One Laptop Per Child, Four Years Later

Nicole and I are almost finished with the second season of Lost. Yes, we’re about four years behind, but better late than never.  And how about that hatch! That thing is so cool!

Since we’re going back around four years or so, back in November of 2005 I blogged about the One Laptop Per Child (formerly $100 Laptop) project, an idealistic initiative started by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte with the goal of arming millions of kids in developing countries with cheap, networked, Linux-powered laptops.  I had the chance to see Negroponte discuss the venture in person, and at the I end I was hopeful and skeptical at once.

To oversimplify his goal, Negroponte felt that just bringing these machines to kids in need would unleash all kinds of learning and innovation. Skeptics worried that there wasn’t enough of a focus on teaching kids — or their teachers — how to use these machines. Plus, by partnering with developing countries with vibrant black markets, there was a significant chance that these computers would never even make it to their intended recipients.

So how’d it fare? This month my former Change.org colleague Alanna Shaikh wrote a eulogy for the project.  Here’s a dose:

Americans wanted the OLPC. We fell in love with its tremendous promise and adorable shape. (note: I own an OLPC) We were the first market it conquered. OLPC launched a give one-get one promotion that let individuals pay $400 to donate one laptop and receive one for themselves. It was a huge success, except that OLPC wasn’t set up for that kind of customer order fulfillment. Laptops arrived far later than promised, and several thousand orders were simply lost.

Once the laptop finally started arriving in the developing world, its impact was minimal. We think. No one is doing much research on their impact on education; discussions are largely theoretical. This we do know: OLPC didn’t provide tech support for the machines, or training in how to incorporate them into education. Teachers didn’t understand how to use the laptops in their lessons; some resented them. Kids like the laptops, but they don’t actually seem to help them learn.

It’s time to call a spade a spade. OLPC was a failure.

But Alanna received serious pushback in the comments for her prognosis, with counter-arguments flowing in from Uruguay, Peru, and Cambodia.  And then, Negroponte himself chimed in:

The dream is not over. When OLPC started there were no low cost laptops. We created the category less than four years ago and it now represents almost one third of the world production of latops. I am not aware of too many technologies that have gone from “impossible” to such wide adoption.

The million laptops, our little green ones, that are in the hands of children, are currently in 19 languages and 31 countries. Another million are on their way. Not bad. But even better, these countries include Afghanistan, Haiti, Ethiopia, as well as places like the West Bank (and next month Gaza). Even better, eh?

I suggest you look more carefully at Uruguay, Peru and Rwanda. In the case of Uruguay, every child has one. That is pretty amazing. Peru is headed there. Rwanda too. In fact, we have moved our learning group (as of early June) to Kigali perminently, to be in the field and get the kind of feedback you claim we ignore.

Fair enough. And those stats about Uruguay are powerful indeed.  Negroponte did a get a little cheap, though. Admitting that the process of adoption has been tough, he writes that “Has it been harder than I expected? Yes. But do you know why? It is not due to what I had anticipated, things like corruption and logistics. It has been due to commercial interests and press, stories like yours.”

Ouch. There’s not a small amount of bitterness there. But we’ll let that go – maybe the OLPC project has legs after all.  I just hope it won’t be four more years until I write about it again.

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