What Have we Learnt from OLPC?

This article has been cross-posted from the Educational Technology Debate.

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. 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.

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.

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.

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 the second lesson is that if you want cheap computers, don’t let a single institution – particularly a non-profit – build it as a monopoly.

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 constructionsm 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 second 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.

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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