[iDC] One Laptop Per Child - MIT/Negroponte Initiative

Martin Lucas mlucas at igc.org
Sun Jan 27 23:15:36 UTC 2008

One Slate per Child

I have been reading with interest the discussion of the ‘hundred- 
dollar laptop’ and the One Laptop per Child initiative as I sit in  
Malawi, a small landlocked Southern African nation lodged between  
Mozambique, Zambia, and Tanzania.  According to Wikipedia, the OLPC  
effort has its philosophical base in the idea that children with  
laptops will be able to do a certain kind of thinking that isn’t  
possible without the computer - exploring certain areas -  
particularly in math and science where computer access offers a  
qualitatively superior learning experience.  Making such machines  
available at low prices should allow developing countries to bridge  
the ‘digital divide’, and leapfrog learning. Countries that have  
signed on include Uruguay.  India has given a definite no.  Either  
way, the OLPC initiative is an aspect of ‘development’ even ‘IT for  
Development.’  How does the initiative square with the reality of a  
small African nation?

  Malawi - whose 13 million people have an average life expectancy of  
37 years, 14% of population with HIV/AIDS, and a GDP of about $600  
per person - usually rates near the bottom on any scale of  
development.  Over 80% of the people are subsistence farmers, growing  
barely enough maize, what Americans call corn, annually to sustain  
their families if they are lucky.  They often aren’t.  Any  
fluctuation in commodity prices, the weather, the availability of  
inputs such as seed or fertilizer can mean starvation. The economy  
has followed a downward trend for years.  Development gurus shake  
their heads.  Malawi’s exports are tea, sugar, tobacco, and corn, all  
of which must be hauled overland on very bad roads to Mozambican or  
South African ports.  The natural mineral resources that make other  
African countries attractive to foreign investment are not part of  
the picture here. The capitalist path of industrial development  
leading to the pot of gold at the end of the economic rainbow is not  
one that Malawi will take any time in the near future.

  But Malawi has a few plusses.  For one, a successful transition  
from a dictatorship to a multi-party state. [One cynical friend  
suggested that the lack of resources has been a plus here, as there’s  
little to fight over.]  Malawian society is not notably corrupt,  
which puts Malawi in the class of what George Bernard Shaw once  
called ‘the Deserving Poor.’ Foreign donors contribute hugely to the  
local economy.  A large percentage of the 5000 registered vehicles  
here are shiny SUVs sporting the logos of projects of the UN, the US,  
the EU.

  In fact, I am here in Blantyre, Malawi’s second city and the  
commercial capital, to help set up the video wing of a NGO that  
produces radio programming.  Although television has existed here  
since 1997, it is not at all widespread.  Radios are everywhere, and  
Story Workshop produces some of the most popular programs in the  
country, with high quality production on themes such as gender-based  
violence, food security, and HIV/AIDS awareness.  With commercial  
media penetration so limited, the impact of this social-issue media  
is quite high.  Everywhere I go, people seem to follow Zimachitika  
with a focus on AIDS, Kamanga Zula, which deals with youth and gender- 
based violence, or one of the other weekly shows. [See  
www.storyworkshop.org]  As the titles of these programs suggest, they  
are in Chichewa, the national language.

  As a media production operation, Story Workshop is advanced as any  
place in Malawi in terms of communications technology. There are  
about thirty employees.    Laptops are not universal, but about half  
of the staff are issued one for work.  As a perk, they can take the  
machines home. There is a local area network, several desktop  
machines, for office and media production use.  And of course, there  
is a connection to the Internet.  The bandwidth is so miniscule that  
the early dial-up modems of dim memory seem lightening-like in  
retrospect.  Although email works fairly well, downloading an image  
or a pdf file is a project.  Nonetheless, a slow link is vastly  
different from none.

