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A Laptop in Every Hut?

On Tuesday, government officials in India rejected an offer to participate in a much-hyped project to distribute laptops costing US$100 each to the world’s impoverished children. A closer look reveals this scheme to be little more thanopen source evangelism in the Third World.

The laptop project is part of the One Laptop per Child initiative, an ambitious nonprofit effort endorsed by the United Nations to “revolutionize” education by providing every child on the planet with access to a computer. OLPC backers assume there is a universal need for every child to have a laptop, which they view as the gateway to a rosy future.

Fighting Poverty

As OLPC Chairman Nicholas Negroponte declared, “poverty can only be eliminated through education.” That may be true, but placing laptops in the hands of the global poor glosses over the lack of local training and tech support that developing nations are likely to have for their people. Perhaps that’s what some OLPC backers are hoping — especially those within the sputtering open source community.

Facing limited success in the United States, open source zealots are looking to export their ideological crusade overseas, creating a need for their commercial services by tying a new generation of young consumers to laptops running on Linux software. The Brazilian government’s well-known enthusiasm for Linux has encouraged additional foreign ventures, and a nonprofit campaign for children could be a great way to sneak Linux into every country.

Of course, a $100 open source laptop, like any other computer, will still require tech support for software and hardware issues, and it’s unlikely that OLPC backers will be equipping village elders in Africa with the operating manuals and training needed to fix computer bugs. As a recent demonstration revealed, there may be lots of bugs that need fixing.

The $100 laptop prototype exhibited last week at the Red Hat Linux meeting in San Francisco proved that the model still has loose ends — a slow bootup, no finalized battery, and unresolved interface issues. Still in the prototype stage, it may have a long way to go before engineers and designers have it ready for shipment. Facing criticism from a technical standpoint, Negroponte reiterated that the $100 laptop is “an education project, not a technology project.” Foreign governments understand that — and they’re not interested in becoming guinea pigs for his half-baked initiative.

The Laptop ‘Scheme’

As Sudeep Banerjee, India’s Secretary of Higher Education stated, his country “must not allow itself to be used for experimentation” with the laptop “scheme” on India’s children — and he’s not alone. At a UN conference last year, government officials from Africa criticized the OLPC movement, stating that it showed misplaced priorities of high-tech nations, as it was seen as a ruse to exploit developing markets. Indeed, increased technological access has a dubious impact on improving education, as the United States has proven with its federal policy of wiring classrooms to the Internet, known as “E-Rate.”

Despite more than $2 billion in annual E-Rate subsidies, federal bureaucrats can’t provide any measurable results that show E-Rate has introduced the cost-effective use of advanced technology, according to a 2005 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. A study of California schools published earlier this year by the Hoover Institution found no correlation between student performance on standardized testing and Internet access in public schools statewide.

Rebuff the Advances

Perhaps Banerjee had taken notice of America’s folly with E-Rate, as he believes that $100 laptops are “pedagogically suspect” in a developing nation that needs “classrooms and teachers more urgently than fancy tools.” He’s right, and if other countries — like China and Thailand — consider what’s really hidden in these laptops, they will also rebuff OLPC’s advances and truly invest in education success by reforming child labor laws, improving basic infrastructure, and increasing funding for schools and classrooms.

Using children’s laptops to convert the masses to the open source faith is irresponsible and self-serving. Software evangelists and elitist humanitarians are trying to fit developing nations into their own designs. OLPC supporters should listen to the needs of the world, rather than make assumptions as to what they are.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.


  • I think the point of the OLPC project using open source software and a fresh look at hardware design was to reduce the cost of entry to the modern world– not to evangelize. There’s a pretty costly engineering legacy in the computers and software we’ve developed in last 25 or so years. Does it make sense to saddle the developing world with extra legacy and "closed-source" software costs just so they can exactly copy the path taken by the developed world?
    Your main point seems to be that it’s wrong to introduce technology into the education system of a society until everyone in that society is raised from poverty and the educational systems are fully established in every other way. That’s sure not how things were done in the US (or anywhere else, really).
    So why is it better for the developing world to copy the costly technology choices made by the developed countries, than it is to copy the "best we can do where we can do it" uneven path of progress in education?

