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Reflections on the Success of OLPC in Education

Ron Canuel

Ever since Dr. Negroponte presented his vision of providing children with a laptop computer, there has been no shortage of praise and criticism. I will not comment on the validity of the praise or the criticisms that have been brought forth, but when asked to present my insights on what I believed to be an important impact that the OLPC approach has had on education, I welcomed the invitation.

In my opinion, the most significant contribution that the OLPC movement has performed is to illustrate how our current educational systems are increasingly falling out of step with children and the future. In our School Board, with the 1:1 deployment that we have enjoyed over the last six years for all of our students, the issue of “control” vs “input” presented the greatest challenge.

Old School: “Control”

By “control,” I refer to the widely-used Socratic approach to learning, that presents the accepted belief that knowledge is “transmitted” to the learner, who plays the simple role of “receptacle.” What is ultimately integrated into memory, knowledge and behaviour is left, for the most part, to chance. Such learning, as we know it, does not “stick” and as often revealed in any testing, simply disappears to the “back” regions of our brain.

But since we have taught this way for so long, and it produced many of the people who are now reading this article, well, it must have worked!! And it did!! But then again, when we deal with children, it should have everything to do with them and not with our own beliefs, ideologies and philosophies.

Today and in the future, technology will be playing such an integral role in all of our lives that it is increasingly disconcerting reading and hearing adults diminish, denigrate and deflate the role that technology can play in the classroom. The walls of our classrooms are becoming increasingly permeable. Any thought that schools, classrooms and educators should confine their activities and actions to these walls and not explore the world around them is very scary.

New School: “Input

By “input”, I refer to how children can play an integral role in their own learning process. Becoming active learners and actually playing a significant role in the pedagogy of the teacher. is a wonderful outcome of the OLPC movement. Technology, as we have experienced with laptops, enables this to happen and if the teachers are open and willing to change to this new reality, it creates the “win-win” context that is so desired in our classrooms today.


The teachers “win” because their pedagogy is enhanced, in ways that were not available a few years ago. The students “win” because they are now active learners, and all research is unequivocal: high interest and engagement leads to deeper learning.

The Challenge in Change

Why has the OLPC movement encountered some stiff resistance? Simply put, regardless of the level in the institution (State Department of Education, Ministries, Superintendents, Principals Teachers, Non Teaching Professionals, Parents), people are reluctant to cede control, with the misplaced notion that lack of “control” implies reduced instructional impact. Allowing students to be architects of their own learning pattern seems too far-removed a concept to incorporate into current classroom activities.

Then add the reality that university teacher training programs, for the most part, continue to inadequately prepare graduating teachers to the new realities of technology in the classroom. It also explains why we have witnessed how our more experienced teachers have embraced the use of technology into the classroom rather than our younger, less experienced teachers.

In my estimation, when we allow children to be active participants in their own learning using technology, it will not result in making the earth any “flatter” or “smaller” but rather will bring the universe to the minds of children.

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15 Responses to “Reflections on the Success of OLPC in Education”

  1. I thank Ron, for his great insight and evaluation. The OLPC project is one of the best ideas to come out in a long tIme. I will start by saying, that evaluating this project requires a multi faceted approach, because of its very nature. Before i do that, let me briefly highlight, the outcomes of this project.

    1. By announcing a $ 100 price, laptops which used to cost almost $1,000 or more. The prices have been slashed. Intel announced a similar product Class mate Pc at about $ 300 or less. This is because the OLPC is using an AMD processor.

    2. Negroponte was criticized for selecting Linux as the operating system. In order for the cost to be low, he had to select a license free operating system. Bruce Perens, argues that Microsoft can not allow an entire generation in poor countries to use Linux. The effects can be very devastating for its future.

    3. Some countries like India, rejected the idea and started embarking on a $10 laptop. Reality has caught up with them, and they have discovered that each unit is going to cost more than $100.

    4. Some critics (especially politicians) argue that priorities for poor nations are clean water and hunger. Some of these critics have been involved in misuse of funds meant for extending water to the rural community.

    To evaluate this project, one needs to look at different aspects and not the entire project.
    a) Cost
    b) Technology (Hardware & Software)
    c) Content
    d) Implementation

    a- It would be myopic for this debate to argue that one product is better than the other. Negroponte points this out, that this project is not about selling laptops.
    b- Use of Linux is a good cost cutting measure
    c- Is the content relevant?
    d- Different countries will implement the project differently. This is the most critical part of the project.

    I.T. Projects have a failure rate that has been estimated at almost 90%. I can comfortably say, this project is not on the red list.
    Out of 100 – i rate this project at 95.
    How each country implements this project is out of anyone's hands. It requires a complex analysis of the individual situation of a given country.

