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Is Intel Better Than OLPC In Teaching Kids At The Bottom Of The Pyramid?

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on September 26, 2007

One of the hottest controversies around is that between Intel and the One Laptop Per Child Foundation over the best approach to educate poor children in rural villages in India, Africa, China, Latin America and the Middle East and the best article written on the subject recently is by Bruce Einhorn out of HongKong.

The battle pits giant Intel, a private corporation dominant in its field and searching for new markets, against non-pofit OLPC using open-source linux, a group of highly talented designers (fuseproject’s Yves Behar, Pentagram’s Lisa Strausefeld), in a high-profile effort backed by Google, eBay and AMD led by the uber-technologist Nicholas Negroponte, ex-MIT Media Lab.

The clash involves many critical issues: private vs. non-profit, closed vs. open source software and technology, big guys vs little guys, top down innovation vs. bottoms up innovation, and of course, cost of the computer tool (the XO laptop has moved up from $100 towards $200 and Intel’s “Wintel” Classmate PC has dropped from $300 toward’s $200).

But one absolutely critical issue that trumps all the others is education—how best to teach kids at the bottom of the pyramid. So far, the conversation about XO has been dominated by geek stuff, not educational stuff. The XO has mesh networking, dual mode screens, longer battery life, a fantastic Sugar interface, using it with iRobot Create. But where’s the debate over digital lesson plans in local languages, team teaching, long-distance education?

And in this discussion, Intel may be doing better than the XO. A version of Intel’s Classmate PC is already on sale in Mexico and elsewhere and it is—this is key—bundled with educational material software and teacher support. Einhorn quotes Martin Gilliland, Asia-Pacific research director for Gartner Inc. “In Mexico and elsewhere, Intel bundles its Classmates with education software and teacher-training support. “That’s something Intel needs to be credited for,” says Gilliland.

Hmm. Intel claims to be invested $1 billion in teacher education in 50 countries around the world. It says that more than 4 million teachers have been trained in its program and plans a total of 13 million by 2011.

The role of the teacher also appears to have played a role in the rejection of the OLPC program in India.

According to the Hindu News: “New Delhi, July 25. (PTI): Rejecting the Planning Commission’s idea of implementing ‘One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Scheme’ as “paedagogically suspect”, the HRD Ministry feels it would be appropriate to instead utilise the money for universalization of secondary education.

“The case for giving a computer to every single is paedagogically suspect. It may actually be detrimental to the growth of creative and analytical abilities of the child”, Education Secretary Sudeep Banerjee told the Planning Commission in a letter sent last month.

“…..We cannot visualize a situation for decades when we can go beyond the pilot stage. We need classrooms and teachers more urgently than fancy tools,” Banerjee said.

True or not, this argument is at the heart of the current discussion about the “failure of OLPC.” The XO itself is a marvel of design and collaboration function. I want one. All of my friends want one, just like they want an iPhone. But where is the input from those Indian teachers, where is the conversation about the different ways of learning in oral vs written cultures, and where are those digital lesson plans in 50 languages?

I don’t know. Maybe the rumors of the XO being able to run Microsoft Windows will be the answer. If Intel is creating educational software and training teachers, then combining Intel’s efforts with OLPC’s work makes for the optimal solution.

I dunno. What do you think?

Reader Comments

Gong Szeto

September 27, 2007 3:14 AM

The silent voice in the whole OLPC debate has been from the teachers. Let us not forget that it is the teacher that considers each student as an individual and makes judgments every day for each child as to how they are learning. Fancy graphing and plotting calculators do not make a better math student (it makes for better graphs). The teacher-student relationship is critical. I have also not heard about how to leverage the learnings in today's distance learning areas, which is more relevant than most think. But at the end of the day, I worry most about the increasing curve of complexity through technology that may be very tough to overcome at the beginning. Ask any community college of their struggles to do simple tasks like to put up a semester curriculum online. All the examples of OLPC "educational software" sound cutting edge, which is another way of saying that they are uproven. I am not entirely sure that current teaching methods are broken and that is the core issue. But how to enhance the human teacher's role in the classroom is the real nut to crack. They are as if not more underserved than the students in this raging debate. I know plenty of (higher education) teachers who bemoan that today's (first world) college students can't spell or even put a decent sentence together. And they are the ones shlepping around fancy laptops with free wi-fi all over campus. what makes a student excel? i think it is many many factors, of which "tools" are only a few of them. I really hope this Intel vs OLPC debate does not overshadow other issues that even today with all the advantages in the world, we still struggle to solve. (um, no child left behind, etc).

Laura Appleby

September 28, 2007 12:00 AM

In your column on Intel vs. OLPC, you write one piece of ill-informed, offensive nonsense (and that's putting it mildly). Yves Behar was responsible for some of the cute externals of the XO machine (even the color was chosen by OLPC's own leaders). To say he was responsible for the design would be like saying that the Prius was designed by the team that styled its skin, not the engineers who created the hybrid drive train ... or giving a Pulitzer prize for a great novel to the person who designed the book cover. A long list of extraordinary engineers from around the world have labored long and hard on this.

