OLPC, quality, and equality

by Eric Zan, Max Gutman, Aisha Kigongo

Earlier this year, the OLPC organization deployed instruction-less boxes of tablets to remote Ethiopian villages in an experimental attempt to see if illiterate children with no access to schooling or previous exposure to written words can learn to read on their own. Promising early observations show that kids are heavily engaged with the training software preinstalled on the machines, and within weeks they were able to spell words and recite songs. Within several months, kids were able to ‘hack’ the settings of the devices to personalize their desktop. “The fact they worked around it was clearly the kind of creativity, the kind of inquiry, the kind of discovery that we think is essential to learning,” said McNierney, OLPC’s CTO.

The idea of dropping off devices in rural villages outside the context of schools is a new and interesting paradigm that aims to bridge the digital divide of more than 100 million kids around the world who don’t have access to schools. Furthermore, this project has given rise to the optimistic notion that if digitally debilitated populations in rural areas of the developing world can adopt ICTs in a practical way, then this may reduce the socio-economic inequality gap of people in that area.

Although these observations are encouraging, it is still too early to claim that children can learn to read – and eventually teach themselves – through ICTs alone and without a formal structure of education that is mediated by teachers in classrooms. Furthermore, the attempt to bridge the digital divide lacks planning for sustainability factors such as: training, maintenance, and design to the local context. Also, it does not address how replacing the human component of teaching will affect the quality of education and sparseness of knowledge.

The experiment does not consider the criticality of training and maintenance work in environments where tablets or other ICT systems would be widely diffused requires activities not originally outlined in the OLPC Ethiopian project. In order to sustain and adapt ICTD systems over time, the design of a maintenance infrastructure should be central to the onset plan. Unfortunately, in many organizations this thought is secondary. “We study how communities embrace or adapt to new technologies, but less often how they organize to sustain, manage, repurpose, or simply live with what they have” (Jackson 274).

Their approach at evaluation speaks to a hard technological deterministic approach by failing to fully consider the social context where the tablets are used.  The potential for adoption is framed only in the view of the children’s participation and interests.  As Bijker shows from his research on the telephone, the diffusion and adoption of technology is influenced by its relevance to the different social groups affected by that technology (Bijker 1995).  There is no consideration for how the machines and what they are imparting to the children may affect the family or community dynamic.  This lessens the risk for successful adoption.  It also assumes the students themselves are one homogenous social group.   The “consequences of technology are the ends that users seek”, so to understand those consequences you must understand the user (Fischer 1992).  Users will adopt technology if they can use it to “pursue their characteristic ways of life” (Fischer 1992).  Has the software been tailored to not only provide applicable information for the student’s way of life?  Is it engaging them in a way that is sensitive to how they interpret the world?   A one size fits all product that does not reflect the ability to attain goals possible in their local society will surely fail to obtain acceptance after the initial novelty wears off.

The idea that technology can replace teachers seems naive and idealistic. “There are no technology shortcuts to good education. In a region that lacks or has limited educational resources and no or underperforming teachers, efforts to improve education should focus almost exclusively on better teachers and stronger administrations. IT, if used at all, should be targeted for certain, specific uses…” (Toyama 2011)

Technology may not be able to comprehend a person’s unique characteristic in the same way a human being can.  Therefore, it would not be able to properly analyze and determine what works for a particular student or how different some students learn. This is known as the social-technical gap and so far has proven very difficult to close.  It is quite audacious to consider a technological approach to education without teachers to help mitigate that gap. Teachers have something that computers never will: the ability to use compassion in their lessons. Teachers are also in a position to provide more comprehensive feedback to students which is critical for academic success.

Toyama discusses how technology can only supplement and enrich people-led education. Technology’s benefit to students depends on how committed teachers are to designing education approaches that take full advantage of laptops as well as the children’s need for ongoing guidance, encouragement, and their motivation to stay connected.

The approach by OLPC attributes too much agency to technology and ignores the social context that so heavily determines why and how a technology will be adopted.  To truly work towards closing the digital divide, the focus should be more about the quality of access than equality in access.


Toyama, Kentaro. “There are no technology shortcuts to good education.”Educational Technology Debate, infoDev-UNESCO. Retrieved from http://edutechdebate. org/ict-in-schools/there-are-no-technology-shortcuts-to-good-education (2011).

Jackson, Steven J., Alex Pompe, and Gabriel Krieshok. “Repair worlds: maintenance, repair, and ICT for development in rural Namibia.” Proceedings of the ACM 2012 conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work. ACM, 2012.

Bijker, W. (1995) “King of the Road: The Social Construction of the Safety Bicycle” In W. Bijker, Of Bicycles, Bakelites and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Fischer, C. (1992). America Calling: a social history of the telephone to 1940. Berkeley: University of California Press.


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