One Laptop Per Child still not changing the world enough for Silicon Valley bloggers

By Sarah Lacy , written on October 31, 2012

From The News Desk

When Nicholas Negroponte first articulated the concept of One Laptop Per Child, there was almost nothing to hate about it. A bold vision of spreading computing to the farest corners of the world, while also making huge technological strides in creating cheap, rugged laptops.

But as usually happens with startups, that lofty vision has been harder to pull off in the real world. There have been supply problems, implementation problems, cost problems, delivery problems -- all the things any hardware startup would have to grapple with. Square has, Fitbit has, Jawbone has.

But the bizarre thing is the tech press tends to forgive those companies such hiccups. But when it comes to OLPC, they pounce. The Economist and the Associated Press has trashed it, and now ReadWrite has declared the organization on DeathWatch last week.

To me, a "DeathWatch" implies a company is running out of money or in some financial trouble, but there was precious little financial analysis in ReadWrite's post. It was more of the same old harping: Not enough teachers get it, laptops sit unused, and spotty Internet connections make them useless. One problem: There was zero original reporting in making these claims. It was mostly a rehash of the Economist's examination of a failed roll out in just one country, Peru. It was called a poor return on the investment, but it was also the largest spending on OLPC. In many countries, more modest, carefully planned roll outs have gone far better and made a huge difference. But don't let that stop a story you can dramatically slug "DeathWatch."

Journalists love to be right, so it'd be easy for me to pile on to OLPC, perhaps by pointing to my article from earlier this week, stating that US-based companies that set out to help the poor rarely succeed. But that would be disingenuous, at best. Because I've actually seen OLPC laptops being used on the ground in countries like Colombia and Rwanda -- and when you see lives so dramatically changed by something, it's pretty hard to dismiss it as not world-changing enough.

But, hey, I've been cozy in Silicon Valley for a while. It's possible the devices have become less effective or the organization problems have grown. So I decided to ask someone who is actually buying the laptops putting them in the hands of children in poor areas of the world what her experience has been.

That someone is my friend and all-around badass role model Maureen Orth. When she isn't writing blistering Vanity Fair covers about Scientology, she is working tirelessly on the Marina Orth Foundation, which builds schools in rural parts of Latin America. It's a commitment and passion that goes back to her younger days in the Peace Corp.

The first time I met her -- on the ground in Medellin, Colombia -- I asked her about all the Silicon Valley criticisms of the devices kids were tapping away at all around me. She looked at me like I was crazy. She didn't particularly know or care that a bunch of eggheads didn't find the devices awesome enough. She was too busy putting affordable computers in kids' hands for the first time and watching their math, science, and language skills explode.

This is the disconnect with OLPC. For people on the ground watching the devices change lives, they don't care that parts of the original vision have been sacrificed in the name of delivering a product. Or that it hasn't somehow changed the world more. For the people in the Valley... Well, I'm not totally sure why they get so up in arms about it, when they routinely cut slack to other startups with much less lofty visions.

Orth has never seen a pile of laptops sitting unused because of a lack of teacher buy-in or Internet access. She described what she has seen to me instead: Fourth and fifth graders are reading "Tom Sawyer" and "Voyage to the Center of the Earth" on their computers, who never would have had access to the physical books any other way. Kindergarteners learning their numbers, colors, and letters on the computer, and first graders using them to design machines and later build robots. In her team's experience, the computers not only get more out of class, they motivate kids to keep coming to class in the first place because they view the exercises as games.

Some of her schools have only had the computers for two years, and yet the difference has been remarkable. The kids have made four robots in their robotics clubs, and kids even write their own blogs. At her Medellin school, over 200 families are on Facebook, thanks to the kids evangelizing the technology in their homes and parental computer classes taught at the school.

Orth says there is plenty to do on the XO that has nothing to do with connectivity, so the argument that lack of Internet makes these machines useless is an argument that sounds great sitting from the cozy confines of the Western world, but is silly for anyone who has seen them in action.

This is not to say there aren't challenges. You are sending sophisticated hardware into very poor and remote areas. Of course there are challenges. But, for Orth, the biggest one is that the school frequently only goes to sixth grade, and there is nowhere for them to graduate to with all of their skills. But that's hardly the fault of OLPC. (To support her organization and help solve more of these problems go here.)

Orth acknowledged that critics have a point about the importance of teacher buy-in for the devices to be used to their full potential. She just didn't acknowledge it was all that insightful of a point:

Teachers are very hard to get to change--we know that. We now have 1200 kids in three schools using the computers and the level of progress is tied to the teachers--duh.

I cannot imagine spending vast sums of money without proper training... It's not unlike the billions of dollars the Air Force wasted constructing jets that were too sophisticated for pilots to fly. Deathwatch is not the answer. XOs can be great tools OLPC gets this and has begun to focus more on the education process not just distributing devices. It now organizes networks of teachers that get together once a week with specialists to learn how to teach with the computers better. Something ReadWrite might know if it had asked.

The challenges around maintenance, on the other hand, have provided a silver lining for Orth's schools. Select kids become part of the Monitors Club, where they repair and maintain the computers themselves. "At age 11 or 12, some of the kids can totally take apart and put the computer back together, screw by screw," Orth says via email.

That's one of Orth's little AV experts doing repairs above. His name is Daniel Felipe Sanchez, and he's nine years old. After learning to repair OLPC computers, this little boy got a (paid) side job repairing them at his dad's factory.

Here's the problem with the hate on OLPC: Rich people in the West just can't judge what's a right and what's a luxury. The world is a diverse place and you can't calculate how a computer -- or a teacher for that matter -- will effect every single person.

I've read numerous stories written by Western news organizations that say that aid groups should focus on getting rural Indians jobs, water, and access to sanitation services, while they laugh off the idea that they might need technology. Meanwhile, on the actual ground in Indian villages, I've seen lives saved by basic mobile phones and the content delivered over them.

In lieu of hard numbers, one of ReadWrite's most "damning" statements on OLPC was that Negroponte once said you could give children laptops and then walk away. That might not be ideal, but it's also not insane. India's Hole in the Wall project pretty much proved you could.

The most disingenuous part of people hating on OLPC is the way they do it: There are few real facts. There is almost no on-the-ground experience. Instead, they bring up all of the original, lofty visions set out by Negroponte and point out where reality didn't measure up as some sort of gotcha.

As Orth might say: Duh.

Far less ambitious startups don't come close to measuring up to the original vision. No startup does. Everything is harder and takes longer to build in practice. Particularly a dirt cheap, rugged laptop that promises to change the world for every poor person in every developing country.

OLPC has certainly had some disappointments. It has come nowhere close to fulfilling the original vision it evangelized. But it's changed many, many lives. I've seen it. The Economist may deem that the effort hasn't been worth the ROI, but those children and their parents may beg to differ.

If a startup leaves the world better than they found it, I say they've won.