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What Have We Learned From One Laptop Per Child?

Wayan Vota

Four years ago, Nicholas Negroponte introduced the world to the “One Laptop Per Child” idea at WSIS by showing off a “$100 laptop” with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. The educational and technology fields haven’t been the same since.

First, by the end of 2009 OLPC should pass a stunning milestone – 1 million XO laptops deployed in over 40 countries around the world, almost all in 1:1 computer to child ratios. From full saturation in Uruguay and Peru, potentially high saturation in Rwanda, and multiple smaller deployments in almost every developing country, OLPC’s one computer per child educational model is having a tremendous impact on educators and students.


Next, the humble XO laptop which was once ridiculed by the titans of technology, spawned the netbook. And the netbook is eating the computer market at a stunning growth rate. From essentially $0 sales in 2nd Quarter 2007 to $3 billion in sales – 20% of the entire portable computer market – in 2nd Quarter of 2009, netbook sales show no signs of slowing.

But OLPC has impact deeper and farther than just XO’s passed out or netbooks snapped up. Its changing education, technology, even culture in ways beyond any one person’s understanding. So this month’s Educational Technology Debate will take a different form than previous conversations.

To capture what we have learned from OLPC in a holistic fashion, I’m soliciting commentary from each of you. What do YOU think we’re learning from Negroponte’s wild idea of Constructionism via XO laptops?

Feel free to summit your thoughts and ideas in the comments below. At the same time, if you find yourself with too much to say in a comment box – stop! Email it to me instead and I’ll publish it as one of this month’s posts.

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30 Responses to “What Have We Learned From One Laptop Per Child?”

  1. This is not only a matter of our opinions. There is research on XO deployments, and personal reporting from the countries concerned. Here are links to some of this material. We would like to collect much more.



    You might find the FLOSS Manuals XO and Sugar library useful for understanding what is happening.


    There is a stream of education publications concerning XOs and Sugar from other sources, particularly in Spanish.

  2. I'd say we learned that you can't just stop with hardware distribution. Successful tech in education needs to come with coordinated efforts to supply teaching materials, strong teacher training operations, software development in local languages and infrastructure assistance. Having spoken with educators in W Africa, they were enthusiastic and interested in the concept but asked "Ok, so we get the laptops. Then what?" It's not just bringing in the laptops. It's hanging around for the next few years and helping them get on it. OLPC itself doesn't have to do this, but someone does.

  3. resources wasted … the money is better spent by getting the same number of computers distributed to all community centers instead of a few kids.

    These XOs can then be enjoyed by many many times more people than to be selfishly held on by a single child especially in poorer countries.

    It is a stupid idea.

    In fact, Nicholas Negroponte, has closed down his operations

    Most of today's classrooms are just NOT fit for one laptop per child. It is more effective if the same resources are turned into 1 projector 1 XO per class.

    • I fully agree with the point you make that a projector and a computer, per class is more cost effective than one laptop per child. Where resources are limited, it makes sense to serve the teacher first. Projection technologies are greatly undervalued.

      However, where resources are not constrained, I think the concept of personal use of a computer is far from being a "stupid idea". Community-owned ICT devices are frequently in poor working condition and time-share usage does not allow for experimentation that is an important part of the learning process.

      The key issue is: are resources constrained? OLPC might be better suited for middle-income than low-income countries.

  4. A teacher dominated approach from the front of the class? Peers working collaboratively in teams is a more realistic learning mode in the 21st Century. What is needed are free supported learning pathways on the web that lead to nationally and internationally accredited qualifications. There are several projects focussed on achieving this so it is only a matter of time. Then the learner needs access, so OLPC, a smartphone or whatever gives the lowest cost access to those digital learning resources. Learning is what matters, the device is only important in enabling access to the learning resources and how well it supports preferred learning styles. Before too long Smartphones will get everywhere and these are just small computers. The potential economies of scale of Android devices cloned by many manufacturers forcing prices down like with PC clones except that there will be no Windows license to pay. Unlike the sitution with Windows where the commercial pressure was to make machines rapidly obsolete in order to sell new OEM licenses on new machines, the freedom to innovate in software and the lack of commercial pressure for enforced upgrades will also reduce manufacturing costs. So the main issue is probably the cost of telecoms. One city in the UK is already providing free broadband for its citizens so again probably just a matter of time.

