Zunia interviewed Christoph Derndorfer, who is editor of the independent blog OLPC News, a volunteer with OLPC (Austria), a regular speaker on OLPC and ICT in education, a One Laptop per Child and Sugar Labs aficionado, and a computer science student at Vienna University of Technology.
Zunia: Let’s begin with the much discussed recent evaluation of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) by the Inter-American Development Bank. Using data collected from some 319 primary schools in rural Peru, the evaluation concludes that OLPC’s XO laptops produced no measurable gains in student achievement. What is your opinion on this evaluation?
Christoph: I think this evaluation is an extremely important effort which provides valuable contributions to the knowledge about Information and Communications Technology for Education (ICT4E) interventions such as Peru’s OLPC project. In my mind the evaluation as well as the many discussions which have resulted from it really are significant steps towards ICT4E becoming more evidence- and less faith-based.
At the same time it’s important to realize that the evaluation is still very much work-in-progress and the results published earlier this year are built on data collected a mere 15 months after the XO laptops were distributed. I therefore think that the currently available results from the evaluation are an important foundation for figuring out what is actually happening in Peru’s OLPC project, what challenges there are, and how to address them. However it would be premature to use these results as the basis for passing the final judgment on the merits of OLPC in general, or even just OLPC in Peru for that matter.
It also strikes me as noteworthy to point out that although most attention has focused on the areas where no measurable differences were found, the evaluation’s report also documents some benefits on cognitive skills. At least to me it’s unclear at this point what these cognitive improvements really mean but it’s definitely an interesting observation.
So overall the evaluation and the discussions around it are well worth reading and I personally can’t wait to see the next update from it.
Zunia: The OLPC Foundation states that its “mission is to provide educational opportunities for the world's most isolated and poorest children by giving each child a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop; and software tools and content designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning”. What kinds of indicators would you use to measure whether the project is managing to improve educational opportunities?
Christoph: I don’t think that there’s one set of indicators which is universally applicable, as the goals, available resources, and environmental variables vary significantly between different OLPC implementations.
For example in some countries improving literacy might be a high-level goal which an OLPC project should support. At the same time a country such as Uruguay - which already had very high literacy rates – decided to run an OLPC project to bridge its internal digital divide and thereby improve social equality. In the first case literacy rates might be a suitable indicator whereas looking at them in the second case won’t tell you all that much about the project’s impact. So suitable indicators for measuring impact very much depend on the local context.
Zunia: Critics argue that the OLPC Foundation’s vision has never quite materialized, and sometimes reference the price point as a key reason for this, since it has not proven feasible to sell the laptops for $100 as originally planned. To what extent do you think pricing is central to whether OLPC achieves the hoped-for impact?
Christoph: I don’t think that these days the price of the laptop in itself is all that important. Especially when you consider that based on what we know the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) figures for OLPC and similar 1:1 laptop projects in developing nations tends to range between $400 and $800 per user. So while the price difference between a “$100 laptop” and more expensive device does make a difference it’s not the only cost driver. Infrastructure, maintenance, teacher training, content and materials, community inclusion, and monitoring and evaluation efforts are what I’ve previously referred to as the 6 criteria for successful ICT4E projects in developing nations (https://edutechdebate.org/olpc-in-south-america/olpc-in-south-america-an-overview-of-olpc-in-uruguay-paraguay-and-peru/).
Getting these aspects right is critical in terms of the overall impact and also requires significant financial resources regardless of whether the device itself costs $100 or $185. Having said that, there’s no doubt that in my mind that overall OLPC’s work has had an important impact on the price of laptops – especially with the advent of netbooks which many consider to be the IT industry’s answer to the original “$100 laptop” announcement. This in itself was a significant development.
Zunia: You have been studying this initiative for a long time. How would you characterize reactions to the program from targeted communities? How would you summarize different reactions from international development organizations?
Christoph: I would say that as with any such initiative the reactions have been all over the place and include hardened critics as well as long-term fanboys. As I can’t pretend to speak for anyone but myself I’d recommend reading through the relevant academic literature and online discussions for getting a good sense of the many nuanced viewpoints along this continuum.
Zunia: Would you propose any modifications to the project to increase its impact?
Christoph: In terms of the OLPC Foundation and OLPC Association in the United States I certainly wish that they would become more of a platform for an open exchange about how to run successful ICT4E implementations. In my opinion the organizations have unfortunately been too focused on technology and sales operations in the past five years. Therefore they did not spend enough time and resources on building up the capacity to comprehensively plan, execute, document, and evaluate implementations. OLPC becoming a clearing house for such knowledge - rather than continuing to focus on hardware and software development - would not only be a major contribution towards seeing their vision realized in all OLPC implementations but also other ICT4E projects.
When it comes to the large-scale implementations such as in Peru, Uruguay, and Rwanda I’d also love for them to be more open so other countries and organizations can learn from them. Peru’s government collaborating with IDB on the aforementioned evaluation and Uruguay occasionally talking about their TCO figures are great and laudable developments. Yet I’d still like to see things such as detailed cost breakdowns, concepts for teacher training, details about Internet connectivity and maintenance systems, processes for community inclusion, and similar artifacts shared openly.
Obviously providing such documentation costs money but I’m convinced that in the mid- to long-term it would make the work of everyone in ICT4E more efficient and effective.
Zunia: What lessons from the OLPC initiative could be relevant for other ICT for Development or educational interventions? How can we learn from its experience?
Christoph: In terms of specific lessons I think that the core takeaway for other ICT4D or ICT4E efforts is that their focus really has to be on the “4D” or “4E” part of the equation rather than the “ICT”. In my mind such an approach aligns quite well with what Seymour Papert wrote more than 30 years ago in "Computer Criticism vs. Technocentric Thinking”: "The context for human development is always a culture, never an isolated technology. In the presence of computers, cultures might change and with them people's ways of learning and thinking. But if you want to understand (or influence) the change, you have to center your attention on the culture - not on the computer." So in that sense ICT can be a tool to help address inadequate education, health, etc. but it will never be a silver bullet solution by itself.
As for how we can learn from the many OLPC experiences around the world, I think that evaluations like the one from IDB, other smaller studies, surveys, and reports, and the many discussions around the initiative (e.g. on OLPC News) are good resources.
At the same time it’s also necessary to nurture a culture among practitioners, researchers, and policy makers to make better use of these resources and thereby learn from them how to do and how not to do things. Because Alan Kay is certainly on to something when he worries (lists.sugarlabs.org/archive/iaep/2010-June/011103.html) about many people in ICT4E "reinventing the flat tire". Just on a personal level I could have certainly avoided many intellectual and practical dead ends and hours wasted if I had spent more time learning from what others have done or are doing.