Deathwatch: One Laptop Per Child

I read this article in the new (nice relaunch btw) and it resonated with me. Long on details, this article is an interesting chronicle of a project that has been a darling of the technorati from the day it was launched, in 2005, by tech-celebrity Nicholas Negroponte. One Laptop Per Child positions itself at the intersection of powerful emotions for the tech industry, it is focused on education and more specifically to children in under-developed parts of the world, and it is based on open source principles organized through a non-profit entity. It’s the trifecta of geek passions: education, open source, and non-profit.

Watching this unfold over the years I could not help but be a supporter, but the pragmatist in me prevented me from being a contributor. The reason is simple, in an unexpected way OLPC approaches “computers for kids” in a depressing egalitarian manner, which is that they should have that which is cheap and uninteresting… a OLPC computer looks cool but features a small display, limited capabilities, and software that is uninspired, in other words it is antithetical to the broader approach that the technology industry itself approaches to the world at large.

OLPC put a premium on cheap while discounting the value of compelling content. More damning is the fact that the actual OLPC product never met the original price target that Negroponte established in his founding vision. Let’s face it, you can get a lot of computer for $200 at volume, the new Intel Classmate Tablet has a per unit retail of $200 and features more exciting hardware, software, and a distribution network to boot.

This is the fundamental flaw in the OLPC effort, they failed to anticipate the progression of hardware and software outside of the open source model, and as a result their cost/benefit advantage never materialized. Furthermore, as tangental technologies like wireless devices (smartphones, whatever) have overtaken the desktop metaphor in developed and developing countries it is a failed strategy from the starting gate to give students last generation technology. The world did not stand still while OLPC developed an inflexible platform.

At the same time, more powerful (if less rugged) hardware using standard software has come down in price and will challenge the XO in wealthier markets. Perhaps more significant, as low-cost smartphones flood the developing world, the XO will have to justify itself as more than a media consumption device. It’s highly unlikely that we’ll see many more large-scale installations.

Lastly, let’s arc up and have a conversation about the role of technology in education. Giving computers to kids and having an expectation that everything will work out is no strategy, nor is the approach that loading up classrooms with computers while retaining the same structured education model. Technology untethers the classroom from the building and that requires a different education approach than we are taking today.