus spending money actually trying to solve the problem the best way we currently know how?

Why wait until you're "sure" before doing anything? Do you (or would you) prohibit your kids from using computers because you're not 100% "sure" they're useful?

I am "sure" that current laptops suck down power like SUVs, and that current operating systems are much too complex and bloated, and poorly integrated with the hardware, and that current applications are enormously wasteful and inefficient. None of those layers work together to save any time or memory or electricity.

And I'm "sure" that the OLPC is a big step in the right direction.

In the real world, we have to try things out, learn from our errors, and adapt to what happens. You can't just sit it out until you think of the perfect solution, because then you never learn anything from experience.

Not making efficient educational laptops until we can scientifically prove some particular educational theories is as silly as staying in Iraq for years until we dream up the perfect way to win the war without admitting we made a mistake, just because we're afraid to give comfort to the enemy by leaving.

If you really think it's better to do nothing until you dream up and validate the perfect solution in the laboratory (without any practical experience in the field), you should read Richard Gabriel's "Worse is Better" paper, titled "Lisp: Good News. Bad News. How to Win Big".

Lee, I use the MIT OpenCourseWare as an example of On-Line Learning. In its English form its certainly beneficial to English speaking students.

I dont subscribe to the notion that kids will just pick up a laptop and 'learn learning'. Negroponte must have pulled that assertion out of his nether regions.

What I do believe in is courseware created by the country buying the laptops and integrating 'digital study' into their current curriculum. Vis-a-Vis Nepal. It is after all an 'education project' not a 'laptop project'.

Elementary school levels may benefit from 'computer play' rather than 'study' but I'm a firm believer in early education for children. The earlier the better.

I'd give anything for a study of pre-five-year-olds in a kindergarten with OLPC laptops. Maybe if Negroponte pulled his finger out and commissioned a few studies we'd have some concrete figures.


The word "sure" (within this context) means "having conducted the necessary studies to validate Negroponte's theories on education" (as Lee so clearly explained).

Contrary to Don's accusation, I'm not advocating "doing nothing" until some scientific proof is found of the laptop's validity. I'm advocating doing a whole lot more than OLPC claims is necessary (which is simply to design and produce the machine, and to convince ruling elites that mere possession of the laptop by children in quantity will somehow solve all their educational problems).

Robert and I have no disagreement - we both believe that someone (hopefully with the active cooperation of OLPC) should be putting the constructivist concept (and others) to the test and actually measuring results. This would be an engineering study and not an attempt to prove a grand scientific theory. Results would be subject to analysis and dscussion - studies with people as subjects are rarely unambiguous - and new approaches could be expected to emerge from this discussion.

But that will never happen if it remains up to Nick - he has drawn the line clearly - no "ridiculous" studies in advance of mass implementation. He is taking a purely political appoach to marketing the OLPC concept - convince the higher layers of governments that they will look bad if they do not jump on his bandwagon, avoid the need to demonstrate the validity of his claims and garner lots of corporate money with which to carry out the development.

The distance between hackers saying "I like it - I want it" and the shipment of tens and hundreds of millions of units to kids who have no clue what to do with them is vast. It can be bridged with either showmanship (Nick's method) or with investigation (as Robert and I advocate). The problem for Nick is that investigation may result in feedback that changes the design, as it should, and that would disrupt the parade that Nick is trying to lead.

I reiterate - OLPC Nepal is doing the right thing - but wouldn't it be much better if OLPC would allow their results to provide input to the design? Yes, this turns a flashy parade into a series of recursive backwaters, but that's what makes an industry work.

This is a fascinating discussion. I wish it is read by many of those involved in decision-making regarding this and any other tech-education project in the developing world.

While there are a significant number of criticisms raised by Lee and many others I fully agree with, there are some other issues that I think are missing from this particular conversation. For instance: exactly how does "Laptops provide access to international markets"? If considered that people's movement is restricted, that most of the production coming from the developing world is heavily burdened with safety regulations and/or underpriced from markets by cheaper products from industrial conglomerates from the developed world or the "new north" (China, India), and that the main reason for not accessing international markets are logistics and regulatory overheads, exactly what does "access to international markets" mean? Unless, of course, we're thinking about software jobs, but that's a extremely small real market and require qualifications beyond what can be achieved through this particular device.

There are other things, but my main, broad contention, is that there are many assumptions, made in good faith, about the potential societal and economic changes that the XO may bring, that come from an interpretation of local characteristics based from the writers' experience in developed countries that do not incorporate the particularities of developing nations' social and economic conditions.

Just my (first) two cents.

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Perhaps Eduardo will submit his very articulate position on the OLPC project:

It think it is very good.

What problems did you encouter persuading Nigeria Government from committing itself to "One Lap Top Per Child" study and subsequent purchase of the computers for every school-age child when mass produced?

I intend to mobilize Nigerians abroad to help persuade the Nigeria government to participate where applicable.


Lawrence I. Nwankwo

this project is very useful to the childrens. i want to have this laptop. how can i have it please send me some details so that it would help in my studies

thats great it will really help students like me