In which I talk about the OLPC project again

This post is actually supposed to be further down on my list of things to blog about, but then Greg’s blog pointed me at this critique by Jorge Aranda and I figured this might be a good time to talk about it.

Jorge makes a couple of great points about perceived shortcomings in the project which the OLPC developers seem to not be paying enough attention to. I’m going to piggyback off the ones I agree with to make a few observations as another science and technology geek who grew up in a developing country and currently works for a government agency there.

Now, first the standard disclaimer. I don’t dislike the OLPC project. I think its a valiant effort which involves some brilliant hardware and software hacking. I also think the idea of disruptive learning they are pushing has a lot of potential. I will be paying close attention to the rollout process and expect that some very valuable ideas will come out of its implementation. And I wish them the best. Hell, I even want one just because.

From my perspective though, it seems to me that the project has been making the mistake of focusing extensively on the process of building the device and creating the software it needs, but not enough on implementation issues that might show up after they deploy.

I also feel that they are running too quickly to the mass rollout phase of the project. I would have preferred a longer testing period to get a sense for what works with the kids in differing environments. I also wonder how many countries can afford space in their education budget for a million of them.

Back to Jorge’s critiques….

Its not a gift, its a textbook
Any one of those laptops is supposed to replace textbooks in mathematics, science, a bunch of languages(which will differ depending on which country and where in it we are talking about), history(specifics will also depend on country), geography etc…

I have to wonder to what degree they are working on the problem of free educational content localized for the countries that will get the laptops. The laptops won’t just be inspiring future computer scientists. They’ll also be inspiring the creation of new mathematicians, physicists, chemists,writers, historians, musicians………

Where is their content? To what degree is the project working either on its own or with other relevant projects to get the kids access to all this information. And localized too. If we have free books for instance, I want African kids to read African, Carribean, Asian, South American writers etc. with their Shakespeare. How possible is that? How much effort is going into this?

It will garner enemies:
Ghana is a fairly conservative country controlled by people who are scared of, among other things, losing their kids to foreign cultures. Machines they don’t understand which give kids their own network would definitely create issues. Localized content might help with that problem but general conservatism and resistance to change will create issues.

I can also foresee issues with teachers unions about kids getting these machines unless they are also given some kind of computer training and access to machines of their own, which will impose its own financial burden on educational systems that are broke to begin with.

The black market:
People seem to keep assuming that (a) only kids will want this and (b) there will never be need to steal one. If its as powerful as I keep hearing, people will still them regardless of how colorful you make them or how tiny you make them. And they’d probably get stolen anyway simply because they are worth a hundred dollars. Personally I can think of lots of things a tiny linux powered PC capable of mesh networking would be good for. And not all of them are legal.

The cost:
Any country that buys into the project is agreeing to devote at least $100 million to it. In Ghana our teachers recently went on strike because they are underpaid. Even in the capital city there are public schools which are woefully underfunded and can barely afford pencils. In the poorer regions it can be depressing. If we are short of funding to make basic facilities available to everyone, is going all the way to laptops not a bit of a stretch? I know its a question that leaves open room for all sorts of idiotic assumptions about Africa and the developing world, but its still valid. We are short of money for education. Partly because we are just broke and partly because IMO we have bad priorities. Either way it needs to be addressed.

Another thing. Why did the OLPC people ignore the adult market? I mean, I know Quanta is making its own play for that market using the same technologies and maybe that was always the plan, but computers are expensive and Ghana alone has tens of thousands of college students who would kill for a $300 – $400 laptop to work with. Plus for linux vendors, this is an easy way into a huge untapped market of smart kids in the developing world who may not yet have been locked in to any one way of doing things.

Anyway, the point here is simply that I would love to see the OLPC people address issues beyond the hardware and software they will be using. Now I’ve heard some of this stuff mentioned before. Not enough for my liking though. This really does come across as something with too narrow a focus.


