One Ecosystem Per Child: Walter Bender and OLPC Reunite to Enhance Learning and Grow Economies in Developing Nations

Walter Bender and the One Laptop per Child organization are back together again. The architect of the Sugar learning environment at the heart of every XO laptop, who had teamed with OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte to launch the project but split with the organization 30 months ago, saying it had lost its way as a disruptive power, is now once again an integral part of the effort. He and his Sugar Labs colleagues are teaming with OLPC personnel to deliver laptops and help create a software development ecosystem in South America and other parts of the developing world. It’s part of what seems to be a renewed push to advance the foundation’s goals of enhancing learning and to create an economic framework to help emerging nations help themselves.

This reunification was the most surprising and important thing I learned about last week when I visited OLPC board member and strategic advisor Chuck Kane in his office at MIT for an update on the organization. Bender joined us by telephone for much of the interview. The big catalyst of the reunification was Kane, who started working with OLPC three years ago. “One of the things I really wanted to do was get Walter back into the mix, because Walter was at the front end of this project,” says Kane. “When Walter left, we kept in close touch, and when it became clear that Sugar Labs would be a natural fit to our joint mission, we decided to work together again.” The renewed collaboration began about eight months ago. And, says Kane, “He’s really had an impact on our capabilities since coming back. Now it’s a joint effort again.”

“In some sense, it’s the same as it ever was,” adds Bender. After all, he notes, OLPC has never shipped a laptop that didn’t have his Sugar environment at its core—so at least on one level, “the Sugar Labs team has never stopped working with One Laptop Per Child.” Still, he acknowledges a vastly improved relationship with the organization—and says that’s because its interests seem once again more tightly aligned with his own. “What’s different,” he says, “is that there’s a much more concerted effort to get the message out that this is not just a laptop project, it’s a learning project.”

I get into more details of what brought Bender back below, and how that is going. But first, a general update from Kane about what the organization’s been doing since I last met with him and Negroponte early last year.

The short answer, says Kane: “a lot.” Indeed, at the time we last spoke, the OLPC organization was going through a round of layoffs and splitting into two main groups. That split has now been entirely achieved. The OLPC Foundation, led by Negroponte, is continuing to develop a next generation computer while also pursuing new opportunities to bring laptops to places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Gaza—parts of the world where, in Kane’s words, “our intention is to provide by way of some kind of donation computers to the children in those areas.” That work, he says, is proceeding apace—and we will have more from Negroponte in the next few days.

Chuck KaneThe other big block is the OLPC Association, which is what Kane is part of. It is basically the business end of the enterprise, working with customers—most of them so far in South America—that buy computers rather than acquiring them by way of donations. This is the side of OLPC that handles sales, manufacturing, the supply chain, and so forth. It has moved its headquarters from Cambridge, MA, to Miami, where Kane now keeps an apartment and where CEO and chairman Rodrigo Arboleda runs day-to-day operations, closer to OLPC’s biggest customers in Uruguay, Paraguay, and Peru. “Most of our rollouts have been in Latin America, Miami is the capital of Latin America, so it’s worked out very well,” says Kane. Indeed, he says, OLPC has now delivered 1.5 million of its XO laptops, and “we’ve got about a half million on backlog right now.”

Another change in this part of the organization is that, for the first time, OLPC has built in what Kane says is a “very small” profit margin to help the organization support itself in the face of waning corporate donations. Even with this extra margin, the XO is “still by far and away the least expensive computer” in the world, he says. But the price gap is narrowing between it and commercial netbooks and laptops. “Whereas our competition was very limited two years ago, our competition today is high level, from a number of computer manufacturers,” Kane says. What’s more, he says, “they are targeting the education market in a big way.”

Which in a way is where the reengagement with Bender and Sugar Labs comes in. One thing OLPC believes it can offer that most computer makers cannot—or do not—is a more systemic approach to computers and education. Beyond just getting laptops into the hands of kids, OLPC is really about using the machines for learning, and helping to create a software development community around the machines that will help sustain and grow local, regional, and even national economies.

This is the original vision of OLPC, and one of Bender’s biggest criticisms of the organization when he split with it two and a half years ago was that it had wandered away from its disruptive roots. When Bender spoke with Wade at the time, he cited a statement made by Negroponte that OLPC was going to stop acting like a terrorist group and start emulating Microsoft. “If you read between the lines, the idea is to stop trying to be disruptive and to start trying to make things comfortable for decision-makers,” Bender said then.