  5. Just to take one revolutionary aspect among many:

    There is life beyond the Desktop Metaphor

    If the OLPC succeeded in killing of the computer desktop, it has earned its place in history.


  6. Scott Kipp

    I think there is a great deal being learned from the story of the OLPC Foundation itself, and even more still from the myriad OLPC deployments around the world.

    The first thing that comes to my mind is that the initiative solidified in the world's mind what most ICT4ED-ers may have accepted since Logo or even before: that ICT in Education will be a permanent fixture, only varying in scale and technique. That is, the evaluations, discussions and policy assessments about whether or not to have computers in the classroom will very soon be entirely obsolete, if not already. It is a matter of resource allocation determining how many computers, which kind of deployment, etc, but the details on scale and approach of deployment are more a function of resource allocation capacity than a matter of: should we have computers in the classroom?

    I've worked with and observed OLPC initiatives in Harlem, Haiti, Peru and Mozambique, each having their own merits, challenges and approaches. I've seen very scant evidence of constructionism in practice. It has been my experience that only in exceptional outlier cases does the use of the XO begin to approach the constructionist ideals.

    I think Negroponte's (and Papper's and Kay's) vision of what could happen with a tool like the XO is admirable, but in most places the projects are very far from those scenarios of the "radical reorientation" of the classroom the constructionists envisioned. Mark Warschauer's studies of OLPC pilots in the US points to a similar finding and reinforces one of his most resounding ideas: the digital divide has little to do with the student:computer ratio. Each deployment needs the human capacity to create, innovate and develop the use of the technology itself. What we are seeing in OLPC projects around the world is enforcing this: successful deployments are the ones lead by dedicated teachers, administrators and support staff that have the will to make the project work. If unsupported, the project either grinds to a halt or the students end up using the XO for little other taking pictures and copying what the teacher writes on the board. This, unfortunately, is the norm. For now.

    I think lessons from OLPC projects will be coming out for years to come, to help better match the tools to the desired pedagogical approach. Negroponte originally posited that the OLPC project needed absolutely no teacher training or evaluation to succeed. He quickly changed his stance, but the reality is that the introduction of the XOs into classrooms in the developing world is a radical and in some cases very alienating concept. Here in Mozambique, as in many places, teachers hold absolute power in the classroom. Giving the children a laptop is sometimes threatening to the teachers, and the kids often dominate the technology much faster than the teachers, but we have also seen that few use the XO to its potential. Sugar Labs is helping to change this, albeit slowly.

    Finally, the OLPC approach is reminding us that, unless you have the teachers on board with the program and motivated for its success, the use of the XO and its subsequent benefit for the students will be minimal, if not negative. This reinforces what many ICT4E studies in the past had shown. What was new about OLPC is really the scale of it. Dozens of countries with the same tools, all at once. It has been truly amazing to see what different places do with the same tools and observe the effects of context. I think many countries are learning a lot about their own goals for education and its development, and that none of the participating countries so far will be taking a step backwards in this sector in the foreseeable future.

  7. Pim de Bokx

    The OLPC idea has, as always, two sides to it:
    PRO: it is a brave effort, and to some extend succesful, to offer more children the opportunity to learn computer skills. Combined with internet access it even opens up worldwide knowledge and communication opportunities.
    CON: it has an impact on culture, behaviour and power-balance. How big this impact is depend on the country or even region, how the OLPC is introduced, who will eventually own the laptop, how teachers integrate it in their lessons, and so on. Giving the laptop to a child is also imposing our western indivualistic culture on collective societies; we need to be aware of that.

