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OLPC in South America in Context of Deployments Around the World

Christoph Derndorfer


After providing an overview of OLPC in South America as well as compiling in-depth articles about the current status of the projects in Uruguay, Paraguay, and Peru it’s now time to wrap things up.

Hence the 5th and last article this month will look beyond the three countries I described in the past few weeks to see what other OLPC initiatives are doing when it comes to the six criteria for successful implementations of ICT for Education projects in developing countries which have guided this article series. Additionally I will also highlight some lessons for other ICT4E projects which can be extracted from the South American OLPC experiences.

What seems worth pointing out is that the three countries I visited cover a significant range of the broad variety of different approaches, contexts, and projects which can be found around the world under the unifying “One Laptop Per Child” name.

With the project in Paraguay being run by an NGO and the ones in Uruguay and Peru by governments the two most widespread organizational models found in OLPC implementations were covered. In terms of scale the spectrum also goes from Paraguay’s current 4,000 (soon to be 9,000) XO laptops all the way up to the 300,000 respectively 400,000 machines which have so far been distributed in Peru and Uruguay.

When it comes to the context such as infrastructure and current status quo of the education system there are also significant differences between for example Peru – where only a single digit percentage of the OLPC schools have Internet access and literacy in rural areas is estimated to be around 80% – and Uruguay – where 98% of the primary schools now have Internet connectivity and literacy is also around 98%~99%.

Similarly Uruguay’s Plan Ceibal, ParaguayEduca, and Peru’s Una laptop por niño have also taken a variety of different approaches when it comes to aspects such as maintenance, community involvement, educational content and materials, teacher training, and evaluations. To me personally seeing this range of ways and solutions to address challenges and issues was one of the most interesting aspects of my journey.

A brief look at other OLPC efforts

However of course people and organizations working on OLPC efforts in other countries and contexts are coming up with yet different approaches in every area of their project. Therefore in this section I’d like to briefly highlight some examples of countries which are taking different routes than the ones described in this article series.



In Afghanistan the OLPC project is the result of a cooperation between OLPC, the IT company PAIWASTOON, the Afghani Ministry of Education, Ministry of Communication and IT and USAID’s Afghanistan Small and Medium Enterprise Development. So far the consortium has distributed approximately 5,000 XOs and is actively seeking to significantly increase the project’s size in the forseeable future.

Two key components of the Afghani OLPC efforts are content and evaluations.

On the content side PAIWASTOON is working hard on improving and adapting eXeLearning an open-source authoring tool originally developed in New Zealand. The goal of eXeLearning is to provide a simple tool which allows teachers and educators to quickly and easily develop interactive lessons based on wide-spread Web technologies such as HTML and JavaScript. Apart from making modifications to adapt the resulting content to the XO hardware and Sugar software PAIWASTOON is also adding new templates which can be used by teachers and educators. It is also important to point out that PAIWASTOON wants to go beyond traditional subject materials and school-focused content and also enable the creation of materials related to health, personal finances, or related matters which are deemed important within the Afghani context.

When it comes to evaluation the Afghani OLPC project isn’t just interested in evaluating the educational and social impacts but also comparing these impacts against what the result provided by other, potentially non-technical, interventions in the education system. To that end people have also closely looked at the current status quo of education in Afghanistan and subsequently try to address what are perceived to be particular deficits with specific approaches based around the XO laptops. The results of these efforts are then planned to be compared to (a) schools without any interventions and (b) schools where other projects unrelated to OLPC are taking place.

While it’s early days for OLPC in Afghanistan it seems clear that the people and organizations involved in it are taking some interesting approaches to content creation and evaluation. The experiences and knowledge collected in the process could certainly prove to be very useful for other OLPC initiatives as well ICT4E in general.


If one had to describe the OLPC project in Nepal in a single word then “content” is probably the best choice. It’s safe to say that similarly to the efforts in Afghanistan the Nepali project is very much driven by developing high quality interactive learning content.

