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One Laptop Per Child: Vision vs. Reality

OLPC box

The vision is being overwhelmed by the reality of business, politics, logistics, and competing interests worldwide.

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Edward Cherlin

This article is presented as a study of market forces and technology initiatives, but I consider the real question behind it to be ethical. Not "will" OLPC succeed or fail, but "should we" make it succeed or fail?

I recently wrote ( that there are two kinds of stupid question: The one you didn't ask, and the one that cannot give useful information, regardless of the answer. Even the smartest people, such as Einstein, have stupid questions that they failed to ask, or asked wrong.

The question whether OLPC has succeeded or failed is stupid by my standard. Was the French Revolution a success? Zhou Enlai said that it is too soon to tell. How about space travel or AI? Definitely too soon to tell.

Has OLPC been overwhelmed? I think not. Has it succeeded or failed on its merits? Too soon to tell.

I agree with the authors of this article that the initial sales projections for the XO from Nicholas Negroponte were entirely unrealistic. He has admitted himself that he failed to grasp the difference between a handshake from a head of state and a signed purchase order.

I disagree with the numbers cited in this article, but the numbers on a given date are not the real issue. What we want to know is whether we will reach a billion or so children. Then we can ask how long it will take, and what is the best way to get there.

There is no question that the XO-1 did not meet the original $100 price target. Is that a failure, or a choice to take a better opportunity? The XO-1 contains twice as much memory and flash storage as the original prototype, and the dollar has been in serious decline. However, we now have credible estimates from technologist Mary Lou Jepsen and others that the price of an XO-2 can be $75, with more capacity and better performance.

Will it be $75? I don't know. It depends in part on whether countries ask for further hardware improvements. The sweet spot for technology pricing is almost never "as low as possible". The criterion has to be "most bang for the buck" considering the actual alternatives.

The question for a country should not be "Can we afford this out of our current budget?" The question should be, "Will this pay for itself and more over time?" This in turn depends on global banking turning to the standard set forth by Muhammad Yunus for the poorest of the poor. Not whether the borrower has the means to repay the loan now, but whether the loan will create the means to repay, and whether the borrower can be assisted to manage the loan properly.

But It's An Education Project, not a laptop project. What is the impact on education? Can we take that impact to indicate that we will continue on this line, with ever better computers and ever better learning materials? Will we attain the "exponential" growth that marketers always look for? (It is actually more like a logistical growth curve, but it would scare off customers to say so in end-user publications.)

I refer readers to the early reports collected at To cite just one, the experience in the first few months in Ethiopia was a shift, in stages, from a complete rote teaching style with no questions permitted to an exploratory style with teachers deciding to schedule question time in their lesson plans.

This is not the sort of measure commonly used, because this does not commonly happen. It will take a year or two to get results from standardized tests, but those tests were not written to evaluate these new methods, and can be expected to miss important changes. If the only question you ask is, "Can they get the right answer?" you can't find out whether they have learned to evaluate source reliability in Wikipedia articles. A stupid question, by my standard. The really important questions don't have right answers.

OLPC had a mixed success on launch: much less than hoped, but better than anything comparable in history. In fact, there is nothing comparable in history. My prediction, for what it's worth, is that it will continue to expand, and continue to push industry to respond. How fast it expands depends on political will more than on technical factors.

So, then, what next?

The issues of electricity, Internet, teacher training, digital learning materials, and translating education to economic and social growth remain. Some of this is within the purview of ACM, and some should be taken up with other professional societies and with research institutions, NGOS, aid agencies, and governments.

The choice to go with XOs or some other comparable hardware would be a no-brainer if the entire ecology existed today. XOs are already less expensive than printed textbooks in many countries, without even counting the advantages of access to the Internet. But we don't have the full range of electronic textbooks that would let us realize those savings.

Gov. Schwarzenegger has announced a digital textbook initiative in California, and there are other such programs proposed here and there, plus a significant number of authors who have simply released their materials under one or another Free license. See for a wide selection. I have proposed much more at

So what are we waiting for? As Alan Kay is fond of putting it, "The best way to predict the future is to prevent it." We have a possible path to preventing global ecological, economic, and military destruction, by bringing a billion children and their families and friends into the search for solutions. The most likely path to failure is by not trying.

What about you, the reader? Would you rather curse the darkness or teach children to make candles? Is what you are doing now so important that you can't spare us a few dollars or a little of your time? And especially your questions?

Julian Bass

No one said that global poverty reduction, peace building and rights-based economic development would be easy. As technologists we have a moral duty to ensure that our activities actually contribute to solving the problems at hand and do not detract from other, better, solutions. The analysis by Kraemer et al (CACM, June 2009) is very helpful in articulating some of the dangers that can befall technology projects in sub-Saharan Africa.

Establishing a vibrant education system in rural areas is a wholly different proposition from urban areas. Schools even a few kilometres from large towns have a markedly less well developed infrastructure than urban equivalents. Childrens education often has to wait until they are old enough to be able to walk several kilometres to the nearest school.

Lets, for a moment, imagine what OLPC project success might look like against a context of current realities. Imagine a typical rural school constructed with great commitment by the local community but consisting of mud walls, a tin roof and very muddy floors at this time of year. The school has a thousand students but no running water, no electricity, little paper, few pens, no food provision service and lacks proper sanitation. The school is staffed by a surprisingly dedicated group of inadequately trained, underpaid and under-valued teachers. But now imagine this same school benefiting from a large stock of well functioning laptops (even if they have been specially designed) that enable it to transform itself through a pedagogical revolution. I find such a prospect laughably unrealistic.

It is surprising to find initial OLPC trials conducted in Addis Ababa, the capital city in Ethiopia, concluding with recommendations supporting large scale deployments, presumably to rural areas. I read that 50,000 XOs are to be deployed here in Ethiopia, funded by external donors. This foists on the Government an unrealistic expectation to establish a technical support infrastructure, satellite distribution of digital books and provide a large-scale teacher training programme, whether they like it or not. This is in a country that is investing heavily in improving school enrolment and has embarked on a dramatic university expansion programme but has difficulty ensuring sufficient supplies of simple text books to children. I foresee herds of white elephants coming our way.

All this is in marked contrast to another initiative emanating from MIT. The online open courseware initiative is well known. Less widely discussed is the initiative to put open courseware onto hard drives for distribution to eligible education institutions with poor Internet connectivity. How helpful it would have been if more MIT professors included an adequate range of reading materials on their open courseware offerings.

The OLPC appears to prioritise a technocratic solution to what is essentially a social problem. Large scale educational change requires a social movement. Technology to support pre-service and in-service teacher education is a much more urgent priority. Incremental advances in technology infrastructure must be used to build sustainable technical skills capacity development. That way, teacher and support technician skills can be developed to enable future possible large scale computer deployments.

How differently the OLPC project might have been implemented if it were conceived as one laptop per teacher?

Gil Press

Excellent analysis of an important case study in the diffusion of innovations. Three observations: 1. The PC is dead: Any device that follows the PC model, such as a laptop (no matter the price) cannot succeed. 2. The success of mobile telephones in developing countries points to what will become the dominant personal computer all around the world, including its more developed part. 3. Like many other people with similar education and shared beliefs, the good people at OLPC wear ideological blinds: A fervent belief that technology, on its own, can empower people anywhere around the world. Unfortunately, that means that sociologists, anthropologists, economists, etc., with similar educational background, could make the very same mistakes. For more, see here

Madupu Giri

OLPC project will be successful with good educational content loaded in the given laptops and proper orientation given by local teachers in the schools. Good efforts!

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