Why did One Laptop Per Child fail?

Over at UN Dispatch, Alanna Shaikh has a thought-provoking eulogy for Nicholas Negroponte’s fizzling One-Laptop-Per-Child program: Americans wanted the OLPC. We fell in love with its tremendous promise and adorable shape. (note: I own an OLPC) We were the first market it conquered. OLPC launched a give one-get one promotion that let individuals pay $400 ...

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581198_090909_olpc22.jpg
In this picture taken, 16 January 2008, students work on their One Laptop per Child (OLPC) laptop at Vasti Vidhalaya- a Marathi medium school at Khairat, in Karjat district some 75 kms north of India's financial capital of Mumbai, . 22 children from the Khairat school have been gifted the USD 100 laptop weighing 850 gram, as part of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) non-profit organization's India pilot study. With the help of the OLPC laptop these children though studying in a vernacular language, can write words in English, draw and paint, learn maths (through the addition, subtraction, multiplication and division tools), play memory games, chat, and even prepare projects using the internet. The OLPC laptop project financially supported by individuals, businesses and foundations aims at a constructive model of education, where the child is exposed to tools other than their regular syllabus and the pilot study, which was launched last year, is the first of its kind in the country, and if successful, will be expanded to cover three million rural children. The OLPC project mission - a brainchild of Nicholas Negroponte-currently on leave from MIT, where he was co-founder and director of the MIT Media Laboratory, is to ensure that all school-aged children in the developing world are able to engage effectively with their own personal laptop, networked to the world, so that they, their families and their communities can openly learn and learn about learning. AFP PHOTO/Pal PILLAI (Photo credit should read PAL PILLAI/AFP/Getty Images)

Over at UN Dispatch, Alanna Shaikh has a thought-provoking eulogy for Nicholas Negroponte's fizzling One-Laptop-Per-Child program:

Americans wanted the OLPC. We fell in love with its tremendous promise and adorable shape. (note: I own an OLPC) We were the first market it conquered. OLPC launched a give one-get one promotion that let individuals pay $400 to donate one laptop and receive one for themselves. It was a huge success, except that OLPC wasn’t set up for that kind of customer order fulfillment. Laptops arrived far later than promised, and several thousand orders were simply lost.

Over at UN Dispatch, Alanna Shaikh has a thought-provoking eulogy for Nicholas Negroponte’s fizzling One-Laptop-Per-Child program:

Americans wanted the OLPC. We fell in love with its tremendous promise and adorable shape. (note: I own an OLPC) We were the first market it conquered. OLPC launched a give one-get one promotion that let individuals pay $400 to donate one laptop and receive one for themselves. It was a huge success, except that OLPC wasn’t set up for that kind of customer order fulfillment. Laptops arrived far later than promised, and several thousand orders were simply lost.

Once the laptop finally started arriving in the developing world, its impact was minimal. We think. No one is doing much research on their impact on education; discussions are largely theoretical. This we do know: OLPC didn’t provide tech support for the machines, or training in how to incorporate them into education. Teachers didn’t understand how to use the laptops in their lessons; some resented them. Kids like the laptops, but they don’t actually seem to help them learn.

It’s time to call a spade a spade. OLPC was a failure. …

As Shaikh suggests, OLPC is a classic case of a development program more tailored to the tastes and interests of its funders, than the needs of the people it was supposed to help. Back to the drawing board. 

PAL PILLAI/AFP/Getty Images

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

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