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'Give One Get One' Is a Hit, So OLPC Wants To Kill It

from the misplaced-priorities dept

When the One Laptop Per Child project announced its "Give One Get One" program in September, I praised it as an opportunity to get some laptops in the hands of real users. And apparently the program has proven a big hit, raking in as much as $2 million a day in revenues. With numbers like that a normal firm would be looking for ways to expand the program. But not OLPC. While they have extended the program through the end of the year, Nicholas Negroponte is apparently anxious to phase it out after New Years, so that they can focus on a "give only" strategy. It almost seems like Negroponte believes there's something dirty about having people actually pay for his product. That doesn't make any sense. There's nothing wrong with making a profit, especially when those profits would presumably be plowed into giving away more free laptops to poor kids. Somebody has started a website devoted to talking some sense into Negroponte and the rest of the OLPC project. They advocate not only continuing to sell laptops to interested parties in the developed world, but also making the laptops available for purchase, possibly at a discount, in poor countries. This makes a lot of sense. It will allow the OLPC program to gain a foothold in countries whose governments aren't necessarily interested in buying the laptops in batches of 100,000. And it will ensure that the first laptops go to places where they'll actually be used. It's hard to see what the downside is. Negroponte will still be free to solicit government contracts, or to approach Western donors to finance larger gifts. A tech startup would be crazy to turn down an opportunity like this, and doing so doesn't make any more sense for OLPC.

It also appears that Negroponte is still bitter at Intel for introducing a competing low-price laptop. His angst seems rather misplaced. The goal is to get laptops into the hands of poor kids. If that goal is being accomplished, it doesn' really matter whose laptop ends up being the most popular. Poor countries have as much right to seek the best products they can get as anyone else. Intel has apparently used its considerable engineering resources to produce an attractive alternative to the XO. If third-world governments choose Intel's laptop over his own, Negroponte should be congratulating them for helping achieve the goal of universal laptop ownership, not griping about the fact that his product didn't make the cut. Besides, it's a big world. There are thousands of different computer models being sold in the developed world. Why would anyone think that a single laptop could possibly meet the needs of hundreds of millions of poor kids?

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Filed Under: $100 laptop, nicholas negroponte, olpc

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  1. identicon
    Jon, 27 Nov 2007 @ 11:20am

    The Realities of Technology in the Third World

    Some thoughts from a former Peace Corps Volunteer (sent to teach computer literacy in East Africa, involved in a first-of-its-kind IT Summit amongst us volunteers "actually on the ground working with IT instruction in the third world"):

    1. Technology prices don't depreciate in the third world: meaning, if an importer bought a computer for $2000 back in 1990, running Win3.1, then that computer is still in his warehouse for sale at $2000. So if the laptop has a $100 price tag (good, but still not entirely manageable for people who "survive" on $50 a month, and still have to grow their own food) it will always have at least a $100 price tag. But will people buy them?

    2. People spend their money on technology. Even when they "can't afford it". I don't have the data on me, but a study was done (and the results given to us volunteers), of the poorest peoples in the world, and what they do as their income increases. Expenditure on food/shelter stays flatline, transportation grew slightly (gas is expensive), but technology grew exponentially. Especially with the invention of cell phones and satellite TV (I've seen starving families where the father will spend $150 on a fake Motorola Razr phone). Technology is a status symbol. So what about tons of free computers?

    3. Companies donate computers all the time. Sadly, it usually just creates problems. Authority figures (ie. school headmasters) think that "getting computers will solve their problems", even if no one is trained on how to use them. There were plenty of schools that got windfall computers (or even worse, spent good money on those 286s), but they were so paranoid about them breaking, the "computer lab" is never unlocked. Students aren't allowed to use them. It seemed either they had one computer (for staff only, justified that no one student should get its benefit over his/her 2000+ schoolmates) or the school had rooms full of dusty, dying computers because no one knew how to turn them on, or use them, especially as part of curriculum. Free computers are great, but only if they come with the people trained to use them, and more importantly to main them. (Other costs: shipping. Someone has to pay for those big shipping crates. And the trucks to drive the laptops to the schools. Lots of donated computers never make it to Africa because there's no-one on the other end that can afford to pay to have them shipped over).

    4. Supplementing curriculum? With poor educations themselves, teachers don't have the requisite skills to use computers to teach. Computers require complex problem solving skills. Someone mentioned that kids can just pick up games and play them? My money's on that being in the first world. With education systems still based on rote-memorization (imagine hordes of 1st graders taking notes all day, notes that are actually just word-for-word from a textbook because the teacher doesn't know what they're doing), most students just don't have the critical thinking skills to write a paragraph in their own words, let alone use a computer. I had high school students that sadly didn't realize that they weren't even playing the game on the computer, that it was the computer running through a demo mode. Ok, so let's say they get complex problem solving skills (there are always lucky ones) they get computer literate and even know how to use computers in an education environment... what about maintenance?

    5. We watched a locally made documentary (at the Zanzibar International Film Festival) about architecture, and the one line that made all the aid workers laugh (but of course not the tourists, or the locals), was when the head architect said: "There is no word for 'maintenance' in Swahili." And it's true. People don't think in the long run, when life is so hard in the short term. Computers break down (especially in uncontrolled climates). Broken computers just take up space, gathering dust. Even "maintained computers" (say, in an internet cafe, or a lucky school), will be loaded with WindowsXP (on 64MB of RAM, the first thing to be stripped to cut costs), and so virus laden to be unusable. Ever catch the Brontok? Ever catch the Brontok from every computer in the entire country? Maintenence skills are great but not universal. Lots of times the donated computers are so proprietary (old machines with weird hardware) that there simply isn't anyone around who can fix them.

    6. Corruption. If kids aren't allowed access to anything of value already (you know, like text books), and computers have a high perceived value, kids won't have access to them. I've SEEN it.

    Bottom-line: OLPC is doing a lot of things right (low maintenance machines, rugged, cheap), but there are still a lot of systemic issues that need to be addressed before the computers will actually help people (other than making donors get the warm fuzzies). The computers need to come with trained people. The need to be cheaper/free (governments spend so little per child now, you think they're going to cough up more for computers AND actually give them to the students? Who's going to stop adults from stealing them?) The education systems need to be at least marginally successful before computer aided learning becomes viable.

    Disclaimer: Some/all of this may not apply to other areas of the world. This is from my first-hand experience (and the experience of other tech volunteers) in East Africa (though during our summit, we had information from tech volunteers the world over, especially from Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean). I say this only because it seems a lot of people talking about this are first world tech people/non-profits/politicians who only have vague speculations on life in less-fortunate countries, and so their charity becomes misdirected.

    Final Note (seriously, didn't intend to write this this morning): Also, it's not a lost cause, it's just that these "top-down" approaches tend to sound better on paper, and their implementation goes all to crap. Local non-profits reaching out do better than foreign non-profits reaching in. My school had the benefit of a German sister school that provided computers, and the training to use them. A local non-profit (V-Africa?) would take in old pcs, load them with win98 + education software, setup a rudimentary lab with a headless linux server, a printer, and (most importantly) provide technical support. They've got some nice labs going.

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