Tuesday, January 15, 2008

OLPC staff ignoring local context

As a followup to my earlier post on OLPC, see Alexandre Enkerli's response and then the following Q&A taken from a discussion forum on an OLPC fan website. Someone was preparing for an interview with OLPC Chief Connectivity Officer Michail Bletsas, and I suggested a few questions. But if the report of Bletsas's answers is correct, his lack of responsiveness to important issues is disappointing.
  • Q. Africa has by far the lowest internet diffusion, for a variety of reasons, and the WHO has created a CD-ROM distribution network and the hard-copy Blue Trunk Library program in part to compensate. Is OLPC partnering with WHO or other NGOs for creative ways to get around the access issues in areas without any internet access and where the community cost of satellite access to the internet is prohibitive?
  • A. OLPC is doing everything they can to make sure that wherever there are XO's internet access will be nearby. Remember that thru the mesh network if one person has wireless the entire building or village will be able to access it. Each XO acts as a repeater for the wireless signal.
The mesh network idea works if there is some access point, but it's irrelevant if a community cannot afford the access. There are ways to work around this, such as distributing flash cards or USB drives with content, but that requires some planning and collaboration.
  • Q. In the Thai pilot community (Ban Samkha), adults clearly wanted one of the preinstalled activities to be a basic spreadsheet. Is there any in development?
  • A. OpenOffice should work on the XO but the intentions were for children to use it. They really do not need it immediately but have the capabilities to get it at a future time.
Let me get this straight: a project invests resources in a pilot, and the pilot community explains what should change, and then the project ignores the feedback??
  • Q. In the doctoral seminar I taught this semester, a few anthropology graduate students expressed concern that the OLPC's focus on child-child networking was structured in a way that put child-adult/community relationships in the background. Do you have any cultural anthropologists to keep you guys honest on relationships with communities?
  • A. OLPC does not have the resources to have any cultural anthropologists. It is up to the individual countries and communities to deal with this area for now.
In other words, We don't care about local context.


Craig A. Cunningham said...

Sherman: I think your comments on Bletsas's answers are a little extreme. No project can do everytning. Yes, the internet access issue is a big one, and yes, cultural issues are important...but it makes sense for OLPC to focus on what they CAN do rather than withering or spreading themselves too thin attempting to handle everything. Perhaps other groups can focus on these other concerns.

Sherman Dorn said...


I think the spreadsheet is the one piece that would involve considerable investment (such as sugarizing a linux app). But the other two don't. One of the criticisms of OLPC from the start is, "You're not sensitive to the cultural issues." OLPC's response has consistently been, "Well, yes, of course we'll be working with the local context." To do that, you have to invest in social and professional networking on the human side, not just the technological side.

Anonymous said...

You don't seem to be giving the "local contexts" any credit for being able to take these machines and customizing the implementation to their needs. It's not as if these countries don't have professional "educators" who are creative and willing to try things with this equipment that can work in their context.

The spreadsheet program will certainly be developed by the open source community if the OLPC people don't address it soon.

Donny Viszneki said...

There is a reasonable middle ground between internet access and the sneakernet. A copy of Wikipedia's most often used articles would go a long way for a school or community that is too remote for affordable internet access. (No pun intended.)

Anonymous said...