Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Updates on OLPC (June 2008)

The June 5, 2008, BusinessWeek article “One Laptop Meets Big Business: The big idea of giving PCs to poor children has been challenged by educators and business. Here, follow the misadventures of One Laptop per Child” includes a variety of updates about OLPC, which I regard as the most important educational technology initiative in the history of our planet.

Some key points I found interesting:

At least some of the educational leaders in India remain firmly rooted to “sit and get” / transmission-based pedagogical models. This isn’t a real surprise, it’s one of the educational messages which comes through most clearly in the documentary film Two Million Minutes. According to this BusinessWeek article:

While this philosophy [constructionism] is essential to the mission of OLPC, it’s also a source of tension. Current educational leaders in Peru embrace Constructionism, but most countries base their education systems on the idea that teachers pass their knowledge to receptive students. That was a problem for OLPC in China as well as India. India’s education department, for instance, calls the idea of giving each child a laptop “pedagogically suspect,” and, when asked about it recently, Education Secretary Arun Kumar Rath barked: “Our primary-school children need reading and writing habits, not expensive laptops.”

How does India’s Education Secretary, Arun Kumar Rath, think that students acquire proficient and lifelong reading and writing habits? By sitting quietly in a classroom watching a teacher lecture holding chalk in her/his hand?! Does Rath know about Open Content? Without affordable laptop computers, exactly how does he propose India’s teachers and students will be able to benefit from the open content digital curriculum revolution currently underway? His quotation, sadly, reveals about as much understanding of the digital learning revolution as many of our educational leaders in the United States do who continue to champion NCLB. Will the REAL educational leaders please step forward in both India and the United States? To date, we haven’t seen them in the seats of political power.

Why do news article authors assume every topic has to fit into a sharp if/them either/or dichotomy anyway? Why can’t we hear more about advocates for blended learning, which recognizes the importance of both content delivery/consumption as well as idea construction? Personally speaking, I think the learning process is a combination of both. We need, however, to place more emphasis than we have traditionally on the “content construction” side of the recipe, and that is certainly something the OLPC project aspires to do. Read the OLPC News blog post “Controversial Constructionism” from June 16th for more on these issues surrounding constructionism.

The authors of this article (Steve Hamm and Geri Smith) seem to suggest in an opening paragraph that OLPC founders have erroneously stuck to their guns when it comes to constructionist pedagogy. They write:

They [the struggles of OLPC] also show what happens when differing philosophies of education and beliefs in how software should be created go head-to-head. Values the group has promoted have met resistance in the marketplace, government bureaucracies, and classrooms. That Negroponte and his colleagues took on way more tasks than they could handle only complicates the situation further.

I think the suggestion that OLPC leaders have taken on “more tasks than they could handle” is poorly supported by the facts and ideas presented in this article. To support this point, the authors relate how several OLPC leaders have resigned (OLPC President Walter Bender and Software security leader Ivan Krstic) and some countries have backed out of the project. Those are problems to be sure, but I hardly think they support the contention of the authors that Negroponte and others have bitten off more than they could chew with the OLPC project. I also take issue with the overall critical tone of this article, which seems to suggest people should either want:

  • Poor kids in developing countries to not have access to digital technologies, because providing it amounts to cultural imperialism, or…
  • Commercial companies should OF COURSE receive our support in selling their wares to the students of the world, even when free, open source software alternatives are available which exceed basic learning requirements, or…
  • Students everywhere should be condemned to the age-old, traditional “fill the pail” educational pedagogy which Paulo Freire and many other educational advocates for the economically disadvantaged in developing countries have ardently pressed to reform.

I’m guessing authors Hamm and Smith haven’t read Pedagogy of the Oppressed. If they would take time to read it and thoughtfully explore digital divide / digital equity issues, I wonder if their perspectives would change to more favorably view OLPC?

Here’s another interesting tidbit I gleaned from the article which I hadn’t read previously: Microsoft wooed Libya out of the OLPC project by offering to sell them Windows operating system licenses for $3 each:

Originally, rather than using Microsoft’s pricey Windows and ready-made commercial applications, they [OLPC leaders] chose the Linux open-source operating system and created a new user interface and applications designed specifically to aid in learning by doing. A key reason to support open source: It allows students to tinker directly with software. However, some countries, such as Libya, which initially agreed to buy more than 1 million laptops, backed out and chose a Windows-based alternative from Intel. One attraction: Microsoft cut the price of a software package for poor schools from $150 to $3.

Kudos go out to the Microsoft representatives for pulling off this national-level bribe in Libya. Had the Libyan political and educational leaders ever used open source software previously? Did the Microsoft lobbyists woo the Libyan leaders with a ridiculous assertion like, “Most of the world uses the Windows operating system, so all your students in your schools need to also!?” I’m not sure, I don’t have insider information on this. I do know, however, it is a shame so many leaders continue to misunderstand and undervalue open source software and technologies. (See my post from this weekend, “Praise for NeoOffice (OpenOffice) and SeaShore (GIMP)” for more on this topic.)

Since when does offering a low-cost laptop with tons of free software programs on it designed to help students become the self-directed architects of their own learning amount to cultural imperialism? Article authors write:

Some observers accuse OLPC of cultural imperialism. “It’s arrogant of them. You can’t just stampede into a country’s education system and say, Here’s the way to do it,’” says William Easterly, a professor at New York University and author of The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good.

