Is OLPC Alabama Real and Is WinTel to Blame If Not?

Last week, Mayor-elect Larry Langford of Birmingham declared One Laptop Per Alabaman Child with a 15,000 XO laptop purchase. But reading the article a little deeper, I came to a sad conclusion: its just political grandstanding.

I put this announcement in the sale league as other proclamations we've heard before, where Presidents loving laptops doesn't mean Ministers buying XO's:

He said the laptops would cost about $3 million - about $200 each. Langford, whose inauguration is today, said the money will come from private sector donations as well as the city budget. "I have to get the City Council on the same page," he said. "We all have to go in and just say what we're going to do. There will be tough decisions."

City Council President Carole Smitherman said she has had some discussions with Langford about the laptops, but she needs more details. "If our children have access to computers and it costs about $200 per computer, that's a minimal amount to bring children and their parents that technology," Smitherman said. "I have to see where that fits with the totality of items that the mayor wants the council to sign off on."

It also seems that no matter Langford's progress on selling his idea to the city council, he will also have to sell it to OLPC, who gave him the usual non-committal response:
Jackie Lustig, spokeswoman for One Laptop Per Child, said Langford's office has requested help in implementing the program for elementary schools during the 2008-2009 school year. "OLPC has agreed to consider his request and to that effect will be holding talks this week about how such program may be implemented," Lustig said in a statement.
Charbax has a whole other take on why OLPC Alabama might not happen. A take that I think gives too much credit to Intel and not enough to the flip-flop of American politicians or the political infighting in local school districts:
olpc Birmingham
Could WinTel threaten a Mayor?
Corrupted Nigerian and Indian politicians have nothing to do with governors and mayors in the USA. Three million dollars is peanuts in America. So unless Intel's mafia somehow threatens Mayor-elect Langford, you can be sure Birmingham and many other places in the USA will be part of the first wave of XO-1 laptops.

But for sure, I guess you might have some insider information about Intel trying to discourage that guy in Alabama. Cause everyone knows as soon as any city or state in the USA embraces the OLPC using the XO-1 hardware, everyone can be sure that will trigger a nation-wide deployment of the laptop in the USA. It is in fact peanuts to buy one laptop per child in the USA, even though US schools are under funded, each child in the US school system gets to spend over 10 thousand dollars per year.

So $150 laptop is peanuts compared to the opportunities the children get. Compared to everything else the US school budget pays with 10 thousand dollars per year per child, XO-1 is worth much more then 1/66th of everything else that the yearly education budget per child is wasted on. Basically OLPC is worth 5 days of a US child's school budget (something like 50% of it is holiday or weekend anyways).

But enough of Charbax and I debating the possibilities of OLPC USA, what do you think? Is three million dollars really "peanuts" for an American school system? Could there be OLPC Birmingham? And if not, is a Microsoft or Intel conspiracy to blame?

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Even though Intel, Asus, Microsoft, Dell won't admit it, cheap laptops are canniballizing expensive laptops. Cheap computers are going to replace expensive computers.

Take the Green PC sold at $199 in Wal-Mart, that is also revolutionnary if Wal-Mart can mass produce it. That brings 10-20 times less profit per computer sold to all the involved parties. Microsoft makes zero, Intel makes zero, the assembler makes a minimum, the software providers makes a minimum, the reseller makes a minimum per unit (that's the speciality of Wal-Mart).

Asus and Intel are not at all eager to make a $199 Eee PC available to the masses, but they are investing millions to have it ready within 6 months with the Diamondville Intel fanless processor because OLPC is unstoppable.

Even though Intel and Microsoft won't admit it, a low cost, low power computer works just as well as a high cost, high power computer, when it comes to do 99% of what most people need to do with a computer, browsing the Internet and word processing.

Intel, Asus and Microsoft won't admit it, but cheap is going to canniballize expensive. So you can be sure that they are trying to push that industry revolution as far as they can into the future.

But does all that tech industry shenanigans really matter in local politics? Especially when you're dealing with a politician who designed a Secret Plan like this:

"There’s a page copied from Time magazine that shows a picture of the XO computer created by Nicholas Negroponte. There’s a photocopy of a column by Birmingham News editorial writer Eddie Lard. Finally, there’s a comparison of sales taxes in Jefferson County.

This can’t be real, I say. This is the Secret Plan? This looks like it was put together by a fifth grader."

