From the ashes of One Laptop Per Child…

Audio podcast for this blog post

This is a re-post of a story I wrote in my personal blog back in 2014. It looks at lessons learnt from the OLPC project in context of grassroots communities. You can read the original post here.

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project is a global initiative to revolutionize early education through innovative use of technology and learning philosophy. Launched in 2005/6, the project attracted a lot of attention with the goal of distributing 100 million laptops — one for every child in a developing nation. Through its eight year history (so far), the project has seen many ups and downs, but has managed to distribute close to an impressive 3 million laptops mostly in Latin America, Africa, Australia and parts of the US. There are active volunteer communities, both local and global which provide support for the laptop hardware, and the Sugar learning software — a core component of its learning philosophy.

Attributed to its scale and unique nature of the project, it has attracted the interest of many scholarly researchers, foundations and other organizations to study the impact of the project with its successes and failures. This however, is a more personal account of my association with the project and my thoughts at the road forward. I joined the project in the spring of 2010 as a volunteer and later as co-founder of Activity Central — a services & support start up within the ecosystem. I had the privilege of witnessing the project at close quarters in Paraguay, Uruguay and Australia which constituted a significant chunk of the overall project. It certainly constituted a major chunk of ‘innovation in the field’ that helped make the project produce favorable outcomes in these places. Activity Central shut down operations earlier this year and my involvement with the project has dwindled since. I should also make it clear that I have never been associated with the OLPC organization (Foundation or Association) in any form whatsoever.

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Many in the volunteer community now believe that the project is at a crossroads; there is considerable churn within the OLPC organization and the volunteer community. Many old-timers have bid-aideu and while there are new volunteers and even a GSOC project, the number has steadily gone down. The OLPC foundation in Cambridge, MA, which was responsible for a lot of the early innovation around the laptop and its software shut down last year, and the OLPC association in Miami is cannibalizing its own visionary green machine with a consumer android tablet for american kids. It runs proprietary software, contrary to one of its core principles of open and free software for democratized learning. However, the most telling indicator is the fact that the amount of new laptop orders isn’t even a patch on the years gone by. OLPC-the-original-project is now largely a support what we have operation.
 
An important, perhaps defining facet of OLPC is the volunteer community, and communities don’t form or shut down like organizations, but congregate or disperse around ideas and vision. The fragmentation in the community is a mirror of the fragmentation in project’s vision. This is actually rather exciting and I’m glad that it is finally happening. Some notable efforts are XSCE, UnleashKids, Sugarizer among many others. At a recent summit in Malacca, Malaysia, discussions were centered around ‘OLPC 2.0’ signifying a brave new world we all must confront. Further, technology-enabled education is poised for explosive growth, even in developing nations [insert your favorite benevolent-foundation report here].
 
 And thus it becomes critical at this time of change that a fair light be thrown upon the past. It will be OLPCs biggest failure, and certainly my biggest fear, that the lessons learnt from this grand worldwide experiment are forgotten by new initiatives in the times to follow. In the lines below, I will try to present my biased view of some of the key lessons that need to be remembered. I present them in context of OLPC as a project aimed at revolutionizing learning with a heavy emphasis on grassroots approaches.

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Ideas > Community ≫ Individuals

Before you start to think that I am advocating socialism (or worse as a friend put it, radical communism), let me state upfront that ideas, and community are essentially the product of talented and brilliant individuals getting together, and the intent is not to suppress anyone’s individual’s contributions. Open communities do not form overnight, but through an organic process of individuals identifying with a vision and a big & hairy audacious goal. It is also built on trust, and a faith in democratically evolved processes of decision making (this is even true of large successful communities with so called benevolent dictators).
 
As a community grows and evolves, it is natural that some individuals will take on important roles. However, both the individual concerned and the community should work to ensure that at no point should they start to overshadow the project’s vision with their own. OLPC/Sugar suffered by not following this, perhaps more so because there were a large number of academicians and government officials involved, and though I don’t bear any ill-will, some individuals within the community sought to influence the project’s evolution — not always through the defined decision making processes.

