ICT4D – let us all unite


I haven’t posted for a long time, as I was doing summer school and then taking a full load of classes in the fall on top of working full-time. Additionally, no global edtech news seemed to strike my fancy enough to investigate further.

However, I happened to see this video the other day — a musical remix of Charlie Chaplin’s speech at the end of “The Great Dictator,” which is still depressingly relevant to today:

It reminded me of the flurry of sickening news lately around Boko Haram and ISIS, and particularly a report that terror attacks on schools are rising and are at their highest point in over 40 years.

Even though Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi recently won the Nobel Peace Prize “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education,” it can seem they are fighting an uphill battle — there have been almost 10,000 attacks on schools in the last five years alone.

Meanwhile, in a letter released this week, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation expresses optimism about the future of education in developing countries, and particularly the involvement of technology (also called ICT4D):

“As high-speed cell networks grow and smartphones become as cheap as today’s voice-only phones, online education will flourish. For people in rich countries, it will be an important step forward. For the rest of the world, especially in places where growth is creating demand for educated workers, it will be a revolution.”

They point out that providing equal access to education and technology to women will also improve a nation’s health and GDP, and they believe that “Online education will open up new opportunities for girls with the means and motivation to take advantage of it.”

How does this positivity reconcile with the depressing reality of children in conflict-ridden areas who are being actively deprived of educational opportunities?  Gates told the Guardian that violence was a “huge setback” to development, but that “as countries get wealthier, the chances of civil war and violence go down a lot. […] “Setbacks come in headlines and improvements come one life at a time.”

Is Gates’ hope for the potential of technology in education in developing countries justified? I certainly hope so, because the current state of things cannot continue if we are to build a peaceful future. As Charlie Chaplin said:

“The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men – cries out for universal brotherhood – for the unity of us all.”

From Hornbook tablets to digital tablets


This morning I saw an article asking what e-learning will look like in 2075, and paused at the historical reference to “a tablet called a Hornbook.” (Wikipedia) I had to look up what it was, and this book from 1916 described it this way:

“Originally it was a piece of board with a handle … On the face of the hornbook was either a piece of vellum or paper upon which the lesson was inscribed. This was protected by a sheet of translucent horn. This protection was of course necessary to keep the lesson from the possible stain of dirty little hands, as the hornbook was passed about from child to child.”

Hornbook, 1700. XO Tablet, 2013.

Hornbook, 1700. XO Tablet, 2013.

That same book had several examples of hornbooks, but the one included in my photo comparison here amused me the most for its strong resemblance to a modern-day tablet.

Others have made the connection too. The article “A Digital Hornbook for the Digital Humanities” explained:

“On some hornbooks the vellum could slide out from underneath the translucent horn and be replaced by other lessons. The hornbook in this way was a kind of 17th century iPad. […] The wooden board itself and the translucent horn overlay were the hardware, while the vellum or paper lesson was the software.”

This infographic on edtech through the ages and this graphic history of classroom technology both start their timelines with the Hornbook and end with the tablet. So have we come full circle? Are tablets the best way of improving educational outcomes globally?

Last week’s Economist article about education in Nigeria, “A tablet a day,” says that the country is facing “one of the world’s worst education crises,” which technology can help. At one government school, “Big classes are divided up into groups of four, each with its own teacher and tablet computer. They use apps to improve literacy, numeracy and critical thinking skills. The teachers here say that after only a few months, learning outcomes are already improving.” African companies are also trying to design affordable, solar-powered tablets for local markets, while others are creating e-books.

In other recent articles: in the US and UK, “Tablets in schools double in one year.” In Kenya, “It’s tablets for pupils now as laptops headed for ‘archives’.” In South Africa, a province’s plan to provide tablets for all students in grades 4-9. In India, a plan to distribute Indian tablet Akash to 300 students and the launch of a new tablet for children, Swipe Junior II. In Malaysia, a school using Microsoft Surface tablets. In the Philippines, a distribution of Samsung tablets and iPad minis to an elementary school.  In Thailand, Asus tablets for a “smart classroom” initiative.

