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Two billion laptops to “revolutionize education”: the One Laptop per Child


Children interacting with the OLPC. Photo: OLPC

In anticipation of my presentation next week at Present Tense: The 2011 D-Crit Conference, here’s an investigation on the progress and shortcomings of the One Laptop per Child initiative, which I wrote as part of my masters thesis “Design Crusades: A Critical Reflection on Social Design.” Register for the conference here and come see me talk May 4th at 5.30pm!

There is something about Nicholas Negroponte as he nonchalantly steps onto the stage of TED in February 2006. In dark suit trousers, cotton turtleneck and dark pullover draped over his shoulders, he exudes a cool determination, channeled into his fierce gaze, his resolved step, his compelling words. “This is not something that you have to test,” he says at one point. “The days of pilot projects are over, when people say, ‘Well, we’d like to do three or four thousand in our country to see how it works.’ Screw you. Go to the back of the line and someone else will do it, and then when you figure out that this works, you can join as well. And this is what we’re doing.” The audience laughs and applauds enthusiastically as Negroponte proceeds to unveil and circulate a prototype of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC), the project he chose to dedicate the rest of his life to.

Negroponte is the founder and Chairman Emeritus of the MIT Media Lab, a recognized tech evangelist who in the previous twelve months had changed the course of his life. In January 2005, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, he announced the OLPC, a non-profit organization developing a $100 laptop that “could revolutionize how we educate the world’s children.” Sold to governments of developing countries, the computer would be distributed in mass scale to the two billion of kids in the developing world. Championing the idea of “learning by doing,” Negroponte subscribed to a pedagogical philosophy inspired by MIT colleague Seymour Papert, who defends that giving children computers aids their learning and allows them to explore on their own, outside of an educational system that is often times flawed.

The West promptly bought into and proceeded to finance this idea. In November that year, at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis, Negroponte sat next to Kofi Annan to show the first prototype of the little computer. It stood out with bright colors and minute proportions, a yellow crank sticking out to its side that popped out when Kofi Annan tried to turn it. This first concept was the work of Continuum, patched together to show to an eager audience. According to the Continuum’s Kevin Young, the process had to be fast, and there wasn’t much time for research. “We did speak with some educators in developing nations and talked about some of the challenges in that environment, but otherwise this was about trusting the designers’ intuition.”

The OLPC was a design project from the start. Not only design of a technology that hadn’t yet been invented, but the design of a product that had to be sellable on a mass scale, to the world as an image, to developing countries as an investment, to kids as something they’d want to have. “Nick was an educator and a tech guy, but he understood that design was going to be the way that kids would connect with this device,” has remarked Yves Béhar, who was brought on board to design what became the XO-1, the first version of the laptop that saw daylight in late 2007.

From the announcement in January 2005 until the first OLPC unit rolled off the conveyor belt, there was intense speculation around the idea of a cheap, sturdy laptop. Could it be done? Intel and Microsoft sneered at the idea, only to quickly retract their position and entering the race to make a cheap educational tool; both organizations also worked with the non-profit, with diverse results. Beyond technology, few questioned the idea of mass-distributing laptops to poor children.

* In December 2005, the OLPC project website read the following: “Laptops are both a window and a tool: a window into the world and a tool with which to think. They are a wonderful way for all children to “learn learning” through independent interaction and exploration. (…) One does not think of community pencils, kids have their own. They are tools to think with, sufficiently inexpensive for work and play, drawing, writing and mathematics. A computer can be the same, but far more powerful. Furthermore, there are many reasons it is important for a child to “own” something-like a football, doll, or book – not the least of which being that these belongings will be well-maintained through love and care.” 

