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One laptop per child, too ambitious for South Africa?

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OLPCorps San Tome saved by Beth Santos

Imagine a world where every child was able to unlock their creativity, feed their interests and have full access to the world of communities and ideas; which empowers them to step out of poverty to become young innovators, inventors and leaders of society. This world seems far beyond our reach, but professor Nicholas Negroponte from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, not only imagines, but believes and is determined to make this ideal world a reality. How, you may ask? By transforming education in developing nations by providing a laptop to every child.

There is nothing wrong with having ambition. However, realistic factors need to be well researched and considered. Yet, many of these factors have been overlooked; making the One Laptop per Child initiative (OLPC) too ambitious in South Africa.

In case you missed it, the One Laptop per Child initiative was launched in January 2005 and founded by Nicholas Negroponte. According to the OLPC's mission statement, the project set out to empower the world's poorest children through education by,"...aiming to provide each child with...low-cost, low-power, connected laptop... for collaborative, joyful, and self-empowered learning...They become connected to each other, to the world and to a brighter future."

One laptop per child in South Africa
OLPC started in South Africa in 2008. According to a South African case study, as of early 2012 there were a total of 1400 XO laptops distributed in the country. To say the least, it is a grievous disappointment that the OLPC project was only able to give access to 1400 children in four years, out of the 6 million primary school children in 2011.

One reason for this is low distribution is the lack of funding. In South Africa, the OLPC campaign relied on donations by the private sector and did not receive government funding (as of September 2011). The case study conducted by OLPC admits that "fundraising to support these deployments has been and continues to be a constant challenge".

This reliance on donations also raises questions as to how these 'handouts' will empower children and help eradicate poverty, opposed to creating a charity mindset? Refurbishing old PCs from corporations undergoing computer upgrades and installing open source software on them, has been proposed as a more viable solution. This can create employment and, consequently contribute to a nation's self-development which promotes basic education as a intra-societal responsibilty.  Additionally, the money generated will stay in South Africa.

These devices may be a much needed innovation, but the devil is in their implementation. In order for the goals of this project to be met, there needs to be a supportive infrastructure - which South Africa lacks. The education system is fundamentally flawed and the country would first need to tackle issues of teacher shortages and absenteeism, as well as teacher training among other things. The OLPC would likely be more successful if South Africa was equipped with enough good teachers, classrooms, resources and curriculums designed to achieve educational objectives through mobile technologies.

It's not a bad project
However, before settling too comfortably on the "criticism train", the OLPC project must be applauded for its efforts to initiate an educational project that proposes an intuitive way for children to learn in an increasingly connected and developing world. The OLPC has succeeded in its aims to help bridge the gap between underprivileged communities and the rapidly growing digital world. Additionally, the OLPC has proven that it is possible to create a cheap laptop with simple hardware, easy-to-use interface and innovative design. This project is not necessarily bad, but it may be necessary to revaluate the proposal of the OLPC as the means for bringing about educational transformation.

Mistakes to learn from
A popular criticism of the OLPC initiative is that it is expensive.  An XO laptop costs approximately $200 (approx. R1800), and while it is significantly cheaper than most entry-level laptops, it becomes a costly project to implement nationally. And this is just the cost of the computer, never mind the cost of distribution, training and infrastructure. Governments and private investors are increasingly reluctant to invest in these devices as more evaluative studies show no significant improvements in learning objectives. Therefore, with the exception of a handful of individual cases, it is becoming increasing evident that the cost outweighs the educational benefits gained.

In all honesty, it is alarming that many governments and other investors did not conduct efficacy trials and ethnographic research before hand; to measure whether these devices were needed and whether the implementation of the project would be cost-effective. Instead, the West assumed that what the children in the Third World needed was laptops. If this had been done, it may well have been discovered that laptops are the wrong platform to tackle the issue of mobile education in South Africa.

Alternative mobile solutions
In fact, the majority of South Africans, including learners in rural areas, have access to cellphones. Therefore, it may be more logical to implement educational strategies that use an already accepted platform. Cellphones have the power to achieve something that the XO laptops will never be able to do - educate everyone. Mobile phones are getting smarter and cheaper, and these devices seem to be a more viable option in realising the goals that Negroponte set out to achieve.

Although the OLPC project has good intentions and should be respected for taking that first step forward, it cannot be accepted as a perfect solution. This project's successes and failures need to be assessed  and there needs to be a continuous refinement of technology. Also, the strategies used to implement these technologies should be community-specific. It is not Nick Negroponte's responsibility to deliver technology to every child on the planet, but his efforts should be acknowledged when considering better ways to achieve educational transformation. It would take a perfect mind to get it right the first time, but at least someone stood up to the plate and made an attempt.


Image credit: Wayan Vota
Video credit: OLPC Foundation