Can One Laptop Per Child Save the World’s Poor?

This week, we are studying the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) program. This program’s mission is to “empower the world’s poorest children through education”. OLPC has developed their own laptop computer, called the XO, along with its own software interface called Sugar, and aims to provide each child in the world with this low-cost and low-power computer. Click here to see a video of the non-profit’s mission.

1) Kids keep the laptops (meaning they must be free to take them home with them)

2) Focus on early education (focus on kids 6-12 years old)

3) No one gets left out (focus on large numbers at once, so they deliver to an entire school at once)

4) Connection to the internet

5) Free to grow and adapt (so the laptop can adapt with the child)

The program’s founder and chairman is Nicholas Negroponte, and argues the computers are a “children’s machine that would empower youth to learn without, or inspite of, their schools and teachers”. He believes that after solely giving a child a laptop, he or she will be able to learn how to use it on their own. This implementation strategy is of much alarm to Mark Warschauer, a professor at UC Irvine, and Morgan Ames, a PhD student at Stanford. Together, they wrote a paper titled “Can One Laptop per Child Save the World’s Poor?”.

They argue that no, it can not. Their first problem with OLPC is its implementation strategy. They believe that Negroponte’s believe that “great benefits will be achieved by simply giving children laptops and getting out of their way reflects naive and technologically determinist views… ICT is more of a sociotechnical network than a tool”. The main problem is that the implementation strategy is a “one-shot” try, and ignores all other factors. They argue that there is a lack of a holistic approach, and that other factors should be considered.

For example, Warschauer and Ames argue that many rural schools don’t have electricity access, let alone internet access and the ability to charge ones computer. Therefore, just because a child has a laptop, doesn’t mean they will be able to use it at school, or for school purposes. Another problem is that the laptops are not affordable. They wrote that Negroponte’s initial plan was to sell the laptop for $100 or less, but that now, it is near $188 plus implementation costs. The authors argue that this money, if allocated differently, could have stronger impacts. They believe that money would be better off “building schools, training teachers, developing curricula, providing books, and subsidizing attendance. They cite many other issues with OLPC, such as software issues, a lack of infrastructural and technical support, a lack of safety bringing computers home, and lastly argue that many students use the computers for entertainment rather than education.

Fortunately, it seems as though OLPC has taken a different approach. The authors write that luckily, Walter Bender (who was the former president of the software and content) returned to the organization, and brought with him a new perspective. He said, in contrast to Negroponte, “The Key to success is to really take a holistic approach to the servers, the infrastructure, the logistics, the software, the preparation and training, the pedagogy, and the community that is using all this stuff”. This is a huge change from Negroponte’s original one-shot implementation strategy, and seems to promise more success. However, Warschauer and Ames still argue that “regrettably, there is no magic laptop that can solve the educational problems of the world’s poor”, but that if they commit to this new implementation strategy, then they will be “better prepared to contribute to this worthwhile long-term endeavor”.

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5 responses to “Can One Laptop Per Child Save the World’s Poor?

  • smolina1

    Great review of the OLPC program. I agree that there must be an emphasis on logistics and capacitation rather than just giving away technological tools without any sort of training and assuming kids will make the most out of them. I was wondering do you have any sort of information on how countries implementing this program will approach certain groups, such as indigenous populations, certainly special considerations have to be given to these groups when implementing the program

  • laurenparmley

    One of the most successful development agendas is capacity building. I agree with the author on how if the funding of OLPC was allocated differently (ie: books, teachers, EDUCATION), there would be a much wider impact. The use of laptops typically affects the user. Though it was OLPC’s goal to have children take home the laptops and perhaps use and share them with family, that goal is not practical in the case study outlined in the reading. The author talks about how children do not take the laptops home out of fear. The spreading of knowledge, I believe, would be more impactful via capacity building rather than the technology outlined in this program.

  • elladove

    While I see the goal behing OLPC, sometimes programs of this caliber, where we put something shiny and new into a region that needs attention don’t fail because of the project plan but becuase they are not serving what the community truly needs. Perhaps with these lap tops, could come more attention to th infrastructure of the communities economy.

  • nsaqer

    I think that to focus on capacity building it is necessary first to have the capacity for laptops. The Internet is a wealth of knowledge, and I think that giving laptops to children who do not have internet access is a waste of resources, especially since it does not encourage kids to go to class.

  • marianaludmila

    I just have.a.huge question.
    Isn’t Ames working for Microsoft?

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