  What about other media?  Malawi is home to a lively and fairly  
independent press.  While circulation rates are not high, every issue  
of the 2 national dailies is read (in English) by many people.  With  
no advertizer base, magazines are non-existent. There is one state  
television station of distinctly mediocre quality.  Middle-class  
people can pick up South African satellite broadcasts using dbs  
dishes. For the rich about US$80 a month will get you some 100  
channels of global content.  The media picture follows the post- 
globalization dictum that every First World city now has a Third  
World city in it, and every Third World city has in it one of the  
First World.  This is certainly true here, where crowded townships  
contrast with the vast compounds of the well-to-do strung out across  
the hilltops the treeline filled in with satellite dishes large and  

  In this rather thinly populated media landscape it is worth noting  
one area where communications technology is burgeoning. Cell phones  
are to Malawi what Coca Cola once tried to be in the US: iconic and  
ubiquitous.   The average Malawian has only sporadic access to clean  
water; electricity and paved roads are a rarity.   While some might  
think infrastructure projects are a higher priority, they depend on a  
socio-economic base and a level of state intervention that lie in the  
future.  In the meantime, individual Malawians are busy linking  
themselves up to one of the three competing cell phone networks.   
While Malawi had about 100,000 landline phones in 2005, there were  
already some half a million mobile phones according to the CIA  
Factbook.  And this number is growing rapidly as cell coverage is  
extended around the country.

  While the landline telephone system is rather antiquated  (the  
national phone book includes instructions for how many times to turn  
the crank on your phone to get the operators attention) the mobile  
phone industry features current technology. In a recent interview on  
the BBC Africa Service with the head of Celtel Malawi,  the director  
touted his network’s effort to grid the country with towers even in  
roadless areas where the company blazes tracks to build its towers,  
and then hires villagers to staff them.  My experience suggests that  
the coverage outside the main cities is still unremarkable, but the  
advertizing is extremely widespread.

  ‘Join our World!’  ‘Let us connect you!’ shout the slogans in  
yellow on bright red backgrounds painted on walls, on the sides of  
trucks, on umbrellas, tee shirts and billboards.

  More intriguing than the hard sell of a large well-supported  
corporate campaign are the ad hoc local efforts to create support  
systems for cell phone usage.  Typical are the tiny ramshackle wooden  
shops, ironically similar in size and shape to the telephone booths  
of another era in Europe and North America.  Here small entrepreneurs  
haul a lead oxide car battery charged at the local garage.  For a  
miniscule fee users can plug their cell phones in at this ‘charging  
station’.  These small local efforts to create communications  
infrastructure speak to the central place the ability to communicate  
holds for Malwians, even in what looks like a situation where logic  
might dictate other priorities.

  After all, this is a very poor country.  Almost no one buys a full  
tank of gas here, and cell phone cards are ‘topped up’ at the filling  
stations by customers who don’t even own a bicycle.  On the main  
streets of Blantyre and along the highways women in red vests and  
parasols come to the car window to sell you minutes, , or or wait  
patiently sitting in little kiosks like miniature outdoor cafes  
perched in the otherwise muddy marketplaces.

  For Malawians on all economic levels cell phones hold the gloss of  
the new.  I am shown an iPhone, imported at great expense by an IT  
firm.  The employee told me they were waiting for the hack to come  
any day.  People often have two phones, one for each of the major  
networks, or as another young tech-savvy user showed me, a cell phone  
from Dubai capable of handling two sim cards.  Malawian mobile  
etiquette seems to dictate that almost any activity, particularly a  
meeting, can be interrupted to take a call.

  All of this interest in cell phones is set against a backdrop of a  
country where few of the basics can be taken for granted.  I visited  
a pre-school.  Although it is inside the city limits, the locale is  
hardly easy to get to.  I engaged a taxi for about US$30, about a  
week’s pay for a middle class person.  [A local might expect to pay  
half what I do.] This is the rainy season, and the dirt road is just  
on the edge of what is navigable for a regular passenger car.  The  
building the children use has a leaky tin roof.  The outhouse in back  
has actually collapsed in the rain, as had several shops (built from  
mud bricks) along the highway nearby in the torrential rains.

  The thirty or so children live in the neighborhood.  About half-a- 
dozen of them are AIDS orphans in foster homes.  All of the children  
wear extremely old used clothes.  The home-made wooden blocks at the  
pre-school seem to be some of the only toys they have encountered.   
The kids are listless compared with children in other parts of the  
world.  USAID statistics suggest that a terrifying 40% of Malawi’s  
children are malnourished, and will grow up stunted both physically  
and mentally.  There is no electricity.  Lunch is cooked with  
charcoal.  A piece of furniture is pulled out from in front of one of  
the few windows where it is blocking the rain, in order to give me  
light to photograph.  The children are served ‘nsima’, Malawi’s  
mainstay, a kind of corn meal mush, like polenta without the flavor,  
and a meat stew, a special treat.  One of the women who brings the  
food laments the fact that the local mothers who are hired to run the  
place set aside food for themselves before they feed the children.