    • I find the subject article offensive. Attacking a reasonable approach to helping the Third World is shameful. Of course, OLPC is not the answer to everything, and neither is open source, but computers, networks of computers and open source are powerful tools to break the isolation of distance, language, culture, economy that holds the Third World back.
      I AM a teacher. My specialties are Maths, Science, and Computers. For many years I have taught in isolated northern communities in Canada that have problems typical of the Third World: poverty in a rich land, harsh living conditions, illiteracy, early-and-often child rearing, and cultural, geographical and political barriers. I do not hesitate one second to endorse OLPC because I have seen the effects of such use of technology here.
      My students are descended from people who, until very recently, lived a stone age existence, hunting, gathering, and trapping. They had no agriculture, few machines and few tools. How are they to compete in the modern age? Education. Any tool, such as networked computers, that can bring information rapidly and cheaply to their communities is essential. Books that I took for granted when I was young are a luxury here because of their initial cost and freight. An internet connection and PC provided by government brings the world’s library into the poorest school or home. On a few CDs or over the internet I can bring thousands of books and a search engine to folks who have not a single book at home. The value is real, obvious, and very cost-effective.
      What would OLPC be if it weren’t for open source (FLOSS)? $140+$100+$400=$640. If the initial cost were of any import, go for FLOSS.
      I recently designed a computer system for a northern school. By using FLOSS, we can provide a few computers in every classroom and office, as well as the library and lab at half the cost we could if we used that other OS and we had money left over to provide a digital library, databases, imaging, and anything the imagination of students and teachers can conjure. Go open source! A few thousand dollars of technology, one or two percent of the cost of the school building and annual budget, will make a huge difference, bringing the knowledge of generations from around the world to one little corner as if time, distance, and money did not matter any more.
      One of the reasons I teach in the north, besides helping students, and eating wild mushrooms and berries, is that, in the north, education authorities instantly recognize the value of computers and networks in education while, in the south, the bean counters treat computers as a luxury item rather than an essential element. The modern curriculum, of course, recommends using computers in schools just as they are used in the real world. You cannot do that if they are not there.

  • I AM from India and I very strongly disagree with Ms. Arrison’s reasonging in the article. I have seen quite a few deals struck here with the government where politicians were bribed to select Operating systems other than GNU/Linux. I personally have received requests from more that 5 schools to install Linux.
    It is extremely prejudiced on the part of Ms. Arrison to call the $100 laptop a self-serving vehicle for OpenSource.
    Which other organisation is willing to give computation knowledge and power for next to nothing? Its unbelievable that trying to spread computer awarness and millions of man-hours of source code for FREE can be termed self-serving.
    There is something very twisted here.

  • Ok honey, can we please try to tone down the propoganda. The second half of your article made some decent points. Throwing laptops at children isn’t a usefull aproach. It would be fabulously useful if there were people to teach with the laptops. Which is the problem with the E-Rate program. Lots of technology, not a lot of teachers who are trained enough to make use of it.
    The first half of your article though was a poorly veiled (ok forget that it wasn’t veiled at all) attack on the open source community. The "subversive" tactics you accuse us of are tactics that Microsoft has used for ages. They "generously" give huge contracts for very little money to colleges. Which of course ensures that a new generation of students will get hooked on a blue screen of death feeling and not think there are alternatives.
    When they do it it’s generous, but when we do it’s subversive. There are open source zealots. Ok to be fair most of the zealots are free software zealots even if they don’t understand the terminology and refer to themselves as part of the open source community. But we aren’t all like that. I personally spend a great deal of my time talking with my friends about what they use their software for before I recommend open source options, and I have only now for the first time installed linux on my boyfriend’s computer because the thing is too slow for any decent windows options. I AM about heterogenous environments where the right tool goes to the right problem, and AM azingly so are a lot of other people who use and advocate open source software.
    Was part of the idea to get Linux to the masses, well sure, but that’s only because Microsoft uses that exact same approach so much that we kind of have to use it to compete. Your description of the flaws in the fundamental concept of OLPC were sound, it was good writing, your mud slinging (especially preceeding the real content) is just going to piss off people and keep them from actually seeing that there is a decent writing somewhere in that head of yours.

  • Your comments about PCs as education tools, versus software agendas, are a bit superficial. What is a PC? It is primarily an information tool. What is education? Is it not the learning of information?
    Now if it is not known how to apply the tool to achieve the results, or the tool is misused, is that the fault of the tool. The PC itself is neutral to the outcome, and has no personal / political agenda.
    Education has two primary components: (1) the education of morals, values, ethics, work habits, culture etc. and (2) Academic learning. Both these are required for a successful education, and especially (1). But (1) is an environmental education, and cannot be achieved through computers. But (2) can be achieved by proper application of computers.
    So the education issue is not really about PCs, it is about overhauling the educational system itself, with people who really know human nature, and can apply effective education methods, and not just theorize about how education should be done, or substitute tools for lack of effort. In the end, the teaching itself becomes the example, and is actually what the students learn.

  • > OLPC supporters should listen to the needs
    > of the world, rather than make assumptions
    > as to what they are.
    Aren’t you making the assumptions?
    I think everyone wants better education and more information. The most cost effective way to try to improve education and bring information to people is using IT and the Internet. Now open-source isn’t an experiment, it’s the proven way to customize software for as cheap as possible.
    > eforming child labor laws, improving basic
    > infrastructure, and increasing funding for
    > schools and classrooms
    None of those investments have to be stopped or delayed by bringing a laptop to every child. Let’s solve all problems at the same time, why not, it’s not like we lack the workforce to make things better.
    Just wondering which experience the writer of this opinion piece has with computers. Do you work for Intel or Microsoft? I expect they are the ones hoping people will think OLPC is nuts. Cause that would give them more time to monopolize computers also in the third world, even though it’s not in their interest that there exist cheap computers.

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