Tag Archives: One Laptop Per Child

Government-funded Laptop Project Faces Opposition… From Parents

This week in class we studied the One Laptop Per Child organization and had a lengthy discussion about its obvious flaws. As IDEV students, we often find ourselves criticizing the various projects and organizations we study; its rare, however, that we see the beneficiaries of these projects condemning them as well. This article from the Associated Press in July 2013 discussed why a group of Kenyan parens voiced their opposition to President Uhuru Kenyatta’s $615 million plan to give laptops to 1.2 million school children. Parents felt that the money for the computers should be put towards raising teachers’ salaries and feeding impoverished students.

As one member of the Kenya National Association of Parents explained, “the program is bound to fail in a country that lacks enough teachers and where others strike regularly for better pay”. In 2013, Kenya faced a shortfall of 40,000 teachers. Additionally, more than 200,000 teachers in public schools across the country went on strike to protest unpaid allowances that the government had promised 16 years earlier. These parents felt that current teachers did not have the capacity to implement laptops into the classroom due to lack of training and a government-developed curriculum for the project. Additionally, a previous incident where 70 million textbooks in a public primary-school went missing added to worries that many laptops would be lost, stolen, or sold for food money.

One government spokesman defended the laptop project, saying it was crucial to Kenya’s goal of training a digital-savvy workforce. The Consumer Federation of Kenya, on the other hand, said the project had noble intentions but was “not well thought out and was politicized beyond redemption.” Many parents also felt there were better alternatives to how the government’s money should be spent when it comes to public education. In order to meet the population’s education demands, Kenya needs 42,000 classrooms. The money used for the laptops could be put towards building more schools to expand the country’s education system. Alternatively, some of the money would be better used to fund more children in the nation-wide school food program, meant to help poor children to stay in school, improve their health, and encourage nutrition.

Knowledge needed where tools are given

David Kulick, ICT and Innovation Program Officer with Johns Hopkins University Center for Communication Programs, addressed a problem integral to the analysis of many development projects. That problem is assuring that when tools or resources are delivered to communities, knowledge of use needs to be delivered as well.

This made me think about our discussions on One Laptop Per Child because this was a case in which large assumptions were made of the connection between a tool and results without anything in between. It may be true that a laptop can be a road towards improving education, but there has to be more to it than just delivery of the tool.

Kulick explained one assumption concerning people’s knowledge of malaria. He noted a project that delivered bed nets to keep out mosquitos, but questioned whether people got the connection between the bed nets and prevention of disease.

One program Kulick brought up as an example of closing these knowledge gaps is The ReMiND Project. Catholic Relief Services partnered with Dimagi, a technology innovator, to provide a service for new mothers to prevent newborn deaths and improve maternal health. The goals of The ReMiND Project are “Phone-based job aids for government community health workers and midwives; Real-time data tracking and SMS reminders to health workers to conduct home visits in the first 24 hours after birth with alerts to supervisors for missed visits; and Mobile phone birth announcements and health messages for fathers to generate demand for services and encourage healthy practices.” (source) This is an example of an eHealth practice to reduce newborn deaths.

The interesting contradiction is in the material I read about The ReMiND Project  I didn’t once come across anyone addressing if the people had a way to receive SMS messages.

One Laptop Per Child Criticism

I’d like to discuss the implications of The One Laptop Per Child advertisement we saw in class on Tuesday. We discussed as a class how it was not only uninformative but also infuriatingly transparent. It targets the kind of “activists” that click buttons and make Facebook statuses about humanitarian causes after hearing strategically worded sentences similar to the ones mentioned in the first fifteen seconds of the commercial. It made me think back to an article I read recently which delineates what is commonly known as “the white savior complex,” and how often times, people that might mean well end up doing more harm than good because they have no idea what they’re doing. This One Laptop Per Child campaign could  fit under this category because as we have seen in class, there have been no significant improvement in education after the implementation of the program. Since the laptops are given to the governments to distribute to the children, corrupt leaders may not go through with the distributions at all, and the technology fuels their corrupt activities instead. After taking a class about writing grants last semester, I have an understanding of how difficult it can be to receive funding for a particular project. All the bases need to be covered and every possible pitfall must be considered. This campaign does not seem to have considered all the implications and is feeding only on people’s emotions and consciences. The concept is great, but the implementation needs serious work to be effective and not detrimental. 

OLPC in Kasiisi: Successful, or just more successful?

