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

Steve Borsch steve at iconnectdots.com
Mon Jan 28 14:53:12 UTC 2008


Wow....this perspective really took me aback. Most on the iDC list haven't
had on-the-ground experience like you have, but several have emailed me
separately about my positive position on the OLPC as a way of staving off
permanent, intellectual poverty in an increasingly connected world. All of
that is a moot point if the basics of clean water, food, staving off
disease, electricity, and a decently fast internet connection (and a support
infrastructure as you described) aren't in place before a shiny new object
is foisted upon the populace.

Would you mind if I reprinted it in its entirety in a blog post today? It's
too good to keep confined to this list.

Steve Borsch
Direct: 952.486.7678
Email: Steve at iConnectDots.com
Blog: http://www.iConnectDots.com

On Jan 27, 2008 5:15 PM, Martin Lucas <mlucas at igc.org> wrote:

> 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 small.
>  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 resources.
>  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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