Foreign Policy Blogs

Will the XO Laptop Change the World?

There are a lot of XO laptop reviews out there. David Pogue's in the New York Times is very good, as is the one in Laptop Magazine (which features commentary by an 8-year-old). Either of these reviews will give you an excellent rundown of the XO's technical capacities. My son's has been in the house for a week now, and I think it's a wonderful machine. I’m impressed with the attention to detail in the physical utility of the device like the spill resistant keyboard and the low power consumption screen that is easily read in sunlight. The software is also intuitive and easy to use – with the exception of a game called Turtle Art that I can't understand at all. My son is too young for the XO (he isn't two yet, and infants are NOT recommended as users) but he loves it just the same. The XO logo that looks like a child fascinates him and the overall design sucks him in. It's a smart piece of technology designed purposefully for children in the developing world. Projects like this don't come around often enough.

The purpose of this review isn't to review the physical device, however. I want to talk about the One Laptop Per Child initiative (OLPC) and whether or not it is likely to really accomplish its goals. Set aside for a moment whether it is really feasible to get 150 million XOs to children around the world. Even if they did that, would it make much of a difference in education? I don't think so. There are several problems with the OLPC's project model that make it unlikely to achieve any significant changes in the developing world.

The biggest problem is that OLPC sees its role as building, selling, and shipping computers – nothing more. Ministries of education and the children themselves are responsible for servicing the computers and incorporating them into classroom curricula. These are huge tasks. How often do you call tech support for your PC at home, or get help unjamming the photocopier at work? I do all the time. New technologies generally require more tech support, because the bugs haven't become known and the users aren't as familiar with them. As far as I know there is no reason to think the XO won't face the same issues. Despite this, OLPC has only a limited capacity to provide tech support for the machines they sell. After a few months this service will not be available. Without a training program to prepare local people to provide technical support, the XOs will become useless very quickly.

Teacher training is perhaps more important than technical support. Without it I have little confidence that the XO laptops will ever be seriously used in schools. The XO's software package is user friendly, yes, and a good wiki is available to guide users through its paces, but that doesn't really help a village teacher use it in his or her lessons. I’ve played around with the software – a paint program, a word processor, a web browser, some games, a calculator – and for most of them it isn't really obvious how they can be used in a classroom setting. Teachers will need some guidance to get started. When my Iowa elementary school first got computers, we didn't use them much. Even when my high school received limited internet access, none of my teachers incorporated the web into their classes. They had lessons that they knew worked, or at least that they were comfortable with, and didn't see any reason to change them. There were some early adopters in the school who instantly had the vision to use the new technology, but they were not the norm. It took more time for the others to catch up. I’m afraid that without tech support the XO laptop won't last long enough for everyone to see the technology's advantages.

There are other problems with the OLPC project model. Cost is an issue. A $100 a laptop is inexpensive, but one million of them – not a hug number for large countries- would cost $100 million, which is an enormous amount of money for most Ministries of Education to spend, even with foreign donor assistance. The distribution model that relies on local governments is simple to administer from the US, but ignores capacity and corruption issues that are all too common when a large amount of money is being spent. A more diverse model of mixed government and NGO distribution would be more likely to succeed. There is no monitoring or evaluation component, making it impossible to tell if the project is succeeding in its broad educational goals. But none of these issues compares with the lack of tech support and teacher training in OLPC.

The purpose of this post isn't to attack OLPC. They have serious issues that I think they should address, but I also think the initiative has great potential. Increasing connectivity for children in poor countries can have a huge number of societal benefits – many of them not directly related to education. In the future I’ll write about the potential for information technology to build peace, promote health, and encourage economic growth. The XO's outstanding ability to find wifi and connect to other XOs makes it a perfect platform for these activities. OLPC, however, is not trying to use the computers that way. My concern is that the use of information technology in international development is a relatively new field, and it is likely to take some time before that side of the OLPC initiative is fully realized.

In pursuing their single, innovative, world-changing idea – a $100 laptop, OLPC seems to be ignoring half a century of hard-earned knowledge on how to implement development projects. By incorporating this knowledge they can ensure that XO laptops have an immediate impact during the innovation process.



Kevin Dean

Kevin Dean is a graduate student pursuing a master's degree in international conflict management and humanitarian emergencies at Georgetown University. Before returning to school in Fall 2006, he spent six years working in the former Soviet Union - most of that time spent in Central Asia. He has managed a diverse range of international development programs for the US State Department and USAID. He has also consulted for several UN agencies and international NGOs, and is fluent in Russian. Kevin is originally from Des Moines, Iowa and studied Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Iowa.