1/5 Of The World's Laptop Production

Before catching a flight to Cameroon, I saw Nicholas Negroponte, director of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), speak at Harvard's Berkman Center Internet and Society Conference.

To briefly summarize the talk: Nicholas described OLPC as an educational program that happens to use new technology as a means. The strategy is to give out these laptops en masse to entire countries of primary school students, allowing them to learn to read, write and count in new and exciting ways bypassing other unexciting and unsuccesful learning systems. OLPC already has contracts with several countries on a massive scale. In fact, scale is central to OLPC, and Nicholas does not see this as a gradual program, but one that will be producing 1/5 of the worlds laptops by 2010.

I came away from Nicholas' energetic talk both freightened and hopeful. After spending a year in Uganda, one thing I learned about community development in Africa is that the only thing more important than providing a means for staying alive for those in 'extreme' poverty is to work towards a system that promotes entreprenuership and self-reliance in the rest of the population.

The best long term solution for this is a revitilization of basic education. OLPC is probably a better and more exciting solution than any other that I have seen. However, there is a variable whose effect is impossible to predict. No development on such a large scale has every involved giving expensive devices to millions of children, most of whom have never had anything. This could either cause massive disruption to a struggling school system, or as Nicholas predicts, massive enthusiasm for showing up at school.

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  • This OLPC project ... I am a bit worried, as you may have suspected. Because I am very wary of any situation that may birth a dependence in Africa. But that seems not be a big issue, since the OLPC project seems to be going for free software, which the Africans can fork if they feel threatened ... okay, that's only me.

    It holds a lot of promise for more reasons than I can put in a comment (at least the way I check it). And countries like Nigeria and Libya have already signed on.
    But India says no, because that would ruin their own computer-manufacturing industry.

    Which brings me to my biggest question: where are these things going to be manufactured? America, of course. Hmm. For all the money involved, wouldn't it be nicer to base the manufacturing where the money should flow to?

    Wait. Negroponte is no commie idiot. :o)

    By Blogger The 27th Comrade, at 2:58 AM  

  • Well said, Joshua. As both an experienced educator from the South Bronx and someone currently deeply invested in improving educational outcomes for kids in Tanzania, throwing technology at kids regardless of their need won't solve problems.

    Setting aside issues of electricity, lack of broadband, and other infrastructure issues and even the ability to service the laptops (going back to your top-down vs bottoms up concerns), I urge anyone with a concern for education in developing countries to come watch a few classrooms.

    If your first instinct is to throw computers in front of 80 kids with a teacher who may not have ever visited Google, then by all means support OLPC. But if you walk away wondering about content, pedagogy, learning environments, and more, take the time to ask the hard questions about what's happening to address those needs.

    Thanks for raising this issue with a nuanced perspective.

    By Blogger Josh, at 3:23 AM  

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