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One Laptop Per Child - good/bad/impact?

Some of you may have heard of a program called One Laptop Per Child - the idea of giving a laptop to every child in the world. Their website is What do you think of this program, is it feasible? Should it even be a goal? Does this kind of technology really help? What are potential world benefits or drawbacks to this program..

The idea behind giving laptops to children has to do with supposedly improving their education, which is then supposed to lead to improved quality of life and a way out of poverty. I don't think anyone will contest the idea that education leads to opportunity, and increased opportunities lead to improved quality of life. So at question is whether or not giving children laptops is going to improve their education and quality of life compared with other uses of educational resources.

Several African officials believe that the OLPC program is not appropriate for Africa. In the Wikipedia article on OLPC, "Dansokho said the project demonstrated misplaced priorities, stating that clean water and schools were more important for African women, who, he stated, would not have time to use the computers to research new crops to grow. Diop specifically attacked the project as an attempt to exploit the governments of poor nations by making them pay for hundreds of millions of machines."

Wikipedia also has quotes from John Wood, founder of Room to Read, who "emphasizes affordability and scalability over high-tech solutions. While in favor of the One Laptop per Child initiative for providing education to children in the developing world at a cheaper rate, he has pointed out that a $2,000 library can serve 400 children, costing just $5 a child to bring access to a wide range of books in the local languages (such as Khmer or Nepali) and English; also, a $10,000 school can serve 400–500 children ($20–$25 a child). According to Wood, these are more appropriate solutions for education in the dense forests of Vietnam or rural Cambodia."

Wikipedia also references the Scandinavian aid organization FAIR who "proposed setting up computer labs with recycled second-hand computers as a more economical alternative. Computer Aid International doubted the OLPC sales strategy would succeed, citing the "untested" nature of its technology. CAI refurbishes computers and printers and sends them to developing countries."

These sort of top-down command-control solutions rarely have the desired effect. As with many social needs, education is best designed and implemented by local leaders that are accountable to the local people rather than some remote authority. This is one of the reasons why the US Department of Education is feckless. In the 30 years that the US DoE has been in existence, the national teacher's union (NEA) has become the primary dictator of educational standards in the country. Local control over education has been removed consistently and incrementally in those 30 years and with what educational outcome? The students of today are significantly less educated than those from the 1970s, and yet federal taxpayers are paying exponentially more per student for lower outcome education.

If we look locally at education, Milwaukee College Prep school services the same students that Milwaukee Public School system services. Except MCP spends less than $4000 per student per year, whereas MPS spends over $13,000 per student per year. And MCP students have consistently much better academic records than students from MPS. What's the difference? Command-control management and the influence of the teacher's union. MPS has so much bureaucratic overhead and corruption that it not only is not capable of providing a quality education to the students, but those in management do not care to. If they really cared to, they would break up MPS into several smaller districts that could be more effectively managed, run leaner, and respond to the actual needs of the students. But MPS is about control and power, it's not about the students or their quality of education. This is consistently indicative of the result you get from command-control top-down solutions.

As a result, I have to agree with the experts cited in the Wikipedia article that OLPC is the wrong approach and wrong solution for the needs of educating children in nations where they cannot already buy laptops and have the infrastructure in place to support the technology.