A challenge for you is this: there is a real problem with the English word DESIGN. It's a word that covers both the aesthetics of the Prius' tail lights ... and the hard engineering. The metal bending on cars, the placement of lights, etc., is perhaps best thought of as styling ... or in using the word "design" we need to include all the key designers, not just the one or two who did the aesthetics. Or, we need language to distinguish - both are very important, but credit is too.

Meanwhile: the XO is the only laptop on earth that has a high-res, sunlight-readable screen, dual wifi antennae, is impervious to dust, water ... operates at 10x lower power than any other laptop (including Intel's Classmate). It's the lowest cost laptop ever made. These despite the fancy plastic housing and texture, which added to the cost and did not add to the functionality of the machine - but do make it look "cool" (and that matters as well). But I'm sure you would agree that an iconic, iPod-like style matters less in a world where 1 out of 3 children don't complete 5th grade, live without electricity, and where school is held underneath a tree.


September 28, 2007 7:01 AM

Yes, let's educated them so they can grow up and take over in 20 years. That's a bright idea.... oh I'm not that serious, blah blah etc...


September 28, 2007 12:31 PM


Its not about reusing the same teaching model that already exists its about using computers systems for what they are capable of doing, reinventing current systems of teaching or whatever and creating new ones.

I'll say again and remeber google is your friend!
do you know who Symour Papert is?

all the best

Bruce Nussbaum

September 28, 2007 12:56 PM

Sorry for your misreading of my post, or my not being clear. I didn't say that Yves Behar was responsible for the entire design of the XO--the wonderful interface by Lisa Strausfeld, the great early work by Continuum and the excellent software design all went into making the XO a distinctive machine. I believe I mentioned most of this, perhaps leaving out the software design work. Sorry if it was clear to you.


September 28, 2007 1:19 PM


From the begining, we at OLPC News compared the Intel World Ahead teacher training plan with the OLPC "no teachers needed" idea and found the latter lacking.

The dream team? OLPC technology + Intel World Ahead teacher training:


September 28, 2007 4:49 PM

Laura, I am ROTFL by your final comments...

"1 out of 3 children don't complete 5th grade, live without electricity, and where school is held underneath a tree."

Exactly how is an XO going to help these kids. They don't have power at home. They don't have power in their classroom, let alone wifi. I suppose if they sat on the XO, they wouldn't get their shorts dirty.

The OLPC is so stuck on helping kids like this that they hurt them by not making the laptops commercially available. If they were serious about helping the disenfranchised, they would sell the XO commercially this Christmas for $300, allowing them to produce them in such volume that they could sell them to foreign countries at $100 each. Plus there would be so many users out there that there would be pleny of developers to actually create apps for the XO, a major problem that no one seems to be talking about.

It is clear that the OLPC people have stumbled badly on the initial launch of the XO. The only question that remains is will they be able to get the project back on its feet or will the project cry out "I've fallen and I can't get up."



September 29, 2007 5:53 AM

For a product that hasn't yet reach any consumer, we had already crucified to the wall.


September 29, 2007 7:48 AM

It would seem to me that neither laptop are all that welcome in the 3rd world. I don't think either Intel's focus on the teacher vs. OLPC's focus on the design are particularly strong selling points over each other. The simple fact of the matter is that there is lethargy and apathy in the 3rd world bureaucracies for something as unimportant as educating their own poor children. So OLPC and Intel might as well sell their wares in the 1st world, because there is nothing that motivates the 3rd world more than being left out of a particular fad that has started in the 1st world and is not being shared with them.

Terri Ducay

October 1, 2007 5:28 AM

You are often 'on-the-mark' in your writings but this time I'm disappointed on how uninformed and subjective you have been about the OLPC initiative. I'm glad you are writing but please do your homework. Until then I'll continue to FIRST read the string of commentaries which are much more informative and objective.

Bruce Nussbaum

October 1, 2007 1:14 PM

We're having an incredibly informative conversation on OLPC, raising important questions about design and education. Can you tell me what I've been missing in my comments?


October 5, 2007 9:49 AM

Bruce, lovely article. I have been involved in the OLPC project in Nigeria and your article hits the right points on the challenges and the issues.
Intel vs OLPC is a battle that is still being waged in the heights of government decision rooms right now and nobody is still quite sure which model will deliver.
I am working with OLPC 4 Nigeria to define a new model that will not make the laptop the focus, but rather create an ecosystem (learning environment) where teachers and pupil can interact with digital content just like they would have oral and written content. A model that will make it possible to transfer knowledge from single or multiple knowledge centers to teachers and pupils without the limitations of distance or the difficulty of dealing with logistics of transport.
The truth is technology can really help solve problems in countries like Nigeria. Communication can move knowledge around the country where it was difficult to do it before due to the limitations of transport etc.
The challenge is to get this knowledge into digital form, customized for teachers, and pupils.
If such an environment were created, the laptops will only merely replace the textbooks and exercise books that these pupils and teachers already use... and in the final analysis, I don't think those end up being cheaper than the laptops themselves.

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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