    Altough I find the idea of '1 laptop per child' a wrong slogan for developing countries, people in the west will understand it and donate, but for developing countries I'dd rather call for 'up to date information, communication and education for all' ; energy savvy and solid XO's perfectly fit in that approach as an enabler.

  8. Alex Twinomugisha

    Nothing has infuriated and excited technologists and educationists almost in equal measure like OLPC. When I first heard about the idea, I thought it was absurd! Taking a minute to do a back-of-the-envelope calculation would show that it was total unrealistic and not feasible financially, logistically and educationally– if you know anything about the developing world. But in the end, I believe that the OLPC has done tremendous good (and some bad?). Apart from the usually-mentioned benefits like spawning the netbook industry and the associated benefits from all the neat technologies developed (e.g. the screen), OLPC has ignited and/or rekindled a serious debate about the role of ICTs in Education and more importantly about the nature of education in the 21st century. So what did we learning? Briefly …
    1. Love or hate the OLPC, the one thing we all seemed to agree on was that education needed a serious re-examination.
    2. (Re)-Learnt that the technology is the easy bit- getting the technology into the hands of the users, powering it, keeping it working and relevant is the hard part
    3- No technology is likely to be widely successful in the education sphere if the education system itself doesn't change. if the curriculum doesn't change and assessment system don't accommodate the technology, it will is likely to have limited impact
    4- Tests still rule the roost. OLPC is a neat toy but when it comes to test time, teachers and parents demand that the "toy" be hidden as far away as is possible
    5. teacher centered approaches are still king– at least in the developed world
    6. Like it not, OLPC has enabled kids who would never have handled a PC to do so and who know what dreams may have been created
    7. To really change the world, you have to think big (even if the idea is a bit crazy)

    Perhaps many have been too unkind to OLPC. Might we look back 2o years from now and recognize the birth of the OLPC as the turning point for education? Maybe. We still really cant tell the impact OLPC has had or is likely to have even if it died out today. One of the more interesting thoughts on OLPC and ICT4E can be found at http://www.gesci.org/ict-integration-in-education

  9. We are certainly learning (and/or re-learning) much from the various OLPC roll-outs. One thing we haven't learned yet is about what happens at scale. There are interesting reports from various small pilot implementations in a few classrooms, but these have largely confirmed what many years of research have already documented. This is not to trivialize such work or such findings — far from it! and there should be more of it! — but rather to say that, while perhaps the theories, and some of the rhetoric, around the project have been 'revolutionary', what we have learned so far has not broken any new ground.

    Reading some of the reports from developing countries, I am regularly struck by how often the report could have been written about a school that rolled out a program like (for example) World Links a decade ago. [full disclosure: I was part of the original World Links team.] This is not to trivialize much of the fine work being done by individuals around OLPC in schools around the world — education is a process of re-discovery as much as it is about discovery — but only to suggest that many of us have grander hopes and expectations for the project, especially given its high profile.

    What is really different is that OLPC has been, from its beginning, about scale. The 1m initial order number trumpeted in the early days wasn't only meant to facilitate economies of scale to drive prices down (although of course it was that too), but also meant to stand in contradiction to the way educational technology initiatives have evolved in most places, where small incremental changes slowly accreted over time. Things are frankly different at scale — different not only in degree, but in kind.

    Now that a program like Plan Ceibal in Uruguay has reached 100% penetration among its (initial) target population, we have the opportunity to test and see just what happens when you think and act boldly at scale. Continued on the World Bank EduTech blog at How do you evaluate a plan like Ceibal?

  10. What have we learned from OLPC? Many great contributions have been submitted here and elsewhere. Hopefully I can provide a few that provide a different twist on the OLPC story.

    1. A great idea can create an almost religious fervor. The OLPC "debate" over the last five years has ranged from the rational to the extreme. There are critics, fans and fanatics. How much of this has to do with the underlying "idea" of OLPC, vs. the "personality" of OLPC (emboddied in Negroponte himself), is a question to ponder.

