Cover image courtesy of CNN, March 2018.
–by Christine Murrain and Eva Sparks–
The nonprofit organization One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) aims to distribute low-cost laptop computers to the “world’s poorest children,” with the intention of providing opportunities for quality access to education. The organization was never as successful in distributing laptops as it had anticipated. The introduction of these laptops, in order to render success, required the training of local teachers, provision of technical support, and the creation of sustainable plans for further distribution. OLPC was deployed prior to the pioneering of these logistical necessities and thus, provided for its expedient downfall. Most recently, global initiatives have decreased as a result of improper infrastructure and increasing costs, amongst other negative side effects. This podcast seeks to evaluate the actions of One Laptop Per Child in terms of their ability to create a sustainable source of education and provision of academic materials. Further, this podcast will explore unforeseen consequences of One Laptop Per Child’s efforts. In addition, this podcast will investigate the legacy of One Laptop Per Child, specifically the impact it has had on organizations striving to provide similar aid to children in developing nations. Finally, this podcast will evaluate how One Laptop Per Child’s evolution may affect the populations served. Although One Laptop Per Child distributes technological products to countries on several continents, this podcast primarily focuses on the laptops distributed to students in African countries.
CM: From the University of Oklahoma Honors College, This is the Urge to Help Podcast. I’m Christine Murrain a Junior studying Public Relations.
ES: And I’m Eva Sparks, a Sophomore International Business major, and we’re students in Dr. Prichard’s honors class, “Africa and the Urge to Help.” This podcast is titled “The Failure of One Laptop Per Child.”
CM: Today we are going to discuss the reality of technology based youth education in African Communities and the efforts of one organization in particular. We will be focusing on One Laptop Per Child, who boasted a hefty goal to help provide better access to technology to children in underdeveloped regions.
CM: Now, as we all can agree, across the world young people have more access to technology at their disposal today than any member of any generation before us. According to Pew Research in 2017, nearly 90% of Americans are online with over 77% of the American population owning a smartphone. However, in the world’s most underdeveloped regions, access to technology and technology education is a luxury not a common commodity. For example, just last month, CNN reported that a Ghanan schoolteacher was forced to illustrate in-depth charts of internal core processors and software such as Microsoft Word to effectively train students how to use a machine that they may never have complete access to (Mezzofiore).
CM: But would efforts to increase access to, and the understanding of, varying degrees of technology empower students and entire communities? The non-profit organization, One Laptop Per Child, and others like it, believe just that. They strive to create a world where as they put it in their website, “a quality education and access to information are basic human rights,” and even the most vulnerable children are granted these rights.”
ES: However, what we will explore further in this episode of The Urge to Help podcast is whether or not One Laptop Per Child, which was ultimately rendered unsuccessful, owes their failure to the approaches and methods by which they chose to implement it.
ES: One Laptop Per Child is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to “empower the world’s poorest children through education” (One Laptop Per Child). One Laptop Per Child, commonly abbreviated as OLPC, works to achieve its mission by providing children in developing nations with a durable, low-cost laptops. OLPC hopes that through the use of software created by the organization, children are able to learn, play, create, and become self-empowered learners (One Laptop Per Child).
CM: Additionally, OLPC focuses on providing laptops to children ages six through twelve. They want to develop early-learners and inspire children to stay in school long-term (One Laptop Per Child, 2008).
ES: According to One Laptop Per Child’s website, over two million students are using their laptops in forty-two countries (One Laptop Per Child). Although the majority of these students are in Latin American countries, there are 500,000 laptops in Africa. The laptops distributed by OLPC have unique implications on the African continent.
CM: One Laptop Per Child has received both extensive praise and criticism since its establishment. Today we are excited to discuss how OLPC affects the communities it intends to help, and the overall efficacy of the OLPC initiative.
ES: One Laptop Per Child mainly tries to sell their laptops in large quantities to governments in developing nations. Despite extensive promotional efforts, One Laptop Per Child has had difficulty persuading governments to dedicate their appropriated education budgets towards purchasing laptops for all children (Randerson). This is likely because of the lack of consideration by Western designers of African needs when developing the technology. This idea will be further developed later in the podcast. Additionally, the laptops are a great expense, even when purchased in bulk. There was also little data that supported the effectiveness of the laptops. In 2007, One Laptop Per Child developed a ‘Give one, Get one’ marketing campaign, although they had never intended to have the laptops available to children in America.
CM: Now, if you’re like us, you’ve seen this model before. There are so many organizations that try to implement these “Give one, Get one” campaigns. These “Give one, Get one” campaigns are particularly interesting because of the implications that it has on American culture. The idea of the “Give one, Get one” campaign implies that American consumers will purchase more of a product or a new product outside of their typical buying habits in order to provide aid to those in “need.” This also often occurs without the consumer fully understanding the conditions of those they are providing aid.
