Monday, December 10, 2007

Is One Laptop Per Child Insulting?


As far as I can tell, we really don’t have anyone with a broad international focus on this blog, and I wish we did (anyone want to join?). But let me say a little about a recent critique of the XO “$100 laptop” project. For those who don't know, the XO is a tiny laptop that consumes little energy, can be recharged in the field, can be easily fixed by local folks, has an incredible screen that can be read in direct sunlight, and more . . . .

John Dvorak in PC Magazine went on the attack recently, arguing that One Laptop per Child Doesn't Change the World. Dvorak notes the incredible challenges of starvation and malnutrition around the world, and then ridicules the XO project:

So what to do? Let's give these kids these little green computers. That will do it! That will solve the poverty problem and everything else, for that matter. Does anyone but me see this as an insulting "let them eat cake" sort of message to the world's poor?

"Sir, our village has no water!" "Jenkins, get these people some glassware!"

He goes on to note that:

People don't want to consider the possibility that their well-meaning thoughts are a joke and that a $200 truckload of rice would be of more use than Wi-Fi in the middle of nowhere.

Now, I’ve noted before the dangers of thinking that education, by itself, can create jobs or change economies. However, simplistic responses like Dvorak’s don’t help the situation. I am no expert on the complexities of “development” but I recently have done quite a bit of reading about it, and Dvorak’s quip completely misunderstands how challenging it is to bring economic change to incredibly isolated and disconnected areas of the world.

For example, it turns out that except in the most dire circumstances, the last thing you want to do is send a “$200 truckload of rice,” at least when that rice is from the developed world. In fact, poorer nations are increasingly refusing direct food aid. Why? Because when you flood the market with free food from outside, you completely destroy the local food production economy. And you create the conditions for more food emergencies in the future.

So it’s not so simple. And in contrast with the United States, since access to any education or any books is extremely limited, it may be that education is more likely to have some economic impact. Furthermore, in many of these areas, whether outsiders agree or not, there is an incredible desire for education for children.

I don’t know whether the XO project is a good idea or not. But snide responses like Dvorak’s simply avoid the incredible challenges involved in assisting areas that face vastly different challenges than anything we are used to grappling with in the United States.

In places where there are almost no books, it may be that solutions like the XO may make it possible for local people to engage with the vast amount of information available in the world outside, and make decisions for themselves more effectively.

11 comments:

Mike Parent said...

I am a great supporter of the OLPC project. While I admit that it alone will not end world hunger, suffering, or serve as a panacea for poverty, it is a necessary project that will help advance the third world's children. Furthermore, I don't believe Negroponte actually believes that his project will solve the world's problems - he is just doing what all other special interest groups do; bringing their agenda to the masses.

Would Dvorak have the same reaction to the multiple pet ptojects of the philanthropic world? Furthermore, to each his own; let Negroponte address this issue while countless other organizations address hunhger, poverty, and malnutrition. Are we supposed to tackle the world's problems one idea at a time? No, you address the many fronts of poverty at the same time - Negroponte is doing his part. Let the others do there's. Does Dvorak offer us a step-by-step solution to ending the world's suffering? If he does, nominate him for the Nobel.

In closing, I am a dedicated educator. Education is my business. Education is Negroponte's. Our business does not belong in the business of housing, water purification, or economic restructuring. I would hope those dedicated to those endeavors would welcome our help in tackling the world issues without our insisting that we come first. Am I making sense?

Jim Horn said...

The hundred dollar laptop may turn the poor toward the joining the worldwide conflagration of consumerism, or it may turn the poor into people who know how to build wells and grow crops. The latter is based on capitalism to solve human needs, and the other is based capitalism to create a need that, otherwise, would go unnoticed and whose solution threatens the sustainability of the planet. See Benjamin Barber's new book.

Wayan @ OLPC News said...

Mike,

I appreciate your reality check that OLPC will not serve as a panacea for poverty. Its only too bad that Negroponte believes that OLPC the only hope to eliminate poverty and create peace.

I believe his hubris overload is harming the program's goals as he comes off the fool when saying such things to Ministers - his end buyers.

Mike Parent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Parent said...

Wayan,

Thank you for the link. I believe my paradigm just shifted. That is a disappointing comment by Negroponte. Does he have some sort of Messiah complex?

I think we would all advance the cause for free, open education if we would just keep ourselves in check. As a high school administrator aspiring to be a principal or superintendent someday, I would hope that I would not think my goals and proposals would be the saviors of a school or a district. I would hope none of us would think we have the answer, the cure, or the remedy. We are but parts of the whole solution.

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Liz Perelstein said...

As I read through this blog, I too, was looking for content on international education and was surprised to find the most recent post from December 2007!

Just as watching the Japanese economy could have given us insights to help us anticipate our own economic issues, learning about the educational systems of the world can only inform US educational policy, particularly when our educational policies are adrift and when our children are growing up into a global world.

Our new tool, Global Education Explorer (www.globaleducationexplorer.com) allows for comparisons of curriculum, assessments and customs surrounding education around the world. I hope it will bring education in other countries into this dialogue.

Liz Perelstein
School Choice International

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