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Business Week has a good article summing up the recent history of the OLPC project and it's difficulties with sales numbers, fading promises, Intel, and its internal strife over the Microsoft decision. None of that information is particularly new, but the article continues and goes in to some insightful problems with the educational model of the 1CC OLPC project; namely, hubris.

Hubris is a longstanding problem in development work, as William Easterly (among many others) has been writing about in sordid detail for years. If you haven't read The Elusive Quest for Growth, go to your library or local bookstore now and grab a copy. It's fascinating, disturbing, and clearly written.

The OLPC project has sadly failed to learn from the many, many missteps in large scale, top-down development projects, as we've been writing about over at OLPCNews.com for years now. Without careful implementation working with in-country experts, the project will never come close to fulfilling the original vision, as Peru is revealing:

Even with these results, the Unified Union of Education Workers of Peru, representing some 320,000 public school teachers, is skeptical. “These laptops aren’t part of a comprehensive educational, pedagogical project, and their usefulness is debatable,” says Luís Muñoz Alvarado, the union’s general secretary. Muñoz never had a chance to explore the laptops, though. In what seems an easily avoidable blunder, the Education Ministry has not explained the program to the union.

So in a haphazardly, too-little-too-late fashion, 1CC is piecing together an implementation plan as they go, which makes about as much since as building an airplane in mid-flight:

Recognizing the need to integrate the laptops into communities, OLPC is scrambling to develop guidelines for deployment based on the experiences in Uruguay and Peru, the two countries with the largest distribution so far. The group is also bringing in consultants to advise countries on how to integrate the PCs. One, Edith Ackermann, a visiting scientist at MIT, says OLPC should have involved more educational experts in creating and testing the applications. Instead, she says, “The hackers took over.” The result is some programs are too complex for many children to use. “Now we have to deal with this. I don’t know if it’s too late,” says Ackermann.

While some critics have called on OLPC to hire aggressively so it can provide on-the-ground support for dozens of countries at a time, Negroponte and Kane plan instead to rely even more on outsiders. They'll forge alliances with local tech companies and nongovernment organizations that will provide deployment support.

That is one move that OLPC is making correctly -- presuming that those alliances are contractually required to help build a shared and open knowledge base that can create a community of practice and body of knowledge that future implementations of similar projects can take advantage of. OLPC hiring internally to do this work can never be as useful as partnering with existing, local institutions who will continue to be around after the OLPC paratroopers move on to the next implementation. It's almost a sustainable plan, and it looks like there's some work to create a set of best practices:

Although each country has a different situation, they can learn from common experiences. OLPC plans on using Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, to test ideas about how to best integrate the computers with society and to create a template for other countries.

The (lack of) implementation plan is only part of the OLPC hubris on this project. Underlying that is the more insidious educational theory level of the program.

While this philosophy is essential to the mission of OLPC, it’s also a source of tension. Current educational leaders in Peru embrace Constructionism, but most countries base their education systems on the idea that teachers pass their knowledge to receptive students. That was a problem for OLPC in China as well as India. India’s education department, for instance, calls the idea of giving each child a laptop “pedagogically suspect,” and, when asked about it recently, Education Secretary Arun Kumar Rath barked: “Our primary-school children need reading and writing habits, not expensive laptops.”

Now, you can argue until the cows come home about pedagogical theories, but at the end of the day you must respect a country's sovereignty and right to choose its own educational track. Despite India and China's different approaches, it would be hard to accuse either country of not achieving some impressive educational outcomes and economic growth by following their current path. To close out with a quote by Easterly regarding the OLPC pedagogy, "It's arrogant of them. You can't just stampede into a country's education system and say, Here's the way to do it."

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