Sunday, April 27, 2008

Inside view of OLPC

I have always had a dim view of the One Laptop Per Child project, which, after years of hype, is now seeing some negative publicity and the departure of many key figures. I figured that $100 per laptop per child was a lot of money for a developing country: that kind of money would buy several years' textbooks in India. I figured, also, that it is more important to teach kids basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills, and there is no evidence anywhere in the world that laptops help with this goal. And the pontifications of Nicholas Negroponte, the project's founder, always sounded a bit pompous: as if he knew better than anyone else what schoolkids in developing countries need.

But it seems I am not the only one with a dim view of Negroponte. According to Ivan Krstić:

To those on the outside and looking in: remember that, though he takes the liberty of speaking in its name, Nicholas [Negroponte] is not OLPC. OLPC is Walter Bender, Scott Ananian, Chris Ball, Mitch Bradley, Mark Foster, Marco Pesenti Gritti, Mary Lou Jepsen, Andres Salomon, Richard Smith, Michael Stone, Tomeu Vizoso, John Watlington, Dan Williams, Dave Woodhouse, and the community, and the rest of the people who worked days, nights, and weekends without end, fighting like warrior poets to make this project work. Nicholas wasn’t the one who built the hardware, or wrote the software, or deployed the machines. Nicholas talks, but these people’s work walks.

And more strong stuff about how Negroponte has actively misrepresented aspects of the project and how recent developments have been despite him, not because of him. Now, this guy is writing from the point of view of the technical aspects of the laptop; but he also says the laptop is doing real good in Uruguay, Peru, Nepal and elsewhere. It would be interesting to see some impartial reviews of this work.

I haven't changed my opinion about this project being ill-conceived, but the device they produced is pretty cool and I don't know why they don't mass-market it: I'm sure lots of parents would want to buy it as a geeky programmable toy for their kids.

As for the point about the money being better spendable on textbooks: yes, I have to ask myself, but what if the government isn't spending on textbooks? What if government schools are lamentably ill-equipped with educational materials? What if the choice is not $100 worth of textbooks and other old-fashioned materials, but -- nothing?

Our government in India rejected OLPC, for reasons I agree with. But it would be nice to see an alternative programme implemented.


km said...

But you forget one key fact, Rahul: kids must learn to use Powerpoint!

Rahul Siddharthan said...

km - but the OLPC laptops don't run Windows or Powerpoint! Though Microsoft is working on porting Windows XP to those machines.