Will the OLPC really work in the Third-World?

Nigerian students power up their OLPC laptops

According to today’s CNet News report:

Khaled Hassounah, director of Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program in Africa and the Middle East, has spent the last year touring schools in Nigeria. He and his team chose a school 10 miles outside Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, to deploy the company’s first child-friendly laptops in the region.

These 10- and 11-year-old students are lucky to share three books per academic subject, a clock, bell, wall calendar, and science equipment consisting of a lever. Students in less fortunate schools might share three books total. With the XO Children’s Machine, OLPC hopes young students will have the tools to shape their own education.

This idea of cheap computing isn’t completely new. Many have conceived such an idea and I had even presented a similar concept as part of my informatics program about four years ago. My idea varied in that instead of giving full-fledged computers, we’d give out re-purposed computers made into Internet appliances, specific to educational needs.

The idea was shot down by the faculty, citing that technical support would be problematic. I later posted my “Third-World iAppliances” idea in detail on halfbakery.com (5th March 2003), just to see what others thought as well. The responses were interesting and educated, and it eventually got a stale fish rating of -1 there (Haha!)

This sentiment explains why I’m particularly interested in how the OLPC plays out. If you watch the OLPC interface screencast (video), you can apparently see the Linux underpinnings in the OS, which makes me wonder if it’ll still be too complex for the less literate population.

If you’re interested to dig deeper, you can download an OS image of the OLPC and run it on your Mac or Windows PC using a virtual machine emulator (e.g. VMware). You can get the how-to and the downloads via Edgar’s blog.

Finally, recalling my personal experience on this, we’re back to the issue of technical support. Without a doubt, this would form the most laborious part of the whole program. I particularly like how Hassounah shows the students how to boot up their open-source laptops. In the photo slideshow on the CNet News site, you’ll see Hassounah instructing the students on identifying and holding aloft each of the laptop’s components, starting with the power adapter. The step-by-step instruction makes great sense to teach the children on respecting and using what would now be their personal education tool.

The real challenge isn’t the computer, but the human interaction required for the children to gain the computer-literacy they need to fully participate in local and global change.

13 thoughts on “Will the OLPC really work in the Third-World?

  1. Hey Kevin! I don’t think the real challenge is the human interaction. I’d say the real challenge is language and interest. If the kids know English and know where they can gain the reference materials for simple usage, they would be able to pick it up easily just like how all of us learnt how to use the computer. I don’t think every one of us had to go to computer class to learn how to use a computer, it was more of a trial and error thing. Having an interest in computers and awareness of the knowledge it can bring is also very important, coz if they don’t have any interest then they will never actually learn how to use a computer. (Just like how much I hate programming and never learnt it even though I have the resources to learn it)

  2. Su Yuen: It’s not computer classes that is essential. It’s true that learning by experience (and making mistakes) is important, but the key is having someone there when they need help. In my years of working in Educational Technology, sometimes just being there makes a big difference, to sustain the interest in times of trouble. That’s what I mean by technical support, to be there when it’s really needed, not to interfere. ­čÖé

  3. I’m a huge believer in the OLPC programme. I believe that together with widearea wireless networking for last-mile connectivity will change the world as we know it. Bridging the digital divide, as some say. You said it twice, but I don’t think that tech support is a problem, in fact, it’s an opportunity. The OLPC will be manufactured in bulk meaning there’s only one machine’s architecture and stock parts to deal with, that makes it relatively easy for people in the third-world countries set up businesses around servicing these laptops. Look at the amount of vendors that service open source software already, this is the same concept and will add to the country’s economy.

  4. Benjamin: This project is endearing to me as well. I have been an advocate for such an idea since I wrote about it in 2003.

    It’s not the parts I’m talking about, but the lack of accessibility to technical support. It’d be cool to see small repair businesses spawn as a result of the OLPC, but if that doesn’t happen fast enough, we’ll find a lot of OLPCs unused and chucked aside.

    Remember it’s not just the machine that needs fixing, but the people who need to build their computer literacy. That’s the softer support I’m talking about.

    As I’ve explained, I was faced with the same retort TWICE on separate occasions (in school and on halfbakery.com). This whole operation won’t solely hinge on the laptop itself, but the people who support computer users.

    Do these 10km radius districts have accessible help? These kids might not be able to travel out far so help has to go to them. Who will provide the help?

    Even though my heart does go to closing the digital divide and allowing for participation to the global conversation, my personal experience has led me to be skeptical. I’m trying to find a way to fix that rather than to assume everything will work out on it’s own.

    For instance, could volunteers go give computing aid and advice by being in an OLPC village? Being physically there makes a difference.

  5. Yea that’s a great point you made there about having a sort of “teacher” they can refer to. I checked out the OLPC website (http://www.laptop.org), and I couldn’t find any existing programs that sends volunteers to these areas for this purpose. However, they have a section where we can propose ideas, initiate your own programs or organize a program with them. ­čÖé

  6. Su Yuen: Thanks for pointing the official site out. You’re right. They do ask for volunteers but it’s strangely limited to a) educational content, b) relevant software, c) peripherals design, and d) building socializing innovations.

    Don’t they need a mentor / teacher to show them the rope and to offer help to questions they might have? I’ve taught before and just being there gives students immense peace of mind.

    Here are the volunteer proposals they let you pick from:
    a) Online, open source, wiki-textbooks, math and science projects, dictionaries, geographies, histories, social studies, health and nutrition courses, translations into indigenous languages. These materials can be customized for a particular region or group of children or for more general use throughout the XO world;

    b) Software applications not otherwise available on XO that will enhance the general usefulness of XO’s in every location. This could be, for example, educational games, collaborative and archiving tools, artistic, video and graphic tools.

    c) Peripherals that will increase the effectiveness of the XO. This may include a variety of manual battery chargers and low-cost USB peripherals that extend the ways the XO can be used to benefit children, their families and their communities.

    d) Organizational capacity building innovations that will enhance children’s learning by improving their broader learning environment and/or by enabling them to become acquainted with and interact with children from different countries and cultures.

  7. I agree with the author’s concerns regarding the need for technical support. But I’d say there is a still bigger concern – how to ensure that those kids will be able to keep that laptop with them? This initiative is for underprivileged communities – who have basic needs unfulfilled. Wouldn’t the day’s hunger force them to sell this “gadget” in gray market?

    ptc’s last blog post..Are software patents evil?

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