    Cavin Mugarura
    I.T. Expert – IFPRI
    Washington DC

  2. "when we allow children to be active participants in their own learning using technology, it will not result in making the earth any “flatter” or “smaller” but rather will bring the universe to the minds of children."

    I am a middle school science teacher and doctoral student studying the impact of the XOs and Sugar on a set of 5 5th grade classrooms. I couldn't agree more with your final comments (quoted above).

    What I am seeing (and have heard anecdotally from other US deployments) is that the XOs/Sugar go a long way to create an environment where the students have taken more ownership for their learning. According to the teachers, this has transferred somewhat to non-XO/Sugar/Technology work as well.

    It is here that I see results that go beyond a particular technology/laptop solution.

  3. Alexandra

    This debate demonstrates how important facts and evaluation are to truly assessing how technologies (in this case the XO) impact learning. So much of the discussion is about potential that it is easy to lose sight of how few undisputable facts there are. How many XOs have been manufactured? Of those how many are deployed in classrooms? How many are deployed in poor countries? Of those, how are they used and for what periods of time? What software is principally used, and how does actual classroom learning differ from traditional methods? The countries listed among those in which the XO is deployed vary from account to account; school deployment figures vary and lack precision.

    The doubters and the proponents are arguing at each other mainly on principles and theory, and facts are hard to come by. For example, when Ron Canuel says that “the teachers “win” because their pedagogy is enhanced, in ways that were not available a few years ago. The students “win” because they are now active learners, and all research is unequivocal: high interest and engagement leads to deeper learning”. That’s great, and counter-intuitive, but is it happening and if so where? How are problems of low literacy among primary school students in many poor countries being solved? What maintenance capacity is there? Are the majority of the deployed laptops producing awesome learning results? We need a great deal more facts and evidence.

    • Hello Alexandra,
      I would be very pleased to provide the evidence that you seek. Please visit our website, http://www.etsb.qc.ca and you will see an icon with a laptop. I also invite you to read the survey that was conducted with our students, teachers, administrators and parents. Plus, please read our annual reports from 2007 and 2008, to see the overall impact that laptops have had on our student achievement results. Our School District student achievement results have moved our District ranking from 66th to 23rd, in five years. In the survey completed in 2008, the feedback from the participants on the impact of technology was unequivocal, especially in engagement for students and enhancement for teachers.
      What has been most sad is that educators have simply ignored our results.
      Do we need evidence to support the integration of one of the most powerful learning and teaching tool to be invented, the laptop? Since technology abounds around the world and children demonstrate a greater degree of openness to use and integrate into life, it would be very very odd that the classroom remain void of such a reality.
      I have been in public education for almost 34 years now and in the last five years, whenever technology is discussed, calls for evidence and research to support the integration into classrooms abound. Curiously I must add, where is research to support many of the pedagogical approaches that are currently being used in classrooms, with many approaches that are based on assumption and modeling? As an example, we now have a much better idea to how the brain of a child works, yet much of this research is barely used in our classrooms. We now know, via sleep research, that the best time for learning for teenagers is later in the day and not in the morning, yet we choose to not change anything.
      So, I entirely agree with your assessment that to effectively change the classroom, we need it to be research and evidence based. As a result, I would initially move towards conducting research into why the world of education is so reluctant to change. That would be a great first step for the OLPC as well.

      • Alexandra

        Excellent! ( the provided link didn't work, and going to the home page I couldn't find the reports, but totally accept your point)

        However, you are in Canada, right? Surely you are not achieving these results without a very significant increase in expenditure per pupil? How much is that in dollars and percentage?

        Is that feasible for scaling up in a country where the annual expenditure per pupil is a quarter of the purchase price of the XO (not to mention total cost of ownership, TCO)? As a way of developing centres of excellence, ICTs undoubtedly have an important role to play. But that is not what the XO is purportedly aiming at. When one is looking system-wide, one has to take off the rose-tinted glasses and look at the hard realities of finance, organization, human resource development, absorbtion and implementation capacity.

        Your main point about existing pedagogy is compelling, and I agree. My point is that in poor countries experimentation is great on a small scale, to test all the variables that make that experimentation successful, or moderately successful. Large-scale implementation of reform when one has a handle only on the validity of one or two elements of the proposed change (in this case the hardware) often does result in everyone being poorer and worse off than before.

        • HI Alexandra,
          Hmmm, the links didn't work: http://www.etsb.qc.ca and if you go to the website and click on Central Board Services, you will also find the annual reports that I refer to.

          We are located in Canada, 70 miiles east of Montreal and yes, the project did require a major investment but we had no government support and put our operations into a deficit as a result. Nobody would support a "rogue" School Board that invested millions into children and teachers. We found monies, via Bank loans and the work of a Foundation and no cuts or compressions were imposed upon the schools.

