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Is the One Laptop Per Child Model Still Relevant in 2014?

Wayan Vota


A decade ago, Nicholas Negroponte burst into the imagination of educators and technologies worldwide with a brilliant vision of every child in the developing world using a laptop to learn learning. At the time, this was a revolutionary idea, and it brought forth a seemingly endless stream of commentary, hype, and announcements of countries planning massive one computer per child programs.

Since then, the bright idea has run into the realities of technology change, inertia, and innovation, and while the One Laptop Per Child organization continues, no longer are there major announcements of deployments or even a groundswell of excitement around it. Which begs the question: Is the One Laptop Per Child model still relevant?

OLPC vs. 1:1

Now I think we can all agree that there are two models at play here. There is the concept of one laptop per student and the concept of one device per student, regardless of its form factor. While the primacy of the laptop versus the tablet or mobile phone can be debated (and should be), the reality is that we have entered the era where one educational ICT tool per student is an accepted practice.

That doesn’t mean that 1:1 saturation of devices is proven, or is actually the best practice to pursue, but that’s certainly the route that many politicians and parents want. And that brings us to what I think is the larger question: should we be aiming for 1:1?

1:1 vs. 1:Many

In our headlong rush to try and provide computing devices for every student, and with Nicholas Negroponte asking if we would suppose that children share pencils, I wonder just why we believe we need to have a 1:1 ratio of technology tools per student. To Negroponte’s point, yes, there are many schools where children must share pencils, or pencil supply is by parental purchase only, resigning some students to share pencils as a normal course of their school day.

If we are still working to support educational systems to provide the basics, like even teachers or pencils, might we also dial back our expectations of ICT investments? What exactly is wrong with using low-cost projectors so an entire class can learn from one computer?

Teacher vs. Student ICT

Or what about starting with ICT infrastructure for teacher professional development and school administration? In fact, isn’t the low-hanging fruit of ICT4E getting teachers to post grades, get support, and even simply report on attendance levels through mobile phones a great advancement in many countries? Just paying teachers regularly and on time via mobile money would arguably increase learning outcomes as much as laptop deployments.

School level educational management systems, reporting real-time data up to national administrators and out to classroom teachers, would revolutionize education and reveal the great flaws in current practices faster and more transparently that student-centered technology.

Not as flashy or exciting, for sure, but I argue, much, much more effective than one anything per child.

But enough of my rambling, what is your opinion? Do share your thoughts in comments or email us a Guest Post answering questions like these:

  • Is the OLPC model still valid?
  • Do schools still need one laptop per student?
  • Or is computing hardware now totally ubiquitous?
  • Is it time to again focus on curriculum, content, and pedagogy?
  • And can we finally remember the teachers?

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11 Responses to “Is the One Laptop Per Child Model Still Relevant in 2014?”

  1. I write as an early adopter of ICT in education. (I was an infant teacher way back when we were first experimenting with microcomputers and 32K of memory was about as good as it got) I say this simply to point out that as an ex-infant teacher I do agree with the OLPC people that young children are capable independent learners, and I do have a long time interest in enabling learning in new ways using computers. However it’s not as simple as the OLPC people seemed to think.

    I like your pencil references. Children have pencils in school because the teachers understand the benefits of being able to write.

    I also like your references to the low-hanging fruit of ICT4E. I agree that teachers who understand that ICT is useful to them in their admin work may be more open to discovering how ICT is also useful in their classroom work. (Teachers are busy people and unfamiliar classroom equipment can just seem like an additional burden.)

    I’m a life-long learner and I use the internet in my own learning, so I want other people to have that opportunity too. I believe that when teachers (and teacher-trainers and parents) use ICT (including smart phones) for their own information-accessing needs (professional development and everyday lives) then we will see them wanting pupils to have that opportunity too – just as the adults now expect the pupils to have pencils.

    (I can see some people may think that means I’m not interested in digital divide issues, so to save misunderstandings I’ll mention that I am interested, and have been for a long time, including ICT training for teachers in Nigeria and Kenya – http://dadamac.net/initiative/teachers-talking . I found many aspects of OLPC deeply distressing – mainly because it was top-down and therefore wasteful and was also completely irrelevant to the teachers and schools I knew.)

  2. Michael Atkinson

    That’s so interesting Wayan, thanks for sharing your thoughts. How much of a dialogue is going on out there about _teacher_, not student, ICT, & generally who/what’s being said?

