The Case of OLPC in Ethiopia

I might be one of the biggest critics of one child per laptop. Yes, there are ideological reasons. I think the traditional way of life in places should be preserved and I want to reduce waste. I also think that there is no magic cure-all solution. It has time and time again failed to increase retention in schools or improve math and language skills. It is also very costly.
I couldn’t imagine it being successful anywhere but after doing some research, I read about a successful experiment in Ethiopia. OLPC dropped 2 boxes of tablets (& of course their solar-powered chargers) in an Ethiopian village where almost everyone is illiterate. There was no instruction and it was pretty much “Hey kids, figure it out yourselves.
According to the article by Good (, amazing results ensued (although it’s legitimate to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism). Here is the description provided by MIT tech lab.

We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes! Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He’d never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs [in English] in the village. And within five months, they had hacked Android. Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera! And they figured out it had a camera, and they hacked Android.

The children gained the skills to ultimately hack the computers, but there are many questions left unanswered. How would they use these skills later? How many of the tablets were used? How many children actually learned to use them? Did they work with the computers independently or communally? How much English did they actually learn.

Thus, it might be asked, can the success of the program be fairly measured by this one outstanding case of success?






5 responses to “The Case of OLPC in Ethiopia

  • vcahen

    I one hundred percent agree with your opinions on reducing waste and not changing the traditional ways and cultures of people in different places. I think it is important to combine new and old traditions and ways but not ultimately change and create drastic changes that leas to failures.

  • amellan

    I think skepticism is merited and frankly it seems so ridiculous just to “drop” boxes of laptops. These cost money and precious natural resources to produce and this is just careless. That being said, it is pretty interesting that the children were given total freedom to explore the technology without guidance. Instead of limiting the children to conventional or elementary uses for these laptops, they were permitted to explore this new realm according to their cultural and cognitive frame (and they far exceeded expectations). I’m not advocating this strategy for all ICT’s but I bet development programs could benefit from observing how novices use existing technologies. Perhaps ICT’s adoption into specific cultures would be more successful as well.

  • tanvishah1

    I’m just curious how they collected those results if there was supposed to be no “human” involvement to interfere with the children’s interaction with the technology. Also, just from the tone of the excerpt from the article, it seems that the people observing and analyzing the OLPC’s impact on these children are treating this like a science experiment. It just feels odd to me.

  • sydneysapper

    I agree that this is definitely an odd situation, and that OLPC is not a viable solution or a smart initiative. However, I’d like to point out that the “results” of this “experiment” are not at all that surprising. Kids are curious creatures and they learn by doing. If you were to hand any child, anywhere something (like, say, a laptop) they would play with it, explore it, and learn it. I am constantly amazed by the way children learn, especially how fast they figure out technology, and this is not a phenomenon unique to the kids of the US.

  • sarahswig

    It definitely changes the game that there is a success story to OLPC. I think it says more about international development as a whole than it does about OLPC – it says that each country and area requires different solutions and approaches. OLPC may have worked in Ethiopia, but definitely does not mean the same approach of “dropping” the laptops in another area will work – and we have seen that in most cases it has not. My answer the final question posted in your post – no, the success of one case cannot accurately measure a program.

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