The Problems with One Laptop Per Child

They are cultural, philosophical, and political.

Not even John Lennon can overcome the flaws, given their deep cultural basis.

Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder and director of the MIT Media Laboratory, introduced the idea for the $100 laptop in 2005. The laptop would be geared towards children in "developing nations." Its intent was to help education in those countries. The project's goal, to be specific, is "To provide children around the world with new opportunities to explore, experiment and express themselves." The technical accomplishments of the laptop project were swift--low power requirements, a physical design that is all enclosed to prevent water or sand or dirt damage, open source software [originally, this has since changed], unique interface, and possibility for solar power and hand-crank powering, and designers were doing well to achieve their lost cost.

As it happens, though, the project hit some snags. These snags, for example, include:

  • Issues with actual cost (the $100 laptop is no longer called that, because it costs $200?)
  • Political and governmental resistance from countries to whom OLPC seeks to send the laptops. (In two cases, Nigeria and Brazil had been seeking local laptops, not imported, but other countries have presented other kinds of resistance.)
  • Businesses, such as Intel, who would like to make their own inexpensive laptop
  • Grumblings from consumers of wealthy nations ("we want a cheap laptop too!")
  • Education (what value laptops when you don't have pencils? or a teacher?)

We discuss One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) in my senior engineering class on technology and society (STS 401). At the end of the semester, after discussing technologies as being shaped historically by their political, cultural, economic, and environmental contexts, the students do an analysis of OLPC. To Negroponte and the OLPC Foundation, the above issues were all "snags" that came about along the way. They are all, that is, unanticipated consequences. The premise for my students in their analysis was that while the above "snags" might not have been straightforwardly predictable, they were more properly anticipatable consequences.

The first year I did this exercise, in Fall 2007, I'd say the two classes of 25 each were mostly irritated with OLPC, but considerate of how the project might work more effectively. Some students were full out hacked at MIT, don't get me wrong, considering the design approach flawed from the start for having been culturally inept. But others were somewhat gung-ho about it. I'd say it was an even split between "let's try to make this better" and "this is conceptually flawed from the start and should not be promoted."

This last semester, Fall 2008, for whatever reason, the students were far more frustrated with OLPC and the MIT design strategy. I tried as best as I could to present it the same way both times -- which means that while I had been the one to introduce the various ways technologies are shaped by their broader contexts over the course of the semester, I hadn't said outright to them, "listen, this OLPC sure sucks, so why is that?" But this second go around, the students were more concerned with the OLPC approach. I'm not sure why, but that doesn't really matter here.

The critique began with Negroponte and OLPC's stated mission to "to ensure that all school-aged children in the developing world are able to engage effectively with their own personal laptop, networked to the world, so that they, their families and their communities can openly learn and learn about learning." They questioned the project's guiding assumption that "more laptop/children = more progress"; they also questioned the assumptions of the project that infrastructure & educational systems would be comparable everywhere, all at once. Mostly, they questioned the tragically common view known as technological determinism -- that a given technology will lead to the same outcome, no matter where it is introduced, how it is introduced, or when. The outcomes, on this impoverished view of the relationship between technology and society, are predetermined by the physical technology. (This view also assumes that what one means by "technology" is only the physical hunk of material sitting there, as opposed to including its constitutive organizational, values, and knowledge elements.) In the case of OLPC, the project assumes equal global cultural values & regional attributes. It also assumes common introduction, maintenance, educational (as in learning styles and habits), and image values everywhere in the world. Furthermore, it lives in a historical vacuum assuming that there is no history in the so-called "developing world" for shiny, fancy things from the West dropped in, The-Gods-Must-Be-Crazy style, from the sky.

How could the same laptop have the same meaning and value in, say, Nigeria and Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Alabama, Malawi and Mongolia?

In addition to that basic critique against tech. determinism, the students brought up issues of distribution, control, power (political and electrical), disposal, other life-cycle issues, assumptions of individualism, role of community, and more.

I bring this up here, at the blog, because it's a good example of good intentions -- the MIT Lab wants to educate the world with the premise that education is empowering, and I didn't find any students who disagreed -- executed outside of a meaningful cultural context. I also bring it up as I prepare my syllabus for this Spring's engineering and environmental ethics course, another annual venture for me (STS 402). Plus, I wanted to share this cartoon, which one team of students brought in for their presentation about the OLPC analysis. It adds another dimension to the critique:

i-6c7a585f87d73de69a303a2d7666d8a7-OLPC joyoftech.GIF

It's an interesting project, this OLPC. And it's a good one to analyze from a socio-technical perspective. I don't assume, or know if, Negroponte is a bad person. In fact I assume otherwise, that he's a decent guy. But I do know that for technological contributions aimed at "progress" to work requires more than good intentions.

A brief bibliography of and about OLPC:
1. OLPC main homepage
2. News of the project
3. OLPC news -- the blog of record about the program
4. [Audio] "Organization Tries to Get Laptops to Third World"
5. [Audio] "Sizing Up a $100 Laptop"
6. [Video] Media coverage about the project
7. Farivar, Cyrus. "Still Waiting for That $100 Laptop? The latest sign that Nicholas Negroponte's cheapo-computer scheme will never work." September 24, 2007.
8. Fildes, Jonathan. "'$100 laptop' to sell to public." BBC News Online. September 24, 2007.
9. Markoff, John. "For $150, Third-World Laptop Stirs Big Debate." New York Times, November 30, 2006.
10. Pogue, David. "$100 Laptop A Bargain At $200" New York Times. October 4, 2007.
11. Pogue, David. "Laptop With a Mission Widens Its Audience." New York Times. October 4, 2007.
12. Stecklow, Steve. "The $100 Laptop Moves Closer to Reality." The Wall Street Journal.
November 14, 2005.
13. Nichols, Scott. "One Laptop Per Child Opens Windows," PC World, October 24, 2008.
14. One Velicraptor Per Child

More like this

OLPC may not be a success in Third World, but it has had an impact in industrialized countries. Microsoft created the Classmate as a counterattack to OLPC, with Intel as the chip vendor and Asus as the manufacturer. When MS lost interest (the HW couldn't run Vista), Asus switched to Linux and launched it as Asus EEE701 - and the market of cheap "netbooks" was born.

