A friendly criticism of the One Laptop Per Child project

My family’s first computer was a TRS-80 Color Computer 2. They didn’t sell them back in Mexico –there were no Radio Shacks, the import taxes were prohibitive, and since few people there knew of its existence, you couldn’t find it in the black market either. If you wanted one you had to smuggle it from the U.S. yourself. My father bought one in 1984, I believe, for what surely was a significant amount of money for our family. I must have been 7.

TRS-80 Color Computer

I thought it was one of the coolest things ever. You’d plug it to the TV, which acted as its monitor, and when you turned it on you’d get a BASIC editor to work in. With the help of my father, I learned what “LET”, “IF… THEN”, and “GOTO” meant. While he and my uncle programmed the computer to serve as a rudimentary PowerPoint, or to guess which person a user was thinking of (which was great for family parties), I started writing simple programs that I thought were amazing: for example, you could tell the machine as many numbers as you wanted and it would tell you their sum, or their product, and it knew how because I taught it! I guess I was learning to reason in (garbled) English too: this was nothing like the boring vocabulary lists of my Elementary school English lessons –this was actually useful! I was soon writing my own games and “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories in it, or picking new tricks from some programming-for-kids book.

Other than an unhealthy habit for programming with GOTOs (which I found really hard to kick when I finally learned Pascal), the computer’s influence in me was extremely positive. I believe I wouldn’t be pursuing a Ph.D. in Computer Science now if I hadn’t played (and enjoyed playing) so much with it.

But I’m now aware I was very lucky, considering my context. I was able to go down this path because I had this resource, the computer, that back then was extremely scarce in Mexico. Poverty or lack of proper mentoring closed this door to many other kids.

This inequality -this unfairness- is still widespread across the world, especially in developing countries. Far too many kids face huge obstacles to exploit their potential, to learn and hone their skills in tasks they love passionately. I’m not just talking about programming –art, publishing, design, mathematics, and many other disciplines, grew to depend heavily on computers. And it’s not just about having access to a computer anymore –it’s about having access to the Internet, and to all the communities it harbors. If you don’t have a computer, you’re essentially cut out. And there was little one could do about it, until now.

The One Laptop per Child project intends to do just what its name suggests. In case you haven’t heard of it: OLPC is a non-profit organization formed by very smart and good willed people that found out how to manufacture decent-enough laptops for roughly $100 US, and that wants to put one in the hands of every child. In case you have heard of it, you may be interested to know that the silly power crank is gone. It looks pretty fun, actually:

The 100 dollars laptop

Recently, Mike Fletcher came to the University of Toronto to talk about the project, and to ask for help from interested developers. It really is a fascinating project, both in its scope and in its technical challenges. It’s also picking up steam, as there are already several countries signed up for the project –this is happening for real. If the project succeeds, millions of kids will have an excellent opportunity to learn and have fun learning with this computer, and without any financial stress to their families.

(If you have the time and the will, consider helping out. The project needs you, especially if you are a software developer. Let Mike know.)

Now, since I’m going to be critical of the project, I want to state this beforehand: I think the OLPC project has a lofty goal, and I wish it an absolute success. But I also see how this is a major endeavor, and it’s really important to get it right. As it stands, there are some issues about the project that bother me, and I need to put them out here in the hope that this will somehow help steer the project in the right direction. Here they go:

It’s not a gift, it’s a laptop/textbooks trade-off: Even at $100US per laptop, giving one to every kid in a country requires a substantial amount of money. Where will it come from? From the education budget of participating countries. But since participating countries are usually cash-strapped, the money will go to the laptops instead of going somewhere else –and if I got my facts straight, that “somewhere else” is going to be textbooks. That is, children will get a laptop instead of getting five years’ worth of textbooks. It’s not that they won’t get their textbooks’ materials (which will be stored in their laptops), just the actual dead-tree books. At least in theory, children won’t lose anything. But, as I’ll explain, it’s important to keep the trade-off in mind.