The problem that could really stop OLPC in Alabama is that they are looking at the XO as a computer. It's nothing like the computer I use at home or at work. It's an EDUCATIONAL COLLABORATION PLATFORM. No one else can supply this. Not Asus, not Microsoft, not Intel, not Apple, not AMD.

- Jeff

The problem that could really stop OLPC in Alabama is ...

they don't know what to do with it
they don't know how it fits into No Child Left behind
they don't know how the teachers are going to use it to raise test scores within a year or two
they don't want to be known as the guy who spent $3million dollars on 'toys'
they don't know what software they're supposed to use or where it's coming from
they don't know how they're going to support/maintain the things after the first 30 days
they can't get some to evaluate before buying

I don't know if he means every child in Alabama or every child in public school or every poor child but if its for poor people prepare for screaming about that.

charbox: "Even though Intel, Asus, Microsoft, Dell won't admit it, cheap laptops are canniballizing expensive laptops. Cheap computers are going to replace expensive computers."

They are willing to sell $200 laptops to compete with oplc, but what are they going to do when the oplc price goes down, perhaps to $50 in a few years? Will they be willing to follow the price down, hoping to offset lower profits per laptop with a higher volume of sales at the low price point? Or will they add functionality and keep prices high? This should be interesting to watch.

We used to have $100 computers. Remember the Sinclair ZX81? Or how about when (1983) the Commodore VIC-20 and the Texas Instruments TI99/4A raced each other down below $100, nearly taking TI out of business entirely?

Had things followed Bell's laws naturally, we would always have had a $100 but it would be better and better each year and today's version would be very usable. Unfortunately, a series of events (I won't get into the details, here, unless people are interested in this particular discussion) kept this from happening.

Negroponte's OLPC is just restoring the balance to the universe and if the big manufacturers hope that they can somehow stop this then they will have a nasty surprise.

from the source article:

Under the tentative agreement, the city would buy the laptops at a discount through the foundation and provide them to the city schools. They would not be the students' personal property.

doesn't this defeat the goal of OLPC?

I think if schools were told how the XO can work like an e-book reader, therefore saving thousands of dollars a year on text books, OLPC would see very little resistance from schools. Also, Lillie, I think I'm with you on Alabama not letting each kid have their own laptop. I think it's a bad idea since not allowing the kid to own the laptop, he might end up abusing the one he uses more than he would if he felt it was his. Saying the equipment is the schools would have inspired me, as a kid, to not give a crap about them. If they had handed me one and said "take care of it, it's yours!" I would have thought I'd won the lottery.

But ultimately, I think Wayan is right. This sounds like political posturing, sadly. If there isn't a plan on paper and a source for the money (not multiple sources that need to be OKed or voted on) then it ain't gonna happen--at least, not for a while.

Still, his announcement does raise the awareness-level for OLPC and the XO, so that's still a good thing, I think.

ThePete mentions the one role in which the OLPC really has some utility: e-book reader.

All the vague "constructivism" stuff aside the cost of textbooks represents a significant enough part of the cost of public education for the XO to have some potential value. "Potential" because the purchase price isn't the total price but since the computer's designed from the ground up with minimal support requirements in mind that cost might not be significant.

It's also a role that fits the institutional-ownership, rather then student-ownership, model which may not be in keeping with the original philosophy of the OLPC but who cares?

There's a whole sub-culture of open source textbooks - isn't a bad place to start - that would be perfectly in keeping with the OLPC philosophy and of course the price is right.

I don't believe the e-book role will be where the eternally-imminent computer education revolution will get started but it is a step in the right direction.

One great thing about the OLPC in general is that even if the education system leaves a lot to be desired, with these laptops kids will have an easier time learning on their own. I know many kids might end up not learning much, but at least with the laptops the opportunity is there, and that, I think, is half the battle.

I wonder what the American textbook industry thinks of the idea to replace textbooks with electronic books?

It's not a conspiracy, it's business as usual.

To all the people ridiculing the use of OLPC on schools in Birmingham Alabama. They DO have experience with constructionist-like education. So they might wery well be able to put the laptops to good use.

Even there.

(yes I know, not every child in Birmingham will go there)


Another OLPC Alabama article, with more tease that a "major announcement will be forthcoming."

"Under the agreement, the city would buy the laptops at a discounted price through the One Laptop Per Child foundation and provide them to students in grades one through eight in the city school system, said John Katopodis, Langford's adviser who has been negotiating the deal on the mayor's behalf. Katopodis said he is in the final negotiating stages with the foundation for more than 15,000 laptops, and a "major announcement will be forthcoming."