ES: Right. You can see this in other companies like Tom’s Shoes. Tom’s Shoes has proven to be a wildly successful company. For every pair of Tom’s shoes purchased, they provide a pair of shoes to a child in need. Tom’s has received extensive criticism because of the offshore manufacturing of their shoes. It is also understood by critics of the company that the shoes given to international recipients are different and of less value than the ones purchased by their American counterparts. To draw a parallel between Tom’s and One Laptop Per Child, both companies marketed towards American citizens in order to provide some benefit to people in developing nations. In both cases, the American consumers rallied towards meeting an international need without having to leave the comfort of their own homes.
ES: In the case of One Laptop Per Child, this versatility of the technology could be seen as problematic. The “Give one, Get one” campaign indicates that although the laptops were designed for usage in developing countries, they could also be marketed and sold for American children. It is important to recognize the difference between the needs and wants of American children and children in developing nations, something we will explore further today.
CM: Now, One Laptop Per Child set out with ambitious and praiseworthy goals to say the least. Though their intentions received much positive feedback and support, their impact never delivered what it promised. OLPC envisioned a straightforward solution to a complex problem. As the solution was straightforward, OLPC prepared for a straightforward implementation as well. OLPC’s failure can be attributed to its lack of understanding of local communities and their day-to-day lives. Unfortunately, in the case of OLPC, good intentions did not yield great impact and it had to come to understand that “there is no laptop that can solve the educational problems of the world’s poor” (Warschauer & Ames, 46).
ES: The good intentions behind OLPC, however, were very clear. According to an article published by in The World Policy Journal, “The role of technology in Africa’s development is to give power to the people … the power to enable citizens to create a better future for themselves, free from continuous dependence on foreign aid and ineffective government” (Yelpaala). This is exactly what OLPC aspires to do, provide children with resources to prosper. It is clear, however, that this has not been done in the most effective or efficient ways.
ES: It is difficult to transfer technology to countries across the globe and achieve the same positive impacts. Often times, a variety of negative implications arise from technology transfer projects. One Laptop Per Child is clearly no exception. While One Laptop Per Child is a compelling project, Janine Randerson argues that the premise of One Laptop Per Child prioritises the “‘object’ over its process of development” (Randerson 299). This idea is exemplified by the fact that the computers distributed to children in developing countries were entirely designed in the Western world, with no input from the recipient nations. Additionally, the laptops were manufactured offshore in the factories of Taiwan’s Quanta Computers (Randerson 300).
CM: In a paper written by Namank Shah a student Boston University, Shah further notes that laptops are a western technology, and that western ideals couldn’t simply be forced as a one-size fits all option for all of the world’s poor. Shah cites Victoria McArthur for stating that the interface of such technologies come natural to westerners but that companies cannot deploy the same interfaces to new communities without regarding very inherent cultural differences, “From the layout of the keys on the keyboard to the display of the icons on the screen, the computers show a great deal of Western culture and influence.” This Western implementation didn’t take into account a lack of understanding for western culture that African youth boast, therefore the children OLPC hoped to impact, did not benefit from the laptops.
CM: As we have discussed previously, it may positively impact development initiatives if the affected countries had contributed to their production.
ES: It may be best to provide listeners with a better background as to the scale of OLPC’s failure.
CM: Of course, so, by 2009, OLPC had only delivered a fraction of the computers as originally planned to youth throughout Africa, nearly 150 million less than its 150 million goal.
CM: In addition, as we have well covered throughout the Urge to Help, customs, traditions and beliefs are engrained throughout African cultures. Western beliefs and styles of living, when poorly integrated into African communities, threatens those ways of life. Adults in these communities understood this and again as Shah notes, parents were skeptical of the devices and often sent them home, he states that “without support from parents, future expansion of the program may be in danger.”
CM: International aid must account for, research, understand, and regard local customs and beliefs in order to best serve their desired stakeholders. Without doing so is a direct hindrance to the positive impact they hope to promote. OLPC is yet another example of a Western agency hoping to provide what is best for African communities without actually understanding African communities. And just as those before it, OLPC was rendered useless as a result.
ES: It is also important to note that a main pillar of One Laptop Per Child’s vision is that children get to have complete ownership of their own laptop (One Laptop Per Child). This allows each child with a laptop to have complete connectivity with the outside world at any given time. However, several countries have purchased a number of laptops to be used in computer labs. While this violates one of OLPC’s main pillars, it may align more with the “collectivist” values in integrated with local culture (Steeves 189).
