Tuesday, 11 December 2007

One Laptop Per Child (OLPC)

11th December 2007
14 Days to go till Christmas

tlm fact: So far in my life I've broken 9 bones although I've not broken anything for many years now so I must be less careless nowadays.

Today I'm going to talk about the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project. You might have heard a bit about this in the news but in case you've got no idea what its about I'll give you a quick brief. The idea is to give children in the developing world a $100 laptop each. Whatever you think about the idea, its certainly ambitious. The vision is to connect the developing world and therefore stop it being left behind as technology in the developed world surges ahead. In principal, I think it is hard to argue against the idea however there are plenty of arguments to be made against it, for example that money would be better spent on providing basic teaching facilities.

The OLPC project has advanced slowly and is currently in the late testing/production phase. The $100 laptop is currently the $188 laptop which is about £93. Testing has seen varying success in places like Nigeria. One thing is for sure, the children love the idea, but hey, who wouldn't? In one Nigerian school, given 300 to test, after only a few months 40 had been broken, lost or stolen.

Orders have been slow as politics and price have prevented many countries from gambling on this venture but orders have been received in the hundreds of thousands, as more orders come the price will go down and the laptop will become more available.

It is all very well giving children in the developing world laptops but it could be said that this money should be spent on providing basic education rather than throwing technology at people who are lucky if they can read. This is only one of the potential pitfalls of the project, laptops being lost, broken or stolen would be a significant problem and there would have to be some way of managing this. If you lost your laptop would it be replaced? If not, would you ultimately lose out on your education because you didn't have one? Each area would require technical support and help in these situations. Interestingly, in some test areas it is the children themselves who become the technical support by setting up workshops to fix broken laptops. To me this is part of the genius of the project and why I think it is a wonderful idea.

I remember when I first was given computer, I was absolutely fascinated. So much so that I had it in bits to see if I could work out how it worked. This was way before the Internet became popular and virtually every house had a computer. By the time I got access to the Internet I was 11, I'd just started high school and was amazed by the wonders of the Internet and email (I still have my hotmail address from then). Since then I've grown up with computers and the Internet around me, so much so that I can't imagine a world without the Internet (as lame as that sounds) and it is the connectivity that I missed most of all in the Solomon Islands. Without the Internet my life would have been SO much different, for starters, organising my elective in the SI would have been virtually impossible.

So where does this leave the developing world. Well, the reason I think the OLPC vision is so important is because I believe it will unlock a whole world of potential. We are talking here about children who might have never seen a computer before, let alone heard of the Internet. Much of the OLPC vision is focused on providing education through the laptops which is undoubtedly important, but to me, it is the potential for use at home (as the laptops are owned by the students they can take them home) which could really be the exciting part of the project. For example, the children who in the short periods of testing have learnt enough to provide support to others with broken machines. These children have the prospect of a better future ahead of them complete with technological skills. These children will pick up the how to use the laptops very quickly, and who knows, maybe the next Bill Gates is currently in school in Nigeria waiting for his OLPC to delivered so he can change the world of computing for ever. Connecting these children to the Internet gives them access to virtually anything (which is of course good and bad), educationally there can be no better resource than the Internet. At the same time, it is also open to abuse, I don't think it would take long for the laptops to become riddled with porn, violence, viruses and goodness knows what else, but strict control might be able to control this to some extent. Are the pitfalls of the Internet really a good enough reason to prevent half of the world having access to it? I certainly don't think so.

Interestingly we met a young man in the Solomon Islands who was there introducing the concept to the SI government. SI are currently testing the OLPC computers and it is countries like the SI who have the most to gain from the project in my opinion. Having experienced the SI culture, I don't know how it would be received there or what would happen if every child in Lata was given an OLPC laptop. I can only imagine how I would feel in that situation, being introduced to a whole world that I didn't even know existed. I think the children there would have a lot to gain from such a project but what they'd lose in return I'm not sure. Perhaps missbliss, having taught in the SI would be better placed to comment on this than me.

There is one exciting part of the project which perhaps solves one of the problems, (the fact that the money should be spent elsewhere). A scheme in the USA called Give 1, Get 1 (G1G1) allows Americans to buy their own OLPC at twice the normal price (which still isn't a bad deal) with another machine being provided to a child in the developing world. This pilot scheme could be the key to introducing the OLPC cheaply and fairly without compromising other educational resources. I know I'd certainly join in such a scheme if it came to the UK (and I had any spare money). I really like this idea and it seems the Americans did too as quite a number were sold under the scheme. If it were my scheme, I'd have some way of linking the machines, perhaps a unique email address for each machine which would allow the beneficiaries of the scheme to say thank you to the person who paid for the machine under the G1G1 scheme. I think this would add another dimension to the project, although again it would be open to abuse although I don't think many paedophiles would travel all the way to Nigeria to indulge their fantasies but lets not even go there!

