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The One Laptop Per Child Model Never Was Valid

Alexandra Draxler


Is the OLPC model still valid? It never was valid, at least not for the target group it was aimed at, and that hasn’t changed. There are so many things wrong with the OLPC model that it is hard to know where to begin, but let me try to summarize. Let’s look at objectives, means, cost-effectiveness, implementation, and alternatives.


What is the problem to which OLPC was the solution? Depending on what description or which advocate one read or talked to, it ranged from poverty to ignorance to much more modest goals such as learning to read or becoming familiar with use of ICT. Certainly evaluations of OLPC have never made a link between implementation and improvement of the broader societal environment.

Certainly, users were in general favorable, due to the well-documented Hawthorne effect, which wears off over time. Where reading or math skills improved, it was not by comparison with spending the same money on more books or better reading materials. Where familiarity with ICT improved, well duh, but again this was not measured against alternatives.


OLPCs pedagogical usefulness was always deemed by OLPC to be self-evident, which it is not. Where OLPC is designed for self-learning, let us remember this is not for all children, even in circumstances where infrastructure is adequate and class sizes are small. It is certainly not a model for disadvantaged groups with little support at home and little in the way of community experience that will propel them forward.

The arrogance and ignorance of the assumption that the presence of laptops would instantly transform young children into autonomous, disciplined seekers of knowledge and understanding was always evident. It was tragicomically epitomized when Nicolas Negroponte famously said that he would favor flying over poor areas and throwing the tablets out of helicopters. Where OLPC is designed for improving classroom learning, it has to be measured against alternatives requiring the same effort and resources, which it never has.


The cost of purchase, let along TCO (total cost of ownership) was always far beyond affordability for the poor communities it ostensibly targeted, and was not sustainable even in middle income countries such as Uruguay. Example: when Rwanda decided the purchase of hundreds of thousands of laptops it was spending approximately $60 per year per primary school pupil (almost half of which comes from foreign aid).

One laptop cost $200, not counting connectivity, maintenance, training, replacement. TCO is at the very least double the cost of purchase and that is for a lifespan of–at most optimistic–four years (studies show that within a short period of time 20% or more of the laptops will be inoperable or missing).


Even assuming that OLPC is a positive choice, imperfect or disastrous implementation has always plagued these projects. The vast majority of classrooms in Rwanda did not have the electric infrastructure to keep the machines plugged in and running. Similarly, although in theory children could take them home, there is no electricity with which to use them in most households and children are vulnerable to theft en route. Satellite dishes to get them on line are regularly vandalized for parts that are scarce or expensive, or simply don’t work.

Teachers did not know what to do with them most of the time. One faced the distressing scenario of teachers writing text on blackboards for children to laboriously copy onto their laptops by searching for each letter one at a time (learning to use the keyboard was not part of the pedagogy); in worse cases, teachers simply abandoned the classrooms on the logical assumption that learners were occupied with their laptops.


Advocates for OLPC and 1:1 in general tend to take the view that something, even imperfect, is better than nothing. It isn’t. Every choice has a trade-off. Monies spent on ICT are not spent on, for example, toilets, running water, teacher training, reducing class size, school meals. Spending on OLPC gives the message to poorly-paid and poorly-trained teachers that they are not important, adding to disengagement on their part.

Determining which spending choice or innovation will have the most impact compared to alternatives requires care, time, and participation by end users. Experiences with miracle cures and quick fixes can teach us much about both the power and the limits of top-down innovation, as well as about the resistances to them. They don’t often leave much behind in terms of changes to quality, opportunity or system change.

Alexandra Draxler is an independent consultant working with private and public sector clients on ICT for education, and educational sector planning and management

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11 Responses to “The One Laptop Per Child Model Never Was Valid”

  1. Rob van Son

    It is clear that children are not “self learning”. But in all the criticism towards the OLPC and equivalent projects, I miss important aspects of ICT use in education:

    1 The communication aspect of network and internet access is ignored. Chatting, messaging, and emailing with peers and teachers are important for children that are otherwise isolated.

    2 Availability of textbooks and workbooks. It must be very disheartening to spend most of your time in the classroom copying texts from a blackboard. ICT already revolutionizes the distribution of teaching resources.

    3 It is easy to show that using computing devises in the classroom distracts from teaching. But that criticism ignores that while teaching is done by a teacher, learning is done by practicing. Practicing is most effectively done in peer groups and by oneself. Time-on-task is one of the most important aspects in skill development. ICT can shine here.

    It is clear that the OLPC has not delivered what we believed it promised. But the problem it tackled is still with us: A lack of qualified teachers in the developing world.

    There simply are not enough qualified teachers in the world to give every child the amount of attention it needs. And there is no way enough teachers can be trained and deployed within the next decade(s).

    This problem then becomes one of teacher productivity: If we cannot increase the number of teachers fast enough, we must increase the number of children each teacher can educate.

    Historically, increases of productivity have been achieved by employing technology. The OLPC tried to employ modern ICT to improve teacher productivity.

    The OLPC might have failed, but the problem remains: How can we raise the “productivity” of teachers in the developing world. I still see no other solution that using ICT.

    • Dear Rob,

      I agree with you. After working for over 10 years in one area in rural Cambodia we have seen how
      much the XO’s have helped students here. I think one of the biggest omissions is the fact that
      corruption plays an important role in education everywhere which the writer seems not to mention
      and some of the biggest problems are created by the biggest world wide non profits.

