The XO Files Part IV: New Years Resolutions for OLPC

The XO Files: I Want To Believe
The XO Files: I Want To Believe

The beginning of 2009 isn't going so well for the OLPC Foundation over at 1CC, with layoffs and very disappointing G1G1 sales.

To (finally) close up my "I want to believe" series on how things went wrong, and how things could go very right with the OLPC dream, let me offer some resolutions for the Foundation to consider for 2009.

I will decide on a mission statement
That is, "I will accept that OLPC is and has always been a laptop project, not an education project". And that's OK, if presented as such. The world needs a laptop like the XO, and it can still help improve education. But let's agree that the XO is a laptop and not an education miracle, and treat it as such - a wonderfully well-designed and flexible tool that can be used in many contexts in international development projects and in more quotidian ways as well. This opens up more "markets" for the XO, widens the potential scope, and creates a much larger and diverse user-base who can benefit from and contribute back to the ongoing development of the XO.

I will stop overreaching
Nicholas Negroponte, to extend the X-Files metaphor, is a Fox Mulder, and needs to find a Scully to temper his theories. The "refocusing" he discusses sells the achievements OLPC has made short and sets up a new round of unreachable goals:

  • Development of Generation 2.0
  • A no-cost connectivity program
  • A million digital books
  • Passing on the development of the Sugar Operating System to the community.

Christoph has already responded to these in the forums; my favorite is his response to the no-cost connectivity: ""no-cost". HAHAHA,"

But how about stopping with the distraction of the "Next Generation" product, add some incremental changes to the current system, and continue the work of lowering its price point and increasing the adoption of it? Further - a million ebooks, as Christoph also points out, is already the mission of existing projects. If you want to cling to the education mission statement, what about focusing on educational content for the XO instead? This supports the adoption rate by lowering the bar, and is closer to the core (but possibly forgotten and never really true) "education project" goals.

In 2009, OLPC should refocus, realizing that their strategy for improving education is to create the best laptop tool for education . OLPC should seek to partner with anybody and everybody to help get the XO in the hands of educators (and everybody else, I posit).

It's time to let go of the "my way or the highway" style of management and find innovative ways to get the XOs into the hands of children - through education ministries, on-the-ground, socially responsible vendors (think Grameen's Village Phone), international development efforts, and direct, simple sales. Which brings us to the next resolution.

I will sell the XO laptop commercially
So G1G1 didn't go so well this year, coming in at a mere 7% of last year's G1G1 even though it opened up the purchasing to more of the world and went through Amazon. While many blame the management, we also have to remember that there's a global financial slowdown impacting all sectors, and buying a $200 laptop for $400 isn't the easiest purchase to make. We can squarely blame the management of OLPC for their apparent misuse of the Give One side of the purchase for operations money instead of laptop donations (otherwise why would the 7% sales compared with last year matter so much as to cause so many layoffs and refocusing? I welcome anyone to figure out this math puzzle).

I strongly believe that the technology behind the XO is, as Wayan likes to put it, "clock-stopping hot." It's valuable. It's the best travel laptop on the market. Make a new form factor for it, or at least an adultish color scheme, optionally bump up the specs a slight bit, ship it with Ubuntu or pure-RH boot/install USB sticks, and market it to international travelers, hikers (with an extra solar panel charging kit!), parents, kitchen warriors (it makes a great Internet/ station in the kitchen), geeks (probably almost saturated market there), and people who just want a reliable, sturdy, and lightweight laptop/netbook.

Drop the Give-one part and sell the damned thing for a modest profit that OLPC can honestly use for operating expenses. Make a for-profit spin-off that donates profits back to the non-profit foundation - find a way, everyone wants one, and your window for getting in to the 4PC netbook market that you almost single-handedly created is closing. Also, sell or license schwag and accessories. There's so much brand potential behind the XO to make a bit of money to support the Foundation that it's ridiculous not to capitalize on at least some chunk of that. At the very least, aggressively promote the licensing of the technology - especially the screen - to other netbook manufacturers and make some dough off of that, while at the same time spreading the technology to the field. If the end goal is to get low-cost, rugged laptops to the children of the world, one way is just to have many low-cost, competing options that governments and development workers can use in their projects.

