OLPC is a failure in one aspect, but…

Chris Blattman linked to an Alanna Shaikh post that buries the One Laptop per Child project:

It’s time to call a spade a spade. OLPC was a failure. Businessweek called it two years ago. Now, Timothy Ogden, editor-in-chief of Philanthropy Action has made a compelling argument to give up on OLPC. He points out that supporting de-worming programs has more impact on child learning than the OLPC laptops.  The laptops were designed without end-user input, they cost too much both to produce and to run, and they’re now being outcompeted by commercial laptops. Only about a million OLPCs have shipped so far.

Meanwhile, a commenter, Gansler, notes Shaikh’s rhetorical tendency:

Alanna Shaikh and I worked together. I found then, as I do now, that her rhetoric is a bit thick, a bit black and white – all is doom and gloom (though sometimes it’s awesome and bright). I find her “Dream is Over” comment very much in line with that.

While I do consider the OLPC laptop project itself rather a failure — its relentless pursuit of volume, its alienation of the teaching profession (the two are related, in a chicken-and-egg way: OLPC has to sell in spades to achieve low per-unit price; third-world educational budgets are limited; ergo some money has to be diverted from traditional, human-resource-heavy teaching approaches. Rather unethical at the very least, using thirld world students and teachers as human lab rats.

Whether it would have worked better had it targeted educational niches in the developed world — home-schooled kids, isolated rural kids wanting to collaborate with others across geographical distances, or as a supplement in general for public school education, since after all, studies /do/ show that a high proportion of US teachers are not qualified to teach their subject — is an exercise is uchronia. We’d simply never know. We do know certain things, though:

  • OLPC single-handedly removes the linkage between ultra-portability and ruggedness on one hand, and price on the other. Remember the pre-netbook days of super-expensive ultra-portables? Intel responded by introducing the Classmate, which begat the netbook, and the rest is history.
  • The OLPC user interface, Sugar, lives on in Sugar on a Stick. It’s bootable from a USB stick, can be installed, and runs on commodity hardware which are aplenty even in underdeveloped countries.
  • The amazing LCD from OLPC is being commercialized by Pixel Qi, and is coming to a laptop near you within months. Obligatory plug: I maintain a Facebook group that (attempts to) keep track of Pixel Qi announcements. Some of the videos are just simply delicious.

So I guess this is turning into a eulogy. OLPC has failures in abundance, but it is a radical, category-creating product. Negroponte could have managed it better, but he should still be able to take pride of what the project managed to accomplish. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, after all.

For those of you steeped in Judeo-Christian history, think of OLPC as the John the Baptist to netbooks’ Christ: loud, insistent, un-PC, and martyred, but a success nonetheless.

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