Sure there are problems, for starters the money really ought to be spent on providing a basic education first before giving each and every student their very own laptop. There is potential for abuse, and what happens if one student loses, breaks or has their laptop broken, will their education suffer or will it just breed a generation of spoilt, jealous, technologically able evil people? Who knows, only time will tell but in my opinion, the OLPC vision is a fantastic one and one which should be pursued in one shape or another.


missbliss said...

1. We could barely connect to the Internet because a) the connection was pathetic b) the generator was mostly down c) it cost a fortune so there's no way a SI child outside Honiara would be able to use the Internet. Intranet a different matter of course.

2. In SI there are ridiculous levels of corruption. The OLPC computers would be given to corporations and government bodies, not to children.

3. On Santa Cruz there is little/no rubbish collection. Dogs are eating the rubbish inside the hospital because it isn't collected. The ground water and ground are totally contaminated because of the leaking septic tanks - remember all the flies that swarmed round the second you got some mud on your legs? People have to walk 8km to collect water from the water source because they can't afford water tanks to collect water - a luxury we had. Surely sanitation and water supply are more important than laptops?

You know I am mixed in this regard, because the OLPC chap made a strong case for them. We also saw how little ICT there was in the Solomons entire: people in government offices still using paper and ledger books. It's easy for people to fall further behind when we're able to zip off emails instantly. Aiding communication would certainly be a huge boon to developing places - but with irregular supply lines to back it up how much good can communicating do?

The laptops on Lata would be bust in no time and they'd never get fixed, face it! They can't even get bed sheets for the hospital.

Meh, I think everyone gung-ho for the project neglects to see the basic provision, alongside the lack of communication and transport links these places lack. The laptops would never end up in the children's hands, not in SI at least.

p.s. I'd be a OLPC rep if I got free trips to all the island nations in the Pacific too!

Anna said...

Great post. Really got me thinking...

My own internet addiction is getting extreme. I went cold turkey for about a week on my elective in Canada and it was horrible. I lived for Starbucks' superb connection to the Toronto city wireless network. I would worry about being without some sort of internet connection for more than 24 hours these days.

Changing the subject somewhat... I know you're a final year in the North doing PBLs, and I have a few guesses as to where exactly, but I'm more interested in your views about finals. Ours are split into 3 blocks, so I've taken one set and have another a week after Christmas, with the last lot in April. Are yours just at the end of the year? Is that good/bad/indifferent?

And what did you think of the f1 applications? I heard a nasty rumour today that my chosen school is massively over-subscribed and I'm scared...

the little medic said...

anna - Our finals are all in the same week, we have 3 different exams, an MCQ paper, an EMQ paper and an OSCE. (That is going to be one hell of a week) They are happening at the end of May I think it is.

I quite like the fact that they are all together but they're a bit late in my opinion. As of next year, all finals will be done in January to give people a change to resit in May if they fail which will allow people to start their jobs.

The other annoying thing that shadowing for my first choice deanery is well before i've even sat my finals so i'll have to arrange something separate nearer the time.

As for the F1 form, I didn't think it was that bad, it could have been a lot worse. I mean sure, its not the best system in the world but it worked pretty well for last years F1 applications and hopefully it will be ok this year. Saying that, the last time I thought something went well it actually went catastrophically so we'll have to wait and see.

There are laods of rumours flying about and quite frankly i'm sick of them. If there is one thing i've learnt in the last 4 years its not to trust a medical student spreading rumours. One girl yesterday told me that there were 5000 F1 applications for the NW deanery, if thats the case i'll eat my shoe. Which deanery did you apply for?

Elaine said...

Umm I see three difficulties here, one being the lack of power/generators in many remote areas, the second being that many children (and their families) cannot afford to get to school, never mind have a laptop, thirdly surely clean water and adequate food come first, along with health - look at the incidence of Aids in the African continent.

These points are probably not in order of importance, but are just my immediate response.

Anonymous said...

You pretty much covered my thoughts on this, in that it could be a complete waste of money even at $100 (if they get there). For those developing countries to waste so much on something they don't need would be another ethical tragedy.

So yeah, don't run before you can walk, or a similar metaphor.

Ms-Ellisa said...

I agree with you, emphasising on the fact that the money spent on OLPC should not by any chance be taken from the other educational/medical help budgets...

Other than that, I believe that it's the children of these countries who are more capable of accepting a change as fast internet connections for everyone and stuff.

As for the potential abuse, it is no more different than that of the Western countries...

PhD scientist said...

Re OLPC, agree that development of local (in villages or small towns, not in country) abiilty to repair them will be absolutely critical. Will that work with integrated circuit electronics.. tricky.

Theft, sadly, will be another tough one.

Re finals exams, I would argue they should all be in one week - essentially it is (supposedly) a multi-part snapshot of whether you are ready enough to be let loose on the patients as an FY1 doc. There shouldn't be time to "swot one bit".