It’s a rather expensive textbook to misplace, destroy, or steal: The first ugly implication of the laptop/textbook trade-off comes with the laptop’s relative value against any single textbook. A child misplacing his laptop will result in either a high financial stress for his family (as I highly doubt the government will pay for a kid’s laptop twice), or in no laptop (and hence no textbooks) for at least the rest of his school years. And I find it very hard to imagine a brainy kid in a Mexican slum successfully protecting her highly visible laptop (she needs to bring it school every single day) from bullies and thieves for the entire span of her school years. One careless moment is all it takes.

It’s a bulky textbook to work with: This one is minor, but worth considering. For many learning tasks, nothing yet comes close to paper and pencil. Not even TabletPCs beat paper in my opinion; it’s doubtful that a device with less capabilities will.

It will be big in the black market: I predict that as the shipments of $100 laptops increase, their presence in local black markets will blossom, at a reduced price and with patches to circumvent security mechanisms. Most laptops on sale there will be thefts, of course. For parents in urgent need of replacing a misplaced laptop, this will be their only alternative ($100US is more than a month’s salary for most people), and the whole activity will generate a perverse cycle of theft.

It will garner many enemies: The laptop is designed to be the kid’s own domain –he’ll be able to do with it as he pleases, without adult intervention. Its designers seem proud of that. Now, I don’t have a problem with this –in fact I would have loved such freedom as a kid myself. But several groups will have a problem, and they’ll make sure we listen to them. In conservative societies, and in a few liberal ones, the idea that kids have a stash of pornography in their laptops, and that parents can’t do anything about that, will be enough to propel them into swift action against their Education ministry and the whole OLPC project. Teachers may react negatively too, as those that are computationally illiterate are pushed to the sidelines and those that remain feel their control over kids waning. Expect the laptops to be called tools of imperialistic control by many academics, and some governments retreating under the pressure.

It’s a case of mismatched objectives: There is a common criticism thrown to the OLPC: You want to give laptops to kids that really need food or shelter. As the OLPC wiki responds, this criticism reflects an ignorance of the conditions of many developing countries, which have enough food and shelter, but not enough learning opportunities. Unfortunately, the software developers with the OLPC seem to have made an assumption as mistaken as that of the project’s critics: that what children in developing countries need is what our geeky selves would want if we were kids again. Instead of striving to design the best educational tool possible (and, remember, the best textbook substitute), they want to design a kid-hacker’s dream: Browseable and modifiable code (one should be able to see the code that runs any part of any application easily), private access (your laptop is your temple), extensibility. The software design seems to come from the geek in us, not from the pedagogue in us. Why would an average 6-year-old be interested in such features is beyond me.

I can’t help but think of “The Nightmare before Christmas“. If you haven’t seen the movie: The inhabitants of the Town of Halloween discover Christmastown and decide they want to organize Christmas too. But their own nature conspires against them and they get it all wrong: their carols sound somber, their gifts are spooky –definitely not what the children were expecting on Christmas Eve!

Jack as Sandy Claws

This is, in my opinion, the most critical of all the issues. It is essential that the developers understand the real priorities of their project:

  • First and foremost, they’re building a textbook substitute. If the laptops excel at something, this should be it.
  • Second, they’re building a fun pedagogical tool. It needs to help kids navigate through their educational material in an accessible and inviting manner. It must help them discover math, biology, music, let them experiment, intervene when necessary. (Some software activities in the OLPC try to do this, by the way.)
  • And in a far-behind third should come the hacker’s dreams: open source, modifiable, and extensible code, privacy, and such. In my opinion, the pilot programs shouldn’t even be entertaining these requirements yet.

Again, I wish the project absolute success. I hope the problems I listed turn out to be non-issues after all. And a lot of good will come out of the project, even if it fails. It has that “putting a man on the moon” flavor: the hardware needs to survive inclement weather and consume minimal power, the software needs to be extremely efficient and accessible, it needs to cost $100 US, it shouldn’t depend on maintenance, and so on. The whole project needs to resort to wildly out-of-the-box strategies (my favorite: carrying electronic messages by bike courier!). But since it’s worth doing (and worth investing very significant sums of developing countries’ money), it’s worth doing right. Here’s to its successful outcome.

Photo credits, in order: Wikipedia, Greg Lapouchnian, Full Metal Toys.

