OLPC and the East African Community

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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?
  6. 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?”.
  7. 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?
  8. 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.


Filed under Africa, Entrepreneurship, ICT4D general

12 responses to “OLPC and the East African Community

  1. Pingback: uberVU - social comments

  2. Good points, Tim, but OLPC isn’t all negative. We have learned a lot from the experience – just check out the Educational Technology Debate on OLPC Impact:


    We had six discussants dissect the lessons learned from all aspects of the initiative.

  3. Matti

    From my perspective, if this is going to happen anyway, the grand challenge for us is to help make this initiative to be meaningful for the learners and their environment, and to foster real educational and societal development.

    And hey, we too may learn quite a lot in the process. If we put good effort here, perhaps we’ll even come up with innovative pedagogical models, educational content, and some good research. Actually, if we think we know some things better than others, it’s even our responsibility to help this initiative.

  4. Last month we visited OLPC projects in Nepal. They were completely focused on contents rather than laptops. Their approach is systematic. Two direct impacts on remote communities we observed are increase in attendance rate, and cultivation of self-learning habits. Regarding pedagogy, it changed the teaching learning model from teacher centric to … See More student centric. However, the challenges you mentioned are genuine. The website of the project for more details,


  5. Pingback: Tweets that mention OLPC and the East African Community « Tim Unwin’s Blog -- Topsy.com

  6. Pingback: Is OLPC East Africa for 20-30 Million Children For Real? - A Collection of Latest Happening in Technology Field

  7. A number of the concerns raised here were addressed long ago, and others are being addressed on a continuing basis. We in the OLPC/Sugarlabs movement would be happy to provide details.

    1. Cost–Would we do better to spend the money elsewhere?

    The world has tried that, and failed in a hundred different ways. Why would it work better this time? Whereas we have data on one-to-one computing’s successes, which I shall return to below. But there is a simpler argument. The computers cost less than printed books in all but the poorest countries, where the available textbooks are entirely inadequate.

    2. Pedagogic model–is there one?

    Yes, several, in fact. ^_^ The leading model is Seymour Papert’s Constructionism, which holds that children learn best by making things cooperatively. The computer turn out to be an unequaled tool for making things of all kinds, particularly once we get to robotics, Numerically-Controlled (NC) tools, and 3D printers. But just starting with art, music, the camera, reading, writing, and programmed mathematical modeling will take us a long way.

    Alan Kay’s vision of the Dynabook education computer running Smalltalk has very nearly been realized in the XO, except that it doesn’t have as much storage as Kay discussed in the 1970s. But wait for Moore’s law.

    3. Lack of Content–very little available learning content suitably designed and integrated with the curricula

    True. In fact, there is very little learning content on paper that is suitably designed and integrated with the curricula of the target countries. Other governments, such as California, are creating much more. There are 16 free di science and math texts at


    and many more listed at


    Now that we know how we can deliver such content, there is much greater interest in creating it and having people in-country translate it to the languages needed.

    4. Monitoring and Evaluation–too few rigorous monitoring and evaluation studies

    There is in fact a literature going back to the 1950s on computers in education. They can be very effective, or worse than useless, depending on design and implementation. Start here.


    It is true that there are few published studies of XOs in schools. There has not been time to conduct them on the scale and duration we desire. But start here.


    In particular, the Ethiopia report explains how XOs and appropriate training converted a pure rote education system, where asking questions was a personal insult to the teacher, into a system of exploration and discovery, where questions were welcomed.

    5. Who gets them?–In many instances, the choice about where the computers are given reflects social, economic and political interests.

    This turns out simply not to be the case. Every child in school gets one, as in Uruguay. There the schools are trying to track down the estimated 50,000 children not in school in order to give each one an XO and get them into school. Peru decided to give the poorest children in the most remote villages XOs first.

    6. External technology-led initiatives–problems with “top-down, externally-driven and technology-led initiatives”

    Yes. Technology is not the solution to a problem. It can be a tool to use in solving problems. In this case, we provide access to the information resources of the world, and we connect children with each other, and with the rest of us. How can we and they solve any of their problems without that infrastructure of Information and Communication provided by Technology?

    7. Sustainability–what happens when the first batch of computers breaks down?

    Students repair them, if permitted, as in the Nigerian Children’s Laptop Hospital run by six-year-old girls.

    Educationally obsolete laptops are reused in control and data acquisition for farming and other purposes, or as musical instruments, or something else the children will think of.

    They are replaced. It would be stupid beyond measure for governments to budget for only five years on a program that must continue forever. Do you think African governments are that stupid, or are you judging by the United States? ^_^

    8. The technology?–not quite as good and effective as is often claimed.

    I try to scotch such claims wherever I encounter them. OLPC has had some astonishing successes, and some severe failures. No better than, say, Apple or Microsoft, but on a far smaller budget. ^_^

  8. They were completely focused on contents rather than laptops. Their approach is systematic

  9. If we put good effort here, perhaps we’ll even come up with innovative pedagogical models, educational content, and some good research.

  10. Pingback: Thoughts on One Laptop Per Child in East Africa Community - A Collection of Latest Happening in Technology Field

  11. Interesting points – though really I think it shows that the importance is in the detail of how it’s done.

    Cost – OLPC is not, so far as I can ever see, cheaper than textbooks (costs like $3-4 in Afghanistan for a set I think). But it can deliver far greater value. And it can deliver economically valuable information to help families (such as a micro business opportunities to skills matcher as we put on laptops in Afghanistan). How much greater value vs. traditional interventions ? Need to research that one. We need a control case with a similar value well designed conventional intervention vs. the OLPC case. We possibly need to look more in depth at the economic outcomes and how we can engineer them to happen for the benefit of all involved.

    Pedagogical model – this would have to depend on the location where we’re looking to deploy cultural sensitivities and the like. Then it needs piloted, tweaked, and sorted out.

    Content – I’m very excited that we just released a new educational content creation enhancement which uses various e-Learning formats to make educational content in a snap (makes games almost with just some style sheets in a few mins). http://www.paiwastoon.af/eldep/ – I think comparing to having normal Javascript, Flash or Squeak people we can achieve a cost reduction of around 95%.

    Which means that we can churn out an entire digital interactive curriculum – quickly and cost effectively. That can even be used on mobile phones. Content is in my opinion the biggest stumbling block right now. Open Educational Resources often fail to harness the power of ICT; which means they might be cheaper to distribute in dead tree format. We need to use learning mechanisms that deliver interactivity and structured feedback like roleplays, puzzles, click / find activities, falling object games and such.

    Having that curriculum content is what can massively extend time on task and availability of structured feedback.

    Anything in order to accomplish radical change in such difficult environments will require both external and internal input. How the partners interact is definitely a subject of interest and importance (Ministries, donors, private sector entities/ NGOs).

    The technology – well we did some work to make a router mesh system based on Freifunk which achieves much the same result as the objective of the active antenna – essentially normal network to router, mesh of routers to manage traffic. With the new wireless 802.11N we will have enough bandwidth.

    I would add another point; the single biggest barrier in developing countries for managing this and achieving the desired outcomes at the moment is human capacity. We need to find ways to accomplish these outcomes with the resources that we have by building the needed tools to make the job possible (MIS systems, content creators, etc)

  12. Pingback: OLPC Alone Will Not Transform Education in Africa - A Collection of Latest Happening in Technology Field

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s