Clearly, the use of tablets in schools continues to grow rapidly around the world and enjoy popular support. However, for implementations of “One-Tablet-Per-Child”-style initiatives, educators must keep in mind the many challenges, like those described in this journal article from Thailand: “developing contextualised content, ensuring usability, providing teacher support, and assessing learning outcomes” — vital considerations for ALL edtech innovations, from Hornbooks to iPads.

Infographic – women and mobile learning in the developing world


One of my homework assignments in summer class for my ed tech grad program was to create an infographic. While I love looking at them (for example, here’s ISTE’s Pinterest board of ed tech infographics, and infographics about technology from Visual Capitalist), I had never thought about how to go about creating one before, or how to gather and choose the data that goes into them. Since I had recently blogged about a report on mobile reading, I thought it would be interesting to look into women and mLearning in more detail. Silly me! 😉

I ended up downloading over a dozen reports and white papers dealing with mobile phones, mobile education, developing countries and women (generally not all at the same time — it’s not exactly an area with lots of hard numbers!), and trying to pick out and connect individual data points in a way that made sense to me. For example, I was able to view some interesting data about women and smartphone penetration using Think With Google’s “Our Mobile Planet,” but I couldn’t find a way to fit their data on selected countries into my overall theme.

I briefly tried two other free programs for creating infographics before settling on Piktochart, as it provided a whole world map to play with, lots of charts and pie graph displays to choose from, and a wide variety of icons (in addition to the ability to upload your own). I found it an amazingly flexible and fun program and will definitely use it again if I can invent a professional reason to create an infographic. As I am married to a graphic designer who I disagree with on practically everything, I won’t pretend I have a professional design eye. However, women and mLearning expert Ronda Zelezny-Green provided some good feedback via e-mail on the design and content of my first draft, which I duly followed and am grateful for. 🙂

So here’s my first-ever infographic. Hope it’s interesting and useful! (click to enlarge)


Ambient Insight, “The 2012-2017 Worldwide Mobile Learning Market”  
Vodafone, “Connected Women: How mobile can support  women’s economic and social empowerment”
GSMA, “Women & Mobile: A Global Opportunity”
Intel / Dalberg, “Women and the Web: Bridging the Internet gap and creating new global opportunities in low and middle-income countries”
UNESCO, “Reading in the mobile era: A study of mobile reading in developing countries”  


Bahrain’s “Schools of the Future”


bahrain_whiteboardHaving been spurred to look into Papua New Guinea and Malta recently, I was thinking about how small island nations rarely come up in my ed tech feed and wondered what others I was missing. Bahrain immediately came to mind, as my husband briefly worked there, and I would have joined him had 2011’s civil disturbance not resulted in his company laying off several expat staffers and revoking their work visas. As I write this, unsettling news from the tiny country still flows by on Twitter just as it did back then, like this photo and this one of the government’s use of tear gas in residential areas today, and an interview with a Bahraini human rights activist just released from two years in prison.

Other countries in the Middle East regularly come up in ed tech news, particularly the United Arab Emirates, but I could only find one reference to Bahrain in my own Twitter history, when an ICT workshop was delivered to ed tech experts and teachers in Manama, the capital. As there are more non-nationals in Bahrain than natives (meaning many private schools for children of foreign workers), I thought maybe they wouldn’t have a national policy regarding ed tech in particular. (For an overview of ICT use and the history of education in Bahrain, see this report.)

Turns out they actually do, in King Hamad’s Schools of the Future Project. Their 2003 presentation document included plans such as:

  • Establish a centralized educational portal to provide e-learning services.
  • Transforming textbooks into interactive e-books.
  • Systematically developing textbooks and edifying e-learning contents.
  • Training teachers to use e-learning systems.

In 2012, it was reported thatAll schools in Bahrain now have broadband internet connections, they are equipped with at least one ICT suite, many classrooms have data projectors and several classrooms also have interactive electronic whiteboards.”

