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.
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.