So Dr. Easterly has published some books on cultural imperialism… What expertise does he have specifically on the OLPC project and the way it has been implemented in Peru and other participating countries? I agree human beings (and those with light melatonin in particular) have been ridiculously and horribly misinformed, misdirected, cruel, and destructive in the past in “the developing world.” I am no fan of colonialism past, present or future. I am, however, a big fan of projects and people which aspire to empower others to attain an educational and economic future far brighter than those of their predecessors. What is Dr. Easterly’s plan for effectively fighting poverty across our globe? Based on his book publications, it seems clear clear he is no fan of US foreign aid. Fine. OLPC is not a U.S. aid program. Did Hamm and Smith seek out a critic of OLPC who truly understand the program, what it aspires to and how it is being implemented, or did they just reach out and call someone for a fast sound byte who is an established critic of historical and traditional foreign aid programs? It seems likely they did the latter, and that is unfortunate. Making such a mistake is kind of like asking Carl Sagan (or letting him) pontificate on topics outside his narrow area of expertise, like theology, and treating his thoughts as “expert testimony.” Just because a professor has credentials in one field, critically thinking citizens shouldn’t permit news reporters to “authoritatively quote” that individual on a topic tangentially related to their field of expertise. Why didn’t Hamm and Smith ask their local building custodian about his/her opinion about OLPC? If Easterly does not have specific, in-depth knowledge about the OLPC project and implementation initiatives himself, then his opinion about the project should be valued equally with those of another observer unfamiliar with its specifics.

Nigeria has apparently also been wooed away from OLPC and instead has opted to purchase Intel’s Classmate PC. Again according to the article:

OLPC might not be in such turmoil if Kane had been promoted earlier. Nigeria had agreed to buy 1 million XOs, but after a competition among three alternatives, the country chose Intel’s Classmate PC instead. Why did OLPC lose out? Intel provided more support, writes Isa Muhammad Ari, director of administration for Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory, in an e-mail.

Better support, hmmmm. Certainly it does sound like OLPC has a small full-time staff. I wonder if Nigerian leaders considered the support available from the OLPC community? Did one person from Intel “make the difference” by quickly returning phone calls from a school administrator or government official? What is the REAL reason Nigeria went with the Classmate PC rather than the XO? I’d like to hear more, I’m certain there is more to this tale than this simple sentence in the article, “Intel provided better support.”

How does the Classmate PC stack up against the XO, incidentally? How many people in the seats of leadership in countries considering the purchase of an affordable laptop for students are qualified to make that judgement call themselves? And are the implementation plans for the Classmate PC in Nigeria the same as they would have been for the OLPC: One computer for EVERY child? I hope that is the case, but I am not sure. I’ll be eager to examine and use the Classmate PC at NECC this summer in a few weeks. I’m sure Intel representatives will be there hawking it and touting its relative benefits over other alternatives. Perhaps it is fantastic. I’m still waiting for Apple to release a lower-priced but fully functional iBook for education that resembles more the 1st generation “clamshell” model. Is that coming? I have no idea, but I hope so.

A final news item I gleaned from this article is that OLPC may roll out in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere:

Just getting started in Haiti will be a challenge. The group’s second trip there was delayed by riots over food shortages in April. The first shipment of laptops was held up in customs for weeks. Donors are paying for some laptops, but not all. Asked how Haiti can afford to pay for PCs when its citizens are starving, Guy Serge Pompi, the Haitian educator coordinating the project, answers: “You can’t just focus on the present. The starving is the present. The future is education. We need to train our students for better jobs and a better future.”

I have some close friends who served in the U.S. Foreign Service a few years ago in Haiti, and the stories they told were very eye opening. The Haitian educational coordinator for OLPC is absolutely correct, however, in noting that improving EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES is one of the most important and viable, long term economic development paths for nations as well as individuals. Can an OLPC implementation help the people of Haiti move forward into a brighter economic future? If it can help the people of Haiti, surely it can help the people of ANY nation.

Like other educational technology contexts, however, we must remember that a project implementation process has to do with MUCH more than simply the hardware and the software. Hardware and software is important, but people are primary. My high hopes as well as prayers continue to go out to all of those working hard at implementing OLPC around the world.

When will leaders in my own state of Oklahoma recognize that one to one learning is a PRESENT NEED for our students today? Will the leaders in other states and other nations see this “light” anytime soon?

Will the real educational leaders please step forward?

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2 responses to “Updates on OLPC (June 2008)”

  1. Paul Hamilton Avatar

    Thank you for this insightful post! It is sad, but not unexpected, that there is so much resistance to the educational reform that has real potential to liberate impoverished individuals and societies.

    Almost all political leaders, like educational leaders, have achieved their positions at least in part because they are part of an elite minority who thrived under the instructionist model of education. If anything, this may be even more so in “less developed” parts of the world.

    I’m a passionate proponent of universal access and universal design for learning. Technology that is available today has the potential to break down all kinds of barriers that have hitherto prevented success for too many learners–economic, physical, cognitive, etc. It is vital to get this technology to those who need it most.


  2. Gary S. Stager, Ph.D. Avatar


    There is way too much stupidity in the Business Week article than I have the time or patience to dispute.

    The simple fact that Business Week works so hard to undermine OLPC is ample evidence of its success.

    A few dozen folks at OLPC have been able to accomplish things that not a single multi-billion dollar advertiser in Business Week has accomplished (hardware, software, new OS, coherent learning theory).

    The fact that Intel has been compelled to become computer makers working around the clock to pick off countries OLPC has convinced of the wisdom of 1:1 is evidence of Negroponte’s success.

    By the way, colleagues of mine on the OLPC Learning Team are in Haiti as we speak placing computers in the hands of children.