At the beginning of this year, Bahrain’s Ministry of Education reported on the progress of the project to a UN delegation, and they announced in April that the first phase was completed and the second phase had already started, “which included the use of e-learning systems.” Bahrain’s EduNet system (a Virtual Learning Environment including an LMS and e-learning capabilities) “is expected to have a positive effect on the academic performance of students, by providing a modern learning environment supported by modern technologies.” The ministry also describes EduNet potentially making possible learning experiences such as “live simulation of experiments,” self-paced and individualized learning, and linking students and teachers with live video interactions.

Despite this apparent success at the primary/secondary level, research published last year that looked into ed tech at the University of Bahrain found that 57% of students and 64% of teachers surveyed thought the classrooms had “insufficient computing facilities,” and that 41% of students had difficulty gaining access to technical resources. However, UoB does have an e-learning center, so perhaps tertiary students are able to engage in some aspects of ed tech (such as accessing online classes from personal computers) more than others.

Additionally, Ahmed Al Koofi, an educational specialist within Bahrain’s Ministry of Education, raised issues with the Schools of the Future project that lie outside mere technical implementation. In a case study, he mentioned that “almost all the educational software is in English which needs to be adapted into Arabic,” which comes with a high cost. Also, when describing how the ministry’s multimedia team was responsible for supplying materials to schools, he pointed out that they “can not fully judge whether the designed e-book is applicable, suitable and workable for the schools” because they lack experts “who combine the knowledge of pedagogy and ICT.” He also expressed concern that the ministry does not mention special education students such as the disabled or gifted in their strategy, despite government schools needing to address their needs, and the ability of technology to “facilitate greater inclusion of such groups into [the] educational environment.”

So, like many ed tech initiatives, it sounds like there are some bumps along the road, but the fact King Hamad has shown strong leadership and investment in this area (if sadly not in others) will hopefully lead to quality 21st-century education for all students in Bahrain.



Malta’s ed tech future


malta_tablet_two_boysI was struck by an article today that the Prime Minister of Malta wants the country to be “the next Singapore or Dubai,” specifically turning it into an educational hub. Malta has never come across my edtech feed before (as far as I can tell), so I wanted to learn more about the tiny island nation.

Turns out Malta “has the second most digitally connected classrooms in the EU” (after Ireland) and particularly stands out in their use of interactive whiteboards — 1 for every 18 primary school students, compared to 1 for every 111 in the EU overall. In a video interview last year, Daniel Xerri of the Ministry of Education and Employment said Malta was “putting a lot of emphasis in technology in language education” in particular, and mentioned interactive whiteboards, iPads and VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) as popular tools in their English language teaching.

In 2008, Malta launched a “Smart Learning Strategy” ed tech initiative, part of which included the iLearn e-learning platform, which all primary and secondary state schools can now access. iLearn features virtual classrooms for students and allows teachers to upload their own learning materials and parents to monitor their child’s learning.

As if that wasn’t enough, earlier this year the government announced a “one tablet per child” pilot project for 22 classes, with the intent of doing a national rollout in 2015 after the first evaluation results are in.

Looks like it’s not so unreasonable after all that tiny Malta could aspire to become a global leader in 21st century education. I’ll have to be more alert for innovations coming from unexpected places!

Sugata Mitra: In the clouds?


sugata_mitra_sole_cartoonWhen I first started my ed tech program last semester and became curious about ed tech in other countries, one of the first subjects I came across was Sugata Mitra and his famous Hole-in-the-Wall experiments. It seemed really exciting and interesting, so I briefly blogged about it and made a mental note to look into it more deeply later.

My Twitter feed regularly features posts praising him — like this article from last week’s EduTech conference (where he got a “rockstar welcome”), and this article about Microsoft’s new “Work Wonders” series, depicting his collaboration with fellow education celebrity Adam Braun. Yesterday’s article about him included a casual mention of critics and cynics at the very end, but otherwise was very positive, using the word “remarkable” four times to describe Mitra’s findings.