    2. A disruptive idea (OLPC) can create a disruption in a completely different industry/market. Netbooks would not exist today without the introduction of OLPC. The $3B in sales Wayan mentions is staggering, but most are not in schools. They are in the hands of road warriors and the middle class, and have made market leaders out of Acer and Asustek.

    3. "Should we spend our limited school budget on computers or textbooks?" I believe OLPC drove an exponential growth in computers in schools. Schools in underprivileged markets probably have more computers, whether XO's, Classmate PC's, netbook, notebooks, PC's, or virtual desktops, then they would have had without the OLPC initiative. OLPC made computers in school a requirement, not an option regardless of whether it is a 1:1 deployment of notebook computers.

    4. Setting the bar. By pre-announcing a $100 price point for laptops before he even comprehended the supply chain costs, Negroponte set expectations that, while unrealistic and unreachable at the time, made governments expect inexpensive solutions from suppliers.

    5. Be careful what you ask for. By touting very bold goals in public, such as a $100 price point or a prediction of >100 million deployed, OLPC put its credibility on the line. A million units deployed is a respectable number, but in the context of 1) the stated original goals, the # of years it has taken to reach this number, and the actual penetration of 1M units compared to total students in emerging markets worldwide, the # is less impressive.

    I recently predicted on my blog that the netbook "hype" would fade starting in 2010 (http://www.disruptiveleadership.com/2010/01/12/th… Wayan strongly disagreed. Would be curious to look back in a year or two to see who was right.

  11. Chinenye Mba-Uzoukwu

    A few thoughts in addition to the comments already posted.
    1. I have often wondered why it wasn't captioned "One Laptop Per Teacher" (which is where in countries like mine – Nigeria – the most important investment needs to be made since computers do not teach) but today I realise the brilliance of Negroponte and his team: there is simply no way anything else could have ignited the passion and commitment which has wrought the spectacular change in the direction, quality and involvement in transforming education in only FIVE years; proving along the way to a skeptical world that it is possible to guide the Invisible Hand to push product development to a ready, profitable but unconventional market at the so-called Bottom-of-the-Pyramid.

  12. Chinenye Mba-Uzoukwu

    2. While the industry appears focussed on standards and assessments, each day millions of children add yet another day of disenfranchisement from a future already defines literacy by "reading, writing, numeracy AND ability to use a computing device". This is no way invalidates the importance of those issues, but the urgency of the moment in most our countries means we will rather be somewhat wrong on this bet on OLPC and similar schemes (provided the devices have quality learning content and are accompanied by related ecosystem investments that support sustainability and diffusion) than NOT be in the race at all while the industry tries to get it right.

  13. Chinenye Mba-Uzoukwu

    3. In a study of Plan Ceibal in Uruguay (http://blogs.worldbank.org/edutech/evaluating-ceibal) the first learning is that 1:1 computing in primary schools showed that "eight-year old children now have the same level of computer literacy that 18 year olds demonstrated just a few years ago", giving them effectively "'extra' ten years of technology literacy". What does that translate to? We might not know exactly right now, but my assertion is that it is more important to our societies and economies to have that extra than NOT to and carry an Illiteracy Deficit that builds from year to year.

  14. Chinenye Mba-Uzoukwu

    4. An understated but critical fallout of the OLPC initiatives has been to bring to the forefront the urgent need for bold, even audacious, actions to turnaround educational systems that have collapsed in most of our countries at a time when education and the power of kowledge in wealth/job creation is unprecedented in world history. If this were the only thing to point to it would still have been worth the effort.

    PS. I have more but it is getting long-winded for a comment. Whoever is talking about projection systems in education hasn't been to rural Africa – how in the world do you expect to power a projector and even if you could, it wuld be a near criminal waste of expensive electricity when weighed against the outcomes!

