3 minute read

There's a developing thread at Engadget about the branding efforts on the OLPC, as well as some argument to its utility. I of course jumped in, responding to someone talking about the value of laptops as a self-help style tool:

...just sending them supplies doesn't solve anything...

But just sending them laptops will? Remember that the minimum order for these things is 1 million units. Even at $100 each, that's a USD $100MM budget item, which is not a figure to laugh at if you're already a debt-strapped developing nation. And then what do you get? Your country, which has just paid out $100MM, gets a million laptops. They won't distribute themselves, they won't automatically train teachers and community leaders, they won't automatically create Internet connections. Sure, the idea is for a device for children to self-teach, the old "fire" theory of education, but I posit that some structure, some mediation and guidance will be needed, or these will mostly end up gathering dust, or on the black market. So on top of that $100MM, you still need to create some ways to encourage diffusion and usage of the laptops - some training (probably training of trainers, who then go out and train more), creation and support of local "communities of practice" for cross-training/self-help among peers, and some locally relevant content and a distribution method for said content. Textbooks, music, movies, children's stories/production; these are inherently network devices and benefit greatly, exponentially even, from increased network size - even if that network is a 28.8kbps GPRS connection or a sneakernet.

Don't get me wrong, I think the OLPC guys have done a fantastic job at developing a machine that's useful in developing-world situations (I've done ICT and Dev work, I've seen many of the challenges, and the OLPC addresses an impressive swath of them), but this attention to detail can't stop when they roll off the production line, there has to be a diffusion strategy that's tailored to country- and local- situation-specfic challenges and opportunities.

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