It is clear Mitra is a charismatic speaker and innovative thinker with good intentions, and can get people excited about his radical proposals — after all, who wouldn’t want to find an affordable, easy way of educating children in developing countries who otherwise lack good teachers or schools? But I also quickly realized in my search for more information that there were some very important critiques that needed more attention. For example, is money (like the $1 million TED prize he won last year) being spent on methods that result in measurably improved outcomes for students?

Mitra’s statement that “there are places all over the world where it is difficult or impossible to build schools” or “where good teachers cannot, or do not, wish to go” is the keystone of all his ed tech ideas. Whereas some NGOs might focus on building schools in hard-to-reach areas or providing more teacher training in a particular region, he forms completely new theories about what would work best in those situations and tries different experiments — starting with Hole-in-the-Wall (HiWEL) and Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLEs), and now to the “School in the Cloud” and the “Granny Cloud” (English-speaking adults interacting with, but not teaching, children via Skype). Certainly there is nothing wrong with trying out new ideas in education, but what evidence has been shown so far?

The main criticism around Mitra’s work seems to be around whether he has produced enough proof (such as actual data in peer-reviewed journals) that his ideas are successful and sustainable. Some point out infrastructure problems, while others are suspicious of his successful self-reports. Donald Clark’s blog post starts by showing two photos of HiWEL projects in India – both abandoned and vandalized, “literally just…holes in a wall.” Mostly relying on information from a “scathing” TEDx talk given by Payal Arora (who also published a paper looking at why HiWEL failed in two Indian communities), Clark outlines seven doubts he has about HiWEL, from funding sources to lack of independent research into effectiveness and outcomes. Like many who wonder if technology is the best solution to issues in developing countries, he writes “Are we being asked to believe that the solution to the lack of opportunities in third world education are computers in walls? Are we really going to dangerously divert funding from rural schools into these schemes?”

One commenter from India agrees, replying “To those actually engaged in trying to bring about real change in (Indian) education, Mitra’s work totally fails to take into account the context and the needs on the ground. […] There is insufficient reason to believe that merely the provision of hardware and software (without the humanware in the form of teachers, supportive relationships, a high degree of engagement, reflection and application that a teacher would generate) would help children overcome the cumulative disadvantage that follows them to school.”

Janelle Ward interviews Payal Arora about HiWEL, who says “There is theory and there is reality. I actually question the underlying assumptions of this idea … I question the quick abandoning of ‘schooling’ as an institution. For instance, a few children usually dominate the kiosk; these are usually boys. Schools on the other hand ensure equity of access.”

Adding to Clark’s photos and doubts and Arora’s experience, Michael Trucano’s post for the World Bank’s EduTech blog is helpful because it provides an informal, “impressionistic,” on-the-ground look at two of Mitra’s HiWEL installations in Delhi, India. He goes to observe these because “One thing that seems to get lost (or to be blunt, often ignored) in policy-level discussions around educational technologies is a contemplation of actual usage scenarios.” He discovered, through talks with staff from the organization that implemented HiWEL, that “minimally invasive education” was somewhat misleading, as a “site coordinator” from the local community had to be present for successful uptake and use of the computers. Without that, some people simply didn’t understand the point of having them, or didn’t want to let their daughters use them. He also pointed out that “a good deal of effort had gone into developing compelling education content – mostly in the form of game-like formats” – i.e., it wasn’t simply children browsing the Internet looking for information, something Mitra advocates through SOLEs. He also spoke with a local schoolteacher who said his school did have computers, but that they had been locked up for the last two years due to lack of trained teachers to use them.

The latter issue is an interesting problem for ICT4E initiatives – on the one hand, ICT is assumed to be necessary for children’s education, to the point of providing them free HiWEL computers so that they can create SOLEs under “minimally invasive” circumstances. On the other hand, there are already computers present in a school, but no teachers able to use them for directed educational purposes. Where would money best be spent in this situation? Which ICT investment would lead to the best educational and development outcomes?

