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.”

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