  3. The Papyrus Solar-powered Audio Player can be use to teach the uneducated. 2 Billion people (and 3.5M Americans) cannot read. The SD card can be loaded using a computer. This is a wonderful tool.

  4. I have twice supported the OLPC movement by purchasing the XO for oversees use and donating one I had. On a personal level I think the concept of low cost, easy to maintain, easy to program, durable, with something like the Mesh Network is still needed in low income areas and developing areas.

    I am unsure what business model would do that, as it is obvious technology and whole new classes of devices brought to market by private companies so quickly made the XO outdated. I remain unconvinced that in poorer areas of the world that for-profit companies can truly provide useful devices, when considering keeping them maintained, current on software, and interconnected.

    I know on a programming side, my then young son enjoyed playing around with object-oriented programing and it appeared Sugar would allow for local scale programs to be developed and put in use.

    My feeling is that yes, interconnected computing devices are needed on a one to one basis most especially in poor areas. That no the OLPC movement is no longer relevant to doing that, and that for-profit companies cannot overcome the lack of infrastructure, training, and needed improvements to provide one interconnected device under those conditions.

    I see no need, for instance, for OLPC-style devices in my local school district, they have IT support, and Smart-boards, Linux, Windows, Mac or IoS, and Android all play nicely together and can be replaced/upgraded as needed.And they interconnect on really stable relatively high speed internet connection.

    Poor and developing areas lack the ability to replicate that situation. I was especially hopeful for the possibility the XO Mesh network provided. So, I find myself disappointed and a little disillusioned with the state of interconnected “smart” devices for those regions of the world.

  5. Mephisto

    The OLPC failure should serve as a reminder to everyone – specially those more into technology than education – that teaching is far more that just dumping loads of data on kids in the irrational hope that they will sort it out and draw the right conclusions from it. That seemed to be the premise from which Negroponte and Co. operated. Luckily for most, the overwhelming majority of governments and educational institutions in the world saw it for what it was: a, perhaps, well-intentioned idea based on some demented and comical “principles” (‘kids will learn learning’, ‘if the money is short, a $100 Laptop will replace the teacher’) more reminiscent of fortune-cookie wisdom that an actual scientific/social project. Not so luckily for a few, money was wasted by poor people that could have put it to better use – but they were betrayed by their own leaders, not Negroponte.

    So, the question remains – in spite of the obvious answer: what’s the role of ICT in education?

    The answer is simple: it is a support role, a transparent role. It has to work in the background, helping teachers do their job, making it easier for kids to access and work with data. The technology delivers the means. The humans (teachers and students) provide the thinking. Nothing terribly complicated about that – after all, isn’t that the way we all use computers today?

  6. The concept of education in developing countries is thoroughly in a guided framework of national curriculum in the K12 education space. The primary and basic responsibility of the teachers/ school/ national leaders should be to teach curriculum to the next generation which is presumably wholesome activity. Any thing other than the curriculum framework is left to the prerogative of the individual student learners.

    The classroom is a mix of different type of learners with different learning capabilities and the teacher should deliver the curriculum uniformly to suit all the learners in her classroom, I would certainly emphasize if the teacher is empowered with a projector, standardised curriculum based interactive and engaging content to retain the attention span of every student audience in her classroom, we have achieved the basic feet of technology empowered next generation teachers and thus her student. If this first goal is achieved, soon will follow the quest for self paced exploratory learning and other learning theories,

  7. Ed Tech Globe

    I recently took a quick look at OLPC vs. Intel Classmate on my blog (http://edtechglobe.wordpress.com/2014/03/23/olpc-vs-intel-classmate/) and what struck me the most was how Intel appears to be engaged in research and evaluation about what actually works and is feasible in each country they’re involved in, while OLPC seems to reject the whole idea of looking into outcomes. I’d say that schools have unique challenges depending on what part of the world they’re in, so there’s probably not a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to their ICT needs. NGOs/governments/corporations should just carefully analyze what would likely lead to the best results before they choose to deploy something like a 1:1 initiative.

  8. Persistence

    It can work according to OLPC vision. Some teachers just need some handholding and models of how to make best use successfully with new technology, have some faith, give it time and persistence. Rewards are many. 1:1 is essential for true skill development, mastery & deep learning….innovation…creativity. Hang in there! Keep going! Get there!


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