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The End of The One Laptop Per Child Experiment--When Innovation Fails.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on May 16, 2008

Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child organization admitted defeat in its effort to sell millions of open-source computers in Asia, Africa and Latin America by joining with Microsoft to load Windows XP onto its green and white laptops. The decision marks the end of the effort to spread Constructionist learning pedagogy—learning by doing—to tens of millions of poor children in villages around the world.

However you view Piaget’s learning philosophy (it works for me), the retreat from a global effort to bypass teachers, parents and the educational establishment in India, China and elsewhere to promote self-learning by children holds very important lessons for anyone interested in promoting innovation and change. The original goal of OLPC was to use open source software to connect children directly to one another and the web so they could learn from one another and directly from many sources of information. Ivan Krstic, the key software architect at OLPC, explains this on his blog. That’s the heart of

Seymour Papert's Constructionist theory of education. Open.

The problem from the very beginning was that this is a Western educational concept encased in a beautiful little childrens' laptop designed by Westerners (Boston-based Continuum and fuseproject's Yves Behar) for non-Western children and non-Western cultures and educational institutions. The education ministeries in India, China and elsewhere saw OLPC as a challenge to their authority and their abilities. After all, the rise of China and India and the lifting of half a billion people out of poverty in the shortest period of time in history is based on their existing educational institutions. They argues that with US companies chasing Chinese and Indian school graduates, why change their systems to conform to some Western ideal of learning?

And with the US moving to testing children with No Child Left Behind (with its emphasis on rote learning and teaching to the test), why experiment with the children of Asia, Africa and Latin America? So went the argument.

OLPC set a target of selling 100-150 million laptops by the end of 2008 and so far it has placed one order of 100,000 computers with Uruguay, a well-off country with middle class, not poor, children in most of its schools. Constructionism may well be better suited to these kids.

The OLPC has consistently been lauded in the US in terms of its design and its technology, not its underlying education pedagogy. But it is the pedagogy that has always been the crux of the experiment and it is the pedagogy, in the end, that proved unacceptable to governments around the world because they felt it insulted and challenged them.

The lesson here is that however brilliant the innovation, it needs to be appropriate to the context and the culture. It needs to fit in and not be imposed. And it needs coalitions, teams, to support it. In fact, in the case of education, which is extremely politically sensitive in every country, OLPC should have developed both the design of the computer and the pedagogy with the Indian and Chinese teachers and administrators, not for them.

With Microsoft's XP software now being loaded, the One Laptop Per Child XO laptop becomes just another inexpensive (the price will be around $200, double the original estimate) machine competing with Intel's Classmate and others. It's one virtue is that it will run all the educational software being produced by educators in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Reader Comments

niti bhan

May 16, 2008 3:31 PM

I don't know, Bruce. Having studied in the British, American and Indian systems of schooling, it seems to me that the learning by doing mode is more conducive to risk taking, failure and experimentation, all underpinnings of creative thinking. The Indian and Chinese education is heavily exam oriented, results focused, "what teacher says" rote based learning. perhaps some disruptive thinking would have been a good idea?

bruce nussbaum

May 16, 2008 4:00 PM

I agree with you. I'm all for Constructionism and creative learning. I never did well on tests myself and when I was in the Peace Corps, I taught in a way that was more open source than rote.
But you can't cram Western pedagogy down Asian throats--at least not these days. And you shouldn't. OLPC needed to work with the consumers of its approach--the teachers and administrators as well as the parents and kids--to implement it. It gets back to user-centric design. In this case, OLCP focussed on kids as the end-user but failed to see that teachers, parents and administrators were users as well--and gatekeepers.
I'm guessing that more creative teaching and learning will spread in India and China as they move up the value-added chain of economic development. In fact, I know there are big efforts in Chinese universities to get away from rote learning. What's happening in India?

niti bhan

May 16, 2008 4:25 PM

I've heard of private schools that emphasize 'all rounders', smaller classes and a wider range of activities than the norm but these trends are for those who can afford it. Otoh, the 'aspiring' classes are skimping and saving to ensure their kids go to 'english medium' schools where and when they can in order to go up a notch on the jobs value chain so it could be a trickle down effect since that used to be the focus earlier for those who afford these schools.