Michelle Sowey’s blog post starts out discussing the benefits and similarities between Mitra’s ideas and “curiosity-driven, collaborative enterprises” in primary school classes. However, she says minimally invasive education differs from successful philosophical enquiry methods because it “(1) features the internet as a principal learning medium and (2) it renounces the guidance of qualified teachers or practitioners.” The primary problem is highlighted in Mitra’s SOLE Toolkit, where his  “showcase example of children’s work in a SOLE betrays not only factual errors but also egregious failures of reasoning.” (emphasis mine) After discussing this example, she argues that “it’s not plausible that children in SOLEs can self-organise their way into an expanded repertoire of thinking skills.”

Hugh Dellar’s blog post is more openly angry than others, but voices similar frustrations about Mitra’s evidence. As a teacher and author who spoke onstage at an ed tech conference immediately after Mitra, he attacks the education profession’s unquestioning adulation of  a “snake-oil seller” who “holds teachers in contempt.”

“The fact that Mitra sees fit to make such anecdotal claims – without specifying what level of English they supposedly reached, how this was tested, what a control group of similar kids studying a similar period with an actual teacher might have achieved and so on – clearly places him into the realm of magic bullet fantasists and undermines trust in much of the rest of his pseudo-research-based claims.”

The repeated concern over whether SOLEs are effective learning tools is a valid and important starting point when discussing education in developing countries and which ICT4E (if any) initiatives should be implemented. In his defense, Mitra does point out in his blog that the TED Prize money will go towards researching questions such as whether his Schools in the Cloud can improve reading comprehension. He also gave an update to TED about his research in March this year, although it appears to have been more about having set up several learning labs rather than having any measurable results to report.

Hopefully the TED prize will result in research that either confirms Mitra’s ideas, or allows him to come up with more effective plans for providing students in developing countries with affordable, quality education. In the end, most people want the same goal, and some educational experiments may be tried with the best intentions but not prove feasible for whatever reason. However, questions about an ICT4E initiative’s effectiveness are an absolutely critical part of this process, and rigorous research and evaluation should be done where possible.



Ed Tech in Papua New Guinea


2008 One Laptop Per Child trial in East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea.

Like my earlier post about Mauritania, I was inspired to look into education in Papua New Guinea (PNG) after a team meeting. Similar to last time, a manager explained that our company was sending an American male trainer to a site in PNG rather than the local one (in this case, a woman from our Australia office) “because it’s a Muslim country and they won’t allow female trainers.” That didn’t seem right to me, so I did a quick Wikipedia search and discovered that it’s actually 96% Christian. I mentioned that in the meeting, so a coworker suggested that the site needing the training might be using imported labor, perhaps Indonesian Muslims. I’m not sure if I’ll ever find out the real story, but it did make me wonder what the ed tech situation was there, if any.

A quick glance at education in PNG seems grim. As a developing country with an average income of around $2400 (UN data), school is not compulsory at any age and the “net enrollment” rate in basic education is only 52.9%, according to UNICEF. A YouTube search reveals several videos of schools there, if you want a more visceral understanding of their challenges.

One Laptop Per Child deployed some trials there in 2008, but it is unclear to me what the current state of the program is. Initial feedback reported in 2009 appeared positive, but a 2011 presentation on four site visits mentioned concerns such as schools losing Internet access, a “short supply” of electricity and “No clear financial plan for maintenance, replacement or repair of XOs, or for providing new XOs to incoming classes.”

At the higher ed level, I found two papers looking at e-learning at local universities — 2009’s “Enhancing Students Performance with E- Learning at the Papua New Guinea University of Technology” (which has limited Internet access and where “90% of the lectures are chalk and talk”) and 2012’s “The Evolution of Distance Learning and Factors Promoting ICT Use in the Pacific Islands: Focusing on the Possibility of E-learning Opportunities for Higher Education.” It mentioned an Internet penetration rate of under 1% in PNG  (2.5% as of 2014) but also said that “under the influence of Australia, the development of e-learning courses has been quite active” at their universities, with “comprehensive” online diploma, certification and degree courses at the Catholic Divine Word University.