  Anyhow, it is hard to know where the laptop fits in this picture.   
Children can and do buy paper exercise books and pencils.  It is  
tough to keep them, or any printed matter, in huts where people sit  
on the floor, where furniture is scarce, and water and dirt are  
everywhere.  As it is, although there are schools, text books are  
rare. Schools with electricity are also uncommon.  Because the  
classes are so large, well over 100 each in the public schools  
according to informed sources, school desks are also not practical.   
And many classes end up under a shade tree as an alternative.

  What is appropriate communications technology for an educational  
situation here?  In terms of social context, Story Workshop, in  
conjunction with organizations such as UNICEF, works with schools and  
NGOs to develop ‘radio listening clubs’.  These are groups  that meet  
to discuss the issues raised in broadcasts on the social topics  
mentioned above.  The groups get reading matter related to the shows,  
tee shirts and in most cases a radio for the group to listen on, as  
well as on air recognition and interaction.  This model is a tried  
and true one in Southern Africa, going back to before independence,  
and creating a viable context for the technology and the content,  
content generated by Story Workshop writers using extensive time in  
the field talking to villagers.

  One component of a critical assessment of the OLPC initiative, or  
of IT products, involves a critique of a Western technology-based  
answer to social problems in societies already living with a long  
legacy of Western solutions. While the version of colonialism  
practiced here was not extremely vicious by the standards of some  
other African countries, it was hardly benign. Early settlement was  
commercial, and the resulting economy, where big estates own 40% of  
the arable land, is a clear legacy.  The anti-colonial struggle’s  
early heroes here include John Chilembwe, a teacher influenced by  
George Washington Carver who started a doomed armed rebellion with a  
few hundred followers after spending years trying against odds to set  
up schools and economic development projects.  Independence wasn’t  
ultimately much better. The dictator Hastings Banda provided some  
real benefits for farmers, but he was one of the only African leaders  
to ally himself with apartheid South Africa and he retained the  
colonial economy.

  In the forty years since the end of colonialism growth seems  
limited.  Yet new communications technology is penetrating rapidly.   
The rapid adoption of cell phones is intriguing.  Unlike the  
situation in other countries, I haven’t seen big signs of social  
projects such as the SMS job bank in Nairobi, or the cellphone videos  
for AIDS awareness in West Africa.  Nevertheless, this wholesale  
adoption of mobile phone technology in a decidedly low tech  
environment shows that Malawians can and will take on new  
communications technology, finding workarounds for their lack of  

  What is clear that, like television before it, with new mobile  
phone technology, the medium is perceived as the message.  The cell  
phone is the voice of a new world, of a modernity acquirable in a way  
that leapfrogs the difficulties of creating the infrastructure and  
institutions of contemporary industrial society, however interpreted.

  These social implications are not perceived as culturally  
determined, or rather, the advent of ‘Western’ communications  
technology is perceived either as a neutral benefit, like the way a  
paved road is better than a dirt one, or as part of the new world of  
modernity in the way that drinking a Coca-Cola is ‘better’ than  
eating a local mango, for instance, or even drinking a local ‘Soba’  
softdrink. In otherwords, as far as I can see, the culture critique  
is not taken seriously on a ground level.

  Another African critique of the OLPC initiative follows a line of  
thinking based on infrastructure priorities.  Marthe Dansohko from  
Cameroon, speaking at the World Summit on the Information Society in  
Tunisia in 2005.

  "We know our land and wisdom is passed down through the  
generations. What is needed is clean water and real schools."

Very few trouble-free networks of any kind exist here in Malawi.   
Water and electricity are available but subject to outages.   
Transport is expensive and difficult. UNICEF, for instance,   
distributed a school book by using a South African company for  
printing and another South African company for distribution to get  
copies to every school in the country with information about issues  
such as child labor. In general UNICEF  makes it a policy to work as  
closely as it can with government structures in order to develop  
capacity, but, I am told, any effort to distribute through the  
Education Ministry would be doomed to failure.