If the deal is completed this week, he said, the computers would be here by the time school opens in January. "We want to get these laptops to the children immediately," Katopodis said. "From what I've learned, students are able to master the computer almost immediately."

The rugged, waterproof computers would be assigned to students, who would be allowed to take them home, he said. Students would turn in their computers at the end of their eighth-grade year, he said.

Jecel Assumpção Jr:

"Had things followed Bell's laws naturally, we would always have had a $100 but it would be better and better each year and today's version would be very usable."

Absolutely. That's what happened to cell phones, except that the price of the minimum-functionality phone kept dropping until they became so cheap -- $20 or less -- that they could come into wide-spread use in the developing world. Oplc is making something like that finally happen for laptops.

By the way, it's Moore's law, not Bell's law.

One point touched on already, "If schools were told" is the truly the greatest reason why the XO might fail in Alabama or any other US county or city school system. As I have a brother who teaches at such a school and runs the media dept for the school I can say from observation the trouble here is the lack of information being pushed out by to US schools, in the form of non use-cases as well the lack of evaluation units that will hinder XO adoption and deployment in the US.

One would think with all their volunteers over at OLPC that they might have had an industry grade project manager or two volunteer anyone who has worked with one knows such a person or persons could easily take on such a roll. Then again IT folk especially open source developers often view PM's in a less than bright light so that might also explain why there are not any visible at OLPC.


Winter, I think it's disingenuous to compare private Hilltop Montessori ($7K+ for elementary school) to Birmingham public (takes everybody that shows up). After all, Hilltop is where parents go to get away from the public school system. I'm not saying OPLC can't work in America, as a matter of fact I thing Birmingham, with electricity and internet already in place, would be a heck of a place to create a study. I just think public schools have a lot of reasonable hesitations about jumping on board.

How do electronic textbooks compare in price to paper textbooks?

> How do electronic textbooks compare in price to paper textbooks?

Largely, they don't. E-book marketing's never been aimed at the education market particularly as far as I can tell and such e-book readers that've come to market are far too expensive, on a TCO basis, and fragile to compete with paper textbooks.

But the OLPC's a new player. It's designed rugged, it's designed to require much less technical support then conventional laptops. The display, while not "smoking-hot" as far as I'm concerned does provide near-paper resolution in monochrome mode making it a pretty good e-book reader. And of course the price is lower then e-book readers and conventional laptops.

Maddie, hit to find out about open source textbooks, cost, zero.

Charbax, Montessori schools have been around for a long time and their methodology, much as parents seem to like it, hasn't made much of a dent in the public education system. Whether it's constructionism or constructivism without some demonstration of efficacy it remains just another edu-fad with which the American public education system is beset.

I googled over to Harcoourt Press, ebooks and print books are exactly the same price ($55 for a 6th grade math book). Wikibooks seemed ok but a little limited. I'm sure when the demand goes up there will be supply to meet it. I guess between wikipedia, gutenberg, and the internet your could put together a schooling program. Homeschoolers are probably another bunch of people this would appeal to, if they could buy one. Some homeschool programs cost more than $500.

It just struck me that if people are willing to pay for Amazon's Kindle they'd be willing to pay for a less kiddified version of the OLPC.

If OLPC really did say this, and they really do intend to make this happen, then I hope they get struck down by lightning. Or worse.

before going into business with langford the crook, i'd highly recommend olpc read this story on him...

he's under two different investigations.. he's bankrupted nearly everything he's touched.

i wouldn't recommend rolling this out with langford... it'll be an egg in this otherwise ambitious and important project's face in about a year or two.

btw, please ask before using my pictures (the one of langford is mine... i was at his headquarters the night he won mayor)

"Winter, I think it's disingenuous to compare private Hilltop Montessori ($7K+ for elementary school) to Birmingham public (takes everybody that shows up). After all, Hilltop is where parents go to get away from the public school system."

This was just to say that high earning parents are willing to send their children to a Montessori school for big money. In this light, it seems rather odd to disparage the OLPC because of using this "vague, untested constructivism" thing.

So on the one hand, many voices keep complaining constantly about constructivism, but on the other hand, we cannot compare a public school with a high cost private school that practises constructivism.

Btw, schools are tested regularly in several countries. I know that in my country, Montessori schools generally do worse than regular schools, as do schools based on the ideas of Parkhurst and Steiner. But our regular schools seem to do much better than US public schools, so that won't tell you much. For one thing, our regular public education is strongly influenced by ideas similar to constructivism and the ideas of Piaget, Parkhurst, and Montessori.

