In which I talk about the OLPC project againPosted: April 16, 2007
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.
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.