Where does this type of critique meet the desire of visionaries like  
Negroponte who are motivated in their efforts to promote the One  
Laptop per Child intiative by constructionist theories of learning  
that suggest that children will engage in problem-solving,  
particularly around math and science issues, in a whole new way given  
early access to computers?   For me, one question to ask emerges from  
looking at a broader context of pedagogical theory.  Negroponte says  
“It’s an education project, not a laptop project.”

Right away, it is possible to suggest that inquiry-based learning is  
independent of a specific technology.  In fact, computers and  
internet access guarantee little in the way of critical thinking.    
In a new program, children in New York City are taught inquiry-based  
methods of interacting with IT-based data by school librarian media  
specialists, who promote critical thinking and an ability to evaluate  
information as an antidote to the rising tide of a ‘cut-and-paste’  
mentality.  In otherwords, by meany measures access to IT has ahad a  
stultifying effect on independent thinking.  Instead of real research  
and evaluation most students are happy just to ‘google it.’

  I had the opportunity to discuss the OLPC initiative with an  
educational consultant working with the Malawian Ministry of  
Education.  She told that the Ministry of Education is in the middle  
of rolling out a new curriculum for primary and secondary education  
that has been five years in development.  While the curriculum is  
vast and complex, at its heart lies an effort to move away from the  
time-honored rote learning methods of another era and take a step  
toward a curriculum that encourages students to evaluate information  
and think for themselves.  One aspect of this curriculum is a new  
emphasis on pedagogical interactivity rather than verbal repetition.   
As support for this idea, the curriculum group suggested that the  
Ministry of Education make a slate, a chalkboard smaller than a  
normal sheet of writing paper, available to each beginning first  
grade student.  The cost would be about One euro per slate.  There  
are approximately one million first graders each year in Malawi, so  
the initial cost would be about one million Euros, or about US$ 1.4  
million.  The Education Ministry said this kind of money is simply  
not available.   In this context cheap laptops, unless they come  
free, with extra money for distribution, curriculum development,  
teacher development, maintenance and repair, are destined to be as  
ineffectual as any other type of aid that does not integrate properly  
into the society it is designed to help.

While laptops are not commonly given out as aid in Malawi, as  
mentioned above several initiatives have been developed with involve  
giving out radios.  Here again, taking into account both the social  
realities at hand and the relationship between communications  
technology and pedagogical goals seems key.  I mentioned a successful  
example, the radio listening clubs, above.  One less successful  
initiative is a so-called interactive radio initiative sponsored, I  
am told, by USAID.   Some 80,000 radios, of the South African windup  
design are being given out, enough to have as many as ten in every  
school in the country.  The idea is that teachers will play a program  
in class.  The trouble lies in the program content, which is the old  
fashioned type where a voice will be saying ‘2 time 2 equals…..’    
and the students are supposed to chime in with ‘four!’  Here the  
level of ‘interactivity’ is so minimal as to be meaningless, and  
seems to amount to communications technology being employed in the  
service of a hierarchical and ineffective model of pedagogy.  In  
fact, I find out, the project is based on one in a neighboring  
country where many children are not in school at all, and was  
originally thought of as a substitute for school where classroom  
instruction was not available.  In Malawi, most children are actually  
in a school situation, just not an adequate one.

All this is not to say that a $100 laptop might not be useful here.  
Superficially, this is a country that is moving rapidly into the IT  
universe.  The city of Blantyre is crammed with Internet cafes.   
Flash memory is easily purchased at the supermarket.  Signs for IT  
firms of all sorts cover the city walls.  Universities offer degree  
programs in computer science and media production.   A paper  
assessing the country at the time of a recent national holiday  
mentioned about 800 or so students a year might expect to enter an  
institution of higher learning here.   Here, one could imagine, an  
inexpensive laptop might be useful.  Agricultural extension workers,  
whose ranks were decimated as part of a 90’s structural adjustment  
program, do use laptops, and that use, which leverages their small  
numbers, could be much more widespread.  Small businesses as well  
might benefit from affordable computing power.

While more laptops might mean more Malawian geeks, IT culture is  
definitely here already.  Shafik, who does networking and  
configuration at an IT firm recalls his boss calling a company in  
Miami  to order a server.  The guy in Florida, after getting the  
delivery address in Africa, said something like, “Do you know what a  
server is for?”  “Of course,” replied the Malawian, “You just hang it  
in a tree and run wires to it.” Another young media company employee  
told me how he had cracked the security on a South African satellite  
signal decoder with an ingenious (and more or less legal) hack that  
forced the company to completely reprogram the device.