I will listen to the community
OLPC has done a passable job with creating and abusingworking with its community, but it rarely listened to that community, as Yama Ploskonka has gone into with greater detail. It's time to change that, and make sure that OLPC at least listens and responds to the community at large. Some issues of the community may be pet peeves that do not impact (or are costly distractions) to getting a cheap laptop available to support international development and education, but some ideas might lead to cost savings, new opportunities, or even faster and also better software development cycles, as gregdek suggests.

This entry is part four in the series, "The XO Files: I Want to Believe in the XO">
    Part I: I want to Believe
  1. Part II, The New 4PC Market, and its Failings
  2. Part III: Re-imagining the OLPC Distribution

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Another possibility is to see if Dr. James Tooley can help define the needs and resources of those tens of thousands of poor, private schools he's studied and see if there's some match up to the capabilities of the XO.

I can think of two capabilities that might be of value to those schools who, after all, aren't threatened by the XO as education ministries might be: textbooks and testing.

The XO, in common with all other computers, provides the capacity to duplicate digital textbooks at, essentially, zero cost. Textbooks are a not inconsiderable expense so that zero-cost duplication capability is worthwhile.

Testing is the other task ideally suited to the capabilities of computers and, to a very great extent, missing from education as a result.

Testing is expensive, repetitive and data-intensive. Those are all characteristics that play to the strengths of computers and, by relieving teachers of the burdens associated with testing, create a compelling rationale for the use of computers in education.

Computer not as a semi-mystical learning phenomenon but computer as a measuring instrument, a compass and map of learning that shows where a student is and what direction they ought to be going.

I applied to work with a local USA school district that was going to get hundreds of XO's in about 2 weeks and my job was to coordinate Sugar activities into lesson plans for the teachers. NN showed up for the PR campaign, but the administrators had just seen the thing for 2 hours. I showed them another 1.5 hours on my own, yet No other applicants showed them the XO!

They got bad or no advice from OLPC on how to implement the XO's. For example, their oldest children in the Middle School will get the XO's first. Basically, they leave soon and also the XO has fewer Activities available for older children. The 3 School administrators that I spoke with did not even know of the user websites available, since 2007 or before.

I can just say that their implementation is looking to go from BAD to WORSE thanks to OLPC!

@allen - I mostly agree w/r/t textbooks, and indeed, the original strategy / selling point for the OLPC and its reflective/sunlight-readable screen was that the cost of the devices (at the $100/child price point, at least) could largely come from the textbook printing/distribution budget. The reasoning went that over the course of the projected 5-year lifespan of the XO, the costs of printing and delivering normal printed materials would come to at least close to $100, and plus you get all these other benefits of having a laptop. There was some trojan horse discussion too at selling the XO as purely an e-textbook, but really getting a powerful communications and learning tool in the hands of children without the approval or full realization of the Ministries of Education. A perhaps laudable idea, if you're not too big on sovereignty and allowing countries to make their own informed decisions on their educational methods and paths.

I think the problem with testing is balancing the power of the laptop with the drastically increased complexity and opportunity for network-based cheating. All of which can be overcome, but add cost and setup difficulties.

The "Emperor's New Clothes" question is: what the heck are you going to do with the computers?

Dr. Negroponte finessed the question via the pretense that XOs were too wonderful to be subject to mundane considerations and anyone who didn't line up to buy 'em could go screw themselves.

That response might deter people from asking the question out loud but officials who are responsible for education ministry budgets will still ask the question and since there's no good answer, they'll do one of two things. Either they'll simply ignore the XO, as many countries have done, or they'll set up a pilot program, despite Dr. Negroponte's dismissal of the idea, as several countries have done.