      We have been able to insure a good education for our students and many now have gone on to
      universities. Out of a graduation class of 25, nine went to university. But more than that they have
      come to appreciate education and learning. All of the programs on the OLPCs are Open Source
      and are not limited to the XO’s. You do not need the Internet to use the programs just a power source.
      Our students using SCRATCH (Open Source) have created wonderful computer games for example.

      We have always used the Beta XO’s and our attrition rate is extremely low. The students have learned
      how to repair their XOs as well. Our conditions are hot, humid and dusty.

      I never get involved in these debates but I wanted to let you know what has been happening in rural
      poor Cambodia.

      If one thing needs to be fixed — it has and will always be getting teachers on board. Seymour Papert learned this lesson many times.

      I might add that UNESCO has never visited us to see what we continue to accomplish.

      Kind regards,

      • Rob van Son


        Thanks for this response from the trenches. We see too little of these reports of how things actually play out in the field.

      • Alexandra Draxler-Morsy

        Definitely, thanks for this view from the trenches. There is no question about the fact that many innovations, coupled with dedicated educators, can make a big difference to individual lives. Technology more and more needs to be part of that innovative mix. My post was about OLPC as a model, which is how it presented itself and how I saw the attempts at implementation in Rwanda.

      • I find this video very insightful. The passion of those involved with OLPC is amazing – Heart2Heart!


  2. Gopalakrishnan

    I agree with the views expressed by the author. Instead of OLPC, a well connected and infra structured school would have helped the teacher to add more value to students. A projector, screen and DVDs with valuable content would have helped the schools even in remotest areas.

  3. Chinenye Mba-Uzoukwu

    Perhaps it would be less controversial and more acceptable if OLPC had been presented as a framework, as opposed to a model. That aside though, I find OLPC a much-criticized but possibly one of the most important ad impactful education initiatives this side of the 20th century. Hyperbole? Perhaps but it has been unarguably the basis for re-formulating technology in education strategies across the globe leading to a much more robust engagement around change. More later.

  4. Yet another bashing of OLPC (yaboo). I find the below article more well thought off and balance with regards to the 1:1 future – OLPC certainly has been years ahead and booted my understanding of the issues and challenges. My boss once told me .. tell me the solution not the problem.


    OLPC was not successful in reaching more children than expected but they tried and still trying. Many more people are still doing what they can with limited resources. Till today I can’t find any laptop that do the job better than the OLPC XO laptop. Unfortunately I have to flipped the model a little to achieve a XO4All possibility; with the use of SD card (US$4) to boot the child-centered Sugar interface (http://wiki.sugarlabs.org/go/Welcome_to_the_Sugar_Labs_wiki). This has worked out well and provided more children with access to the power of the XO and Sugar Learning platform with personalization.

    Some videos of a recent mobile Open Learning Chest (mOLC) deployment with XO and SD card are listed in this recent blog:


    Let’s be positive as the future depends on the next generation with our support.

  5. Edward Mokurai Cherlin

    There is a lot of confident supposition here, but I don’t see any data. Here is a data point. Laptop and tablet computers, not just the OLPC XO family, cost less than printed textbooks, and are far more capable, even before a country commissions a set of Open Educational Resources for its children, which Bangladesh was the first to do. Countries that need foreign aid in order to provide computers to students also cannot afford to train teachers and publish textbooks on their own, among other lacks. This article is of a piece with most of the naysaying about OLPC that I have read over the years: Doing nothing is better than providing computers.

    Here are some more data points: Peru commissioned a study that showed its students advancing rapidly in computer skills and general cognitive skills. The conventional view has been that all of that is worthless if it does not improve math test scores. When a country identifies specific deficits in its teaching, and commissions software to address them, quite remarkable results are possible. This happened in Nepal, where Open Learning Exchange was asked to create a simple counting program. The reported result was children advancing several years in arithmetic in a few months.

    I can provide links to all of the above.

    • Dear Edward Cherlin,

      Unless people have proof and actual knowledge about various employments — best if they did
      not comment on the work. They are all free to comment on the philosophy of OLPC.

      I have no doubt that our students not only improved their minds but also got a joy out of learning
      and creating their own work for the first time in their lives. But I am in place to see this happening.

      Regarding Rob van Son’s email: We do have self learners in our classes in Cambodia. We also
      have self learning teachers! It finally may get down to the culture one builds at a school. By the
      way to use the OLPC programs you do not need the Internet. You do need electricity. It always
      amazes me that although no one around me has a toilet, they all have cell phones. In other words
      where there is a desire there is a way.

      We have never hired trained teachers because they come with the wrong knowledge. In Asia –the
      teacher expects to be the King or Queen of her class — we have always followed the Seymour
      Papert philosophy in all our classes in both the primary and secondary schools where we work!

      • I am amazed with some observations of children with little education compared to the urban children in Hong Kong … the self-learning attitude is still intact when given things to play and explore. Not surprising that the large Peruvian study indicated an increase in intelligence for children exposed to the XO laptop. Nice to hear that the work of Seymour Papert is alive in the schools you run in Cambodia. It does make alot of sense and hope there will be more adoption when teachers realised that direct teaching has limitations – the children become self-directed learners and take charge of their future!


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