          Please note that I use the word "investment" since in the last couple of decades, education has moved away from being an "investment" to an "expense." The use of these two words creates some very interesting reactions from people and over the past years, those who have criticized our initiative always use the word "expense" while those who appreciate the vision/mission/results of our initiative integrate the word "invest" in their commentary.

          I have had multiple conversations with ambassadors from many developing countries, on how the use of technology can create such a paradigm shift in education. They too remark that the challenges inherently implicated in such an endeavour are formidable and not always obvious. But I found that in many cases, the word "invest" came up and not expense.

          I have had, I believe, almost every reason given to me as to why technology has no place in the classroom, or rather, how it should be stifled and used as a tertiary teaching tool. Issues of financing and results abound.

          What I do know for sure is that the "Human Factor" (not a machine, software, operating platform, internet access, battery power, cabling, electricity, etc) will be the singular most important factor and challenge that the OLPC or any initiative that integrates technology into a classroom will face. I have also seen how our own educators and students provided insights into problem solving issues that many an "expert" could not resolve.

          In my humble opinion, a significant derivative of the OLPC was the return of the words "investment in education-children and teachers" to the forefront of our discussions. As previously stated, the challenges are daunting for the OLPC in any country but then again, I strongly belief that with vision and courage, all of us can make this a reality for children around the world. Now it is "Win" situation for all of us.

          Very much appreciated your commentary and that of the others.

  4. What Alexandra is raising is important. Your concerns deal with Monitoring & Evaluation which is very vital to any project implementation. To carry out a Global M & E for such a project is not only unnecessary but it would serve little or no purpose. Its up to the individual countries to have their own M & E teams. On a Global scale, a desk evaluation is possible. Laptops were expensive due to a myriad of factors, such as hardware & software. Negroponte addressed this by opting for AMD processors which are cheaper than the Intel alternatives, and yet their performance is top notch. Software costs were also avoided through use of proprietary software. The problem of intermittent electricity was addressed through use of solar panels. Content is dynamic, and each country should have a strategy to create and update the content based on their unique needs. So Alexandra, its possible to evaluate this project, although not in its entirety.

    • Alexandra

      The features you describe are practical, in theory. In poor countries, the OLPC strategy has been to sell to governments, on the whole. They sell, they deliver (mostly), and then the rest is up to the recipient, as you say. So the $200 purchase price does not cover electricity in classrooms, teacher training, maintenance, dish antennas for Internet, maintenance, replacement, and… actual pedagogy for using the laptops. Furthermore, the basic laptops come with very little usable software for primary school students ( bought one in an unnamed country and watched the same in use) who are, mostly, barely literate and cannot read instructions (nor can the teachers for that matter). So, once the laptops are delivered, the school and teachers are pretty much on their own. If they are lucky, all goes well. Often that is not the case because each of the hurdles I have mentioned above takes time, resources, and extraordinary willpower on the part of harrassed, demotivated and low-paid personnel. It's not about the machines, which are conceivably great, but about what happens next. For sure, we could wish that teachers paid $100 or $200 a month (not the comparison to the cost of the laptop, which does not increase their feelings of self-worth) would just spend their free time learning to use a tool no one asked them if they wanted; for sure, we could hope that the practical problems would just be solved (at an additional $300 per machine, best estimate) by the "indivdual countries". But saying it don't make it so.

      • I couldn't agree more! I've always thought that OLPC made a mistake in stopping at sales and distribution. While the XO itself is no mean feat, the vacuum created by lack of a coordinated effort post-distribution discredits a program that deserves better.

  5. When you say, the basic laptops come with very little usable software, that is assuming that the laptops are pre configured items like calculators, where you can not add content, and software. Internet is an added functionality but not a must have component. Replacement is a joke, how often does someone replace a mobile phone or a laptop. These items last for years, unless of course you are care less. I also don't agree that having a low paying job gives one the right to perform poorly. Its very easy to criticize, and very hard to come up with solutions. I would prefer if you proposed a better approach from the existing model, which would benefit the world.

  6. FYI Here is a summary of the initial results from the first M&E of Plan Ceibal (in Spanish):

    (Apologies if this has already been posted here somewhere, I could not find it).

  7. Hi – is there an English Version of the above M&E plan?

  8. Edward Bethel

    English versions of the M&E of Plan Ceibal (Uruguay): http://www.cs.uiowa.edu/~hourcade/alt04-hourcade…. and http://www.cs.uiowa.edu/~hourcade/ceibal-workshop

  9. And based on the experience of Birmingham, Alabama, even the National Science Foundation seem to spoken in favor of OLPC

    “Researchers examine the educational and social effects of making one laptop per child available in selected classrooms, and the impact on student outcomes.”

  10. Like somebody else reported what a great blog this is. Typically I dont make an effort with a remark however for your effort and hard work you ought to have 1. Great job


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