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OLPC Is Not Revolutionalizing Education

Dweep Chanana

Wayan Vota started an Educational Technology Debate on what the OLPC has achieved thus far with the assertion that the OLPC is “changing education, technology, even culture in ways beyond any one person’s understanding.”

Going by some of the comments that follow one could be excused for thinking that the OLPC is the best thing to happen to the world since sliced bread for the XO laptop will magically transform students into self-learners (“peers working collaboratively in teams”). A more balanced followup by Scott Kipp still proposes that thanks to the OLPC, “evaluations, discussions and policy assessments about whether or not to have computers in the classroom will very soon be entirely obsolete, if not already.”

Such overwhelming enthusiasm is surely out of place and perhaps a bit of perspective is important.

OLPC is not “revolutionalizing” education

For one lets be realistic that the OLPC is not “revolutionalizing” education. Yes, OLPC will soon have 1 million XO laptops in circulation. But compare that with 121 million children not in school, 668 million children that started primary school in 2007, or the 774 million illiterate adults and the OLPC does not seem that revolutionary. No doubt, computers will be important in the future to deliver education, but a lot of schools still struggle with having a blackboard or even a building. So lets not overstate either the scale or the impact of the OLPC.

OLPC did not spawn the netbook

Second, it is a stretch to say, as Wayan does, that the XO spawned the netbook. What the XO did do was spawn the Classmate PC. But the next step is a bit of a stretch.
And even if the XO did spawn the netbook, the lesson from this is two-fold.

First, that non-profit initiatives such as the OLPC are particularly well-suited to creating new innovations, particularly for under-served populations.


Conversely, and this is the second lesson, the dissemination of commercially viable innovations is best left to the private sector. The XO laptop still costs upward of the original USD 100 target price.

Meanwhile, the Amazon Kindle costs USD 259, the cheapest netbook now costs USD 98, and in developed countries netbooks are available for free with Internet/data plans. So another lesson is that if you want cheap computers, don’t let a single institution – particularly a non-profit – build it as a monopoly.

OLPC depreciates teachers

A third lesson, to paraphrase Scott, is that teachers are part of the solution – not the problem. This is not wording that OLPC proponents would like because constructionism sees teachers as a corrupting influence. Too much of the broader debate around the quality of education in developing countries also lays blame on teachers – without exploring the context in which they operate.

Yet, is there an OLPC project that has substituted teachers with laptops? So, the third lesson is that if you want to achieve education for all, spend more on teachers and on computers. And if you must choose between the two, spend on the former.

OLPC distorts funding choices

Finally, it has also taught us that policymakers don’t always make the most judicious use of taxpayer money. The approximately USD 150 million spent on XO laptops, for instance, is the same annual amount needed to achieve 100% literacy in Brazil.

Yes, the OLPC has certain other benefits, such as evaluating the impact, benefits and drawbacks of computers in the classroom. But at a potential price-tag of USD 66.8 billion for all the world’s primary school children, it would be a very expensive experiment indeed.

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17 Responses to “OLPC Is Not Revolutionalizing Education”

  1. Too which I will add that the OLPC project occurred with a complete disregard for the literally decades of work on computer-aided education that preceded the OLPC project. But that makes it no different from most computers-in-education projects which, after the initial hype dies down. look like nothing so much as an opportunity to spend substantial amounts of money rather then to educate children.

    The OLPC is responsible for “changing education, technology, even culture in ways beyond any one person’s understanding"? I'd say the change has also been beyond anyone's perception.

  2. Ian Thomson

    I think I mentioned that I am a Telco engineer, not an educationalist. In a previous life, I have studied the impact of ICTs in industry.
    Typically, the introduction of ICTs is justified by (and results in) a productivity improvement of some 5-20%
    As the technology becomes more pervasive, we see industry re-engineering processes, resulting in productivity improvement of 100-200%. This usually takes 5 years. This is the rate of appropriation of ICTs in industry, driven by a strong profit motive

    We are still in the early stages of ICTs in education, so it is totally premature to say that OLPC is not revolutionizing education. Will it help? Most definitely, if for no other reason that it introduced the possibility of 1:1 computing, especially in resource poor countries. Computer labs in schools can not offer the full potential of ICTs to Education.

    I have been thinking about what I have learned after 3 years of working with OLPC. One thing is clear. We all have unrealistic expectations. I only hope we can keep the enthusiasm and commitment when we see that we must achieve small steps first

  3. Dweep,

    As you might expect, I completely disagree with your dismissal of OLPC as the basis for netbooks. There is a clear history of netbook development that starts with XO, goes by Classmate, and directly to Asus, which undeniably started the commercial netbook market based of the success of G1G1 2007.

  4. Wayan,
    Regarding the suggestion that the OLPC directly spawned the network, as one comment on slashdot pointed out, I'm not saying it isn't true, but it's kind of a broad and evangelistic claim and requires a little more research." I've only seen opinions on this issue – no facts. But it is telling that the Asus Eee PC 701 (the first netbook) was launched in 2007, before the G1G1 campaign.

