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Friday, 28 January 2011 07:41

LCA 2011: Is the OLPC about technology or education?

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The one question that remains unanswered after Sridhar Dhanapalan's presentation on the One Laptop per Child Australia project at the 12th Australian national Linux conference yesterday is this: is the project about technology or education?

Dhanapalan (below), the technical manager of the Australian arm, started out by emphasising that the project was all about education. His presentation was titled "Enabling connection to opportunity: OLPC Australia".

But then 95 percent of his talk was about the technology that is present in the XO1.5, one of which he used in an attempt to display the slides for his presentation.

(Maybe the fact that the organisation has changed its domain name from olpc.org.au to laptop.org.au should have told us long ago that the emphasis is on the technology.)

Unfortunately, the laptop failed to carry him through the process. A version of OpenOffice.org, apparently written specifically for the XO, appeared to be putting too much strain on the system.

In July last year, the New York Times reported: "Economists are trying to measure a home computer's educational impact on schoolchildren in low-income households. Taking widely varying routes, they are arriving at similar conclusions: little or no educational benefit is found.
Sridhar Dhanapalan
"Worse, computers seem to have further separated children in low-income households, whose test scores often decline after the machine arrives, from their more privileged counterparts." (Emphasis mine).

And three years earlier, the same august publication reported that "school officials here and in several other places said laptops had been abused by students, did not fit into lesson plans, and showed little, if any, measurable effect on grades and test scores at a time of increased pressure to meet state standards.

"Districts have dropped laptop programs after resistance from teachers, logistical and technical problems, and escalating maintenance costs."

But these kinds of reports do not find a place among the links on the OLPC website. What one does find is only sugary praise for the project.



OLPC Australia aims to put these laptops in the hands of 400,000 children between the ages of 4 and 15 in "remote parts" of the country and wants to achieve that by 2014, according to Dhanapalan.

When I asked whether all the 400,000 children targeted were Aboriginal, Dhanapalan said he did not know but that it was "easy to find out". Exactly what that meant escapes me – if he was trying to plug the project, then he should have been prepared to give some straight answers.

Nevertheless, when Dhanapalan mentioned a case study, of a place he had visited, it was in East Arnhem Land – black fella country. And all the pictures on the OLPC Australia website are of Aboriginal children.

OLPC issues targets every now and then; in February last year, my colleague Beverley Head reported that 1000 laptops had been rolled out, a little more than half the target of 1800.

And in May, another colleague of mine, Stephen Withers, reported that OLPC intended to roll out 15,000 XOs within a year. Presumably, that means by May 2011.

But then, this moving target is part of OLPC's heritage. The original flamboyant target set by the founder of OLPC, Nicholas Negroponte, was 100 million by the end of 2007 – that's one-sixtieth of the population of the earth.

By April 25, 2009, there were just 500,000 deployed or in the process of being deployed, five percent of the changed target for the end of 2007. If one looks at Negroponte's original figure, then we are looking at a 0.5 percent target achievement.

As I have pointed out before, any organisation that fails to reach its stated targets in so spectacular a manner would be dubbed a failure. Yet at that time, the OLPC Australia was still referring to Negroponte as a visionary. The press release that mentioned this was been pulled from its website.

Dhanapalan encouraged people to get involved as developers and help add more features to the software that is on the XO. But he never told his audience what educational objectives had been achieved using this laptop.

When he invited Ian Cunningham, a gentleman who works for the Northern Territory government, and offers support for the programme in Alice Springs, to speak for the last five minutes of the presentation, I asked whether there had been any study to show that laptops contribute towards education, using a control group without the laptops and utilising some common measures of learning.

Cunningham said there had been none. Yet people appear to have reached the conclusion that laptops automatically help to educate children. The FOSS community needs to do some deep thinking about the conventional wisdom that surrounds this project.


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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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