Dust or Magic, Sunday, January 14 2007

One Laptop Per Child: another great "aid" scam?

A very interesting thread has arisen on the incom discussion list, triggered by an item about MIT’s “One Laptop Per Child” (OLPC) initiative on the BBC News web site -


The immediate question was: how are the governments of “developing” countries to be persuaded to spend good money on these laptops, instead of on textbooks, teachers, etc? The answer is very likely through “conditionalities” attached to so-called "aid". Aid (very likely merely a loan) would be withheld unless the client government can prove that they are meeting their citizens’ needs for electronic equipment. This is intimated in quite blatant terms by Anthony G. Wilhelm in his book “Digital Nation” (2004), which I reviewed for TEKKA recently. Here’s my original draft.

This illuminating posting came from Pat Hall, a computational linguist working on a literacy scheme in Nepal (with his kind permission):

At the moment I am attending the annual CAN Infotech show in Kathmandu, where we had a presentation from a group calling themselves OLPC-Nepal. There is no doubt to me that the OLPC contains some impressive technology, what worries me is its intended application.

One quotation in the BBC report is very revealing where they quote Bletsas: "I'd like to make sure that kids all around the world start to communicate. It will be a very interesting experiment to see what will happen when we deploy a million laptops in Brazil and a million laptops in Namibia." Focus on that word 'experiment'.

OLPC was being pushed here as a solution to Nepal's educational needs. There is no doubt that Nepal has severe needs, with inadequate school buildings, insufficient teachers many of whom are unqualified mostly teaching rote learning from the front of the class, and much absenteeism as kids help their families survive. But there are examples of sound teaching practice in spite of these constraints, introduced by local Nepali educators and through programs funded by the Scandinavians and through UNESCO. UNESCO is in the process of producing a short video to illustrate these local Nepali best practices.

OLPC is based on a high tech view of education mediated by the OLPC, networked so that collaborative learning takes place, following a constructionist paradigm. Nothing wrong with collaborative learning and constructionist education - that is what happens when teachers move away from the front of the class and pupils turn their chairs to work in groups, and just a few more resources like teachers or teaching assistants are available. But this does not require the OLPC.

OLPC-Nepal describe themselves as a group of 'young engineers', and billed the origins of OLPC as coming from a group 'educators at MIT'. Hang on, isn't the Media Lab a group of high-tech people who have been pushing the use of technology in teaching for 50 years, from Marvin Minsky and Logo to the present? Has anybody anywhere adopted a completely computer mediated delivery of education in schools? Even distance educators such as Britain's Open University recognise the need for a personal touch in their use of tutors and self help groups.

So the way it looks to me is that the high-tech people from Media Labs and their fellow travellers, having failed to roll out the use of high tech in schools education across the developed world, are now indulging in one gigantic experiment on the developing world to see if their computer-mediated methods work. Phew, how does this rank against drug trials in developing countries and the dumping of computer waste in the name of recycled computers?

How do you stop this leviathan? Well, it will stop in due course due to its own failures, hopefully in countries that can afford the odd 100 million dollars or two. I will do what I can to advise people here in Nepal against OLPC, though of course it must be people here who decide.

You can read the whole thread at:


Here's a demonstration of the OLPC by Haakon Lie

Posted by Bob Hughes on Sunday, January 14 2007

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