One Laptop Per Child CEO Responds to Flap: “We Have Achieved Our Goals”

3/20/14Follow @wroush

When MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte announced to the world in 2005 that his new One Laptop Per Child initiative would produce $100 laptops for students in poor nations, the resulting hullabaloo—a mixture of shock, skepticism, and enthusiasm—went on for several years. It was impossible to build a useful computer for that price, cynics said. But it could revolutionize the way millions of children learn, supporters said.

While onlookers quibbled, the OLPC Foundation got to work, and in early 2008 it released the distinctive green-and-white XO-1, at a cost of about $180 per unit. To go with the laptop, OLPC software president Walter Bender led the creation of a Linux-based graphical interface called Sugar, as a way to organize educational content on the devices. Over the next few years, OLPC geared up to distribute millions of the devices to children in 60 countries.

At that point, the OLPC story turned into a more mundane tale about finances, logistics, and implementation. And with the release of the Apple iPhone in 2007, attention shifted to the mobile world and the rise of smartphones and tablets. For most technology watchers, OLPC’s activities went under the radar.

So it may not have sounded off-base to observers when OLPC News, a fan site that has often criticized the project’s managers, declared in a March 11 post that “OLPC is dead.” The post noted that the foundation had closed its Boston office and that Negroponte had moved on to other projects. Dozens of news sites picked up the post, quickly turning OLPC News writer Wayan Vota’s claims into an Internet meme.

The problem was that OLPC isn’t dead, as other outlets soon began reporting. In fact, the OLPC Association, the project’s operating arm, continues to run an office in Miami under chairman and CEO Rodrigo Arboleda Halaby, a Colombia native with an architecture degree from MIT and a history of collaboration with Negroponte.

In a short statement responding to the OLPC News post, the association pointed out that it’s on the verge of shipping 50,000 XO-4 Touch tablets—the latest, Android-based iteration of the OLPC vision—to students in Uruguay, and that it’s working with a group of companies in Central America to deliver more laptops to Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Honduras. The association acknowledged, however, that it’s gradually shifting its efforts away from making hardware, toward developing better educational content for existing devices. (In that sense, the OLPC hardware vision does seem to be going away.)

Xconomy contacted Negroponte and Arboleda to give them an opportunity to respond to the “OLPC is dead” proposition at greater length. Yes, the project continues, and basic computing hardware is far more affordable today than it was in 2005—but how close has the project really come to fulfilling Negroponte’s original goals?

In collaboration with Negroponte—who was on his way to Vancouver, BC, to give a TED talk on a new project to bring free satellite Internet access to 100 million people in Africa—Arboleda prepared a set of written answers to Xconomy’s queries. Below we present our questions and Arboleda’s responses in unvarnished form (edited lightly for readability).

Arboleda told us he feels One Laptop Per Child has achieved its earliest goals and has been an “outstanding success,” especially insofar as it gave the organization the opportunity to demonstrate, at large scale, the effectiveness of the so-called “Constructionist” theory of education. This learning-by-doing philosophy was developed in the 1960s and 1970s by MIT artificial-intelligence researchers Seymour Papert and Marvin Minsky and embraced at the Media Lab by Negroponte. “The idea of 1:1, or individual access to knowledge via a personal device, where the child gave instructions to a machine, rather than the machine giving instructions to a child, was so keen in Seymour Papert’s thinking that it became our mantra,” Arboleda says. “Today, the 1:1 concept is a fully accepted basic human right.”

Rodrigo Arboleda, CEO of the One Laptop Per Child Association in Miami

Rodrigo Arboleda, CEO of the One Laptop Per Child Association in Miami

In fact, Arboleda asserts that OLPC “never wanted to be a computer project” and that it only got into the hardware business after it became clear that its original commercial partners were not interested in helping to build the inexpensive hardware needed to enable 1:1 computer learning. “When all the well-known manufacturers declined to participate in the project because they felt they would cannibalize their own lucrative financial models, OLPC decided it needed to show the way, prove the concept and open the gates for anyone willing to participate, join an effort that was totally open source and free of charge,” Arboleda says.

