A Million Laptop Hangover

Submitted by Jon on Thu, 11/09/2006 - 11:26

Over the next few years, ministers of education worldwide will be waking up from their celebratory launch parties announcing the agreements for the OLPC laptop -- with a hangover of a million laptops sitting on a wharf. What can you do with a million laptops? Hype aside, is there any plan for distribution of the physical boxes, or, more importantly, diffusion of their usage?

I can't help but recall two twin projects that I helped with as an IT volunteer with the Peace Corps in the Caribbean. Two separate programs, one well-funded, one less so, were both trying to spread a low-cost computing alternative (in this case, a keyboard with a small LCD monitor with USB and IR connections - not only do these do less than the OLPC computer is designed to do, they cost two to three times as much). The under-funded project had one Ministry official designated to manage all the distribution, do teacher training and followup visits. Despite valiant efforts, this project failed to get much traction with the overloaded teachers. The better-funded project was able to first do more preparatory work to find interested teachers and administrators, as well as fund teacher training workshops and do many more followup site visits, and was able to get some limited traction in schools with a concentration of interested parties.

I'm not arguing that funding matters, I'm arguing that networks matter -- networks of teachers and administrators, community leaders, and implementation personnel helping with technical issues. This is greatly lubricated by increased funding when transport and telecom communication is cost- or time- prohibitive. This is all an attempt to remind us that you can't rely upon the "obvious" advantages of a new technology to lead to instant adoption by a community. The history of development projects is full of failed attempts, or worse - successful ones that failed later on. This has happened time and time again with "green revolution" projects, where a development project finally convinces a community to switch to a "new, better" crop, only to see it fail due to local conditions or strong preferences overlooked by the development agency when they ignored millennia of farming practices for a few
decades of experimentation.

I am only being critical of the OLPC project here because I honestly want it to succeed. The design of the system addresses such a wide variety of the exact challenges I faced doing IT work. Power supplies are bad or non-existent. Rural telephony/connectivity is unavailable, dust, heat, outdoor classrooms (which mean bright
sunlight, not very useful with most laptop screens), or lock-in to proprietary and expensive to maintain systems and software. The OLPC project has designed around so many of these problems, no doubt from close observance of common, local physical obstacles to ICT usage that it's astounding that they seem to have completely ignored the non-physical obstacles.

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