African participants at the 2005 Tunis Summit seemed to believe that “as the West becomes obsessed with gadgets, they can only think of new marketing ploys to get Africa to take out loans in order to buy what they don’t need.” Gisele Yitamben, a participant from Cameroon, questioned what would happen when and if the machines broke. The poetic prose featured in the OLPC’s website also attracted some criticism; John Naughton observed it was “impossible to read this stuff without wondering whether the folks who wrote it have any understanding of what it’s like to live in a society where the average income is less than $2 a day and the notion of children’s rights is as theoretical as time travel.” *

Far from such controversies, work on the OLPC focused on producing what was indeed possible and inspired a technological shift that later allowed for widespread Western production of affordable laptops—the notebooks. In December 2007, despite big contracts failing to materialize with the Chinese, Brazilian and Indian governments, and his inability to bring the laptop down to $100 (to this day it hovers around $200), Negroponte’s projections remained optimistic. “We hope by next year, maybe by middle of next year, to be hitting a million a month,” he stated at the TED stage, observing that worldwide laptop production was currently five million a month. He proceeded to state that “sometime next year we’re gonna make 20% of the world production,” which meant the distribution of 100 million laptops. Earlier that year, Negroponte had reverted his core principle of giving the laptops away for free by launching the temporary Give One, Get One (G1G1) initiative in North America. For just $400 dollars, anybody in the US and Canada could donate the OLPC to a child in the developing world. “And, get one for the child in your life as well.” This time, up on the TED stage, he pleaded. “Get your friends to Give One Get One. If everyone in this room sends this to 300 of 400 friends that would be fantastic.” Despite his sanguine delivery, it seemed Negroponte’s project was falling apart.

The G1G1 initiative elicited criticism from Bruce Nussbaum, who declared it the “end” of the OLPC project, a “grand—and deeply flawed—effort.” Later, he proceeded to expose why the rationale behind the project had been wrong from the start.

*Bruce Nussbaum, “The End of the One Laptop per Child Experiment – When Innovation Fails,” in Businessweek, May 16, 2008.

The problem from the very beginning was that this is a Western educational concept encased in a beautiful little childrens’ laptop designed by Westerners (Boston-based Continuum and fuseproject’s Yves Behar) for non-Western children and non-Western cultures and educational institutions. The education ministeries in India, China and elsewhere saw OLPC as a challenge to their authority and their abilities. After all, the rise of China and India and the lifting of half a billion people out of poverty in the shortest period of time in history is based on their existing educational institutions. They argue that with US companies chasing Chinese and Indian school graduates, why change their systems to conform to some Western ideal of learning?*

But being Western wasn’t the problem. The fundamental issue was the approach—the advocates of the OLPC failed to develop appropriate solutions for each context. By refusing to enter a discourse with their intended users, they failed to take into account different positions about education and the role of educators. Instead, the OLPC effort proposed a machine that would replace the professor and alienate the child, extending the school day “from a few hours to 12 or 14 hours—however long the child is awake.” By believing that one size fits all, Negroponte mistook his users for himself, and therefore doomed his project to fall short. By giving away laptops, he failed to enter an exchange where the kids could give something back.

Negroponte’s project was so Western-centric, that it ended up benefiting the West more than the rest of the world. By generating speculation and proving it was possible to build a cheap laptop, he did improve the lives of countless westerners who now can buy one for a cheap price. He also created a market for educational laptops where there wasn’t one. Negroponte brought Yves Behar to the spotlight; both won countless design awards for the OLPC and have been working on two more versions of the tablet, one of which, the XOXO, was discontinued, but is still on display at the Cooper-Hewitt’s Design Triennial 2010. Recognized by its beautiful aesthetics, it is unfortunate to see that the OLPC’s implementation, perhaps the most important part of its design project, was far from perfect.

Despite all setbacks, it is impressive to see how unrelentingly Negroponte is committed to the OLPC initiative. To this day, 2 million laptops have been distributed around the world, many in pilot projects. Uruguay is the only country that has distributed the XO-1 to all 369.727 of its primary students and teachers under a new education strategy, the Plan Ceibal. To date, it has been a tremendous success. Negroponte continues lecturing around the world, telling the same stories with muted enthusiasm, but introducing different strategies and objectives. “The mission of the OLPC is to eliminate poverty. It’s its grand goal,” he now states.

Upon Negroponte’s most recent appearance on The Colbert Report, Colbert wonders if any of these laptops have been given to American kids, “because we’ve got some poor kids in America, too.” “Yeah, but it’s a different scale,” replies Negroponte. He is caught off guard in his grandiose plan, and we are left to wonder if there isn’t a better way for the small laptop.