But my disclaimer would be I'm not as uptodate on what's happening in universities, if anything.

I'd say, just imho, that it might be less about X pedagogy down Y throats i.e. cultural clash and more about the shoving part? ;p Perhaps it was the top down 'we know best' aspect of it as you've mentioned earlier in your posts that rankled administrators when global results in student performance have always put their kids ahead of the pack in educational performance?

bruce nussbaum

May 16, 2008 4:38 PM

I've read somewhere that the Japanese are importing Indian schools to teach their kids the "Indian way" to success. Whatever model they are using, there is demand for Indian education.

niti bhan

May 16, 2008 4:48 PM

Yes, I can tell you that the Global Indian School branches here in Singapore are packed full and even have some Korean students.

Niti Bhan

May 16, 2008 4:53 PM

Arvind Ashok

May 16, 2008 6:27 PM

great article. while studying HCI at Indiana University, we(me and my roommate) tried to elaborate on the same point you make here - "The lesson here is that however brilliant the innovation, it needs to be appropriate to the context and the culture. It needs to fit in and not be imposed" - that design here is not design 'over there'. That there are cultural and contextual considerations that everyone needs to consider and that designers need to evolve as do design practices.
Even though the OLPC is an engineering marvel, it was supposed to be an 'education project' but it was always overshadowed and enamored with itself.

regarding education in India, being a product of its high school and college systems, I think the college system is extremely backward, restrictive and lacks innovation, very similar to high school itself. but while in high school, it does restrict waywardness, in college it destroys all the good foundations students have.


May 16, 2008 7:58 PM

"The lesson here is that however brilliant the innovation, it needs to be appropriate to the context and the culture. It needs to fit in and not be imposed"

Have you done any research at all before writing this rubbish?


May 16, 2008 10:11 PM

Bruce, having studied both in the Indian and Western (kiwi) educational systems, I have come to believe that both the systems have their strengths and weaknesses. One of the strengths of the western system is, as you have noted, the "learning by doing" approach.. its highly research oriented. However, the reason why the Indian system is so sought after, in my opinion, is because of the emphasis thats put on learning the fundamentals, using tests and exams, instead of group learning, research and discussions. In my opinion, the Indian system needs an overhaul at the college and university level; it needs to adopt some of the research and applications based learning.. and the Western system needs to probably give more emphasis on strengthening the fundamentals.

I agree with your statement that "however brilliant the innovation, it needs to be appropriate to the context and the culture. It needs to fit in and not be imposed".. collaborative development is imperative to the success of any innovation. Fit between the product and the culture and context of where it'll be employed is a fundamental requirement for greater adoption of the innovation.


May 17, 2008 1:01 AM

OK, learn by doing, but make it more user friendly! You shouldn't have to look all over the place under many topics to get to the point where they tell you how to stop the cursor from jumping and disappearing all over the place! That belongs under "getting started" right off the bat. And if a lucky kid in Peru only has that one X0, is he supposed to go back and forth between directions screens and activity screen with a jumpin' cursor? Even our Western educators would want something more "appropriate" to their culture! Though of course, they'll have two computers.

miguel brechner

May 17, 2008 1:58 AM

Uruguay is not a well-off country with middle class and no poor. We have 25% of children in Poverty.
Our program Ceibal (one computer per child and teacher) is helping us to breach the gaps in our society. Its a program of equal access, learning and technology. Its a program of participation of teachers, parents, children, voluntary work etc. Construccionism is very important and helpful, as well as software developed in our region for our needs.
We will have all kids and teachers with computers and connectivity by end of next year, (400.000), and you are kindly invited to see it by yourself the experience. Much better than writing in theory.

Which Paper D'ya Read?