  15. Anyone talking projection system for the rural world is clearly out of tune with the reality..does not understand innovation, learning, pedagogy or technology.. Slam Negroponte for a million things but let us face it, If you put all that has been done in the past half a century to TRANSFORM education does not come close to what OLPC can achieve in 5 years! Just allow yourself some light of the day and you Mr Decision-maker, Funder, Analyst will see that you cannot lose going with OLPC and not going with it you will lose millions of children an opportunity they do not have to lose!

  16. Comment to Saurabn, Posted: 20 Jun 2010 09:13 AM PDT :
    "Anyone talking projection system for the rural world is clearly out of tune with the reality..does not understand innovation, learning, pedagogy or technology."

    Where do you live, Saurabn? I presume you refer to our Nation Wide Visualisation Project, based on the time-proven overhead projector and up-to-date and ready-to-use visuals. This boggles your mind. Let me explain that this 'innovative product' (described as such by EU Aid General Secretariat of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States) is for high schools which have electricity. 'Achievable ICT' which can be implemented within 5 months as one time investment to improve education. If it comes to the understanding of innovation, learning, pedagogy or technology, I like to invite Saurabn and who has an interest in this to: 'Sound pedagogy for digital teaching' – (http://visualteach.blogspot.com/p/about-this-blog.html)
    I am looking forward for your comments – Jan Krol, Visual Teach large screen presentations

  17. Any place with regular electricity and urban infrastructure can hardly be called RURAL. Projection systems were OK when everyone could not access a screen for it was out of reach for reasons of cost. Now its possible to have affordable, connected laptops. Screens are more expensive, require a new infrastructure. Unless one can do projection screens within an overall education budget of $100 per annum, its reach will be limited. As a corporate executive, I do appreciate projection screen. However, if all the laptops are connected, projection screens are viable only in larger gatherings, for a broadcast, not for learning. Your link did not open for some reason. But I have seen a few hundred projection systems lying unused over the past decade in rural settings..Theoretically, where infrastructure is robust, yes.. In villages, a BIG NOOOOOOO

  18. Projection screens are viable in large, medium or small gatherings. For a broadcast (world cup) AND for learning.
    Pico projectors with build-in media players cost less than $200 today. They should last for a few years. They don't need an internet connection or a laptop. Most have an SD Card slot that can hold 10 hours of video per GB. Haitz's Law predicts a doubling of LED lumens every 18 to 24 months, so the energy required will drop or the size of the screen will increase to serve larger groups. The batteries can be easily recharged with a small solar panel or (with a bit of effort) a hand cranked or foot pedal dynamo.

  19. I did not hear that students and teachers can do all their work on them without having a computer as well?

    I know a projection vendor thinks of projection only. That is like someone offering a bigger blackboard as a solution to learning.

    Please let these gadget enthusiasts know that if a projector is one piece of the puzzle, efforts like OLPC are close to a school in a box. We need the world bank folks start seeing things a little differently from what they been trained to do. When you evaluate a future technology you did not create, you need a different kind pair of eyes that help you see the future. Its one thing to be a gatekeeper where the role is to see the future from with the eyes trained for yesterdays. Its quite another to imagine the future and create it.

    • Video projectors are useful for at least two things; enlarging the display of a computer and playing back video (like televisions-having nothing to do with computers). Video projectors in rural locations can be a window to the rest of the world. One of the original definitions a of tele-vision is LONG DISTANCE SIGHT.

      The ratio of financial cost compared to the number of learner hours is vastly superior to any other solution. Video stored on flash media requires 1 gigabyte for 10 hours. In mid 2010, an 8 GB SD card costs $16 and holds 80 hours of video. In the coming years, an SD card will hold 2 terabytes holding 20,000 hours of video.

      In the long run Haitz's Law will impact video projectors in two ways. Brighter video projectors will make for larger screens; someday as large as a drive-in movie theater from a hand held pico projector. Haitz's Law can also dramatically reduce the power requirements for a pico projector such that it can be operated with a button battery used for wristwatches. These batteries will be recharged in a few minutes and run for hours.

      It does not matter if we can successfully imagine and/or create a future where video projectors will be pervasive in rural schools. IT IS INEVITABLE.

