A report today by the BBC highlights that a new partnership has been established between One Laptop per Child (OLPC) and the East African Community (EAC) to deliver 30 million laptops in the region by 2015. As the report goes on to say, the EAC first needs to raise cash for the laptops! It also comments that “OLPC has had difficulty selling its computers and its alternative vision of education around the world”.
I find such announcements hugely worrying. There have been sufficient critiques published on the OLPC model for governments, donors, and all those involved in education to be aware of the fundamental difficulties associated with its roll out (see for example Bob Kozma‘s comments in 2007, David Hollow‘s 2009 account of their introduction in Ethiopia, Scott Kipp‘s comments in 2009, and Ivan Krstic’s devastating critique of the concept and its implementation at the UOC UNESCO Chair in e-Learning Fifth International Seminar in 2008).
Let me here highlight what I see as being some of the most important issues:
- Cost – 30 million laptops at $200 each amounts to $6,000 million. Might this money not be more effectively spent in other ways, such as providing teachers in East Africa with better training, or even simply remunerating them better so that they do not have to do several jobs at once in order to support their families?
- Pedagogic model – is there one? OLPC has claimed to be an educational initiative, but a fundamental problem with most OLPC roll outs has been that they have not been integrated into the existing educational structures. In the worst instances, the laptops have been given to children but not to their teachers. The tensions that this causes are immense.
- Lack of Content – the OLPC vision is “To create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning”. The problem is that there is very little available learning content suitably designed and integrated with the curricula in the countries where the laptops are being introduced. Simply expecting young people to be able to learn by connecting to the internet is like throwing someone into the sea and expecting them to swim.
- Monitoring and Evaluation – there have been too few rigorous monitoring and evaluation studies to be able to say with any certainty what the impact of these computers might be in Africa. Surely, we should undertake high quality studies of the educational impact before spending such huge amounts of money on rolling them out?
- Who gets them? This is a real issue. In many instances, the choice about where the computers are given reflects social, economic and political interests. The sampling strategy for the roll outs needs to be thought through extremely carefully, and not just left to some enthusiastic youth volunteers (as in the OLPCorps programme – the selection of participants for which is itself highly problematic and controversial). If XO computers do have a beneficial effect, then why should only some young people (in most cases those who are already privileged in some way) benefit from them? Will they go to the poorest and most marginalised, those who most need help in isolated rural areas? Ethiopia alone has an estimated 9 million children out of school. Will they receive laptops?
- External technology-led initiatives – most of the evidence suggests that top-down, externally-driven and technology-led initiatives are much less successful than initiatives that are explicitly designed and tailored to the needs and aspirations of the people for whom they are intended. It is crucial that we begin with the educational needs of people in East Africa, and then identify the most cost-effective way of delivering on them. As Bob Kozma says, “Is this an education project or merely a laptop project?”.
- Sustainability – what happens when the first batch of computers breaks down, or becomes outdated? Let’s be generous, and estimate that each might last five years. Can East Africa afford another $6,000 million in five years time? What will happen to the debris of the old computers? How will their materials be recycled, or will they just be dumped?
- The technology? There are some great things about the technical achievements in creating the OLPC XO laptops – but anecdotal evidence suggests that actually it is not quite as good and effective as is often claimed. In particular, there have been numerous issues with the mesh networking and connectivity when actually rolled out into the rural village conditions of Africa.
So, I ask again, why does there remain such euphoria about the OLPC initiative? Surely, the East African Community has better things to spend its money on? If only it could find the funds to support good education effectively, that would be a start! Nicholas Negroponte is a charismatic and enthusiastic champion of OLPC, but is it not time that he recognises that his vision is fundamentally flawed? African governments have better things to do than to be beguiled into spending their limited resources on such a delusional concept.