Monday, November 10, 2014

The Downfall of the One-Laptop-Per-Child Project

One of the courses I am taking this semester is all about understanding global and cultural developments in educational technology. This course has stretched me, but it has been enjoyable too.

As a case study, this week we are examining the One-Laptop-Per-Child Project (OLPC), which began almost 10 years ago. The brainchild of Nicholas Negroponte--founder of MIT's Media Lab--the idea was to create an extremely affordable laptop computer (in the range of approximately $100) that would be rugged and durable and easily deployed to developing nations. Funded by corporate sponsorship and private donors, the plan was to distribute these devices across the globe in places where educational technology was not readily accessible, and hopefully change teaching and learning there for the better. A noble goal, right? An altruistic, humanitarian project with the goal of improving education in areas where an education would be, presumably, a ticket to better standard of living.

Negroponte presented the project in a 2006 TED talk, which I highly recommend you take the time to view if you are unfamiliar with the OLPC project. In 20 minutes, it will give you a good understanding of what the project is about.

Of course, things haven't gone quite so rosily as Negroponte would have wished. The deployments haven't been in hundreds of millions...but hundreds of thousands. And there are reasons for this, but primarily, I think, a lack of cultural understanding, both foreign and domestic.

I was struck by Negroponte’s arrogance toward the end of the TED talk, when he was talking about the criticism of the project that had been leveled (8 years ago already!) He was talking about how people really do not want to talk down the project because it is a humanitarian project, not for profit, etc. …but then he went on to say, “To criticize it is a little bit…stupid…actually.” I found this rather telling for his perspective. I know that TED is a media circus with all the theatrics and spectacle that comes with it—which makes for dynamic presentation of ideas, to be sure—but the downside is that some of the presenters make unassailable claims, such as this one by Negroponte. The fact is, we should be critical of the ideas being presented in any forum; just because it’s TED doesn’t mean we should turn off our brains and just nod along with the ideas on display!

Here's what the actual device created for the OLPC Project looks like.
Image by Lionel [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

As I was watching Negroponte explain his vision for this device (back in 2006, remember?), I was wondering about the proliferation of cheap computers that seemed to come right after that time—the rise of the netbook, and more recently, the Google Chromebook. Now, these aren’t quite in the “$100 laptop” realm…but they are mighty close (a quick Google search revealed brand new, entry level Chromebooks for as low as $199,) and these devices—while perhaps not as rugged as the OLPC machines—have far greater capabilities. I found it interesting that Kraemer, Dedrick, and Sharma (2009) note that the actual cost of the XO (the OLPC machine) was $199—the same as a Chrombook. Kraemer, Dedrick, and Sharma (2009) also note that the real costs are much higher when infrastructure costs are taken into account, not to mention the training and support that needs to happen for such machines to be deployed effectively.  And while this is true of other devices as well (e.g., the iPad debacle currently underway in LAUSD,) it is something to keep in mind: a $100 laptop for every child sounds good, but the reality is that the device is just one part of a much, much more complex shift of culture.

And indeed, it seems a lack of understanding of culture—and cultural identity, and cultural self-determination—seems to be at the root of the problems for the OLPC project. As Colombant (2011) points out, it is presumptuous and paternalistic for Western nations to assume they know what is best for developing nations (e.g., African nations needing help and support with their power grid as a more pressing need than cheap laptops for schools.)  Kraemer, Dedrick, and Sharma (2009) summed up the roots of the failure of the OLPC project in the three points they use to conclude their article:
  1. Diffusing a new innovation requires understanding the local environment.
  2. Innovative technology can be disruptive and trigger a backlash from incumbents.
  3. Innovative information technologies do not stand alone. (p. 72)
Any one of these three might have doomed the OLPC project; taken together, it is not surprising to me that this project—though well intentioned!—did not come to the fruition that Negroponte and his collaborators would have wished.

Colombant, N. (2011, March 6). Some development experts criticize ‘one laptop per child’ initiative in Africa. Retrieved from

Kraemer, K. L., Dedrick, J., & Sharma, P. (2009). One laptop per child: vision vs. reality. Communications of the ACM, 52(6), 66-73.

Negroponte, N. (2006, February). One laptop per child. [Video file]. Retrieved from


  1. I think there are lines that can be drawn from this OLPC initiative to why many schools find their 1:1 initiatives to be less than successful. Understanding the local environment ( culture, community access to internet, etc.?) Innovative technology can be a disruptive trigger (hmm...AngryBirds? Yik-Yak? Snapchat? Google Chat?). And, innovative information technologies do not stand alone (hmm....professional learning? Classroom management? Instructional paradigm?)

    Thought provoking, for sure.

    1. Thanks for taking the time ti comment. I agree--I'm actually very interested in the flurry of 1:1 initiatives that continue to roll out all over the US. I would love to do an ethnography of a school going through the process. I think there could be much we would learn from examining several cases in depth...