Searching through my Twitter feed, the only recent news I could find about PNG was the World Bank’s EduTech blog post “Promoting literacy with mobile phones in rural Papua New Guinea.” I highly recommend it as both a good overview of education issues in PNG and an in-depth look at an interesting project called “SMS Story” that sent daily text message stories to children. Inveneo also summarized the project more briefly, describing only the research and outcomes.

Through googling, I also came across a recent article about how researchers are using digital technology to preserve vanishing languages, specifically highlighting David Harrison‘s work in PNG, which has over 750 languages. While not specifically ed tech, it may certainly help people preserve their heritage as they move to a digital age, as well as benefit future learners. I also found an interesting TEDx talk by cultural anthropologist Michael Wesch, explaining how his experiences studying the implications of writing in PNG led him to focus on “the effects of social media and digital technology on global society.”

All in all, it seems PNG has more challenges than opportunities when it comes to education, but perhaps this will change as infrastructure improves, and with more international aid and interest in innovative development projects.

Women, mobile learning and kidnapped schoolgirls


girls_phoneThere’s been quite a buzz in my Twitter feed for the last week or so as a result of UNESCO’s report “Reading in the mobile era: A study of mobile reading in developing countries.” I saw tweets about it from organizations doing interesting work in the education and technology fields, like Worldreader, Souktel, e-Limu and iEarn USA, and people like Ronda Zelezny-Green, who produces the Gender & Mobile/Learning Newsletter.

Lots of interesting info came out of the study, such as that more women read on mobiles compared to men, but more men read to children with them. The top key finding was “Mobile reading opens up new pathways to literacy for marginalized groups, particularly women and girls, and others who may not have access to paper books.” (emphasis mine) This has important implications, as women make up 64% of the world’s illiterate population. UNESCO has already been involved in this area through their Mobile Phone Literacy – Empowering Women and Girls project (slide presentation), and Vodafone jumped in recently with the Malala Fund “to promote mobile-based literacy and education projects around the world” for girls. (pp10-13 of their report, “Connected Women: How mobile can support women’s economic and social empowerment,” focus on education)

And then after all this excitement over how to use technology to provide more women with access to education came the sickening story  “Sierra Leone girls trade sex for mobile phones.”  The report’s author said “Once girls own a phone, especially poorer girls, the maintenance and top up may mean they have to continue selling their bodies.” 

But the bigger story around women and education was the hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by an Islamic miliant group who claim to be against “Western education.” Although it happened in mid-April, this week the world finally took notice and the Internet went wild with the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. I’d heard about it on NPR the day after it happened, and wondered for ages why my Twitter feed, consisting almost entirely of global, education-related accounts who often mention Malala, was silent on the matter. While I am relieved that governments have finally been jolted into action, this kind of news really only emphasizes the frightening, sometimes violent uphill struggle the world still has when it comes to providing females with equal educational opportunities. A mobile phone may open up a world of knowledge to a poor woman, but if her life is in danger by members of her own society merely due to her wanting an education, or the only access to a phone is by selling her body, no amount of ed tech is going to solve that problem.

(The Brookings Institution has a good article, “Abducted Schoolgirls in Nigeria: Improving Education and Preventing Future Boko Haram Attacks,” if you’d like to read more about the situation.)

One Laptop Per Child vs. Intel Classmate

OLPC in Brazil

OLPC in Brazil

The big news in my feed recently was around One Laptop Per Child and whether it was dead or not. Why the sudden debate?

OLPC has left their headquarters in Cambridge, MA, saying they have “begun outsourcing technology development, and moved sales and distribution activities to Miami.” The OLPC News website, in “Goodbye One Laptop Per Child,” said “With the hardware now long past its life expectancy, spare parts hard to find, and zero support from the One Laptop Per Child organization, its time to face reality. The XO-1 laptop is history.” Then, a week later, OLPC News shut down, referring to an earlier blog where they said the OLPC Association “is no longer looking at the right questions, [and] doesn’t come up with relevant answers.”

