What We’d Like to Hear from OLPC

For the next few posts, the Jester will address both public and private discussions ensuing the Boston Review’s forum essays on “Can Technology End Poverty?“.

Nicholas Negroponte’s response went up first. At first, the Jester was going to do a point-by-point repartee, but after the second paragraph, he realized it would take too long and sound too much like his Mad Lib post. So, instead, the Jester uses his ventriloquist skills and puts words into Negroponte’s mouth: What we’d like to hear from OLPC…

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Laptops Work… but Is That Education?
Nicholas Jesterponte

It’s great that such an important topic is being discussed with this lead article (and by such a handsome, intelligent guy to boot). It put to words some unease I had been having about things recently.

When I started One Laptop per Child (OLPC) in 2004, I said that owning a connected laptop would help eliminate poverty through education, especially for the 70 million children who have no access whatsoever to schools. It’s hard for me to let go of this belief.

But, what I have learned after several years of feedback from governments, educators, and critics, as well as our own experiences in several countries, is that the operative word here is “help.” You actually need a lot more than laptops to change the face of education in the world. You need dedicated teachers, good administrators, involved parents, and committed politicians. Any technology needs to be integrated into the curriculum, and you need to train teachers in their use. On an ongoing basis. Of course, you need great students, too, but I find all young children are remarkable in their capacity to learn.

Kentaro Toyama is coming from a place that I refused to acknowledge at first. In fact, the acronym, OLPC, shows where we were coming from back then. Any name of the form OXPY ought to ring alarm bells. Is the intent simply to provide every Y with technology X, or do we really want to see meaningful development outcomes? The name implies that our mission was mass disseminate technology, not real education. I’ve kept the name, but more because it’s a known brand. For me, it serves as a reminder of our early missteps.

For example, one of my initial hopes was to get India hooked on OLPC. But although I was traveling to India five to six times in those days, they didn’t go for the 1 million laptop deal I presented to them. At first, I couldn’t believe it! Laptops are a wonderful way for all children to learn learning through independent interaction and exploration. How could they not get that? It seemed so obvious to me. Maine had a great laptop program that did really well, and I had so many brilliant friends at MIT who grew up tinkering with computers.

Surprise! It turns out that India isn’t Maine and that MIT professors are a little atypical. Indian government schools are an eye-opener. I’ve seen schools where class meets under a tree and students do arithmetic in the dirt. I’ve seen schools where most of the teachers don’t show up. I’ve seen schools that have no toilets for the children, and so then, the girls don’t show up. And that’s even though you can build a decent toilet for $300 there. When I saw these things, I started to wonder a bit about the appropriateness of a $188 laptop.

In fact, I later learned that Indian public spending on primary education is between $70-$200 per student per year, and that most of it goes to teacher salaries. How could we then ask that they then pay $188 per laptop? (And, the $188 doesn’t include incidental costs that are bound to come up, like those of maintenance and teacher training.) Even at $1 per week, OLPC is pretty expensive! As Toyama notes, many private schools in India only charge $1 a month.

In retrospect, I feel glad that India didn’t spend $188 million or more on our laptops. I’m not sure I would have wanted that on my conscience.

At this point, we have over 2 million laptops out there, but I’m glad to report that most are in countries that are wealthier than India on average. Peru’s per capita GDP is around $4500 (they have 300,000 laptops) and Uruguay’s around $10,000 (400,000 laptops). They also each spend more of their per capita GDP on each primary school student. I’m a little worried that Peru wasn’t quite ready for us, but Uruguay is likely to be OLPC’s star country.

Uruguay, first of all, starts with a great educational system. Literacy is high, at over 98%. The commitment to education is strong. As soon as they decided to try laptops for all of their students, they were able to get Internet connectivity to 98% of their schools! Phenomenal. (In contrast, less than 10% of Peru’s schools have managed connectivity.) They’ve invested in great teacher training and they have strategies to develop relevant content. The teacher training programs are sophisticated with support teachers, master teachers, and ongoing teacher meetings.

I’ll admit even in Uruguay, all is not rosy. Between 25% and 35% of the laptops are effectively out of service at any given time, and maintenance is hard to do at a national scale. Also, we really need to do an evaluation there, to understand exactly what kind of impact OLPC has had beyond the anecdotal stories that my team loves to tell me about. And, that’s not even beginning to address questions of cost-effectiveness.

So, what have I learned from all of this? If you’re a country, you need a good educational system in place and a budget that isn’t overwhelmed by the $188-per-student cost, before you should even think about OLPC. And, if you’ve got those things, you’ll need to think still harder. Remember that in addition to the first batch of hardware, you’ll need to invest in teacher training, connectivity, curriculum development, maintenance, replacement costs, and oh, did I mention teacher training? All of these things can add up. (Note to self: We should check back on Uruguay to see how much the entire program is actually costing them.) After all that, if you’re still interested, by all means, call me… I have some laptops to sell you, as well as some tips for best results. Among them: start small, and scale gradually. If it’s really worth it, you’ll get to a million eventually.

How do you eliminate poverty? The answer is simple: education. How do you provide education? The answer is less simple. I no longer believe that just a laptop per child will do it. Being a technologist, I can’t get it out of my head that somehow laptops ought to help. But over the years, I’ve come to appreciate that education is a deep, complex, social challenge, and that if OLPC is going to play a role, it will be in a support role, not as the main actor.

One thing I can say for sure: OLPC has been a great education… for me.

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2 Responses to “What We’d Like to Hear from OLPC”

  1. Wayan @ OLPC News Says:

    What a beautiful dream. I started OLPC News four years ago with the hope to have OLPC come to these conclusions and alter the program to be more practical. And while I did succeed in creating a community of clear eyed supporters and we changed the minds of a few influencers, sadly I doubt I will see the day when Negroponte himself comes to the same realizations.

    • Jester Says:

      The Jester has been a fan of OLPC News (http://olpcnews.com/) since the early days! Jester hats off to Wayan Vota for starting it and keeping it going for all of these years. By this point, the Jester has also given up on Negroponte. But, there are still plenty of education ministers to convince!

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