Where did the idea of One-Laptop-Per-Child (OLPC) originate?
In the early aughts of the 21st century, the cost of a laptop ran close to $1000. The idea of producing one that would sell for $100 and be sent to children in Latin America, Africa, and Asia who may or may not have had a schoolhouse or teacher caused giggles among tech engineers, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists. A contemporary of Seymour Papert and head of a center at Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Nicholas Negroponte believed that cheap, durable, and Internet-connected machines could revolutionize teaching and learning. He told conferees in 2010:
One the things people told me about technology, particularly about laptops in the beginning, “Nicholas, you can’t give a kid a laptop laptop that’s connected and walk away.” Well you know what, you can. You actually can. And we have found that kids in the remotest parts of thew world, when given that connected [laptop], like some of the kids in these pictures, not only teach themselves how to read and write, but most importantly, and this we found in Peru first, they teach their parents how to read and write.
OLPC launched in 2006-2007 and the price was around $150 per laptop but crept up to just over $200 over the next few years. Negroponte contracted with ministries of education in various countries to buy laptops.
What is OLPC?
The hardware and software of the initial laptops distributed in Nigeria, Uruguay, and later Peru, Rwanda and other developing nations was simple enough:
The rugged, low-power computers use flash memory instead of a hard drive, run a Fedora-based operating system and use the SugarLabs Sugar user interface…. Mobile ad hoc networking based on the 802.11s wireless mesh network protocol allows students to collaborate on activities and to share Internet access from one connection. The wireless networking has much greater range than typical consumer laptops [of those years]. The XO-1 has also been designed to be lower cost and much longer-lived than typical laptops.
Depending upon the country, ministry officials distributed the devices to children directly in villages and towns and in rural and urban schools between 2007-2014. OLPC came to the U.S. in 2008.
What problems did OLPC seek to solve? Massive poverty in economically developing countries was the chief problem. Education was the solution. But building schools and providing teachers was costly. Children and youth were motivated to learn but lacked access to schools. And where schools were available, tuition and inadequately trained teachers often made education a rote-filled sequence of lessons resulting in high student attrition. OLPC connected to the Internet was seemingly a solution to problems of limited access to schooling and traditional teaching by permitting students to use software to acquire knowledge and cognitive skills in a variety of subjects beyond memorizing lessons. The belief that increased access to schools, teachers, devices, and the like would break the shackles of poverty continues.
Or as the OLPC project said:
We aim to provide each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop. To this end, we have designed hardware, content and software for collaborative, joyful, and self-empowered learning. With access to this type of tool, children are engaged in their own education, and learn, share, and create together. They become connected to each other, to the world and to a brighter future.
Negroponte believed that children could be “agents of change” to create their own learning with these laptops (see video of Negroponte talking about OLPC in Afghanistan here).
Did OLPC work?
Amid that optimism, the issue of putting the devices into hands of teachers and students–implementation–was given short shrift. Without careful thought and action on Internet-connected devices and software into hands of teachers and students (or children and youth not in school), any definition of “work” becomes suspect. There was a magical belief in OLPC, like a fairy Godmother turning a pumpkin into Cinderella’s carriage to take her to the ball.
How teachers were to use the laptop or how students were to magically learn led one skeptic to put it this way:
If “work” means that students used the devices until they wore out or had to be trashed because once broken they could not be fixed, then OLPC “worked.” But if “work” means that students learned more, faster, and better (as measured by existing national tests or other metrics of academic achievement) available evidence is close to nil (see here, here, and here). And if “work” means as the founders sought, that is, With access to this type of tool, children are engaged in their own education, and learn, share, and create together, no evidence of such grand dreams for OLPC exists.
What happened to OLPC?
The details of the splitting apart of OLPC into two organizations since 2008, the departure of the founders including Negroponte, the constant searching for new contracts in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, and the shell of the once expansive organization that continues to exist now is described here, here, and here.
Did OLPC fail? Succeed? Depends on how “success” and “failure” are defined, who does the defining, and the criteria used to make the judgment.