Why One Laptop Per Child Is A Failure.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on September 24, 2007

There’s been one heck of a conversation over whether or not the One Laptop Per Child is a failure and I’d like to continue it with another conversation focussed on whether or not the cell phone or the computer is the best way to go in rural villages. By that I mean education and much else. Check out this story on the use of the cell phone in Africa, India and emerging markets.

Here’s a brief quote: “A mobile phone can dramatically improve living standards by saving wasted trips, providing information about crop prices, summoning medical help, and even serving as a conduit to banking services. “The cell phone is the single most transformative technology for development,” says Columbia University economist and emerging markets expert Jeffrey Sachs.

My point is a simple one. We don’t know which tool is appropriate in the villages of India, Africa and China. We may be projecting our own values in assuming it should be a laptop. What is actually happening on the ground is in these villages is surprising to us. The cell phone is the means of connecting to the web and to the outside world. It just may be that it is also key to education. I don’t know but a deep dive into the village cultures way before prototypes were placed before kids might have made a difference. As it often does in design research.

Reader Comments

Georges de Wailly

September 25, 2007 10:10 AM

Hello Bruce,
Cell phones are definitely "changing life tools". This assertion is valid whether you are in a developped country or in a fourth world one.
If you look further, this "prothesis" refers to a myth: Telephaty. Petrol powered vehicles refer to the myth of Mercury (The gods' messenger) and Icarus. Such designed products may have more chance to emerge than any other one.
Myths may be also used to design brand names. For example, I had an exercise when I was student: Find a brand name. Result: M.A.T
Refers to: Megaera, Alecto, Tisiphone for gothic/gore products. I have no example, but I guess that myth rooted products both in term of service and trademark exist. In any case, this way of designing products is really interesting from a personal point of view. It requires a huge general culture.

David Armano

September 25, 2007 9:16 PM

I just read through all the comments and I'm not convinced that this discussion shouldn't be focused around a core cultural insight. Specifically as you have eluded to here Bruce—did we just assume the laptop convention is appropriate because that's what other students use?

Know what?—innovation doesn't always come down to research. But this is an excellent question. Why assume that a Laptop model is appropriate? Or for that matter—why assume that a mobile format is the right answer?

Maybe there's another yet to be invented answer that is viable? A tablet? And what about the network? (The laptops were supposed to be the network)

This isn't a simple exercise. I certainly don't have the answer. Basically I'm just thinking aloud because this is a very important case study that relates to design, understanding users and of course business.

I'll keep following this conversation.

John Bryans Fontaine

September 26, 2007 12:47 AM

"The cell phone is the means of connecting to the web and to the outside world. It just may be that it is also key to education."

One can only write limited messages on a cell phone. Mr. Nussbaum, I am not using a cell phone to write this, and I doubt that you used a cell phone to write your article. Also, if students in this country need computers, as opposed to cell phones, to learn, why shouldn't this apply to those students in Africa, India and other poor areas?

Dayna

September 28, 2007 3:18 AM

I think that you should be considerate and cautious of the fact that your opinion has such weight and not jump to conclusions. A cell phone is not a tool for learning, it is a tool for communication which makes it a great tool for business. Until you spend the time to come up with a solution for education in these underdeveloped countries you might want to hesitate about calling something a failure. Especially when it's just now making its way out the door. I think that this is very irresponsible of you because you know how much merit is in your opinion to many people. How about you wait until it actually 'fails' before you call it a failure. And instead invest and encourage other people who are involved and closely tied to the innovation industry to invest in OLPC as well. If it fails it won't be because it wasn't innovative and potentially world changing, it will fail because people like you didn't give it a chance. Put your money where your mouth is.

Jonathan Brill

November 10, 2007 9:05 AM

Dan Klitsner, the renowned toy inventor, says that R.I.T.E. is right.

OLPC is build on great RELATIONSHIPS and IDEAS. They fall short on TIMING and EXECUTION.

The OLPC team is a global A-List of inventors who are leading an incredibly complex business without enough tactical experience at actually rolling out integrated technology platforms.

Project stage gates have been ignored, additional services have piled up, schedules have been blown. The predictable result is that financing has been pulled.

OLPC is destined to become the HBS case study of what happens when great inventors fail to put their pencils down.

These are brilliant, noble people doing an honorable thing. To correct a couple of statements in previous posts:

1. There are VERY good reasons why Nicholas Negroponte (a board member at Motorola for many years)has elected against cell phones.

OLPC is NOT a tech toy for the world's poor. It's purpose is to IMPLEMENT EDUCATIONAL DOGMA developed at MIT over the last 35 YEARS.

The goal of the device is to provide agrarian economies with an educational platform that LEAPFROGs America's outmoded education instead of mimicing it...for far less than the cost of textbooks.

Call this cultural imperialism if you want.

There is no lack of theory, observation or cultural sensitivity involved in the OPLC development program. MIT performed field research in SE Asia over a period of YEARS.

I have worked with the people building OLPC power generators at Potenco (www.potenco.com), was a childhood test monkey of Seymour Papert (www.papert.org) and lived in SE Asia for a time. I can confirm that these are SMART people, that Professor Papert knows a LOT about how children learn and that Thai kids will LOVE the Sugar GUI.

~Jonathan Brill
www.machinesforselling.com

Magali

April 8, 2008 2:10 AM

Hi everyone!

I am a graduate student at USC and me and my team are producing a show documentary about OLPC. We want to make sure we cover all sides of the issue and are looking for people to give us their perspective regarding the pros and cons of the OLPC project.

Please let us know if you are willing to comment,

Magali
mmalou[a]hotmail.com

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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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