Good Idea Gone Bad: $3.5 Million for OLPCorps


One Laptop Per Child program has a new twist for small deployments. Rather than selling XO's to already funded projects wanting 100 or so XO's for programs that have committed community buy-in and long-term project plans, OLPC is going to develop:

olpc give many
OLPC is doing what?

OLPCorps Africa - $3,500,000 for 100 teams of college students to get $35,000 in support for 10 week projects in Africa. Each group gets 100 XO laptops, assorted hardware, a $10,000 stipend, and 10-day training in Kigali, Rwanda, before being sent out to projects they need to have arranged by March 27th.

While the OLPCorps Africa is a great idea - similar to the Peace Corps or Geekcorps - 10 weeks is wastefully too short, college students, while meaning well, are the wrong implementers, and $3.5 million could be much better invested in small deployments.

10 weeks is way too short

From painful experience as director of Geekcorps, where we sent mid-career ICT professionals to the developing world to effect change as volunteers, I can say that nothing of consequence happens in 10 weeks in Africa.

For an intervention to be effective (vs. a photo op), you need to have long-term presence in the community. It takes at least 10 months for a team of volunteers to get from idea through implementation to acceptance by the recipient community. And that's long before any measurable outcomes are apparent.

Ideally, you want the community to spend at least 10 weeks just thinking through why they want a new technology and how they will integrate it into their existing social interactions and cultural mores before you even start implementation.

College students are the wrong implementers

College students do have the time and enthusiasm to spend 10 weeks in Africa for OLPC. But with all due respect, that's all they have. They often lack the experience to understand the nuances of change management that a new technology introduction requires.

And that very enthusiasm means they often lack the patience to allow a community to come to terms with change in their own time, or to reject change all together, for what to that community are very valid reasons.

Last but not least, a two week training course is way too short to teach the required project management and educational pedagogy skills. The Peace Corps trains volunteers for three months before they go into the field alone.

At Geekcorps, volunteers overlapped with each other to cross train, and were directly supervised by international development experts on every project.

A better investment: supporting small deployments

But I'm still wondering why OLPC is investing $3.5 million in unproven student projects to be somehow transitioned from dream to reality in just 10 weeks?

There was a process to support already established small deployment opportunities. Initiatives that had funding to buy XO's, not have them gifted, willing to invest their own money for training and implementation, and spend much longer than 10 weeks with the community. $3.5 million invested in those self-organized small deployments would go a long way.

Oh right, OLPC ended support of small deployments, citing the cost to manage them. And 100 teams of college students will be less work?

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I was actually considering attempting to participate in this. I'll be a college student in the fall, and would have loved to get out and do something other than tinkering with the machines.

However, in light of all those shake-ups in regards to how OLPC is going about things, I do agree with you when you say that the money could be better spent elsewhere. I would love to see some of it go towards an increase of development for Sugar.


I would suggest that you continue with your application to this program. For you its an amazing opportunity to get field experience and see XO's in the hands of children.

I just don't think you should expect too much.

An aggressive goal would be to have the local partner pass out XO's at the start of their fall school year (about when you leave). Which means your focus would be on developing how the schools would incorporate XO's in their activities vs. working with children.

It's not clear to me exactly what these teams are supposed to accomplish. Is there going to be evaluation? Maybe the idea is that if you get a lot of teams trying different approaches, someone will stumble across something that really works.

I wonder where olpc got the $3.5 million. Seems to me the money would be better spent on software development, since everyone agrees that is a real deficiency. Maybe olpc is hoping to get some good publicity.

There are many capable teams and interested individuals in many of these countries that could help with the deployment. Why not use these funds to train local teams? They will be there long after the ten weeks are up, and know the local context of the communities.


We learned in my international development course work an idea that OLPC should consider.

Give a stipend for an outsider and the project lasts 10 weeks. Give the stipend to a local and it becomes his annual salary feeding his wife and children!

We all know that students from Africa will not be applying for this stipend! OLPC will not be communicating this information to all of the colleges and universities on that continent. They will just wonder why they did not apply afterwards!

"I can say that nothing of consequence happens in 10 weeks in Africa."

The same is absolutely true for Nepal or any other less developed country.

Volunteers can contribute a lot to OLPC by volunteering from home. They can create activities, test software, create content, etc. There isn't much they can do at a local school where they don't speak the language, understand the cultural context, or have significant professional experience in education.

My organization OLE Nepal, Waveplace, OLPC Oceania, Teaching Matters, and other small pilots have accomplished a ton more that any group of well-meaning college students could in one summer. Plus, we have done it at a tiny fraction of $3.5 million.

My real concern is that there seems little provision for the screening and safety of the volunteers while they are in the field.

Here's what might be actually happening:

The 3.5 million isin't coming from OLPC. Its coming from "One Here One There" (OHOT). See

"It was determined that the key to success was developing a program to generate a steady stream of funding. The unique aspect of the program advanced by One Here One There is to partner with colleges and universities to allow students to make a $20.00 tax deductible donation with their tuition billing statement each semester. With 10 million students in four year schools across the country, the group hopes to raise several million dollars each year as a continuing resource for education of African children."

OLPC does not have the resources to do something along the lines of an "OLPCorps" (although ironically its called so).

OHOT has probably raised/intends to raise millions, needs a way to channelize all that money, and needs OLPC name/connections/XO's to get to the next level (notice how many universities are on their list, less than ten)

OLPC needs only a fraction of OHOT money for laptops/stipend to encourage hundreds of grassroot deployments, and thus prove that it can still be successful (saturation), does not have the resources/willingness to organize this project themselves, so the idea that universities/students do the work is appealing and has the name/connections/and XO's, that OHOT needs. In other words, OLPC is paying students a stipend from student money.

And finally, OHOT is only about Africa, hence the name "OLPCorps Africa"

John, I think you found the money pot - OHOT does seem to be the perfect match for OLPC.

One has a great idea but no money or staff, the other a need for a cause to get the funding going and constituents wanting to change the world. Together they can waste millions while generating great photo ops for earnest college students.

Reminds me of random protests in DC that seem to be more about exciting college students than effecting change.

Hey guys, a few clarifying points:

Consider the funding of the laptops and the stipend as separate pools of funding. The OLPC Foundation gets a certain amount of restricted-fund donations that can (and are) only spent on laptops. (I believe that Give-One falls into this category).

The economies of scale for OLPC funding and giving away laptops is more stable than the economy for funding OLPC employees. And unfortunately, the funds can not be exchanged.

Also, the latest version of the press release says that the stipend is "up to $10,000 per team".

You should expect to more information pop up on the OLPCorps FAQ:

I am a contrarian, so I will be supporting this initiative.

However, after reflecting on this with the help of some friends, I realized the main motivation for OLPC to support this is to get footage and images that will mirror the youtube videos and billboards of the 2008 G1G1.

As such the lack of expectations or outcomes beyond 10 weeks make perfect sense, since apparently it doesn't matter - anything gained beyond that will be gravy, while the main objective is portraying happy faces and seeing the nice foreign visitors serving the needy of Africa.

I will try to help this so it goes beyond such empty results, to actually support long term learning, but I suspect it will be difficult, as quite obviously that is not the intention of the organizers and funders.