About Jorge Aranda

I'm currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the SEGAL and CHISEL labs in the Department of Computer Science of the University of Victoria.
This entry was posted in Activism, Software development. Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to A friendly criticism of the One Laptop Per Child project

  1. Neil says:

    Interesting post, Jorge. I think you make some great critiques. In my experience, even in Canada all too many people can neither read nor understand basic mathematics. Pencil, paper and good instruction are what is really needed, I feel.

  2. Pingback: The Third Bit » Blog Archive » Jorge Aranda on OLPC

  3. kwasi says:

    As another person born and raised in a developing country who has a less than healthy interest in computers, you covered a lot of the issues I have with the project too. Maybe I’ll finally get around to talking about my perspective because of this post.

    I still find myself fascinated by it though

  4. Lillian says:

    You definitely made valid points while supporting OLPC. The other side of the fence is that these children are getting an education that was far beyond their means before. Though its a textbook replacement, and entertains the idea of modifiable code, it has many other invaluable features.

    I, also, grew up with a computer since I was 3 (commodore 64) and that was probably why I decided to specialize in Computer Science. I learned many logic skills, game playing techniques, interactivity, spelling/writing abilities and overall interest in something so large.

    I think the good outweighs the bad in this case- the points you made about security and loss are a risk worth taking and inevitable. Until OLPC becomes readily available to everyone, this will be something we have to deal with. When it does, it will be a blessing for all the children that get access to the things we have.

    While completely valid and true, do you think any of the points you made should stop the product from shipping? I, too, hope OLPC is successful. I guess we will have to wait and see.

  5. GregL says:

    Very interesting points Jorge.

    To me it seems that one of the biggest challenges will be keeping these laptops in the hands of the children who get them at the beginning of the school year. Will the child be able to complete his assignments if his OLPC gets stolen?

    The fact that these kids will be able to access the internet and with it all kinds of information that their conservative governments might not be too thrilled about also deserves some thought. Will there be backlash in certain communities against it?

    As far as spending so much effort on hackable/modifiable features. I am not sure if this is in fact a priority for the project or just a major selling point when trying to get developers to join the project.

    Greg.

  6. Jorge says:

    Neil, I agree. Geeks tend to underrate paper, yet nothing works as well for me as a thinking tool.

    Kwasi, I’m looking forward to read your perspectives on the OLPC too!

  7. Jorge says:

    Lillian –thanks for the comment. I do not want to imply that the product shouldn’t ship. I think the pilot runs will teach us a lot about what works and what doesn’t. I would like to see a less aggressive shipping schedule though.

    Greg, you’re probably right about the hackable stuff being more of a lure for volunteers. But I think it still trickles down and transforms every aspect of the project, to its detriment.

  8. Manuel says:

    I read the first part of your post as if I wrote it. My first computer was the COCO 2 too, my dad had a TRaSh-80, we drove to McAllen and smuggled them back in the trunk of his pick-up. When my dad wanted to teach me basic programming skills, he first made me change a car’s tire, and then draw the algorithm for changing a car (Is it the last bolt? NO-> Remove next bolt, YES-> Remove tire). I did my CASINO first and learn that RANDOM function sucks. Then I programmed more such classics like the famous EWOKS and COSMOGONIA.

    This early exposure to computers resulted in me not having a girlfriend soon BUT now it feeds my baby and cat.

    For the rest of the post, “…seem to have made an assumption as mistaken as that of the project’s critics: that what children in developing countries need is what our geeky selves would want if we were kids again” This condensate everything, maybe we are thinking too much as a upper class Westerner and less as a third world kid who need to get education.

  9. Jorge says:

    Thanks Manuel –RANDOM sucked indeed!🙂

  10. Paul says:

    I’m very, very far from being an OLPC expert, but I did get to have lunch with Ivan Krstić at Pycon a couple months ago (and also heard his keynote, which was fantastic). I had lots of the same concerns as Jorge before that, but I was overwhelmed by how much thought has been put into all of the political, technological, and cultural issues.