For context let’s take a step back for a quick overview of the Nepali OLPC efforts. First of all it’s important to point out that they’re run by an NGO called OLE Nepal (Open Learning Exchange Nepal) which was started in 2007 and currently has approximately 40 employees. The organization’s goal is to

…improve the quality and access in Nepal’s public education system. It seeks to fulfill this mission by developing and disseminating high quality open-source Information and Communication Technology (ICT)-based educational teaching-learning materials that are accessible and available free of cost to all.

To date OLE Nepal has distributed roughly 2200 XO laptops in 26 schools across 6 different provinces of Nepal.

The two content components which sit at the heart of OLE Nepal’s efforts are called E-Paath and E-Pustakalaya.

E-Paath is a collection of interactive learning materials which currently consists of more than 200 units in the subjects of English, Mathematics, and Nepali. The individual learning units are developed to align with Nepal’s national curriculum and learning objectives and the development process is driven and led by education specialists and former teachers in collaboration with programmers and designers. Additionally all of these learning units come with support materials and guides for teachers which contain information on how to integrate them in the classroom, ideas for homework built around them, and laying out what the specific learning goals for each interactive lesson are.

The second component, E-Pustakalaya, is an education focused digital library which currently contains more than 1,200 materials in categories such as children’s books, classic and contemporary literature, newspapers, maps, and photos. Not all of the schools have yet been connected to the Internet thereby making it impossible for pupils, teachers, and other to access the online version of E-Pustakalaya. As an intermediary step until Internet connectivity is possible each school has been equipped with a server which contains a copy of the digital library which is regularly updated via USB flash drives.

Given the relatively small size of its team the amount of high quality content and materials that OLE Nepal has created and curated in the past three years is nothing short of impressive. By combining the content itself with support documentation for teachers it also facilitates the in-classroom use of the XO laptops as a learning tool.

It’s clear that content and materials are only one component of a successful ICT4E initiative and their relative importance will also depend on a projects educational approach. However I do believe that many efforts within the OLPC or larger ICT4E context can learn a lot from OLE Nepal’s work in this area.

Nicaragua / Nigeria

In most countries it’s either the government and its respective institutions, such as Uruguay’s CITS, or an independent NGO, such as OLE Nepal or ParaguayEduca, which is implementing an OLPC project. What is interesting about Nicaragua and Nigeria it’s non-profit entities started by large companies which have initiated the respective OLPC projects in these two countries.

In Nicaragua the LAFISE BANCENTRO Financial Group and its owners decided to create the Zamora Terán foundation to kickstart the OLPC project. On top of the initial seed-funding of US$1,000,000 the foundation is reporting having collected an additional US$4,000,000 from other companies, organizations, and governments since its launch in early 2009.

These external donations are partially the result of a “give a school” model which Daniel Drake, who among many other OLPC projects has also volunteered with Zamora Terán, describes like this:

The foundation has a significant stock of laptops in the country and other organisations can make a donation to cause the project to land in a specific school; the donor covers the cost of the equipment and infrastructure, and the foundation does the rest (logistics, connectivity, laptop handout, teacher training, followup and repairs, etc.).

Somewhat similarly Nigeria’s OLPC project is run by Schlumberger Excellence in Educational Development (SEED). Schlumberger is the world’s largest oilfield services provider and describes SEED as:

…a volunteer-based, nonprofit education program focused on underserved communities where Schlumberger people live and work.

At the moment both projects are of similar size – roughly 7,500 XOs in Nicaragua and 6,000 XOs in Nigeria – and it will be interesting to see how they develop over the coming months and years. Particularly when it comes to scaling it will be worthwhile observing if and how these organizations operate compared to the OLPC projects run by more “traditional” NGOs.

Closing thoughts

Last but not least here are some closing thoughts and possible things to consider for ICT4E projects in general.