However, Wired UK declared that “Reports of One Laptop Per Child’s death have been greatly exaggerated” and that they were working on a £50 solar-powered tablet project, while OLPC’s founder Nicholas Negroponte spoke at TED 2014 about his plans to “connect the last billion” people to the Internet.

All of this discussion about OLPC reminded me of a conversation I had with someone working at the Intel stand at London’s BETT show in January. I had stopped there after seeing a huge wall photo of African children on a playground and wondering what Intel was doing in developing countries. They gave me an explanatory sheet titled “Whirling for Wisdom.” It described how Ghanaian students use merry-go-rounds to charge lantern batteries so they can study at night, and stated that “play and learning go hand-in-hand.” By using Intel Education Tablets with SPARKvue software on a merry-go-round, children can “see the direction and magnitude of the forces they experience as they spin. By understanding how rotational forces work, students can go on to solve problems as diverse as the optimum construction of a turn in the road or determining the forces affecting the orbit of a satellite.” They even had a small merry-go-round at the stand, and an enthusiastic woman with a Southern accent demonstrating how it worked.


Intel Classmate in Brazil

Anyway, I got to talking with an Intel staffer and OLPC came up. She said that the Intel Classmate (a 1:1 laptop project for developing countries) had over 5 million deployments in more than 70 countries (map with numbers from 2011) and was being rigorously studied and evaluated in many countries by independent partners, but that hardly anyone had heard of it because OLPC had “better marketing.” (this seems true — searching my university’s library website for academic articles, OLPC brings up hundreds of references, and Intel Classmate almost none) When she said that, I dimly remembered coming across references to a split between OLPC and Intel in 2008 as they went after the same markets. Even back then, people were wondering who would win the battle between the two. Is there a clear answer in 2014? (interestingly, the day after I wrote this, there was a new news article titled “After OLPC, does IT in education have a future?” which discussed OLPC fading out in South Africa and Intel coming in)

I decided to briefly look into Intel’s initiative. On the Intel website, a quick search brings up case studies on the Classmate being used in Malaysia, Turkey, Uganda, Shanghai, Vietnam, Argentina, Macedonia, Bosnia, and Brazil. While these are attractively designed PDFs and generally only a few pages long, they provide important quantitative details of what happened in each deployment, and many feature a statement on the front page that says:

“Intel Education Transformation Research is conducted in regions around the world to understand the successes, challenges, and policy implications of a variety of  eLearning programs, and compare them to other programs worldwide. The information in this report is based on original data collection and analysis by researchers […]”

In comparison, the OLPC website has very brief “stories,” but no links to research. Just a few weeks ago, the OLPC News website wrote “A PhD Thesis About OLPC Asks: What are we doing? What are we bringing?“, so people are still clearly very interested in the initiative and its outcomes. Are OLPC themselves interested in evaluation and research, as Intel obviously is? According to a TED talk by Negroponte in 2009, the answer is clearly no:

I’d like you to imagine that I told you ‘I have a technology that is going to change the quality of life.’ […] What we are going to do is very scientifically evaluate this technology, with control groups – giving it to some, giving it to others. And this all is very reasonable until I tell you the technology is electricity. And you say ‘Wait, you don’t have to do that!’

“But you don’t have to do that with laptops and learning either. And the fact that somebody in the room would say the impact is unclear is to me amazing – unbelievably amazing.” 

So, whether OLPC is dead or not, it seems to me (at least on the surface) that Intel, for all its corporate profit-making intents, is on a much better track in terms of actively trying to determine what type of technology would help children in varying educational circumstances around the world. ICT4E initiatives, whether corporate or NGO, need to have solid research behind them if they expect governments and schools to pay out, even for “affordable” laptops.