    For instance, there are several security features that hopefully will help to deter theft, not the least of which is that the initial startup will probably require that a photo be taken of the child (using the laptop’s built-in camera) and that is sent to the activation server in the country of sale. There is lots more here:

    http://lwn.net/Articles/221052/

    There are all sorts of issues surrounding internet censorship, although most countries that really care already censor (check out the cool map in the upper-right corner):

    http://ice.citizenlab.org/

    The OLPC team certainly has a huge job ahead of them, but one thing they’ve done right is try to think of all the problems they might encounter.

  11. Pingback: In which I talk about the OLPC project again « Ramblings of an African Geek

  12. Jorge says:

    Paul,
    Thanks for your comments, and for the links.

    The security measures seem ingenious, and I hope they’ll be powerful enough. But thieves are ingenious too, and with easy access to the security source code a workaround patch will be ubiquitous soon after deployment.

    Regarding censorship –it’s not the countries that already censor that I’m worried about, but the ones that do not. Again, I pick Mexico as an example. Some parents may see the laptop as a government imposition (they can’t ditch it, their children’s education depends on it!) that gives their children unregulated access to the Net. A few high profile cases may convince these parents that their governments must cancel the project as a whole.

  13. Patric Conant says:

    Will 90% of the Laptops be stolen, crushing the potential resale market as educational institutions quickly shift back to thier pen and paper systems? I agree that the project presents a great many unknowns, and there are going to be some very significant challenges to overcome, some of those won’t be overcome, and the project will have some failures. I think that a key failure in this article, albeit a common one, is that the author thinks he was a genius, and that most people wouldn’t have developed in the same environment. That is to say, any kid with nothing better to do will learn to program given the availability and the tiniest impetus. Programming will be the new literacy, and these kids will have the availability to build on these skills to both conceivably outsource their skill, and to automate processes in their own culture. If you are given to idealism then you can build this into a utopic improvement in quality of life, I’m not, but I am in favor of a different brand of poverty (where larger and more visible opportunity exists).

  14. vishnuvardhan says:

    hi jorge …
    i am from developing country. what we need is quality eduaction and conducing environement. they are selling dreams. very nice article.

  15. sociolingo says:

    Hi from Mali, I was interested to read your article and the issues it addresses.

    Here in Mali, I wonder about feasibility. I have yet to visit a primary school that has electricity, let alone more than one textbook between 3 kids. We have 11 languages approved for primary education and everything I have read so far on the OLPC seems to indicate on the laptops in English – American English at that. With more and more African countries introducing education in the first years in a language the kids know rather than an imported foreign language (English or French) this is a real issue. I am also concerned about the pedagogical issues – whose pedagogy, where is the curriculum designed, whose curriculum?

    Is this just another attempt at US imperialism – neo-colonialism?

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  17. Jorge says:

    Patric,
    Yes, I often think I’m a genius, but reality proves otherwise. When I think I’m a geek, however, reality doesn’t seem to object😉

    Programming is not for everybody –not because they couldn’t do it, but because they don’t want to. That should be perfectly fine.

  18. Jorge says:

    Vishnuvardhan,
    Thanks for your comment. I think the OLPC vision mostly agrees with you –they want to foster quality education and a conducive environment. It’s their means, rather than their goals, the ones that are controversial.

    Sociolingo,
    Thanks for chipping in. Regarding languages and curriculum, the OLPC intends to adapt the interface to local languages (even the keyboard, as far as I know, will be adapted); the curriculum should be the same as before (that is, same content as that of the country’s textbooks). But you raise an interesting point: I don’t know if the OLPC has the capacity to translate and localize for 11 different languages, for a single country!

    I’m convinced of the good will of the people behind the OLPC, and I don’t think this is an imperialistic effort at all –but it’s easy to see why someone would think otherwise.

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  20. Jose says:

    Theft, outgrow, and cost burden:

    I figure details like the following would be ironed out in any of various ways depending on the governments and specifics.

    A real worry is theft (or destruction of the PC). I have also worried that kids would outgrow them. Would someone that is near the age of outgrowing this (keep in mind that the keyboard is extra small) get one?