ICT4E in developing countries is here to stay

One of the things that I’m convinced of is that as a topic ICT4E in developing countries isn’t going to go away anytime soon. While I previously saw a slight chance for the development of somewhat of a hype – followed by a significant decrease – in the interest of implementing ICT4E solutions in developing countries I now believe that it is here to stay. Five years from now we’re going to see more people, groups, organizations, and governments wanting to work in this space.

One of the strongest indicators of that development is that the broader discussion within academia as well as the media, NGOs, and communities of practice about ICT4E in developing countries has shifted from “should it be done” to “how should it be done” in the more recent past. In parallel the discussion also seems to have moved beyond the previously hotly debated question of “which ICT should be used” to the more interesting (and more difficult) point of “how do can whatever ICT is available be used”.

Additionally, and I strongly believe this is a factor which mustn’t be underestimated, the implemention of large-scale ICT4E projects such as Uruguay’s Plan Ceibal also creates somewhat of a pull-factor for these kinds of initiatives. Particularly within South America we are starting to see local and regional authorities approaching entities such as Plan Ceibal to see how similar efforts can be implemented in their respectives areas.

It’s within this context that I recently wrote an article explaining why I think that “Montevideo will be the OLPC capital of the world“. In the past where it was often organizations such as One Laptop per Child itself or other NGOs which were the driving forces behind ICT4E projects. However now it increasingly seems to be local, regional or national entities interested in ICT4E who are approaching organizations and countries such as Uruguay’s Plan Ceibal to learn about their experiences.

The hard part of ICT4E is the “for education“

Especially for someone with a technology background, like yours truly, it’s often easy to overly focus on the “ICT” part of ICT4E. However I strongly believe that the significantly harder as well as interesting part of the equation is the “for education” aspect. Hence the broader question is how to effectively and efficiently integrate technology, and not just laptops, in the teaching and learning processes taking place inside as well as outside school.

At the moment it seems like many ICT4E projects are primarily technology-driven rather than focusing on the education part. As a result technical challenges often receive more attention and resources than education ones. Yet given that the primary purpose of ICT in ICT4E is to serve as a tool to improve learning rather than as a goal in itself, I think that in many cases more resources and people need to be dedicated to the education side of things.

You can only learn so much from a pilot

Another lesson from the South American OLPC projects, particularly the large ones in Uruguay and Peru, is that there’s only so much one can learn from a 200 XO pilot project. In general within ICT4E small pilots often only seem to be regarded as a way to learn about the biggest mistakes early on before significantly increasing the size of an initiative. However there’s a broad variety of issues which will only appear once a project reaches a certain size and hence scaling a project such as Plan Ceibal from 200 to 400,000 XOs within 2 1/2 years leaves relatively little time to address deficits in the planning or implementation. This then results in problems being amplified by the sheer size of a project, and regardless of how tiny it may seem at first most things become difficult to address once you multiply them by 400,000.

Hence what I would suggest is more of a staged and iterative approach. So instead of going from several hundred straight to several hundred thousand devices and participants one could imagine a project starting with 100 machines, then being increased to 1,000 or 5,000, up to 50,000 or 100,000 in the next stage before finally reaching an even bigger scale. Given enough time each of these iterations will yield interesting results and insights which will in turn help improve the next iteration. In combination with extensive monitoring and evaluation this approach could help detect and subsequently address issues which only start appearing once a project reaches a certain size.

However I do realize that such an approach, a saner approach as one could call it, will often run into political realities such as elections and people going out of office. In Uruguay for example then-president Tabaré Vázquez who had initiated Plan Ceibal wanted the program to be his legacy hence the distribution of the laptops had to be completed before he left office.

Context matters

More often than not information on paper and in databases is a simplified representation of the real thing. As a result two schools which might both be considered to be “rural schools” could differ significantly and in fact require quite different resources and approaches to successfully implement an ICT4E project such as OLPC.

An example here are two schools which I visited during my time in Peru. They looked sufficiently similar on paper however in key areas such as size, electrical infrastructure, or availability of a teacher with extensive knowledge about computers the differences were quite significant. The first school had a sufficient number of power outlets the electricity itself wasn’t very reliable whereas in the second school very few power outlets were available in the classrooms yet the electricity was generally reliable. Of course these issues require different solutions catered to the specific requirements so a one size fits all approach for “rural schools” might actually miss addressing the specific problems.

