What is OLPC?
OLPC stands for One Laptop Per Child and according to the mission statement of the OLPC website it is intended:
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. When children have access to this type of tool they get engaged in their own education. They learn, share, create, and collaborate. They become connected to each other, to the world and to a brighter future.
It is the goal of the (not-for-profit) OLPC to see their laptop, the XO, reach as many individual children in developing nations as possible, in the hope their mission may be accomplished.
So… So Why is it Pernicious?
Good question. Below are some important points.
Sugar & Negative Capacity Building
This is my big gripe and the one most people haven’t got a handle on. Sugar is the desktop system for the XO.
A ‘desktop’ is an abstract concept of an actual desktop applied to personal computing. For those who use Windows, Mac OS X or many versions of Linux it is what you see when no windows are open. Typically files (and shortcuts to applications) are placed there to continue the desktop metaphor.
Sugar is absolutely nothing like Windows, Mac OS X or Linux. Take a look at some screenshots here. Does anything look familiar? The screenshot displaying ‘Pippy’ resembles an editor but that’s all I can fathom easily.
‘Capacity building’ is a term banded about by development types in developing nations. It means teaching skills and experience that will hopefully be retained by those taught and subsequently spread to others. Thereby raising and sustaining the capacity of those individuals and making those skills ubiquitous (such as computer literacy).
In many developing nations business or politics are the primary means of middle class employment and the goal of many trying to escape poverty. These jobs are, by their nature, heavily bureaucratic and often use software from Microsoft (Word, Excel, Powerpoint, etc).
OLPC should be encouraging capacity with regard to computer literacy so that any school child entering further education or seeking an office job can work effectively. However, how can this happen when the desktop and applications in the real world are completely different (with a few exceptions) on the XO?
Expanding on the ‘literacy’ metaphor: If Sugar were a language then it would be equivalent to a new language only people in poverty are expected to speak and teachers are expected to be able to teach it immediately with minimal training.
The XO does not assist in long term computer literacy and will have minimal impact on capacity building with regard to real world computing. It does not provide a transition between cheap educational computing to employment as an adult (as it should).
- XFCE . XFCE is a lightweight Linux distribution already capable of running on the XO. Linux if free and has many suitable equivalents to Microsoft Office (and many, many other tools) that would assist in pragmatic education.
- Microsoft Windows. Many people will not like this idea and I understand why, but it would be especially useful in classrooms that are preparing people for vocations that will almost certainly be using Microsoft tools. Microsoft is working on a version of XP for the XO but I believe it is not yet ready (please correct me if I’m wrong).
Sugar is not good. Let’s stop using it now.
On the website http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Concerns_and_criticism it says there is some concern that public school students will receive XOs and students attending religious schools will not. In some cases this may actually be true in the opposite sense. Many NGOs are religious (Christian in particular) and are supplying XOs to religious schools first.
Clearly, this will vary in many countries and is not a blanket rule. I just mention it here to highlight the opposite can also be true.
An XO costs $199. Cheap right? Well not if you’re living off a dollar a day. In fact, I know of one school charging the parents the equivalent of $210 dollars per (already subsidised) XO.
So what could unintended the consequences be? Here’s a real world example: We know a single mother raising two children. She works as a housekeeper making a wage of around $80 a month and her children are paid through school by expatriates.
$80 per month is a decent salary as it is more than a policeman or school teacher receives but she still struggles to make ends meet. She is trying very hard to improve the lives of her children and dedicates everything to them. Her daughter attends a good school that would be out of her league if it were not for the expatriate assistance. This school has told its pupils to acquire an XO for next year.
The unintended consequence? Now the girl has to change from the good school she has attended for years because the XO is too expensive. For years her mother has worked so hard to keep her daughter in that school in the hope that her education would provide her with a better future than that of a housekeeper. Now that hope is diminished.
Why push principles on developing nations we don’t have ourselves?
Here is a very fundamental question: Why do we think giving a low power, low performance personal computer to all school children in developing nations world will help them? It’s aimed primarily as an educational tool so since we’re from developed world we learnt that by giving laptops to all our children, right? I mean we expect all kids in the developed world to have a low power, low performance personal computer don’t we?
No. Of course we don’t. So why is this the rational behind OLPC? There seems to be an incredible one-sidedness going on here. A technological one-rule-for-us and another-for-you.