    I think a good idea is to give each classroom one per attending student (or enough so that students can access one during class plus some extras), but the school keeps control. Later we can find ways to give families or individual students a laptop. This partially solves each of the problems just mentioned. As well, it reduces costs (freeing up funds for other projects).

  21. Denis says:

    “Unfortunately, the software developers with the OLPC seem to have made an assumption as mistaken as that of the project’s critics: that what children in developing countries need is what our geeky selves would want if we were kids again.”

    I recall computer-related media back in the mid-90’s occasionally noting that children were learning computer skills rather faster than adults did – and that was said about learning with the conventional computers, designed primarily for adults. Childhood is the age of fast and effective learning. As for me, it was not so hard to learn programming on Speccy 48K’s BASIC. Children learn, so if you give them open source software with the ability to hack it, they will learn to hack, IMO.
    That means, the selfish-geekish concept of the OLPC software could in fact be a subliminal intention to support geek-community reproduction: “Here is to the next generation!” One could ask, of course, how valuable this intention is, but it is the next question. “Why would an average 6-year-old be interested in such features is beyond me.” – The answer could well be, for the same reason, why an average 6-year-old is interested in anything: he (or she) is growing and he (or she) is exploring the observable universe.
    And again: there’s CSound in the list of the OLPC software, and it is provided for the musical activities. But CSound itself is a rather complicated Turing-complete programming language… Here we can see the point, where music meets hacking.

  22. Gillian says:

    “I think a good idea is to give each classroom one per attending student (or enough so that students can access one during class plus some extras), but the school keeps control.”

    Seems like someone needs to do a reality check of actual conditions in schools.

    Between 2001 and 2005 an additional 2.7 million children enrolled in Tanzanian schools and the pupil-teacher ratio increased from 46 to 59. Can you imagine one teacher trying to teach 59 kids how to use them? Will they come with sufficient support services — including workshops for teachers, suggested workplans, and security cabinets to store them in?

    I guess these laptops will go to the better-resourced schools that are able to make use of them.

    http://schoolstjude.blogspot.com/2007/02/who-will-teach-them.html

  23. Jorge says:

    Jose,
    One problem of leaving the computers at school is that, when the thefts come –and they will–, they’ll be devastating.

    A second problem is the trade-off: Remember that this is designed to be a trade-off between textbooks and computers. If you take the textbooks away, and keep the computers at school, how will children do their homework?

    As for the size of the keyboard: yes, it feels tiny. I guess one could get used to it, but if you have adult-sized hands, it’ll be uncomfortable.

  24. Jorge says:

    Denis,
    I think we agree. It’s not that I dislike programming environments added to the laptops. It’s the hacker values with which it’s being designed that I see as at least superfluous, and perhaps detrimental to the project as a whole.

  25. Jorge says:

    Gillian, thanks for your comment.

    For people trying to understand the real (and desperate) educational needs of children in Africa, Gillian’s blog (http://schoolstjude.blogspot.com/) seems like an excellent place to start.

  26. jk says:

    Computers ruin your eyes. Giving every child a laptop must be a plot of optometrists to get everyone wearing glasses.

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  29. Jim Jay says:

    Great article – interesting discussion

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  31. ethan says:

    great (and very fair and well-articulated) critiques!

    one critique of your critique: the tongue-in-cheek dismissal of imperialism. this is a serious concern in today’s world, where we use “free trade” policies as a means of coercing less-powerful (yet ostensibly “sovereign”) peoples to open up their lands to exploitation. it doesn’t matter whether some “developing” areas already have access to shelter, food, electricity and plentiful clean water, which would justify the OLPC operations there. OLPC has the power to promote itself in areas where other issues are priority. i would not be surprised if it has done so already: where governments or people refuse (and often for good reasons), we can easily paint them as “ungrateful.” quite a bit like how chivalry works, except on a global economic level.

    the above point comes to fruition in the context of John Wood’s critique about affordability and scalability: nobody in the world deserves our own “personal computer” — it’s unethical on both social and environmental levels. all that material comes from someone’s land. you think it’s going to come from the land of privileged white westerners? we steal their resources, ruin their land base and make them buy a laptop from us. full disclosure: i am speaking from my experience as an economically-privileged member of US society — i grew up having quite a few of my “own” things. the negatives outweigh the positives. we need to learn to share better, not covet our own crap. the OLPC project is an inherent offender in this sense.

    the XO computer is probably more than sufficient for most of the computing needs of most people in the “developed” world. yet OLPC has in effect developed and marketed it as a “poor child’s computer.” technology is a social status marker, and those of us who are privileged will tend to look down our noses at the idea that we would do well to adopt the same lower-impact technology. but we must have our high definition video games…

    To the extent that this project has the potential to open up the aforementioned debates, good on it.