CM: And that point goes to further the reality that OLPC did not take into account what these communities wanted or needed in regards to the implementation of this programs. And, aside from the implementation, OLPC didn’t even design these laptops for the needs of young students in these countries.
CM: There are many assumptions that the Western developers of the laptops made in their design. For instance, the computers are designed for a US-sized fourth grader, with the general demographic for use being kids aged 6-12 (One Laptop Per Child, 2008). According to Leslie Steeves and Janet Kwami in a co-written paper, in countries like Ghana, people attend school whenever they become able. So when the pilot started in 2008, the average age of a One Laptop Per Child laptop user was 14. This reflects a lack of understanding in the purpose and practical uses of the laptops on behalf of their developers. Who was OLPC trying to serve? Or were they really just fulfilling an “urge to help?”
ES: A 2010 a study evaluated the effectiveness of the laptops in a variety of different contexts (James). They found that there was no significant difference between the children with and without laptops in terms of learning indicators. Additionally, in 2009, the opinions on the laptops provided by OLPC were collected from local teachers. The teachers had mixed reviews citing security and maintenance of the laptops among the top issues that exist with the technology (Kwami & Steeves).
CM: The same article by Randerson notes Jeffrey James’ argument that One Laptop Per Child “causes so much to be invested in computers that other educational inputs are entirely neglected” (Randerson 236). Additionally, One Laptop Per Child fails to recognize the lack of infrastructure required to maintain useable laptops as well as the factors required for a successful integration of technology. It’s really no wonder that this project ultimately failed. Other innovations with similar education-based missions have created technology that allows for a more lateral integration into the community (Randerson 237). We will further elaborate on these technologies later.
CM: However, in 2009, OLPC began to strive to provide this sense of agency. In an update to followers of their website, OLPC describes a two-week training program performed in Rwanda in order to better equip local teachers and students to perform activities on the laptops and best utilize them for classroom purposes. OLPC noted that they trained teachers how to create educational games on the laptops, use the devices more effectively for language learning, and to troubleshoot potential problems when using the devices. OLPC believes these events to have been a complete successes. Though perhaps a little too late, OLPC’s efforts to equip local communities to fully understand their product was certainly a step in the right direction.
ES: While One Laptop Per Child worked to tailor its product around the actual needs of the communities it was serving, other companies such as One Beep began to works toward providing a more efficient, effective, and sustainable solutions to providing access to technology in developing nations.
ES: According to One Beep, programs such as One Laptop Per Child are useless without real connectivity so the devices cannot receive e-books or software updates. One Beep has developed a solution to another hindrance that the OLPC organizations and its stakeholders are facing. “OneBeep has developed software that provides a simple, effective and low-cost way to beam out daily lessons to thousands or even millions of children. OneBeep uses a sliver of spectrum on the FM band to send out digital information which is then decoded and turned into documents for use on laptops” (One Beep, 2011).
ES: One Beep has seen much success for its product having won a Microsoft’s national finals for the Imagine Cup and third in the worldwide competition (One Beep, 2011). One Beep is now further developing their technology to ensure the greatest and most effective operating distance possible.
ES: The Kinkajou microfilm projector is a solar-powered projector to be used as a learning technology in African classrooms that do not have access to electricity (Kozikowski). After the projector was first developed in 2003, it became a wildly popular tool for use in African classrooms. By 2004, however, it became clear that Kinkajou was not an effective solution for two main reasons: the infrastructure did not exist to repair the projectors and African teachers were unable to prepare new class content on the microfilm slides (Kozikowski). These reasons along with the emergence of universal cell phone coverage and the steeply declining price of smart phones led to the intense failure of the Kinkajou projector.
CM: While One Laptop Per Child has many companies also competing for market share, there is still a long way to go until international entities are able to provide a sustainable solution to the accessibility issues African communities are facing regards to technology and technology education.
CM: We talked a lot today about OLPC and international aid as an institution that often times overlooks many needs and wants of the populations that they are serving. There is a casual relationship between a lack of regard to community values and the failure of intended service projects. It is clear that an understanding of the communities that an organization is trying to help is crucial to the success of any aid project.
ES: OLPC’s failure can be attributed to the fact that the project was largely based on Western ideals of communication, leisure, and need. This exemplifies inequality in the transfer of electronic communication technologies. Future technology transfer projects should strive to achieve an understanding of the needs and values of the communities they are serving.
CM: With that, thank you all for listening to this episode of the Urge to Help Podcast. While you’re here, we encourage you to further explore our Urge to Help Website and feel to reach out to our class with any questions or comments about what you’ve heard today.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
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