By the way, Montessori is NOT an American fad. Maria Montessori was a Italian reformer and her ideas are followed by a lot of schools in Europe. There definitely is much more going on in the world of education than is visible from inside US public schools.

One thing to remember is that these US public schools are definitely NOT the top of the league in the world. So it is rather shortsighted to make the situation in the US the benchmark for every educational change in the world. Also, I think the causes of the USA educational problems are political, and not one of community resources. So it is very unlikely that introducing an educational change like the OLPC can help much.

The OLPC targets situations where there is political and community support but the problems are caused by a lack of resources.


Winter, I thought the point you were making was that 'public' schools in Alabama were using constructivism methods. That's why I pointed out that Hilltop is not a public school. In the America, at least in the state I live in, private schools are not tested the same way public schools are. However, test results pretty much coincide with family income so I would expect private school students to outperform public schools, after all, that's what the parents are paying for. In America, you can buy whatever teaching method you want for your children, assuming you can pay for it.

Don't Montessori teachers have specialized training? Is teacher training included in the price of the XO? Is there a study that shows, family income being equal, that constructivism delivers better results than standard methods? My point being, is XO the best use of the country's education dollar?

thank you wikipedia --

A 2006 study published in the journal "Science" concluded that Montessori students performed better than their standard public school counterparts in a variety of arenas, including not only traditional academic areas such as language and mathematical reasoning, but in social cognition skills as well. [4]:

On several dimensions, children at a public inner city Montessori school had superior outcomes relative to a sample of Montessori applicants who, because of a random lottery, attended other schools. By the end of kindergarten, the Montessori children performed better on standardized tests of reading and math, engaged in positive interaction on the playground more, and showed advanced social cognition and executive control more. They also showed more concern for fairness and justice. At the end of elementary school, Montessori children wrote more creative essays with more complex sentence structures, selected more positive responses to social dilemmas, and reported feeling more of a sense of community at their school.

The authors concluded that, "when strictly implemented, Montessori education fosters social and academic skills that are equal or superior to those fostered by a pool of other types of schools."

[4] Lillard A, Else-Quest N. "The early years. Evaluating Montessori education." Science. 2006 Sep 29; 313 (5795): 1893-4.

If you're not an AAAS member you can look at the report here:

,with supporting info here:

One criticism I have is assuming the comparison between Montessori and non-Montessori schools hinges on the Montessori methodology.

From what I understand, for a school, public or private, to sport the name "Montessori" and advertise itself as following the Montessori methodology, the school must submit to inspection by the Montessori Association to assure that the school is operating according to the guidelines set down by the Association Montessori.

Having committed to the operation of a public, Montessori school the school district administration is in the position of having to answer to a body which is not amenable to nor interested in the usual school district politics. That affords a degree of protection from interference and a raising of the status of the teachers who work in the public Montessori school by comparison to their non-Montessori colleagues.

The district has to please the Montessori Association to maintain the school's status and the teachers are the direct means to the maintenance of that status. Inflict an incompetent principal or the teaching methodology du jour on the school, suffer the presence of an incompetent teacher and the school doesn't pass inspection and loses its status.

It's the failure to take into account the district's accountability to the Montessori Association that invalidates the results of the study. I don't have a clue how you'd adjust for such a factor but the failure to do so means that it is impossible to discriminate between the effects caused by the Montessori methodology and the effects caused by the Montessori cachet.

OLPC Birmingham doesn't look so good - the Board of Education isn't sold on the idea of XO's for students:

The city of Birmingham's plan to have the city school system manage a laptop computer program could be problematic. School officials said they are unable to handle the new technology.

At a recent Birmingham schools technology committee meeting, both Joanne Stephens, director of instructional technology, and Darryl Burroughs, director of information technology, said the computers wouldn't work with the system's infrastructure without major modifications. The Birmingham City Council has said it plans to ask the Board of Education to manage the program. The board would have to vote on accepting that responsibility.

Who didn't see that coming, of course they're scared. The IT department has no idea of what the XO is and how they're supposed to support it. They may have wandered over to the forum where's there's an argument waging as to whether or not the XO is 'finished' or 'inprocess' - Also, every solution starts with "Open terminal and ."

I would have thought the head of OLPC-America, announced with great fanfare, would be spending all of his time in Birmingham handing out sample XOs to prevent this very situation. That might have been more useful than handing them out at random in Australia.

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