    • Jorge Aranda says:

      Thanks, Ethan. In the more than three years that passed since I wrote this critique my position has been shifting further towards a rejection of the OLPC as a mass educational tool. John Wood’s critique is quite appropriate.

      However, as much as I despair over our consumerism and the exploitation of resources in the Global South, I have two computers for my personal use (three if you count my phone), and I can’t bring myself to say that other people in the world don’t deserve cheap access to theirs, or to criticize a project that wants to give them one for this reason.

  32. ethan says:

    “I can’t bring myself to say that other people in the world don’t deserve cheap access to theirs, or to criticize a project that wants to give them one for this reason.”

    wow, thanks for the response =)

    but isn’t that a distracting focus? why should we criticize others’ desires when a) we are largely responsible for imposing that desire or infrastructural need (think: the failure of the global “green revolution,” or really just any modern marketing paradigm which asserts a need for a product by exploiting doubts and insecurities) and b) we should be criticizing the part we play in unequal access to technology, wealth and other material and social resources first and foremost.

    i guess i am trying to imply here that this is a problem of distribution first and foremost (ref. ecological economics foundational concepts). the OLPC project is premised on a worldview steeped in the myth of cornucopia. it renders the rampaging of the Global North faultless or invisible. it is akin to lecturing a victim of domestic violence on relationship skills while ignoring accountability for the abuser. maybe the victim does need improved relationship skills…but the structural imbalance results in victim-blaming. what i hear from you is that you want to avoid the paradigm of victim blaming, and i find that admirable. but we mustn’t throw the baby (accountability) out with the bathwater (victim blaming)!

    for the record, i have a laptop, a car, two bikes, a digital piano, and a(n eight year old) cell phone. that’s a lot compared to most people in this world. probably more than is necessay for me to *own.* a distinction between “access” and “ownership” is important. OLPC implies the individualistic ownership paradigm that is both anti-social and wasteful (but profitable…what TV company wouldn’t love to sell four TVs to a family of four??). we don’t have to criticize less privileged people for wanting what we have. transformation has to happen at home. colonialism doesn’t end with the colonized, but with the transformation of the colonizers and the colonizing mindset. we need to start valuing fair access over the perceived need to covet, own and ultimately control (other people’s access to) resources. in this way, we achieve accountability without victim blaming. when we genuinely work toward it, we can ask others to join with us rather than seeking to shame and dominate them for “bad behavior.”

    thank you again for writing such a thought-provoking piece!

    • Jorge Aranda says:

      Ethan,

      I think your observation that this is a project “steeped in the myth of cornucopia” is very accurate, as is the distinction between ownership and access. Perhaps the only important point where we disagree, or at least where we have a different emphasis, is regarding the role of OLPC as “imbued in” vs. “an arm of” colonialism. I believe that the OLPC folks have the best interest of the Global South in mind, even though they unwittingly offer a remedy that only makes things worse. Hence my dismissal of the “tools of imperialistic control” argument above: the OLPC people aren’t trying to establish better mechanisms to dominate the poor. What they achieve is a different matter.

  33. ethan says:

    maybe, maybe not. i’m actually trying not to doubt anyone’s intentions…not because i think they are pure, but because we need to stop worrying so much about intentions as if we were always in court, and start focusing more on actual consequences. kinda referring back to the tagline of my blog…”doesn’t have to be a conspiracy to be sinister”

    to me it is the difference between a focus on determining an appropriate level of punishment for a wrong vs simply acknowledging the wrong as a wrong on one hand, and looking constructively earnestly at how to avoid the wrong and contribute to the commonweal instead on the other hand

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