8 Comments on “In which I talk about the OLPC project again”

  1. Jorge says:

    Interesting thoughts, thanks for posting!

    It’s true that the adult market is very significant as well, possibly more than the 6 or 7 year-olds. A kid may surely benefit from a laptop; a college student desperately needs it.

  2. kwasi says:

    Thanks for getting me finally going on the topic Jorge.

    The adult dimension is one that I think people tend to overlook because they are unaware of the nature of the PC markets in the developing world. In Ghana the largest sellers are people reselling barely refurbished low-spec machines at outrageous markups.
    It leaves a lot of room for an adult version of the OLPC to make a fairly big splash and help a lot of people.

  3. wayan says:

    If only the cost were $100. Or even $150. The OLPC XO seems now to be $175 each, or $175 million with the 1 million minimum order lot:

  4. umbrarchist says:

    I just got my OLPC-XO a few days ago and am still in the process of fooling around with it. It seems better constructed than I expected. The screen is better than I expected so I guess I didn’t really believe what was being said. It found my D-Link access point right away, I just had to enter the pass code. Further experimenting indicates I have to enter it every time I turn on the machine and sometimes it takes multiple tries.

    I have BYTE magazines going back to the late 70’s. In the January ’83 BYTE there is a benchmark called the Sieve of Eratosthenes and listings of the performance of dozens of computers in multiple languages. I wrote an enhanced version of it in GNU-C.

    The fastest machine in that 1983 test was an IBM 3033 mainframe running assembly language. It took 0.0078 seconds but the machine cost $3,000,000. The OLPC-XO took 0.0122 seconds and I bought two of them for $400. The IBM took 0.036 seconds running PL/I. So this funny looking little laptop beat a $3,000,000 mainframe running a high level language that governments and corporations bought in the 80’s. That mainframe was first delivered with 8 MB and could be upgraded to a max of 32 MB. The OLPC comes with 256 MB.

    I haven’t tested the range yet but I have read that these XO’s can communicate over a distance of more than 1 kilometer.

    It doesn’t include a good book reader though.

    How this technology ends up changing all societies on the planet depends on what people decide to do with it and whether we let the corporations tell us what to do with it.


  5. kwasi says:

    Nice comparison Umbra. I keep hearing about how the OLPC is a great piece of hardware for the money. That part I’m not too concerned about.

    I guess I just wonder if its the best use of the available cash more than anything else

  6. umbrarchist says:

    How much do 50 books cost? Sci-fi books are commonly $8 in the US. So 50 books would be $400. I have found free sci-fi in Project Gutenberg including the first story I ever read when I was 9 years old.

    The list is here:

    Book List

    The built in browser isn’t so hot and would not download. But the Opera browser is available. Here are the instructions:

    The best method of reading on the OLPC right now is using the browser to read downloaded HTML files. But if sci-fi can be downloaded and read there is no reason mathematics and physics and African history and anything else isn’t possible. What is to stop African countries from pooling money to develop standardized continental text books?

    With properly implemented software and texts these devices could be worth thousands. Just don’t let the kids waste lots of time with silly bullsh!t. I am trying to learn Python now.


  7. kwasi says:

    I agree that there a lot of good content out there umbra, and I also agree that this is a direction African governments should really be working towards in a better fashion than they have been. And that’s actually the issue here.

    The content hasn’t been developed. We have overcrowded schools in a lot of places and are criminally undertraining and underpaying teachers, plus barely supplying the schools. Basically a lot of money has to be spent to bring things up to scratch and there are other ways to get kids computer access, which I believe is hugely important, than the OLPC approach.

    I love the idea of those things, but for $170 per student or so, I think paying teachers more, building new school blocks, getting working science and computer labs in all schools, developing better content and sorting out distribution mechanisms etc. are better uses for the money.

    If those issues didn’t exist I’d love to be able to hand every primary school kid in Ghana an OLPC, but they do.

  8. umbrarchist says:

    I’ve got Doom on my OLPC.

    I’m Doomed!


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