Can One Laptop per Child Save the World's Poor?

By Warschauer, Mark; Ames, Morgan | Journal of International Affairs, Fall-Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Can One Laptop per Child Save the World's Poor?


Warschauer, Mark, Ames, Morgan, Journal of International Affairs


The One Laptop per Child (OLPC) program is one of the most ambitious educational reform initiatives the world has ever seen. The program has developed a radically new low-cost laptop computer and aggressively promoted its plans to put the computer in the hands of hundreds of millions of children around the world, including in the most impoverished nations. Though fewer than 2 million Of OLPC's XO computers have been distributed as of this writing, the initiative has caught the attention of world leaders, influenced developments in the global computer industry and sparked controversy and debate about the best way to improve the lot of the world's poor. With six years having passed since Nicholas Negroponte first unveiled the idea, this paper appraises the program's progress and impact and, in so doing, takes afresh look at OLPC's assumptions. The paper reviews the theoretical underpinnings Of OLPC, analyzes the program's development and summarizes the current state of OLPC deployments around the world. The analysis reveals that provision of individual laptops is a utopian vision for the children in the poorest countries, whose educational and social futures could be more effectively improved if the same investments were instead made on more sustainable and proven interventions. Middle- and high-income countries may have a stronger rationale for providing individual laptops to children, but will still want to eschew OLPC's technocentric vision. In summary, OLPC represents the latest in a long line of technologically utopian development schemes that have unsuccessfully attempted to solve complex social problems with overly simplistic solutions.

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The One Laptop per Child (OLPC)program is one of the most ambitious educational reform initiatives to date. The program has developed a radically new low-cost laptop computer and aggressively promoted its plans to put laptops in the hands of millions of children around the world, including those in the most impoverished nations. The program's founder and chairman, Nicholas Negroponte, has argued that children can use this new computer to not only teach themselves, but also their family members. (1)

This paper argues that the premises and approach of OLPC articulated by Negroponte are fundamentally flawed. The poorest countries targeted by OLPC cannot afford laptop computers for all their children and would be better off building schools, training teachers, developing curricula, providing books and subsidizing attendance. Middle- and high-income countries may benefit from educational use of laptops. However, this can only happen if they devote substantial effort and funding to the kinds of infrastructure development, teacher training, curriculum development, assessment reform and formative evaluation necessary for school laptop programs to work. Unlike Negroponte's approach of simply handing computers to children and walking away, there needs to be large-scale integrated education improvement efforts. (2)

OLPC's VISION

OCPC's vision is strongly shaped by Negroponte's background and views. Having been the founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Media Lab and an initial investor in Wired magazine, he is not bashful about asserting his idealistic views on the transformative power of new technologies. As he wrote in an influential 1995 book, "like a force of nature, the digital age cannot be denied or stopped." (3)

The OLPC program represents a marriage of Negroponte's digital utopianism and the constructionist learning theory of Seymour Papert, Negroponte's longtime colleague at MIT. Papert views learning as highly dependent on students constructing ideas and individual laptop computers as essential for carrying out such construction in today's world. He argues that having several students share a computer is as inadvisable as having multiple students share a single pencil. (4) In the OLPC program, Negroponte, Papert and others sought to develop and distribute a low-cost "children's machine" that would empower youth to learn without, or in spite of, their schools and teachers. …

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