One Laptop Per Child: A Birmingham Case Study

After discussing the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative in class, I found it difficult to imagine a context in which this project would be successful. The program aims to provide every child in developing countries with a laptop for their personal use, but it fails to address infrastructure challenges and incorporation into class curriculums. The class consensus was that the lack of contextualization and cultural sensitivity would be the downfall of OLPC.

My curiosity led me to a case study done in Birmingham, Alabama using the OLPC model. Rather than focus on a developing nation the program chose an underserved population in the United States. The project was mired by controversy from the start as the mayor, Larry Langford, pressed it upon school systems without their input. The case study found a number of factors that contributed to its failure, many of which we had identified in class based on our knowledge of ICT-centric development projects.

Responses to a student survey found that 80.3% of Birmingham students either never used the XO laptops at school or only used them a little. The teachers were disengaged based on lack of training, the time the program added to their workload, and the fact that there were no teacher mentors. As in many developing countries, the schools had problems with their existing technological infrastructure, mainly the absence of reliable Internet access. Due to the program’s stress on child ownership of the laptops, the school was not responsible for maintenance and many problems went unfixed. The quote that stood out to me the most in this case study was from a teacher in the Birmingham school district regarding the inefficiency of the XO laptops:

“They are slow. They are sluggish. They can’t connect to the printers. I don’t teach writing with them because I have no way to access students’ written work other than walking around the classroom and looking at it. We even tried to set up student email accounts in my class, but the system blocked everything.”

The results of the OLPC initiative in Birmingham were disappointing to say the least. Part of this may be contributed to the controversy surrounding the project and a lack of general acceptance by the community. But many of the problems were not location specific, including difficulties with the XO laptop interface. If this program was not successful in an underserved city in the United States, it is hard to imagine the outcome being any better in a developing country.

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