Some of Arboleda’s statements deserve deeper scrutiny—including his assertion that OLPC is single-handedly responsible for bringing down the cost of laptops from the $1,000 range to less than $200. In fact, other manufacturers, aided by Moore’s Law, were working hard at the same time to produce low-cost hardware. But in view of last week’s one-sided news reports, we felt it would be useful to invite the OLPC leadership to sum up the project’s record, as they see it. (Meanwhile, OLPC News writer Christoph Derndorfer said in a post this week that the blog site is shutting down.)

Xconomy: The OLPC site states that 2.5 million OLPC laptops have been distributed. How close is that to the goal laid out in 2005-2006: “to provide each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop”? What are the main reasons the number is not higher?

Rodrigo Arboleda: The goal is on track to being fully realized because there is not a monopoly or sole manufacturer of the device. The mission, vision, and value of OLPC has been the notion of 1:1; the implementation of the “learning‐by‐doing” philosophy; that content is less important than learning tools; that learning at the young age to write code gives a child a better mental structure regardless of his future professional endeavors; that teaching versus learning is the true debate, [in a] “lifelong kindergarten learning environment.” Those have become universal truths.

Any impediments to achieving our goal are: commercial greed (we see this as a mission, they see it as a market), ministry of education status quo mentalities, fear about teacher union revolts (we have zero problems, since the first person to be given a free, connected laptop is a teacher). Teachers become facilitators rather than an outdated concept of teacher as that person that has some sort of a God-given revealing capacity and power.

X: To what extent do you feel OLPC’s projects spurred outside organizations to achieve some of your original goals? What evidence is there that OLPC’s activities caused equipment makers to pay more attention to the emerging world?

RA: Today OLPC is viewed as a competitor, rather than as innovators that opened a new horizon for all, never before imagined. Not only did we discover a field which they never saw—the worldwide hunger for education at young ages—but we reduced the cost of a laptop from an average of more than $1,000 to less than $200 in one sweep. (Today we are talking about the XO‐Slate, our tablet with keyboard and solar panel with Datawind for about $60!) Our fourth version, the XO‐4 Touch, is an example: it is a dual screen (full color back‐lit when working inside a room; monochrome, reflective screen when in full sunlight) combined now with touch‐sensitivity and with dual booting between Linux and Android.

All these complex, heavy-duty tasks are managed by an ARM dual core processor that consumes less than 2 watts of energy. All this keeps all of those commercial companies in awe and on their toes. By adapting to the needs of children in communities where electricity is not so available, where there are even no schools but they learn under a tree, the need for a screen that can be read in full sunlight and with low energy consumption is more important than what commercial companies want to sell. A better example of success is hard to find.

X: The OLPC News post points to a sense among some observers that the project is winding down. “The great excitement, energy, and enthusiasm that brought us together is gone,” the OLPC News writers said. Why do you think Wayan Vota and his colleagues would feel this way?

RA: We never wanted to be a computer project. We are educators, advocates, contrarians, disruptive innovators. We are becoming more hardware agnostic, more operating systems agnostic. We want to concentrate on fostering our philosophy of a Constructionist approach to learning, rather than continuing to perpetuate the Instructionist approach that has been the norm for 150 years. We want to contribute to making Internet access a basic human right. We want every child of 5 years of age and up to learn how to write code.

As to why some people out there attack us? Who knows? The world is full of leaders/creators/doers and of followers. I choose to believe that there are some individual followers who so desperately want OLPC to continue on its path of evolution/revolution, disruption and creation that any course adjustment, reimagining of or impediment to that mission is felt as major blow. Nothing could be farther from the truth, but I understand their desire to see us continue to lead as they watch.

X: The OLPC News report focused heavily on the XO‐1, saying it’s near the end of its product lifetime, with things like tech support and spare parts hard to come by. In your mind, does the success of the overall project hinge on the percentage of XO‐1s still working today? When you started distributing the XO‐1, did you have an idea of how long the devices might last? What is the intended lifetime of the XO‐4 tablet?

RA: You are talking about two different things: the XO‐1 laptop, which now is in the fourth generation, the XO‐4, and the XO‐4 Touch. The only thing common to both is the award-winning clam‐shell. Internally, they are totally different. In the Touch version, we have a complete new dimension of user experience. It is the best hybrid between an iPad and a Kindle, it is the best hybrid between a Linux operating system and Android. Can you imagine a better combination for a child nowadays?

