OLPC: How Not to Run a Laptop Program
I and others have found these laptop and netbooks programs to be highly successful, resulting in greater access to and use of diverse sources of information, improved quantity and quality of student writing, higher student engagement through working with multiple media, greater opportunities to explore topics in-depth for, and improved integration of technology in instruction.
How to run a successful laptop program
The successful programs I have investigated have all been built on a similar model. A balanced funding approach is used, with sufficient funding budgeted for curriculum development, professional development, wireless routers, purchase of peripherals, and repair and replacement of laptops.
A careful planning process is carried out to develop a solid educational design and win support from important stakeholders, including teachers, parents, and community leaders. A staged implementation process, based on pilot studies, formative and summative evaluation, and gradual deployment helps ensure that positive lessons are learned as the project expands.
Finally, the district or state carefully assesses a range of hardware and software options to choose which ones best meet their educational goals in a cost effective manner.
The OLPC model is radically different.
Computers are to be provided to children, not schools, and in massive large deployments carried out as quickly as possible. Whether schools have funding for curricular or professional development, technical infrastructure, peripherals, support, or maintenance is disregarded in the rush to get computers into children’s hands immediately. Planning, pilot programs, evaluation, and staged implementation are eschewed.
One particular hardware/software combination, based on the XO computer, is seen as the solution in all contexts, rather than recommending that educational leaders consider a range of hardware and software options and select models that meet their educational needs.
The results are entirely predictable, and have started to surface. A handful of inspiring examples, based on terrific efforts by a few innovative teachers or students and backed by armies of volunteers, are touted. But, when examining the broader implementation, we learn that without professional development or curriculum development, and with little of the infrastructure that makes computer use in schools effective, teachers for the most part ignore the computers, which thus go largely unused in schools.
As for home use of the laptops, children are initially very excited, but — again, apart from a few inspiring examples — they mainly use them to play simple games that do little else but displace time spent on homework or other forms of play. Within a year or two, the machines start breaking down and most families lack the means to repair them.
Meanwhile, huge amounts of money have been wasted that, with better planning, could have improved education in a myriad of ways.
As with prior unsuccessful examples of educational technology promoted as a magic bullet, everybody will then blame school systems and their teachers for failing to take advantage of such a revolutionary piece of equipment. Then, in another few years, a new revolutionary piece of equipment will appear and the same cycle will be repeated.
Our lesson learned from OLPC
The most impoverished countries targeted by this initiative shouldn’t be investing in one laptop per child, as their children will benefit more from the hiring and training of teachers, the building of schools, and judicious use of technology appropriate to their contexts.
As for more developed countries that are considering educational laptop programs, they will do best basing their programs on thoughtful educational planning and priorities rather than, as OLPC advocates suggest, simply passing out XOs and getting out of children’s way.
In summary, what OLPC has taught us so far is how not to organize a successful educational laptop program.