Details, details, details

Similarly to what I wrote above I strongly believe that details really matter. It’s not just about the broader context of a school but also about things such as the number of power outlets which are available in a classroom. While this might seem hardly worthwhile thinking about at first it actually has a lot of impact on aspects such as the seating arrangements in a classroom, how often pupils can use the laptops, and whether they can consistently use the laptops.

In my mind this also aligns well with the staged approach implementation mentioned above. It is impossible to draw up the perfect plan on day one and ICT4E projects are very likely to run into issues that the people behind it, who often don’t have a clear understanding of realities on the ground, never even considered. So one way to address this is to have extensive on the ground and first-hand experience about the specific environment and its characteristics an ICT4E project will be implemented in. An alternative here is to have close feedback loops with a project’s stakeholders, in the case of OLPC for example pupils, teachers, parents, principals, and administrators.

Don’t reinvent the flat tire

It was Alan Kay who used the expression “reinventing the flat tire” within the context of computers and education in an e-mail discussion within the OLPC and Sugar communities and I think it really hits the nail on the head.

In my mind one way to avoid reinventing the flat tire is to learn from mistakes which others previously made. Therefore I think it’s important to point out that on top of a lot of information about best practices there’s also a wealth of knowledge about worst practices out there which ICT4E projects should take into account. Michael Trucano’s Worst practice in ICT use in education can be considered a must-read in this area. Particularly given that ICT4E is supposedly about learning, it never ceases to amaze me how little many individuals, organizations, and projects learn from what is already out there.

Though it may sometimes seem like it’s a brand-new thing ICT4E and the whole concept of using computers in education and learning has actually been around for quite awhile. There’s a wealth of information out there about things that don’t work at all or don’t work well within a certain context so there’s really no excuse for often making the same mistakes over and over again.

In the end I hope that you found this 5-part article series as well as the resulting discussions interesting and relevant to your own involvement in OLPC and ICT4E. I’m looking forward to your comments, critique, questions, and feedback below.

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11 Responses to “OLPC in South America in Context of Deployments Around the World”

  1. Thanks, Christoph, quite informative. I find it interesting and a bit of a sidenote what did not get listed – yes, I know you merely set a few examples, but three "major" deployments come to mind: Rwanda, Mongolia, and Haiti, all of them with one common element: they were initiated by OLPC itself, with donations from the American G1G1. As such the profile is not of government or local company initiated deploys, but another major taxon, if you will, that would of course include the AfricaCorps initiative, apparently defunct? I've been away too long, need to catch up.

    • Two quick observations:

      (1) At least with Rwanda and Mongolia it seems hard to be able to obtain information about the status quo of the projects there. Believe me, I've tried! Haiti is actually a country I had planned to include but I simply didn't have enough time to dive into all the details. Plus with OLPC's Adam and Waveplace's Tim being on the ground there at the moment I expect to have a much better picture of olpc related efforts in the country emerge over the coming weeks (e.g. via http://waveplace.org/news/blog/).

      (2) I'm not sure it particularly matters whether a project was initiated by OLPC or someone else, especially since it's often very hard to figure out where the initial impulse actually came from. Similarly where the laptops come from – private donations such as G1G1 or corporate donations such as the one by SWIFT for Nepal and Paraguay – also doesn't matter that much. What does matters IMHO is who is in charge of the implementation itself. In Haiti there are at least two parallel efforts that I'm aware of (OLPC and Waveplace) though I don't have a clear picture about OLPC's own activites on the ground there. In Rwanda there seems to be some sort of collaboration between OLPC and the government though again I don't know any details. Mongolia is similar to Rwanda from what little I know.