It’s undeniable that basic computer literacy, IT and computer science skills are enormously valuable, but will the XO really assist in this area? On the surface the answer is ‘Yes! Of course it will! If everyone has a computer then they’ll be more computer literate. Right?’ Well, some kids will become very skilled at using XOs but will they be more capable with real world computers when they are older? Maybe sometimes, but more often, no.
The Joy of Tech summarises it nicely (/satirically):
What does OLPC get right?
Actually, the principles of the ‘rugged-ized’ hardware are pretty good. Although technical restrictions such as the 1GB flash memory means the XO can only run one application at a time.
In many respects it is a noble endeavour and it’s intentions are clearly well meaning. However, you know what they say about good intentions.
Alternatives and Further Criticism
This is a very personal view and definitely up for criticism but I think refurbished computers with Edubuntu (or equivalent) is a much more pragmatic approach.
The OLPC dismisses refurbished computers as being too expensive. Well that depends on what is meant by cost. OLPC refers to the cost as being the sum of the components and the labour required to refurbish the machines. I am not convinced by the rebuttle which responds to the question ‘Why not a desktop computer, or—even better—a recycled desktop machine? ‘ with:
Desktops are cheaper, but mobility is important, especially with regard to taking the computer home at night. Kids in the developing world need the newest technology, especially really rugged hardware and innovative software. Recent work with schools in Maine has shown the huge value of using a laptop across all of one’s studies, as well as for play. Bringing the laptop home engages the family. In one Cambodian village where we have been working, there is no electricity, thus the laptop is, among other things, the brightest light source in the home.
Regarding recycled machines: if we estimate 100 million available used desktops, and each one requires only one hour of human attention to refurbish, reload, and handle, that is tens of thousands of work years. Thus, while we definitely encourage the recycling of used computers, it is not the solution for One Laptop per Child.
I will breakdown that answer and address the individual points made:
Desktops are cheaper,
Yes, especially if they are donated. Some donated computers will even originate in the country in question so transport of the computers will also be lower.
but mobility is important,
Many donated machines would be laptops, or even netbooks.
especially with regard to taking the computer home at night.
Why is it important to have a computer at home? I didn’t have one when I grew up.
Kids in the developing world need the newest technology,
No they don’t. Especially this technology which is completely divergent from the real world. Many people use Linux on very old machines and are very happy with the performance. For sure, the newer the technology the better, but it needs to be relevent technology.
especially really rugged hardware
This is only true if they need to remove them from the classroom.
and innovative software.
No. It should be mundane software that everyone else in the world uses.
Recent work with schools in Maine has shown the huge value of using a laptop across all of one’s studies,
I am skeptical computers raise grades in ALL studies. Even if it does, a child will lose other skills (handwriting, mental arithmetic, artistic ability, musical ability, etc). And are we talking about an XO here or a standard laptop? It neglects to cite the laptop used in the study (or the study itself so it can be examined).
as well as for play. Bringing the laptop home engages the family. In one Cambodian village where we have been working, there is no electricity, thus the laptop is, among other things, the brightest light source in the home.
So the XO is a $199 torch/flashlight? I thought fire and wind-up torches/flashlights addressed that issue.
Regarding recycled machines: if we estimate 100 million available used desktops, and each one requires only one hour of human attention to refurbish, reload, and handle, that is tens of thousands of work years.
Fair enough, but I presume XOs dont appear out of thin air or grow on trees so how much labour and materials are involved in XO production?
Thus, while we definitely encourage the recycling of used computers, it is not the solution for One Laptop per Child.
Two points here: 1) Why not?, 2) Why are we even pushing for every child to have a laptop in the first place? See above (‘Why push principles on the 3rd world we don’t have ourselves?’).
Another horrendously out of touch argument is presented here :
The point of this laptop is to keep people connected with the modern computer net-based society. Using a laptop that may be on its way to obsolescence from a second-hand store, or building new expensive Pentium laptops for this purpose isn’t feasible. You have to design something specifically to answer all the requirements of the XO laptop. If we could make a reliable $2 laptop that is modern and can do everything required of it in our program, we would absolutely make such a device. Another problem with the “old- or used-computer” approach is that it doesn’t scale. The overhead of deployment and support would overshadow any potential economies in terms of the capital costs. A final, insurmountable problem with the “old- or used-computer” approach is power. The XO laptop uses an order of magnitude less power than the typical laptop. It is both environmentally reckless and economically infeasible to power used computers in developing world.
So, taking this argument apart:
The point of this laptop is to keep people connected with the modern computer net-based society.