Practice radical transparency

The way in which a projects earliest community members behave and form informal rules of exchange has a significant if not defining influence on its future growth. One aspect which I would like to specifically point out is public v/s private discussions. A lot has been said and written about the balance between the two, but I would say this — when a community grows beyond the number of people that can fit in an SUV, every decision which pertains to community processes, or roadmaps for development must be clearly defined and every discussion related to that decision must take place in publicly archived spaces. This is easier said than done, as the desire to form a small coterie of people who have a ‘safe environment’ to discuss and decide can be overwhelming; Resist that! even if it means parting ways with some volunteers.
 
 I was not there during the early days of OLPC/Sugar, but when I joined, it was obvious to me that there was a high-council where decisions were made, and the amount of important communication happening through private, business and informal channels was significant. I know this because I am also guilty in partaking in some of it, as a result of the preexisting mess in the ecosystem.

The world is flat … er, not quite!

One challenge which doesn’t necessarily confront most volunteer communities but did so in the case of OLPC/Sugar was the level of diversity in terms of connectivity and geography. This was accentuated further by the fact that such diversity was not at all evenly spread across the professional background of the volunteers. For example, most teachers and students (roughly, the end users) had very little connectivity with the rest of the ecosystem, while most software development volunteers were quite well connected. This resulted in two problems:

  • A majority of volunteers in the ‘technology’ sub community had little idea of the kind of problems a teacher or a student would face while using the laptop and what would be a useful/useless feature to have as part of the package. This lack of information and insight was resolved more often by guesswork rather than taking on the arduous challenge of contacting the people at the deployment. Broadly put, different groups in the ecosystem were not adequately represented, which coupled with the lack of transparent decision making caused a loss of faith in upstream’s (mostly technology folks and researchers) ability to deliver. Within ActivityCentral, this problem was well understood, and despite our best efforts to give voice to the real world users, we were only partially successful.
  • As a result of this schism and loss of faith, most of the deployments never really reaped the benefits of the work put in by the technology team. Even now, there are many deployments which are using 6–7 year old software builds on their laptops, because a persistent effort was never really made to involve them in the shaping of the technology they are meant to use. This is not a problem for the researchers/scholars in the community as they are quite happy with tinkering and doing a few pilot projects a year to get enough material for research. Thus, we had two or more divergent subcommunities and a sufficient lack of affinity between them to merge.
  • In hindsight, I think if we had focused more on data driven decisions, and instituted well designed data collection and analysis platforms, some parts of the problem could have been addressed. Still the human element of this challenge is what I believe was the greatest roadblock.

I guess the lesson to take from this is to realize and respect the level of diversity in your community, and go out of your way to make sure that each broad segment is well represented as much down the tree as possible. Having a member in an the board/high-council is a good step, but is not the same as installing a process to solicit feedback at a grassroots level.

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Big splash upfront might not always work

If you perform a Google-image-search ‘One Laptop per Child’, you will more likely than not run into a few images of Nicholas Negroponte holding the little green machine or Kofi Annan, the then UN secretary general, playing with an old prototype hand crank powered laptop. As mentioned before, OLPC was launched with much pomp and fanfare and there was an immense amount of recall for ‘the $100 machine’ locally. This attracted torrent of volunteers willing to be part of the project in the beginning resulting in a hastily put together large community with some of the flaws discussed above. Looking in retrospect, it is questionable that the approach OLPC followed in it’s earliest days is a model that should be followed by future ed-tech projects, and though I do not have a firmed up opinion about this, I feel this is an important perspective that should be looked at in greater detail.

The argument for this approach is somewhat obvious and quite well made. Big splash equals lots of eyeballs equals lots of potential volunteers; who would not want that? Yet, there exist very successful community projects which were unheard of until they started becoming big: Linux, GNU, Wikipedia. All these projects were borne out of their own subcultures rather than a mass media fed stream of marketing material. The argument against can be made like this: OLPC never really had a subculture to start with, and if it did, the “organization” didn’t respect that.
 
As I said, I don’t have a definitive opinion on this one, perhaps the problem was not the big splash but the last line of the previous paragraph, and what is worse, it holds true since the inception of OLPC till the present day (from what I know of).

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If you have been reading this far, I thank you for it, and hope that you look forward to the next post in the series, which looks closely at the challenges at deployment sites.

Cheerio,

Anish