I guess my sense is that the high tech end of Malawian society is  
growing apace.  The OLPC Initiative is at least an interesting  
gedenken experiment, a chance to bounce around ideas about society  
and communications tech.  In a society otherwise based on  
agriculture, it is hard to know where this could all lead.  Could  
Blantyre become a second Bangalore?  A back office for corporate  
customer service operations attracted by people speaking reasonable  
English at miniscule salaries.

For me at least, it might be said that from a grass roots point of  
view, the OLPC intiatives has some of the flavor of a typical  
totalizing solution.  While there is little doubt in my mind that  
Malawians will benefit from low cost IT tech and pedagogical support,  
these can only be a factor in a complex social-technological  
equation, not a panacea.

The future of media tech in Malawi has several defining components.   
One is the advent of a consumer culture where desire is embedded in  
high-tech objects.  This is symbolized by the recent arrival of the  
first shopping mall in Blantyre, with its huge supermarket, and its  
‘Game Shop’ full of electronics, appliances, hardware toys and  
clothes.  Here we see laptops and cellphones as an aspect of  
consumerism, as style in a society whos industrial base is pretty  
much restricted to processing agricultural products.

The next is the notion of ordinary users, ‘the multitude’ pulling  
tech in the direction that they want. In the West, ordinary users  
have redeployed many devices such as videocameras, or computers, and  
pulled development in directions not necessarily considered by  
corporate or academic planners. Although mobile communications  
technology is brought to Malawi with the help of investors eager for  
profit, the people here ‘vote’ for cell phones; they find a way to  
learn the technology and help to make it viable in a variety of ways.

A third component is the capitalist logic of IT, which dictates  
businesses will have computers, LANs, printers, wifi etc. Although  
presented deterministically, the classic notion of commodity  
fetichism suggests that real social struggle is a hidden component of  
a package presented as the neutral sum of human knowledge.  
Nonetheless, Malawians in business and government are confronted with  
building and learning a typical modern IT environment.

A fourth factor is the progressive wing of the NGOs, with their  
social agendas, their funding priorities, and their efforts to  
promote social communications.

Finally, the Malawian government has some control and some defining  
influence on behalf of the nation of Malawi in terms of the nature of  
media and communications in the country and its role in defining  
citizenship, sense of self, etc.  This is understood quite  
critically.  For instance, government use of the national radio to  
attack an opposition party was criticized with specific reference to  
Radio Mille Colines in Ruanda.

All these groups and forces influence the development of a  
communications and IT ecology in this marginal but very fertile  
landscape, suggesting the difficulty of defining a problem, and any  
possible solutions, when talking about the specific implementation of  
any IT-based project.

On Jan 13, 2008, at 8:26 AM, Andreas Schiffler wrote:

> Brad Borevitz wrote:
>> it may be worth comparing this initiative to another big price  
>> breakthrough
>> in the news: the $2500 car. the consequences of this development are
>> potentially huge: culturally, environmentally, etc.
> Makes US wonder why we pay 10x as much for a car (with interest  
> probably
> 15x) without getting - as far as I can tell - 10x more car.
> On the OLPC discussion, there is a lot of press lately:
> "One Laptop Per Child Project Extends to American Students"
>     http://www.pcworld.com/article/id,141298-c,notebooks/article.html
> I would be interested to hear how "the third reason" for this
> (ad)venture would be implemented.
> Maybe one could have a "global mesh" for people who are on the more
> ubiquitous Internet with their device and don't need the "village  
> mesh".
> Very interesting social networking problem.
> "SimCity Source Code Is Now Open" so a version will make it onto the
> OLPC soon (a stated goal):
>     http://developers.slashdot.org/developers/08/01/12/1846256.shtml
> Personally I love these kind of games, so does my son. But is it
> appropriate teaching material?
> "Intel Employee Caught Running OLPC News Site" is a nice one too:
>     http://www.siliconvalleysleuth.com/2007/01/olpc_blog_draws.html
> I guess one can't put much trust in "the blog" because it is just too
> easy to publish.
> --AS
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