Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce OLPC appears to have become a dirty word

OLPC appears to have become a dirty word

A little over 10 years ago, when the One Laptop Per Child project was inaugurated with much fanfare, there were projections that it would prove to be the saviour of the world's disadvantaged children as far as education is concerned.

OLPC had the aim of distributing 100 million laptops, one sixtieth of the Earth's population, to children. As of September last year, the figure was 2.4 million.

The target for the end of 2007 was 10 million. Actual figures were closer to 500,000, either deployed or in the process of being deployed. In the case of the Australian arm, the figures are 49,021 across 318 schools after nearly seven years.

If any business set targets of this nature and achieved similar results, it is unlikely that it would go unpunished. Yet in different guises, the organisation continues to provide employment for many people.

With one difference: the word OLPC seems to be one that even its own one-time boosters are not prepared to use.

The domain olpc.org redirects to a page that indicates the domain may be up for sale. The domain olpc.org.au, which belonged to its Australian operation, redirects to one-education.org (logo seen above). The OLPC project can now be found at laptop.org. And the domain olpc.com is being protected by someone who states: "This site is dedicated to the OLPC project. We have saved the domain olpc.com from other parties abusing it and harming the project. This site is not affiliated with OLPC."

Study after study has found that the project's aims can in no way be proven. The most recent one, in Uruguay, where 570,000 laptops were handed out, found that they did nothing to improve students' reading and scores in mathematics. Most students did not even use the computers.

In a blog about the Uruguay study, Dr Francisco Mejia, the principal evaluation economist for the Inter-American Development Bank, wrote: "The main conclusion of the paper is that the results show no impact of the OLPC program on test scores in reading and math."

He added: "...the evidence shows that computers by themselves have no effect on learning and what really matters is the institutional environment that makes learning possible: the family, the teacher, the classroom, your peers."

Dr Mejia said these results were consistent with those from Israel, Peru, Romania, Nepal and the US (North Carolina).

Yet this does not stop people from continuing to sell the machines and promising that they will help in education. In Australia, the Labor government, dogged by the failure of its own grandiose laptop program, agreed to give $11.7 million to the program in order to keep two independents, who were propping up the minority Labor government, happy.

The Australian arm of OLPC is still legally One Laptop Per Child Australia. But on the web, it hides behind the name One Education. The organisation has a link on its website to what it calls Impacts, a number of charts that are said to work best under Google Chrome. They show nothing except an error message (screenshot above).

Indeed, many websites associated with OLPC seem like wastelands which have not been tended to in recent times. The CEO of OLPC Australia, Rangan Srikhanta, has a rather recent Twitter account where he links to a second account @_OneEducation which does not exist. Even the OLPC wikipedia page is out of date.

The main OLPC site itself could do with some love. The last blog entry was in October 2014. The last entry on the press page is from October 2013 – and lots of the entries are self-generated "news".

Eleven months ago, a diehard supporter of the project, Wayan Vota, who ran a site called OLPC News, declared the project dead. A week after that, Christoph Derndorfer, another supporter, closed the site, declaring, "Today we're announcing that we have decided to shut down OLPC News. That means we'll stop publishing new content but we won't take the site offline."

But so far, we have not had any indication from the OLPC founder, Nicholas Negroponte, that the project has failed. That's the least one would expect from a man of his impeccable credentials. Nothing wrong in acknowledging failure.

Asked about why OLPC Australia was hiding behind  a different name, Srikhanta responded: "Hardly hiding. Is this any different to the case behind NETWERX? We provide a programme that is significantly different to what One Laptop per Child provides that it justifies a different brand. The paperwork required to change legal names at this stage (e.g. contracts, bank accounts, constitution, tax office) is too disruptive to justify the cost both financially and in human resources. It is something we plan to change in time, however."

He said the conclusions of studies done in Uruguay, Israel, Peru, Romania and the US (North Carolina) did not surprise him. "Good teachers improve reading and math scores. Good teachers use innovative approaches to engage children in learning. For us it means providing technology to schools where the principal and teachers want to use technology to engage children in learning. This means not issuing XOs to classrooms where teachers don't have a plan to use the XOs as part of their practice or are not ready to use it. This is what separates our approach from other organisations."

In 2009 when Srikhanta was interviewed by iTWire, he said that ACER would be doing a detailed study on the use of the XO laptops in schools. But nothing has happened since then, with the only report issued by ACER being based on a visit to a school by an individual.

"That was all that was completed – as the cost was too prohibitive to proceed at the time," Srikhanta said. "Researchers from Swinburne University and University of Wollongong have applied for an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant to fund a longitudinal study analysing the impact of our programme."

He did not specify when, if ever, such a study would be concluded. But it would surely be hurried up if Srikhanta were prepared to donate some of the $11.7 million of Australian taxpayers' money which is keeping the organisation afloat.

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.