Thank you OLPC – Maybe now we may start to talk about education again

One Laptop per Child – the laptop project of the OLPC association, a North American non-profit has change the markets of low-cost mobile computers for educational sector. Even that in the OLPC there are such a multi-billion industry sponsors as the AMD, Google, Nortel, and Newscorp, the achievement of changing a whole market, or actually creating it, is absolutely remarkable.

In 2008 we will have the Intel’s Classmate ($250), Zonbu notebook ($279 + $14.95/month), Asus Eee laptop ($299-399), Nokia Internet Tablets ($150-$299), Nova NetPC “thin client” system (around $80/unit), and the OLPC’s XO laptop ($200).

This is great, and from a large part we may thank OLPC about this. However, there are other factors too.

For instance, in technology there are few new things that have made the low-cost educational mobile computers possible: Open Source software, especially Linux, Flash memory, USB, WiFi and more advantaged battery technology. OLPC didn’t invent them. They just came-up with the idea, that actually from these components you can build something that is useful in education.

In macro economy terms, the growth is taking place in the developing world. Every single technology company is thinking how they could get a piece from this growth. More and more people – billions of people – are gaining more consumer power, but they are still far away to have money to buy the technology common among the wealthy people. To sell something for the next 4-6 billion people, one must design tools that are made for them – in terms of costs and features. When the majority of technology companies has decided to simply wait when the people will have the consumer power needed to buy their existing products, OLPC decided to design an affordable technology. When the companies then understood that actually there could be a market for an affordable technology they simply jumped to the bandwagon.

So these were the technological and macro economical reason. What about learning? What about education?

The founder of the OLPC project, MIT Prof Nicholas Negroponte has kept on repeating the phrase “OLPC is an education project, not a laptop project”. This has been the main argument whenever someone has criticized or questioned something in the project. In some circles the phrase has become a joke. People know that a laptop project does not become an education project, even if a world famous professor of media technology is claiming so. Educators do education projects. Engineers do engineering projects.

Why I think the OLPC is a laptop project, and not an education project? Three reasons:

(1) The OLPC has shown total lack of understanding of education as a system.

Their original plan of selling the laptops in quantities of one million units per ministry of education show that they knew very little about the ways how the ministries around the world work: how they set priorities, how the budget is distributed, how schools are practically ran, and how educational reforms are made.

For instance, in most countries the ministries of education do not have a centralized power to acquire technology for all the schools. The power is distributed to school districts, to schools and in some cases even for individual headmasters and teachers. The ministries are simply giving the money to lower level in the system to make the decisions. The power is distributed to avoid corruption. I guess it is not a surprise that the most promising customers of the OLPC have been countries that are also one of the most corrupted in the world.

(2) The OPLC has a naive believe on computer technology (per se) as a silver bullet in education.

In education the aim is to develop human beings: responsible and spiritually mature people who are able to take care of each other and their environment, and the humankind and the globe as a whole. I am not claiming that computers could not be used for this purpose. They can and they should be. I don’t have many heroes, but one of them is Douglas Engelbart. He came up with the idea of network augmented human intelligence – to solve the world most urgent problems.

The OLPC, however, do not build on Engelbart, but on developmental psychology of Piaget, Pappert, and constructionist learning in math and science learning. In this approach, studying math, science and programming are in a similar position as Latin and Ancient Greek use to be in the classical European education. In a classical education studying ancient languages was thought to be the basics for all the other learning: logic, arts, practical sciences etc. Now the OLPC seems to believe that learning programming is the key to all other learning. Or at least that if we give laptops for all, some of the students will become great programmers and this will justifies the whole project.

No. From the perspective of becoming a responsible person, it actually could be better to learn to share your laptop with someone than owning your own. As silly as simply asking every child to have a laptop, so that they can program and play with it as much as they want, would be to ask every student to have a canvas and oil colors so that they could do as many landscape paintings as they would like to. Computers are good in education, but so are many other instruments from clay, paper and pen to hardware tools and musical instrument. They are all needed in schools. And to have them available for all it is in most cases reasonable to share them. Lets let everybody to find their own passion and lets not force everybody to play violin (or computer), even if this would mean that the chances to have the next Viktoria Mullova (or Linus Torvalds) will be smaller this way.

(3) The OLPC do not understand different cultures and traditions.

Some months ago I was in Mexico in a conference where both OLPC and the Intel Classmate where presented. I was giving a talk about designing people-centered learning environments. During the break a teacher came to talk with me. He said that he feels the idea of giving every child a laptop is very individualistic. He said that this is very much against the ways he and his students are use to think about school and the community. Because of this he was not willing to participate the whole OLC program, but was rather happy to use the three recycled PCs – own by nobody and everybody – in his classroom.

In the case of Finland, the best solution at the moment would probably be to have enough computers available in school buildings. How much is enough? So many that at any point, any of the students, could use a computer (the same should be done with hardware tools, oil colors, violins and other instruments). As computers are used more and more for this and that, it is possible that at some point it is a good idea to have a computer per every student (it is already happening). Still, I do not understand why “owning something” – like the OPLC has been claiming – would be a great empowerment for children. In general children do not own things. They do not own things because they do not work and earn money. This is the normal state of affairs in most parts of the world.