Bender said he planned to continue development of Sugar and grow it to other platforms beyond the XO—something he did a few weeks later by setting up Sugar Labs. In the case of OLPC, he said his own goal had two parts. One part was centered on continuing the momentum around the project. “But there’s a second piece to it, and that is, how do you actually support this in the field,” he told Wade. “That’s fundamentally a social problem, and how you solve it is an enormous challenge and one that I’m really interested in. So there is a technical piece and a social-cultural piece and both of them are passions of mine.”

So when Kane reached out and assured Bender that the commitment to the social side and support in the field was still there, his friend was eager to get more involved again.

Walter Bender“Building a learning environment is hard work,” Bender explains. “It’s a lot of fun, but to take root, it’s got to be a prolonged community effort. If you simply present it as, ‘We’re going to give computers to kids,’ the story is not adequate. The key to success is to really take a holistic approach to the servers, the infrastructure, the logistics, the software, the preparation and training, the pedagogy, and the community that is using all this stuff.”

“When OLPC goes somewhere, part of the team that comes in is drawn from the Sugar community,” says Bender. “It means that when OLPC comes into a place, the local community is not only learning, ‘Here’s how you unpack the laptops and distribute them to the schools.’ They are also learning how you use the laptops for learning, and how you can establish in your community a development team that can be part of this process.” This can involve training software engineers to develop for the open source community, as well as working with teachers and local support teams on how to use Sugar in the classroom, he says.

Once again, Uruguay seems to be leading the way in this. The country has done a nationwide deployment of laptops, and, Bender says, “established a baseline for many of the systems necessary for such a deployment, including call-center support, volunteer corps who visit schools, software engineering, documentation, curricula planning, et cetera.” In the capital of Montevideo alone, a team of more than 200 people is working on various aspects of the project. The Uruguayan effort is led by LATU (Laboratorio Tecnológico del Uruguay). And, adds Kane, “Our hope is that this same organization can be utilized in other deployments throughout the world.”

Paraguay is also emerging as a leader. Laptops have been deployed en masse in just one region, but Bender says the country has built an outstanding technical team to shape or adapt the Sugar software and auxiliary software, including a logistics support package, to meet local needs. “The most up-to-date packaging of Sugar is done in Paraguay and is being used in OLPC deployments in other countries,” says Bender. “Likewise, their logistics tools are being deployed globally.”

This kind of engagement, he says, “means the local communities really are taking responsibility for driving this forward, and that’s the only way to scale. It’s really starting to take form in a tangible way.” Computer makers might also create jobs in the developing world, “but those jobs tend to be screwdriver jobs,” says Bender. “The thing that’s happening is that there are [jobs] being created through OLPC deployments, but they’re not screwdriver jobs. They’re jobs in software development, they’re jobs in developing curriculum pedagogy, they’re thinking jobs, they’re jobs that lead to growth.

“That’s why this holistic approach is so important and why it’s so great to be working with Chuck and Rodrigo and the whole team in Miami,” he says.

So where next, I asked? Bender says that a new release of Sugar—Version 0.90—has just been released. It has a number of improvements, including dozens of new learning activities, support for ad-hoc networks, a more stable collaboration experience, and a new Home view configuration able to display more activity icons. None of the changes is dramatic, Bender says. “Our goal is steady improvement, without requiring schools to make any major changes to their current Sugar processes.” And look for a new version of Sugar on a Stick later this month as well, he says. This is a version of Sugar that fits on a thumb drive and makes it easy to boot any PC—not just an XO—into Sugar, dramatically widening its potential reach.

Finally, Bender adds, under the hood Sugar Labs continues to work both upstream and downstream with others in the open source community. “We’re in a position where we’re better able to leverage other projects in the GNU/Linux community,” he says. “It means it’s just going to be easier and easier for people to adopt Sugar and make it their own.”

For his part, Kane is especially excited about the growing support for OLPC among university students. He has made a big outreach on this front, speaking at scores of leading business schools around the U.S. and in parts of Europe. “The rooms are always packed…kids want to get involved,” he says. So last summer, OLPC launched an internship program where about 50 U.S. business school students went to Uruguay, Peru, and Rwanda and participated in deployments and educational initiatives.

“I think that there’s an opportunity to expand that in a big way at some point in the future,” Kane says, “because this generation of students really want to get involved in social entrepreneurship. They’re willing to forego the Wall Street angle and they really want to get involved in projects that give back to the global community.”

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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  • .

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    but, unfortunately, I haven’t found, so far, not even the funds to start

    .