Warschauer and Ames’s article, Can One Laptop per Child Save the World’s Poor?, provides insight into the many flaws of the OLPC initiative. Though the program has good intentions, “the poorest countries targeted by OLPC cannot afford laptop computers for all their children and would be better off building schools, training teachers, developing curricula, providing books and subsidizing attendance” (Warschauer and Ames, 34). In February of 2008, three years following the launch of the OLPC initiative, the national knowledge sharing platform on ICT4D (NTIC) in Burkina Faso held a workshop to discuss the possible implementation of the program in Burkina’s education sector. The workshop provided sector experts the chance to demonstrate and discuss the usefulness of the specialized XO computer. After much heated debate, it was decided that the OLPC could not successfully be integrated into the education sector at that time.
On the surface, the XO computer seemed like the perfect solution for connecting kids in developing countries– it was cheap, small, rugged, and efficient. Very little power was needed for it to run and it could withstand the harsh environmental conditions of countries like Burkina Faso. The open source software and content meant that users could alter programs and expand on existing software, but what the program failed to account for was the lack of capacity in the targeted countries to support, maintain, and rebuild various parts of the XO computers when they broke down. The problems encountered with this top-down distributing laptops approach brought about many questions for the Burkina NTIC to focus on. Would the OLPC meet the needs of the schools and people in the educational sector in Burkina Faso, what were the pros of the system, what were the cons, how would the program be introduced, and when would be the right time to introduce it?
It was determined that even though the laptop would increase access to knowledge, enable people to take part in the information society, introduce children to technology at a young age, and withstand harsh environments better than an ordinary computer, the OLPC could not be successfully applied in Burkina Faso because it needed to be adapted to local needs.
The OLPC would not be useful in Burkina Faso for many reasons. Foremost the current infrastructure, ie. bad connectivity, lack of energy, etc., could not support the OLPC. There are no resources available for technical maintenance of the laptop, and there are other problems within the educational sector that are much more pressing (lack of school rooms and bad working conditions for teachers).
In the end, the workshop led more to discussions about how ICTs might be used in the Burkina education system; the focus was on changing teaching methods rather than on the use of the OLPC itself. It was concluded that substantial efforts must be made to improve infrastructure, teacher training, curriculum development, and technical support networks before a program like OLPC could be successfully introduced to the nation. For the OLPC to work, both teachers and students should be trained to work with the software/hardware. OLPCs should first be distributed through community centers rather than just among children aged 6-12, and the content should be adapted to existing educational curricula. Further, the maintenance and life-expectancy of the computer parts also need to be improved.
Even “developed” countries do not have the means to buy a computer for every single child, so how do we expect the OLPC to reach everyone among the poorest of the poor? Only a few years ago, people did not ever think that a mobile network could be successfully implemented into countries like Burkina Faso, but look where we are today. Over 90% of people worldwide now own or have access to a mobile phone– maybe someday that same 90% will be able to own or access a computer and internet. It may be far off, but with some much-needed changes and re-considerations, the OLPC could provide a platform off which to grow connectivity around the world.
For more information and specific findings for the Burkina NTIC conference, follow this link.