As far as the XO Tablet, this is a Google certified Android 7-inch device, intended for either pre‐kindergarten and kindergarten environments in some countries or to be used in the U.S. and European retail markets, with 200 apps, and 200 classic children’s books, half of them in English, half of them in 5 other languages (Spanish, French, Italian, German, Portuguese). It is to be sold to governments and to the public in general.

We do have XO‐1 and XO‐1.5 working well after 5 years in countries like Rwanda, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Paraguay, to name a few. Nicaragua, especially, has a fantastic way of keeping them in good condition. After the school year ends, they take them back to HQ, clean them, get them repaired, and given back to the same child the day school opens. All of the above at a very low internal cost and at zero cost for the child. We have upgrading kits, so versions 1.5 can be converted to versions 1.75. The extended life of the XO has been a very satisfying experience.

X: In a March 12 post on the OLPC blog, staffers say the organization is “thriving and making more inroads” and cited the Zamora Teran alliance, distributions in Costa Rica and Uruguay, and the Smithsonian partnership. What other examples, data, or plans can you share to illustrate how OLPC is doing?

RA: The Zamora Teran family group of companies and philanthropic foundation (created exclusively for the OLPC Project) is a powerful group of banking, insurance, dairy and cattle processing companies and fast food retail outlets spanning Central America. At their own expense and with some donations, they have delivered more than 30,000 laptops in Nicaragua, and have joint versions of that model in Costa Rica with the Quiroz Tanzi Foundation for several thousand laptops and similar projects in Honduras.

The idea from now on is to promote public‐private partnerships, including NGOs, as the best practice for success. Few governments alone can do it. Private sector entities alone cannot either. The triangle of development is the combination of the three sectors: private, public, NGOs. This is the way we are pushing and in which we are thriving. By being a non‐profit we have a power of convocation and a capacity to call things by their name that no commercial company has. Our constituencies are the children of the world, not any shareholders looking for dividends as is the case otherwise.

X: Looking back on your experiences, what are the key lessons learned? What is the overarching challenge for the world of connected devices and education, especially in emerging countries?

RA: We never foresaw the incredible opposition we would encounter from commercial entities. When a commercial entity acquires 90 percent market share of any product or service, they tend to feel entitled to that position of privilege. They view any opposing idea as a threat to their dominance and hegemony, and they react viciously, mercilessly, with the only intention in mind of crushing any potential future questioning of their privilege. But in the end, they do not hurt a non‐profit foundation like ours, they hurt a generation of children that see their dreams and aspirations delayed.

The challenge is to change the mindset of cultures, bureaucracies. Most of that has to do with the lobbying efforts of commercial entities that whisper into the ears of governments that “size matters,” or “more and bigger is better.” A child in a remote village of sub‐Saharan Africa does not need a 256 GB hard drive, or a heavy, 10-inch screen-size laptop. The readability of the screen and the low energy consumption are more important concepts to apply. This is why we are teaming up with companies like Datawind in order to keep moving prices down, so the base of the pyramid is expanded. This is the way to fulfill our dream of incorporating 1 billion children left in the medieval obscurantism in which generations of their ancestors have lived, into the 21st century as effective members of a global society. What Nicholas announced Monday at TED on the occasion of their 30th anniversary is precisely the type of advocacy we should and can do.

The world needs a group like OLPC to maintain a healthy balance between commercial interests and human interests. Seven years ago, Nicholas proposed at the ITU in Geneva the idea that Internet access in public schools in the world should be free of charge because that could be considered a basic human right of children in today’s digital world. They almost crucified him there. All the telecom companies saw the writing on the wall about their profits plummeting and revolted angrily. Well, today, Facebook is promoting Internet.org (whom we happily have joined). They have 1.3 billion subscribers. We were advocating, from the very beginning, a solution to 1+ billion children. These orders of magnitude make of us ideal advocates. These are worldwide movements. This is the arena where we belong. This is where we thrive and grow.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • SvenAERTS228

    OLPC is an Open Community project, so if you want to join: http://www.wiki.laptop.org , make a login and soon others will take you up!