Using a laptop that may be on its way to obsolescence from a second-hand store,
Obsolescence is a very vague term here and needs expanded upon. If almost sounds like it’s a euphemism for ‘out of fashion’ but I suspect they meant ‘likely to break soon’ and if that’s the case then that’s the problem refurbishment addresses (more likely for less than the cost of manufacturing a new XO).
or building new expensive Pentium laptops for this purpose isn’t feasible.
Of course. Making new ones isn’t the same as using old ones is it…?
You have to design something specifically to answer all the requirements of the XO laptop.
No, no, no you don’t. You need have a pragmatic answer to the needs of people in developing nations.
If we could make a reliable $2 laptop that is modern and can do everything required of it in our program, we would absolutely make such a device.
Another problem with the “old- or used-computer” approach is that it doesn’t scale. The overhead of deployment and support would overshadow any potential economies in terms of the capital costs.
Citation please. Will the XO not need deployment or support? In fact will the XO not need more support and training as it’s so different to every other computer in the world it will need people already familiar with computers to cross train.
A final, insurmountable problem with the “old- or used-computer” approach is power. The XO laptop uses an order of magnitude less power than the typical laptop. It is both environmentally reckless and economically infeasible to power used computers in developing world.
This is a outragous, misinformed and pernicious statement. If it’s economically infeasible to power typical modern computers in the developing world then how can business in these countries possibly function or expand? I think all the schemes in developing nations to generate more efficient and sustainable power would have something to say about this. Giving the author the benefit of the doubt then he/she probably meant it is unrealistic to expect people in rural areas to either have, let alone afford electricity. Well that is less of a problem if you can shake off the idea that people need to have their computers with them all the time. Again, a centralised computer centre in a village would provide power, security (XO’s will become a popular commodity on the grey market) and assistance from whomever the presiding technician is.
The need for ruggedization (not a word, I know) is irrelevant if children don’t take the machines home. Why can’t they stay in a computer lab where a technician can maintain them? And for the public, wouldn’t subsidised shops in the same vein as internet cafes be a better idea? Then instantly everyone has computer access without the need for everyone to have their own individual computer.
Let’s return to the ‘newest technology’ claim. Is it new? Yes, but that falsely implies state of the art. Is it state of the art? Absolutely positively not. Is it state of the art FOR THE COST? Probably. What’s the difference? There are no components, not one, that makes up an XO that does not have a superior on the market. New does not equal high performance (but it implies it). The XO is new, cheap, low performance technology.
So does it perform better than a refurbished machine would? Presuming a donated machine was made in last 5-10 years, probably not in any measure (speed, storage, graphics, etc). I’ll repeat what I said in the paragraph above: the XO is state of the art FOR THE COST. If I had to draw an analogy it’s like arming an army with state of the art Swiss army knives. Well, I’d rather have a 10-year-old machine gun than a modern Swiss army knife anytime.
But if refurbished machines were used as a OLPC alternative then wouldn’t everyone would have a different computer?
Yes, like in the developed world.
What other benefits should be considered in the ‘cost’ of refurbished machines?
- Environmental impact.
- Availability. Many machines already reside in the developing nations.
- Training developing nations to refurbish their own machines creates jobs.
- Sustainability. There will always be a supply of computers.
- Real world experience.
Does anyone already do this? Thankfully yes. For a good example please see www.camara.ie.
Computers are not panaceas and are not always better than pen, paper, books and a chalkboard.
Other Sources of Information
Please see the following sources for more information:
About the Author
I am an engineer and software developer specialising in high performance software with ten years experience, now running my own company.
I’m an enthusiastic supporter of Linux and free software but I am also a proponent of using the right tools for the job, even if that means supporting the likes of Microsoft and closed software. Developing nations don’t need moral high grounds, they need pragmatism.
For the last two years I have lived in an East African country (I omit the exact country for the sake of anonymity). Therefore the views expressed here are from concerns observed there and may not apply to other geographic locations where things may be different.
I invite debate on the topic and criticism of what I’ve written. If I am incorrect in my opinion please lucidly prove so, or if you agree with me and I’ve missed points please add them.
However, it really matters that comments be well informed to be useful. Therefore I will give priority to those who have experience:
- Designing the hardware.
- Designing and developing Sugar.
- In an organisation promoting the scheme.
- In an organisation providing alternative solutions.
- Living in the developing nations affected by OLPC and have observed its impact.
Please identify which category you satisfy when submitting comments so I approve them.
I will update the blog when anyone presents salient information either for or against OLPC.