So. If OLPC got it all wrong – and obviously is very slow learner – what should we do related to the new affordable mobile computer technology, available today for schools?

We must start to talk about education, again. Or actually get back to do research and to continue the discussion of how to use computers in education. We don’t need to start from zero. A lot of work is already done. A lot of work is even done specifically related to the vision of having one computer per student. For instance the is a global network of researchers and research teams that aims to gain research-based understanding of learning when everybody can have and ca use a computer device.

Still, I want to say thank you OLPC. Article in the Economist put it nicely:

“…an inexpensive laptop seemed impossible until Mr Negroponte and the OLPC group placed a stake in the ground to build a $100 laptop—which in turn spurred the industry’s biggest players to create low-cost PCs. Mr Negroponte’s vision for a $100 laptop was not the right computer, only the right price. Like many pioneers, he laid a path for others to follow.”

No doubt, Negroponte is a great technology visionary. Now we need some educational visionaries. Thank you OLPC – you made your part of the job. Now we may again start to talk about education.

12 thoughts on “Thank you OLPC – Maybe now we may start to talk about education again

  1. Teemu,Great post! I am in complete agreement with your main point that Negroponte is a great visionary and evangelized the path toward low-cost "handheld" learning devices. I also completely agree that it is again time to start discussing education! While being mindful of all this great new technology, perspectives and approaches.Thanks for the great insights.


  2. this year the theme is ‘political priorities for education and the role of technology’, a topic at the heart of what European Schoolnet is about: the European network for and about schools.”


  3. It is a great post. I strongly agree with you on (3) The OLPC do not understand different cultures and traditions. What might be the best for one culture is not what will ensure a learning experience for another country (specially developing countries in Africa)


  4. It is a great post. I strongly agree with you on "The OLPC do not understand different cultures and tridions. What might be the best for one culture is not what will ensure a learning experience for another country (specially developing countries in Africa)


  5. I agree, its time for educational visionaries, but sadly, they don't inspire the buzz and excitement of cool new flashy laptops. Let's hope thats for the better of the project and the idea.


  6. This post is getting some people very emotional. It’s good. However, I do not like comments that get personal and try to label me as "deep ecological", "anti American", "anti capitalist", or as a person who do not do his "homework" or "talk poorly researched nonsense". Actually, I am very sensitive about this kind of labeling. Especially when it is purely speculative and not based on anything I have ever written or said. Please, see some of the comments I wrote to some blogs responding on my original post (I am the “isä” on blogger, if I forgot to sign my comment):… To have a dialogue you need peace, love and understanding. To have peace, love and understanding you need dialogue. – Teemu


  7. hi Teemu,Well there isn't much "peace, love and understanding" shown towards the OLPC in your original post where you seem to confuse your own values with "correct" educational values.That the OLPC has multipurpose features of which programming is one. And that you take that one feature that you don't like (and don't critique) to condemn the whole thing in an educational sense. That you failed to even mention the collaborative networking features of the OLPC that you were aware of. That you ridiculed an education project by calling it an engineering project just because it happened to contradict your educational values. That you called it technocentric and failed to mention that the educational leaders of the project have well established positions against technocentrism.If your original piece had explained more clearly how your values were in contradiction with OLPC values – rather than just assuming that your values are the correct educational values – then it would be more conducive to less emotional dialogue


  8. hmm…. Are you Mr Bill Kerr reading the same post? I consider the firts part of my post to be full of peace, love and especially undestanding towards the OLPC. I actully wrote "Thank you OLPC" (it is in the title, too). Later I present constructive criticism and finally conclude to say again thank you OLC and present the possibility to have a brighter future. A lot of peace, love and understading. Not getting personal agains anyone, no naming, no labeling, no trolling.Not mentioning networking features in a case of computer is like talking about features of a car without mentioning that there are also wheels in it. In 2008 a computer without a network? hmm.. The conflict of values between me and the OLPC is very well explained in my original post. They are the points written in bold. I see those points – and the values they represent – ciritical in any educational project, and it looks that OLPC has faild in those.It is true that the educational leaders of the project have present their worry about the possible technocentrism in educational technology project. Well, words are cheap – like they say.


  9. Teemu:
    "However, I do not like comments that get personal and try to label me as "deep ecological", "anti American", "anti capitalist", or as a person who do not do his "homework" or "talk poorly researched nonsense". Actually, I am very sensitive about this kind of labeling. Especially when it is purely speculative and not based on anything I have ever written or said."I agree with you that my initial comment on Tom Hoffman's blog was speculative, unfair and unwarranted. Clearly you are not anti-American because you admire Doug Engelbart and as you say my other comments were speculative and "not based on anything (you) have ever written or said"At any rate my off the top of my head response was not conducive to reasoned argument and you have been restrained and principled in your responsesI apologise for those unfair comments and am sorry for any hurt they may have caused


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