In 2009 when I was in Kibale, Uganda, I saw the first 100 laptops being distributed to the Kasiisi School as part of the Kasiisi Project. After our class discussion, I wanted to learn more about how OLPC worked out in Kasiisi. This video gives a brief overview of OLPC in the context of the Kasiisi Project:

There were a few key differences between the way OLPC was implemented in Peru and the way it was implemented in Kasiisi that I was excited about. To start, the very first thing the video says is that it is about giving a kid a laptop and teaching them how to use it. Originally, OLPC seemed to think that for the most part, if you give a kid a laptop they should be able to teach themselves how to use it. As many of the children receiving these laptops have never had any sort of experience with this kind of technology, this is a pretty unreasonable assumption. I’m glad that Kasiisi valued teaching the kids how to use the laptops, ignoring the assumptions of OLPC. Second, they included teacher training as a part of implementing OLPC in the Kasiisi Schools. This gets teachers involved in the process of implementation, another major issue with OLPC. If teachers are involved, the computers can actually be used in the classrooms for educational purposes. If teachers don’t even know how to use the computers, there is no way to incorporate them into the classroom and it is unlikely that they can serve any significant educational purpose. Finally, the students were so excited about using the laptops that the program actually improved school attendance because students had to go to school to use them.

At the same time, the video points out a few of the issues that were also seen in other places that OLPC has been implemented. These first 100 laptops would follow the P5 class, but the incoming class would probably not be able to receive laptops. The first laptops were part of a very generous donation, but clearly this donation could only benefit a select group of students. Another issue that I witnessed that wasn’t mentioned in the video was the worry that if the children brought home the laptops, they would be stolen or sold. Also, at the time that this project was implemented, the school did not have main electricity. The computers had to be powered through a generator, which was incredibly slow and meant that their use was very limited. While Kasiisi had more success than Peru, it is clear that some major issues still need to be addressed before the project can be successful.

Lessons in ICT4D

Before taking this class, I didn’t think much about the role of technology in development. Of course I recognized the significance of the spread of the Internet and knew how certain technologies could enhance a development project’s overall goal, but I hadn’t considered that information and communication technologies could be the central focus of a project. ICTs are useful tools that can bring us closer to development goals if used creatively. Learning about the uses of ICTs in development was helpful based on the lessons that both the successes and failures of ICT4D projects can teach.

One of the lessons that kept recurring throughout the class was the idea that project plans should be driven by the people they aim to help. In the case of many projects donors take control and manipulate the goals to either fit their idea of what will be helpful or fit their idea of what will look good from the outside. We looked at case studies where organizations with good intentions failed because they did not communicate with their target population. Without understanding a community’s needs an outside organization cannot successfully provide development aid. We saw this in the case of One Laptop Per Child. The recipients and teachers were not consulted with to assess their needs or the possible constraints that could get in the way of the project’s success. As a result, the project has had little effect on education indicators in its target populations.

One Laptop Per Child also teaches us about the danger of focusing on a project’s image. Their video showing children in under-developed areas carrying laptops appealed to the audience’s emotions and tried to portray the idealism of the project. This is an example of Oscar Night Syndrome, or the tendency to choose projects or methods based on their outward appearance and “shininess”. We studied many projects that failed based on a disconnect with reality stemming from a desire to provide immediate impressive results rather than sustainable long term improvements. This is even more of a concern with ICT4D projects than development projects in general based on their tendency to rely on technology to produce results. Technological determinism is dangerous in ICT4D because it fails to take important factors into account.

I learned the most about ICT4D from real world case studies. Many of these lessons came from their failures, showing us what not to do. But during our video conference with Wayan Vota, he compared the percentage of business failures in Silicone Valley to the percentage of failures in development projects. While it is estimated that approximately 70% of development projects fail, the 30% success rate is substantially higher than the 10% success rate of business start-ups in Silicone Valley. Putting things in this perspective helps to affirm that all is not lost in the world of international development. While rates of failure are high, we can learn from our mistakes to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of future projects.

OLPC in Colombia: A Different Perspective

In class this week, we discussed many of the criticisms of the “One Laptop Per Child” program, which gives sturdy, affordable laptops to children in developing countries. Some of these criticisms include the fact that the model is entirely dependent on the computer itself, which could break, the fact that the teachers are almost completely left out of the equation, the financial instability of the project, and the fact that the local historical context is rarely considered in the implementation of OLPC. Studies have shown that the program has caused very little improvement in learning benchmarks or economic indicators in most cases.

However, there are other voices on the ground who argue that OLPC is making a big difference. For example, Maureen Orth, an award-winning journalist, Peace Corps volunteer, and founder of the Marina Orth school in Medellin, Colombia states that OLPC is “the most wonderful tool they could possibly have.” In an isolated region plagued by gang-related and drug violence, Orth says that One Laptop Per Child is making a big difference to children’s education. According to her, computer and English skills are essential to helping children compete in the global market. She also says that the laptop keeps children interested because they view activities as a game, and it teaches them responsibility because they take it home.