If you ignore the proponents of the "educational magic" school of thought of the use of computers in education, those folks who are desperately certain that computers are a necessity in education, you come up with a relatively few uses: textbooks and testing. Those are the only two uses that have a clear value to education ignoring the loose talk about collaboration and group learning that's long on promises and short on results.

You're right about the security issues with regard to testing but only if there's a value in cheating. Outside the U.S. there are quite a few countries that have high stakes testing programs to determine which kids get into the relatively few higher, or even secondary, education slots. For high stakes testing you have to have the tests proctored, along with dealing with technical security considerations, but that goes for high stakes anything.

But high stakes testing isn't what I'm referring too. Testing as a means of determining educational attainment of the individual kid produces a number of worthwhile outcomes. A proper, computer-mediated testing technology would provide fine-grained, timely test results at low cost, requiring little teacher-time or testing media that has to be shipped off to be scored and collated.

Ideally, the kids decide when they'll do testing with minimums enforced by the testing software, i.e. you can do as much testing as you want but you have to a certain, minimum amount per time period. Teachers/parents are kept informed of progress and whether minimal testing is being done by the kid.

With a decent database of results it becomes possible to determine where along their educational arc a kid is and where they ought to be. Since the computer's keeping track of student progress the teacher's relieved of the accounting function and can concentrate on the students who are having problems rather then simply acting as an educational metronome, setting a pace that all students have to accommodate or be left behind. That maximizes the value of the teacher's time by allowing the teacher to concentrate their attention on the sorts of things people ought to do.

Negroponte is really in a no-win position: if he keeps things as they are, he will fold soon; if he "goes commercial" as the author suggests, he will not be able to compete with legitimate operations like HP, Dell, Intel, Asus, etc.

"Going commercial" means that the XO will no longer sport a $200 price. Most likely it would shoot up to the $400-500 range when the cost of distribution, technical support, taxes, returns, advertising and profit for everyone along the distribution/sales channels is added to the manufacturing cost.

Jon, you want olpc to go commercial with the XO. One problem with this is that Pixel Qi working with various OEM's on designs that would be competitive.

And, doesn't pixel qi hold the IP for the screen? I seem to remember that an exclusive license was granted to OLPC for a period of time, but *only a license*. Pixel qi is in discussions with a number of commercial entities already ( as per ) who, I imagine, will be using the screen IP, implying that the license is being opened by pixel qi to for-profit ventures...

@xian: I believe the license went the other way around; OLPC holds the IP (Mary Lou Jepsen didn't want to appear greedy when she left), and licenses it to Pixel Qi (I don't recall there being an exclusivity arrangement, but that would seem likely?)

@eduardo: I have trouble believing that OLPC couldn't release the XO as-is for $200 with a continuing relationship with Amazon (or maybe bump it to $250/300 and keep a G1G1 option available?). For support and maintenance, I think they could continue to lean on the community, as long as they make it clear that there's no official support, and spin it as a "feature" of being part of a global community. OLPC has the first-mover advantage of having the only laptop in production with all of it's features in one place. I mean, I've been oping that Quanta would release a competitive, commercial XO, or that Pixel Qi would start selling for a long time, but it's yet to come to pass.

This project is about education at the primary school level. There is a silver lining in this cloud. The community (and, especially, the deployments) now recognize that OLPC's role is limited to manufacturing and distributing the XO and developing it's successor. SugarLabs has taken the responsibility for support and continued development of Sugar (the Linux distribution for the XO). The community is left with the responsibility for providing activities and content.

What the community desperately needs now is an organization to assume leadership and provide a focus for creation and distribution of open educational resources for the XO aimed at the learning needs of primary school children.


And what about deployment? I was shocked, a year ago or whenever it was reported here, to hear the OLPC doesn't have staff dedicated to deployment. Who's handling it?