    It is entirely possible that the OLPC influenced early netbooks, just as it is in turn being influenced by them. But I suspect the netbook would have come about anyway. There is a much longer documented history of incremental improvements in performance, portability, and price in the computing domain. Indeed, in 2003, well before the OLPC was announced, the Thai government had already reduced price points for laptops and desktops to USD 400 and USD 250 – revolutionary at the time.

    • Right from the article you quote we get a hint that OLPC was the cause for netbooks – we have Intel folks selling the netbook idea to Asus:

      eanwhile, Intel's more profit-minded operatives were hanging out in Taiwan, spinning the baby laptop idea to one of Quanta's arch competitors, a little known company called Asus.
      On June 8, 2007, while both the XO and the Classmate were still deep in pilot testing, Asus introduced the Eee PC, a $400 mini-notebook running a warm-n-fuzzy flavor of Linux. Not only did it resemble the Classmate more than a little, it was unveiled at a press conference hosted by none other than Intel.

      So if we can agree that XO begat the Classmate, and the Classmate begat the Asus, then OLPC was the root start of the commercial netbook market in 2007. Agreed – netbooks would've come along anyway, but from the conversations I've had with industry types, it would've been 2010 or later, not mid-2007.

  5. I have one problem with your argument, which is consistent with what I have seen for at least two decades of technology tools and/in education — that any one is supposed to be a silver bullet, which, if employed, would change education as we know it.

    I am a middle school teacher and doctoral student investigating the impact of the XOs and Sugar on a group of five 5th-grade classrooms. The biggest impact we have seen so far is that the students are developing more autonomy and ownership for the learning environment itself.

    Is this solely dependent upon the XOs and Sugar? These technology devices and their software have made this type of change to the classroom learning environment possible in an incredibly effective way.

    Is this a revolution? Not yet. Does it have a possibility for some real change? I think so.

  6. Dweep Chanan's point seems a little laboured for starters:

    OLPC is not “revolutionalizing” education:

    If 40 countries adopt an approach that seems so far fetched to the entrenched in barely 30 months of roll out, with zero marketing budget, what will we call that? If a couple million people start using it with the sheer persuasion of evangelism, what should we call that? I have helped a few schools pilot and just the joy on the face of the children and to help a child say a word in more language than one, to think 1, 11, 111, 1111 rather than 1,2,3,4 or play with the games they could not have imagined and learn letters and numbers faster than anything one has seen and a hundred other things that children try to do with it- all that does add up to something quite different from what we had seen before. Even if the OLPC laptop were to be transitioned to something else after the first year, just the change it brings about is way beyond what a normal computer can do at a multiple of OLPC XO's cost. Consider this, the existing school system gets about 5000 out of about 3 million to score over 2350 in SAT scores.. Shall we pronounce it a total failure then? What OLPC achieves is far more remarkable. It lets an uninterested child begin learning learning. That alone is well worth a name like revolution indeed!

    OLPC did not spawn the netbook:

    I thought in these days and times, facts need not be debated. If Chanana does not feel so, so be it. Let the rest of the world sit in judgment on that. It may be fair to say that without OLPC, the net-books may have been born a couple years later or may be the thought may not have crossed. Considering Michael Dell seemed to think that was impractical until OLPC began its distribution and Net-books surfaced at least a few years after OLPC was showcased and at least 7 months after the launch may at least have something about precedence determining who begot whom!

    OLPC Depreciates Teachers:

    Rather OLPC argues that given the fact that we cannot create all the quality teachers we need, it allows children to learn by themselves. Is that depreciating teachers? Its just that teachers help structure the knowledge and skills children acquire. But its no one's case that the children cannot learn without the teachers. However, they cannot be educated, the way we want them to, without the teachers.

    Distorts Funding Choices
    Whatever we have done since the WWII in the field of education pales in comparison to what OLPC offers children in terms of value. It costs way below computerization programs. It works in most challenging environments. Its designed to be rugged and for the children. And its good for most of us if we get used to the new shoes that it represents. It helps make better funding decisions. If we invest a third of what we have already invested in non-education that the 95% of developing world's children go through for $1 per week, isn't it well worth it?

    My be Dweep Chanana prefers to see things through the glasses of privileges he may had access to. Coming from a most underprivileged environment I may be seeing things a little differently.

  7. The most unfair part of these postings is teh headline that seems doctored.. Isn't it better to have neutral headline? Does OLPC revolutionize education?

  8. It surely transformed the lives of the children whom I see using it! Isn't that revolutionary enough?

  9. This is likely one of the best posts that I’ve ever seen; chances are you’ll embrace some extra ideas in the identical theme. I’m still ready for some fascinating ideas from your side in your next post.

  10. Good blog! I actually love how it’s easy on my eyes and also the info are well written. I am wondering how I can be notified whenever a new post has been made. I have subscribed to your rss feed which need to do the trick! Have a nice day!

  11. They should get rid of their timeshare points fast.


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