  2. I agree. You do not need Internet connectivity to have a real educational experience with a computer. And if you do want an Internet content experience, it can be had offline for a fraction of bandwidth costs, just check out the options Mike Trucano lists on the World bank EduTech blog: http://blogs.worldbank.org/edutech/egranary

  3. Cavin, thanks a lot for your comment.

    I do agree that the Internet shouldn't be considered a holy grail. At the same time a lack of connectivity does undoubtedly make many things considerably harder.

    And as Wayan points out there are intermediary steps such as eGranary and similar efforts.

    Last but not least I think it's important to emphasize that in many ways the Internet doesn't need to be the big fat pipe that many people think about when they hear the term. A simple 56kbit line / EDGE connection per school for example could already make an enormous amount of difference compared to being completely offline.

    • Cavin Mugarura

      While a 56k line might be affordable, what effect would it have on a lab with 1,000 computers.
      The eGranary project looks good on paper, but a reality check might make me less excited about it. It assumes night follows day, and in ICT project planning, this is not true. One of the assumptions, is that Universities have networked computers. A typical university might have 20 or more computer labs. Do these labs talk to each other? Is there an incentive for this to happen? Technically its easy to do so, but the reality is different. Are there any incentives to have these labs talk to each other. The only incentive, i can think of, is having funding from the education ministries, tied to certain benchmarks, like inter connected labs throughout the university. Defaulters would miss out on funding or have their budgets slashed. This is just one of the several measures that can be put in place. I have seen very good ICT initiatives turn into white elephants, and the problem is coming up with technical solutions without foreseeing the bottlenecks ahead, plus sustainability.

      • When it comes to things like distributing content, software updates, manuals, etc. even a 56k line could make a big difference in my opinion.

  4. Nicholas Negroponte is right. The conversation has changed from "should we do it" to "how do we afford it" and Christoph points out the corollary question "how do we do it" which a fundamentally different conversation than in the past. Congratulations to Negroponte for making that happen. Now its up to us to figure out the hard pat – that last question.

  5. I was utterly surprised yesterday when – through a much different path of reasoning – I came to a similar realization as Wayan – that the basic question had changed. Now, he may be ahead of me in figuring out what the question now is – I am still musing on that. I personally believe that the "how" was the crux of the matter from the beginning – at least for me it was. I must admit that it's not just a warm feeling I have for those who intuitively assume that ICTs belong in education, I'm probably one of them, ok, there, I said it.

    Right now, among many pieces of that fig'ring, I wonder if it is indeed irrelevant that XOs be integrated or not to what is interpreted as education – I guess that a lot of what NN has said could be seen that way, and as such, maybe, still 'maybe' until I get this straight, maybe I can echo, Negroponte is right. And if it is so, then it is irrelevant if there is full coverage and saturation, which at least would keep me safely in a different side of the official view… 🙂

    This is sort of a massive change of bearing for me, and still working on it, but it might be interesting to follow this as a public discussion, the thesis being, "to serve kids, it is irrelevant that XOs be integrated or not to what is interpreted as education". I guess I should do a post on those lines.

  6. Cavin Mugarura

    There is no proof to show that virtual desktops are cheaper than the alternatives, i remember someone on this list, made similar remarks, but the numbers did not add up. If you are referring to thin clients, with a flat screen monitor, the cost could be well over $ 300. There is also an inherent disadvantage of having a central failure point. Can you please provide more details, on how the costs were reduced by these virtual desktops, it would be interesting to learn.

  7. Cavin & Anindya: Before you two go too far off-topic, note that we covered this topic before. Please take your conversation to: /individal-and-communal-c

  8. Will OLPC allow children to work creatively and collaboratively to present their learning to others (probably on the web). If so it is a suitable device for education. Really the bit that is missing is providing the opportunity to assess what has been learnt, recognise it and use the assessment to move the pupil on (and the teacher). We have this at http://www.theingots.org. (Try the video links at http://www.theingots.org/community/KL) If you have a standards compliant device to access the internet the two can fit together to produce all of ICT4E rather than just a bit of it.


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