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 06 Jan 2009 #permalink

The current version of the laptop looks very old fashioned. In fact it looks like one of those crappy toy computers that are marketed as a 'first laptop' for children but are in fact very limited devices. The new touch-screen version, however, looks great. I wouldn't mind having one of those myself. Unfortunately its going to take some time before that one reaches the market.


A very interesting critique of OLPC, and an even more interested format. I'd love to know what your students though of it in detail. If there is one or two that stand out, could you ask them to forward their analysis to me. I'd love to publish them on OLPC News.

Speaking of OLPC News, I am surprised that you do not list it in your bibliography. I humbly submit that it is the blog of record on the program.

That cartoon's rather insulting. Even if many children use the computer for pointless activities, wouldn't it be worthwhile for the ones who get something out of it?

I wish that I could be a fly on the wall in your class, because I fail to understand the vehemence of the anti-OLPC crowd. Sure, the introduction of laptops is not an unmitigated good. (What program is?) But I've seen Negroponte talk about OLPC, and when he speaks he gives due consideration to the questions of "distribution, control, power (political and electrical), disposal, [and] other life-cycle issues."

Whether or not they anticipated these issues, or the broader cultural issues, before they first started out is a different question. Perhaps they should have been more aware of those issues. On the other hand, would your students argue that the overall effect of OLPC has been negative? Because unless that's the case, I find it really defeatist to argue that OLPC was misguided from the start, or shouldn't have been attempted. It may have been less well implemented than it might have been, but after working in government for a while, I'm impressed that it was implemented at all! :)

Most of the criticism I hear of OLPC is rooted in objections to its supposed philosophy, not actual outcomes for individual kids. To what extent did your class think such an outcomes analysis was important (and possible)? What outcomes would they choose to assess as a measure of success, if any? Like Frasque, I think that improved access to the internet is likely a net positive for a community, although it will not provide the same gains in all places or times. And you don't have to be a technological determinist or a techno-optimist to think so.

Finally, the cartoon impishly implies that Western-style websurfing has completely displaced traditional activities. But to suggest so is to suggest that the cultures into which the laptop were introduced were so malleable as to be completely overthrown by the introduction of a new technology. I think that's an insulting oversimplification every bit as bad as any Negroponte's team could have made, and also flies in the face of the idea that the cultural context into which the laptop is introduced is important!

Anyway, I'd also like to see more detail on your students' reactions - perhaps you might ask a few of them to write a guest post? It's an excellent topic for a class, and deserving of more thoughtful discussion than I've been involved in, and I'd enjoy reading their criticisms.

To clarify: these were all engineers-in-training, the students in the class, so their critiques were certainly not borne of an opposition to the possibilities of technological solutions.

Frasque: I don't agree that your criticism of the cartoon is fully warranted. The logic which suggests that as long as one person benefits from something then we should do it would be a hard one to maintain. Any given technology will find someone who benefits, despite its drawbacks for others.

Biophem: You bring up good points, though I don't agree that Negroponte's awareness of non-technical issues after the fact makes up for the lack of that non-technical awareness as part of the OLPC design process. I do agree that the cartoon oversimplifies things, but it's meant to do so. I find that in its parody it points out flaws in some basic assumptions of OLPC, namely that to achieve its goal of educational advance, children will only use laptops for educational purposes. A very optimistic proposal.

I'll talk to some of the students to solicit their further comments about this.

What many don't realize is that the OLPC is an e-book reader, which could help solve the problem that books are too expensive and heavy and fragile to get to many of the kids who need them. If all it did was provide textbooks cheaply, it would be a big win (assuming robust hardware). Everything else it does or doesn't do is secondary to that mission, IMO.

I read that view as dangerous and ethically tenuous, David. I take the larger issue to be, how would you know if the positive points are more? We can't as a matter of technology policy just throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and see what sticks.

...I don't understand why people continue to argue FOR the OLPC program. Instead of buying laptops, how about donating to more vital causes. Like, I don't know, providing clean drinkable water for third world countries?

This view also assumes that what one means by "technology" is only the physical hunk of material sitting there, as opposed to including its constitutive organizational, values, and knowledge elements.

By cheap computers (not verified) on 01 Oct 2009 #permalink

Stay classy, Neuro-C. Nothin' like helping the cause with asinine irrelevance. When you actually read Foucault let the wikipedia page where you apparently get your info know. Careful, there are some big words in there.

This is such an amazing program! It's helping children evolve with technology in countries that before now have had little to no opportunities! i salute this program.

We use the ASUS netbooks in a rural village in the Ometepe Island, Nicaragua with great results using them to teach English as a second language. Several of our students are know bilingual. The laptops do create the conditions for learning and are very usefull to the teachers and students.

Alvaro Molina

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thanks for sharing

We have several OLPC in our organization but one of them if you switch power on it opens till the round circle with an xo on top and it hangs there,
What might be the problem or how can i make it work

By David Mita Aluku (not verified) on 26 Apr 2015 #permalink