I think that maybe the key to OLPC’s success at Orth’s school in Colombia is that they design their own curriculum and put a lot of emphasis on teacher training. These are traits that make Orth’s school different from other places where OLPC has been implemented. Despite One Laptop Per Child’s many flaws, Orth’s on-the-ground perspectives shows that it can be successful in improving children’s education in developing countries if it is implemented in the right way, such as keeping the emphasis on teachers and being aware of the local context.

OLPC Turns to …. Tablets?


One Laptop per Child (OLPC) recently discovered that there was another market for ICTs and education – tablets! This new tablet aims to help children learn information and skills that will help them reach their aspirators and dreams. In addition to being able to find these tablets in pilot programs such as in Uruguay and Cambodia, you can find them at your local Target, Walmart, and online at Amazon for $150! My first concern with these tablets is why are they being sold at places in the US? I originally thought that it was similar to the give a tablet get a tablet idea (or in this case buy a tablet give a tablet), but this isn’t the case. As OLPC says on their FAQ page, “Proceeds from the XO Tablet purchases will be used to further develop the XO learning software and enhance it to address the needs of a larger population of children.” This shows it is definitely not directly impacting children in the developing world. Also, Walmart and Target must be making some sort of profit off of selling these tablets in their stores, which makes me wonder how much of this money is actually being used to work towards OLPC’s goal. Another concern that I have is the “dreams and aspirations” component. While in the United States (where this concept started) it may be easy to come up with universal dreams and aspirations, I can’t imagine this being so easy for other countries. The tablet opens up with “I want to be…” and examples such as astronaut, musician, artist, and mathematician. These just aren’t the same dreams that children in the developing world have. For example, in an article about children in Ethiopia getting tablets, a girl says that when she grows up she wants to be a truck driver. While OLPC says they are going to change the goals and aspirations based on country, I wonder how they are going to incorporate a dream like truck driver into their platform.

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.

ICT4Do’s and ICT4Don’ts

Today, Wayan Vota, a big name in the ICT4D world skyped in with us to answer some of our class’s questions about ICT4D. A common theme was whether ICT4D really works.


  • Can ICTs stand alone as development tools or should they accompany specific development initiatives?  (You should be able to figure this one out on your own if you know anything about One Laptop Per Child.)
  • What were the best and worst ICT4D projects? (OLPC seems to have surprisingly blown everything else out of the water for both…)
  • What’s more difficult: getting infrastructure to support ICT4D or community buy-in for an ICT4D project? (Most of our class got this one wrong – getting $$ for infrastructure is actually less challenging than having communities accept something that’s being forced upon them. Participatory development is much more effective than development practitioners coming into a community with a “plan for development” that they came up with without the help of any community members.)

But let me get to what I really wanted to talk about in this blogpost. I just saw this great article from The Guardian that gives 15 opinions of “open data evangelists” and “information services professionals” on how to develop countries using “information.”

Surprisingly, the most frequently mentioned information-development-tool is something we touched on once in class – the LIBRARY! Indeed, David Banisar (senior legal counsel of Article 19 in London), Lawrence Gudza (coordinator of Practical Answers/Action in Zimbabwe and South Africa), and  Jelena Rajic (librarian in Jagodina, Serbia) tout the important role libraries can play in development because of their ability to provide information to whole communities in a way that promotes equality and fairness. So DO support the libraries and hook them up with information and communication technology!

On to the don’t list.

Tony Roberts (co-founder of Web Gathering in London) says don’t ignore the political system – it can distribute information and institutionalize it much more quickly than a small, individual-by-individual effort can – and don’t make inequalities worse than they already are – avoid this by having a plan for sustainability to enable the most disadvantaged to be able to fully get out of the hole.

Samuel Lee (open data specialist at the World Bank in D.C.) provides a puzzling don’t. He says “don’t build new communities if you can leverage existing ones“. I’m not really sure what he means by “communities” – I’m assuming something like technologies or projects that facilitate development because he mentions how “leveraging communities that already exist… will also help communities cross the digital divide.” In any case, what I got out of this is don’t pay for something new and flashy when you can upgrade what you already have, dull as it may seem.

You can read the article for more advice these experts have on ICT4D, and I’m sure there are plenty of other articles on the subject. I just thought this was an intriguing article because not all of the experts come from the ICT4D world, or even regular development.

And just for funsies, here’s the most awesome library I’ve ever been to – the Bibliotheek in Amsterdam! It’s got a fancy cafeteria on the top floor and an awesome children’s area (complete with the real-life model of what’s seen in Het Muizenhuis)!


Mouse house1


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”.