  20. Projection system to learning is a bit like the picture of bread for a hungry man.

    How I wish Negroponte had a sense of business as well. He may have partnered with a large corporation to do the job of distributing it and life would have changed for hundreds of children. By asking non-business people to make business decisions he just slowed the whole process.

    I can tell you about India. Even if all the governments placed the order on OLPC, OLPC will not be able to service them. An order to be converted to what is actionable needs a number of steps to be taken. Where does OLPC have the organization beyond the evangelist Mr Jha to do it in India and some others in other countries. That is hardly anyway to succeed in achieving the audacious goals.

    Audacious goals need audacious strategies and audacious ways as well. When they fail, shrubs like projection system reforming learning and education start cropping up and derailing the purpose of education. Projection is fine where it is. Its being used as a panacea for education is crass commercialism with no legs.

  21. So you must be a Projection enthusiast Mr Moderator to start approving my comments because they do not meet your agenda? Than k you for your objectivity.

  22. I think the projector is a very important upgrade from the current non ICT environment to the next level.

    My take is that the projector serves it purpose best because..

    1. It enables ICT based contents immediately seen by an entire class. It dispense with the need for text books where children's eyes are focused on the screen rather than their books not knowing sometimes where to look for.
    2. It saves teachers' time having to draw or write on the blackboard. The pictures are much easier to understand than teachers having to draw or imagine those images etc.
    3. Instances where the netbook with load speakers attached to projectors reads out unlimited times and children can follow the lessons better.

    1 projector's cost = roughly 2 netbooks.

    So for the cost of 3 netbooks, the same amount of money can benefit 50/3 = 17 classes X 50 students = 850 students compared to 50 students through the OLPC approach.

    • Beats me..

      So, let us start with you.. how about you give up your laptop and start living by what is projected to you alone?

      A laptop is for learning. A projection is for someone making their point.
      A laptop is something we explore with, we do what we consider important.. we do things with it..
      A projection is like being driven in a cab in a city you know little about.. a laptop is like exploring the city yourself.. What do you want to be?

      In a class of 30 students, the cost of maintaining and running the class with every child having on is $10,000 including electricity, 200 applications, 100 digital books children can read outside the class, can communicate, chat, explore, learn.. that is $60 per child per year..

      Let me know the cost of projection system for doing a 20th of that.. because it cannot do more than a twntieth of what a laptop does..

      We have all had projection in our conference rooms.. we project what we work on.. to say that comes stored on an SD card is like saying please come to my room and i have a projection system and I will show you the whole city without you having to leave it.. What if anyone wanted another city? Or do things differently from the way you stored?

      Projection system is a painting on the wall.. Learning is a s dynamic as you can get.. the difference is simply a zillion times..

      Projection system is like being in prison.. Laptops for learning are like living in an open society..

  23. Even if you are convinced about the virtues of classrooms with projection, fewer computers being shared by children, N Computing kind of framework..here is what OLPC can do: FOR LESS: better than anything any edutech co can: http://goo.gl/fb/Qhy34 #olpc

    Spread the message of OLPC can create a projection in the classroom for less. Share with your friends and family who care about our nation and its future.

    Who knows which child we touch will be the next Gandhi, Einstein, Gates or Jobs! May be your contributions will just touch one of those?

  24. http://www.olpcnews.com/countries/uruguay/funky_f

    Just in case the last link was not opening.. try this one..
    Just share what you think.. How can we improve this?

  25. Saurabh, @OMPT, & Peter,

    We've now gone far off-topic of this post, so I'm doing two thing to bring this conversation into the mainstream.

    1. I'm closing comments on this post.

    2. I invite the three of you to participate in the July ETD where we will cover all the ICT tools available to teachers that are not on the Low-Cost ICT Devices list – like projectors, smartboards, and audio devices. If you'd like to be formal discussants please email me your Guest Post for publication starting in July.

    This invitation goes out to all ETD readers as well.


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