One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project started in 2005 from an idea of Nicholas Negroponte, supported by a MIT team, and originally funded by private companies. The aim of this non-profit project is to provide every child a laptop under $ 100 that it can use at school to learn. If the concept is rather simple, its implementation on the ground is not that easy.
The XO computer is specially designed for children in developing countries. It is small, green, solid, water and dust resistant, can be recharged with solar energy and has a long battery autonomy. Applications are developed on Linux with a fun interface based on icons (Sugar), Internet connection is possible. The object has almost all the attributes of a regular laptop (USB, Web Cam …).
However its performance is relatively weak compared to “market” computers and lead to some heavy criticism. It is difficult to use for an adult, probably that’s part of the project design. Product development is provided by a community of computer scientists and professionals on the model of Wiki. This is not an IT project, nor industrial, but an education project to open new "learning opportunities" for children. Teachers do not seem much involved in the product design and are not the leaders of the project.
Thus, a first remark is necessary, it does not tell us if the computer is designed to complement the traditional teaching and media (books, painting, chalk, …) or if it intends to replace it. So, the Nigerian Minister of Education said, according to IRIN News website:
"What use to launch the project One Laptop per child if the child have no benches to sit and work, they do not have uniforms to go to school and if no adequate school infrastructure. "
The deployment of the project depends on the willingness of government officials who must constantly decide between different investment choices. In the case of Nigeria, the actions of some IT companies which have developed competitors laptops, have also been singled out. The purchase order was canceled in Nigeria and the case was also brought before the courts for keyboard problems. In reality, the purchase price is close to $ 200, which is fairly high compared with the cost of educating a student in a Southern country, and relatively close to the market prices, such as Netbook. This cost must be reduced to $ 75 with XO.3 version, planned in 2012.
According to United Nations figures, the number of children aged 5 to 14 years is 214 million in 2010 and will reach 267 million in 2025. At a unit cost of $ 100 per computer, that gives us a potential market of over 20 billion dollars, without counting the cost of maintenance and training of teachers …
Uruguay is so far the only country having equipped all the students with the "little green thing". Current deployment is not optimal and francophone African countries in particular do not seem interested so far, apart from Rwanda and Senegal (as always in the loop for innovations and pilot projects). The development project is also hindered by practical considerations such as lack of electricity, distance from school to home (indeed the object must be carried), which are well summarized by the Minister of Peru. In addition, the communication strategy does not seem to be very effective as evidenced by the powerpoints presented to countries during an OLPC workshop. Some countries appear to benefit from the project, such as Rwanda where the proclaimed goal is to develop early IT skills for further outsourcing. This info is relayed by the press.
The project has also a disturbing dimension: imagine that all children in a country are connected to the Internet through the OLPC laptops? What happens if a despot puts his hand on educational contents calling for hate or even genocide via laptop? This is not a SF scenario, one has to recall the use of mass media in the worst massacres of the twentieth century, sometimes committed by children, for instance with Radio Mille Collines in Rwanda, or the role of Nazi propaganda. Remember also that during the coups d’Etat, television facilities are often the first strategic points taken by the mutineers. This could be the open door for state propaganda, falsification of history or religious proselytizing wherever it comes from. As it stands, we are not invited to alarm us. So let’s close Pandora’s box, but better safe than sorry.
This project is somehow a form of digital evangelism aimed at revealing children’s skills: knowledge descends from heaven via small green antennas and transforms or transcends students. Knowledge does not come across the authority of teachers standing in front but from a little magic box. It is a revolutionary project that can attract the reluctance of teachers, who are mostly not trained in new technologies in developing countries, despite the many seminars and projects for the introduction of ICT, with the support of multinational corporations. The subject is also of interest of commercial banks such as BNP Paribas, which organizes a workshop on the issue soon.
Like the textbooks, the knowledge or expertise that might be issued or multiplied by the computer can be seen as competing work and academic skills of teachers, already working in difficult conditions. If the laptop does not replace traditional teaching resources, it is an additional material and human cost and no one knows if it helps achieve the expected academic performance. What is its place in the teaching strategy for teachers? It would be useful to look further into the calculation of the marginal utility of the product or the actual gain on student achievement to sell it to the political authorities.
Finally, these are two models of schooling that seem to compete: the martial model with uniforms, rank, flag raising and sometimes corporal punishment and a model of learning "on the village square with other children or under the baobab tree, "as said Norberto Bottani.
The numbers of computers shipped in the countries in 2009 are somewhat disturbing and this initiative deserves support. Simply click on the banner OLPC on the right hand side.
I would like to thank Wayne King and Dr. Ralph Dubienski which allowed me to manipulate an XO during a mission in Ethiopia. In return, a publicity for their NGO HopEthiopa.
To learn more and find some feedback on this tool, visit this blog. In french