The Story of the OLPC: Kids Are the Mission Not A Market

At CES 2012 this past January the One Laptop Per Child foundation unveiled their newest model called the OLPC XO 3.0 tablet. The model shown seemed to have gained some weight and was much more boxy than the prototype hyped by OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte in 2010. (see videos at the bottom of the page for CES 2012 coverage and the 2010 announcement). The OLPC is near and dear to my heart because I was there at ISTE in 2006 when Negroponte showed off the first OLPC and then got my own OLPC as part of a charity buy-one/get-one program in 2008.

The following video, from TED 2007, highlights some very important aspects of the One Laptop Per Child program that tends to get completely missed by competing programs and tech journalists. It used to drive me nuts when John C. Dvorak or Lance Ulanoff (formerly from PC Magazine) would go off on how it’s not a real computer or what the hell are third world kids going to do with a computer. Even some supporters speculated that this could be used by third world farmers to better market their crops, or some such foolishness. Argh!

The OLPC program was born out of findings of Seymour Papert at MIT and early experiments that Negroponte did taking laptops to Cambodia in the 2000s. From Papert the realization was that using computers in education was not about teaching applications to children. It makes no sense for me to teach Word to a six-year-old, justifying it by saying that I’m preparing that student for the future job market. God help us if they are still using the version of Word that that child learned twelve-years earlier. No. Papert laid out in The Children’s Machine that the real benefit of using computers in the classroom was teaching children thinking through teaching them how to computer program (using simple languages like LOGO). The thing that came from the Cambodian experiments, that sounds very Apple-esque, is that you have to have a vision for the whole process and not reduce things to just hitting a price target. What this means is that Negroponte understood that they had to design the thing to work in the intended environments where there was no infra-structure common to the developed countries. One cannot assume that there’s easily available connectivity or power, so the device has be designed to be extremely low powered (less than two Watts), work well in sunlight, use mesh-networking to get online and be rugged. And of course the software needs to be designed for learning. Alas, Microsoft and Intel tried to undercut the OLPC by going low-cost with their Classmate PCs. Negroponte said it best when describing how this isn’t about laptops, technology or emerging markets: “This is a mission or a market.”

So, what happened to my OLPC? It sits on a shelf in my office. I wanted to use it as a kind of netbook and take it with me to coffee shops and Taco Beach so that I could do my writing when I was out and about. Two things killed that dream. The first was that I couldn’t get the thing to connect to most wifi networks. Duh, it was designed for a kind of mesh-networking that I didn’t have in 2008 in Long Beach, California. The second thing was that, even when I did get a connection, it was difficult to run more than one task at once and switching between multiple browsers screens proved to be too tedious. So, I couldn’t do the writing that I wanted to do with additional windows opened to the resources I’m using, just like what I do on my other computers. Of course, the real failure, that I’m just now realizing, is that I should have used it to learn how to program, that’s what it was designed to do and I completely biffed that one. Doh!

The following videos are related to the coming of the newer version of the OLPC recently announced, the OX-3.


My previous OLPC-related articles: