One Laptop Per Child CEO Responds to Flap: “We Have Achieved Our Goals”

When MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte announced to the world in 2005 that his new One Laptop Per Child initiative would produce $100 laptops for students in poor nations, the resulting hullabaloo—a mixture of shock, skepticism, and enthusiasm—went on for several years. It was impossible to build a useful computer for that price, cynics said. But it could revolutionize the way millions of children learn, supporters said.

While onlookers quibbled, the OLPC Foundation got to work, and in early 2008 it released the distinctive green-and-white XO-1, at a cost of about $180 per unit. To go with the laptop, OLPC software president Walter Bender led the creation of a Linux-based graphical interface called Sugar, as a way to organize educational content on the devices. Over the next few years, OLPC geared up to distribute millions of the devices to children in 60 countries.

At that point, the OLPC story turned into a more mundane tale about finances, logistics, and implementation. And with the release of the Apple iPhone in 2007, attention shifted to the mobile world and the rise of smartphones and tablets. For most technology watchers, OLPC’s activities went under the radar.

So it may not have sounded off-base to observers when OLPC News, a fan site that has often criticized the project’s managers, declared in a March 11 post that “OLPC is dead.” The post noted that the foundation had closed its Boston office and that Negroponte had moved on to other projects. Dozens of news sites picked up the post, quickly turning OLPC News writer Wayan Vota’s claims into an Internet meme.

The problem was that OLPC isn’t dead, as other outlets soon began reporting. In fact, the OLPC Association, the project’s operating arm, continues to run an office in Miami under chairman and CEO Rodrigo Arboleda Halaby, a Colombia native with an architecture degree from MIT and a history of collaboration with Negroponte.

In a short statement responding to the OLPC News post, the association pointed out that it’s on the verge of shipping 50,000 XO-4 Touch tablets—the latest, Android-based iteration of the OLPC vision—to students in Uruguay, and that it’s working with a group of companies in Central America to deliver more laptops to Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Honduras. The association acknowledged, however, that it’s gradually shifting its efforts away from making hardware, toward developing better educational content for existing devices. (In that sense, the OLPC hardware vision does seem to be going away.)

Xconomy contacted Negroponte and Arboleda to give them an opportunity to respond to the “OLPC is dead” proposition at greater length. Yes, the project continues, and basic computing hardware is far more affordable today than it was in 2005—but how close has the project really come to fulfilling Negroponte’s original goals?

In collaboration with Negroponte—who was on his way to Vancouver, BC, to give a TED talk on a new project to bring free satellite Internet access to 100 million people in Africa—Arboleda prepared a set of written answers to Xconomy’s queries. Below we present our questions and Arboleda’s responses in unvarnished form (edited lightly for readability).

Arboleda told us he feels One Laptop Per Child has achieved its earliest goals and has been an “outstanding success,” especially insofar as it gave the organization the opportunity to demonstrate, at large scale, the effectiveness of the so-called “Constructionist” theory of education. This learning-by-doing philosophy was developed in the 1960s and 1970s by MIT artificial-intelligence researchers Seymour Papert and Marvin Minsky and embraced at the Media Lab by Negroponte. “The idea of 1:1, or individual access to knowledge via a personal device, where the child gave instructions to a machine, rather than the machine giving instructions to a child, was so keen in Seymour Papert’s thinking that it became our mantra,” Arboleda says. “Today, the 1:1 concept is a fully accepted basic human right.”

Rodrigo Arboleda, CEO of the One Laptop Per Child Association in Miami

Rodrigo Arboleda, CEO of the One Laptop Per Child Association in Miami

In fact, Arboleda asserts that OLPC “never wanted to be a computer project” and that it only got into the hardware business after it became clear that its original commercial partners were not interested in helping to build the inexpensive hardware needed to enable 1:1 computer learning. “When all the well-known manufacturers declined to participate in the project because they felt they would cannibalize their own lucrative financial models, OLPC decided it needed to show the way, prove the concept and open the gates for anyone willing to participate, join an effort that was totally open source and free of charge,” Arboleda says.

Some of Arboleda’s statements deserve deeper scrutiny—including his assertion that OLPC is single-handedly responsible for bringing down the cost of laptops from the $1,000 range to less than $200. In fact, other manufacturers, aided by Moore’s Law, were working hard at the same time to produce low-cost hardware. But in view of last week’s one-sided news reports, we felt it would be useful to invite the OLPC leadership to sum up the project’s record, as they see it. (Meanwhile, OLPC News writer Christoph Derndorfer said in a post this week that the blog site is shutting down.)

Xconomy: The OLPC site states that 2.5 million OLPC laptops have been distributed. How close is that to the goal laid out in 2005-2006: “to provide each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop”? What are the main reasons the number is not higher?

Rodrigo Arboleda: The goal is on track to being fully realized because there is not a monopoly or sole manufacturer of the device. The mission, vision, and value of OLPC has been the notion of 1:1; the implementation of the “learning‐by‐doing” philosophy; that content is less important than learning tools; that learning at the young age to write code gives a child a better mental structure regardless of his future professional endeavors; that teaching versus learning is the true debate, [in a] “lifelong kindergarten learning environment.” Those have become universal truths.

Any impediments to achieving our goal are: commercial greed (we see this as a mission, they see it as a market), ministry of education status quo mentalities, fear about teacher union revolts (we have zero problems, since the first person to be given a free, connected laptop is a teacher). Teachers become facilitators rather than an outdated concept of teacher as that person that has some sort of a God-given revealing capacity and power.

X: To what extent do you feel OLPC’s projects spurred outside organizations to achieve some of your original goals? What evidence is there that OLPC’s activities caused equipment makers to pay more attention to the emerging world?

RA: Today OLPC is viewed as a competitor, rather than as innovators that opened a new horizon for all, never before imagined. Not only did we discover a field which they never saw—the worldwide hunger for education at young ages—but we reduced the cost of a laptop from an average of more than $1,000 to less than $200 in one sweep. (Today we are talking about the XO‐Slate, our tablet with keyboard and solar panel with Datawind for about $60!) Our fourth version, the XO‐4 Touch, is … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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One response to “One Laptop Per Child CEO: “We Have Achieved Our Goals””

  1. SvenAERTS228 says:

    OLPC is an Open Community project, so if you want to join: , make a login and soon others will take you up!