May 17, 2008 2:04 AM

OLPC hasn't provided nearly as many computers to needy kids as it had hoped, or hit its $100 target price. Yet some Wow. What a different story is runing in many other news outlets. Here's a quote from the International Herald Tribune: "300,000 children are already using its XO laptops, giving them access to the Internet, electronic books, games, cameras and other learning opportunities. Another 300,000 kids are soon to receive them, too."

For a very different take on XO, go to

lynette guastaferro

May 17, 2008 2:26 AM

OLPC has exposed and driven the market for devices finally priced at a level schools can afford...

With the knowledge that there will now be a sustainable and installed base of technology in schools, it becomes possible for many to enter the market and design constructivist (or other) learning opportunities for students.

Ideally foundations, non-profits, and start-ups make this happen as text book industry is likely to continue to do something less than interesting for awhile.

We are trying...


May 17, 2008 6:40 AM

OLPC has sold and delivered closer to 600,000 laptops.

OLPC has said since day 1 that Windows XP was going to work (of course since it's an X86 machine). That's what the SD card compartment is for.


May 19, 2008 6:47 AM

How can an innovation be considered "brilliant" if it is not appropriate for the context and culture it is designed for?


May 19, 2008 2:45 PM

Lets remember that China and India aren't the only developing countries in the world. And let's remember that the OLPC laptops are engineered for children and that it's the 3rd world's governments who are are not buying. Children do not reject the laptop. That's to say that the context is a political one. Your article is wrong Bruce, because the laptop will have 2 operating systems, Windows and Linux. Which would be an appropriate circumstance for the use of the expression "value added".


May 20, 2008 3:32 PM

"It's one virtue is that it will run all the educational software being produced by educators in Asia, Latin America and Africa."

That's a virtue? The educational software being produced by educators in Asia, Latin America, and Africa is out of date and often pirated. And even if the XO *does* run all this software - it is still behind the times, and therefore so will the students be.

While I agree that any innovation has to be put into a cultural context to be valid and efficient, I disagree that pedagogy always falls into cultural context. (Sometimes it does, but here I am focused on when it doesn't.) It's not necessarily "Western pedagogy" -- it's best practice. Most educators -- even those in Asia (!) know this. India and China might be behind the times, but they are catching up. The best teachers in both those nations are surely using constructivist pedagogies -- despite what you might think, it isn't "new." It just hasn't been formally "approved" by many governments of developing nations.

Witness, Bruce, the exponential expansion of International Baccalaureate programmes in both of these countries. As an international teacher who works in this region, I can tell you (and the IB Asia-Pacific office will confirm) that philosophy shifts are happening in education in India and China by the busload (and you know how many people you can fit on a bus in either of these countries!). The government is starting to realize that to be a world player, it is going to have to produce students who are independent thinkers, globally minded citizens -- and not just those who memorize and spout out information.

If I am to follow your argument correctly, you think that the XO should be designed with rote learning principles in mind. Is this the way forward, for these children and for the world?

kip voytek

May 21, 2008 1:49 PM

It's interesting how many comments about the XO insist that there is a single crux to the project and its 'failure.' There are so many goals to the XO that are left out of most discussions: substitute for paper textbooks, light source, rugged for out-of-classroom use, easy to support and develop for, cheap, creativity programs, learning how to program. Focusing on a single aspect, the most common of which is "Sugar confused me in the five minutes I spent on the machine", misses the many points that need to be addressed in education.

OLPC tried to take on a lot, perhaps too much (see my blog entry below), but trying to view it through a single facet misses the point.


May 28, 2008 4:30 PM

Why is everyone assuming that innovation part has finished just because the products found its way to market? This is where the really interesting stuff happens, as the people using OLPC come back with their ideas and suggestions for making it better. If this process was always set up to be a one-way street then it was never innovative and always doomed to fail; launch (and a year past launch) is not the time when you find out if the project has been a success. Even if it had been wildly successful in its first two years is could have sunk without a trace inside five.

Sheesh is patience now more per barrel than oil?

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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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