Saturday, February 23, 2013

OLPC: from MIT lab to the reality on the ground

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organization was founded by Nicholas Negroponte with the mission to empower the world's poorest children through education. OLPC is a Delaware-based, non-profit organization created by faculty members from the MIT Media Lab to design, manufacture, and distribute laptops that are sufficiently inexpensive to provide every child in the world access to knowledge and modern forms of education.

Their flagship product is the XO computer.

Initially known as the $100 Laptop, the XO was designed in the early 2000s to cost less than $100 but ended up costing $200 which was still an incredible technical achievement at that time when laptop computers’ cost was exceeding $1,000.

The OLPC program is a great concept and many countries have invested in acquiring OLPC XO  computers for their schools: Argentina, Brazil, Libya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Thailand, and Uruguay. Negroponte told TIME in an e-mail interview: "We want Rwanda to be a showcase." But was it a good choice for Rwanda?

Last summer, four students from Carnegie Mellon University came to Rwanda to help a local school deploy OLPC XO computers to 300 fifth grade kids. Here is an excerpt of the CMU students’ report:
“Project Rwanda 2012 is a Carnegie Mellon University student-run program dedicated to empowering Rwandan youths through technology and arts education. From August 16th-24th 2012, four students from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh taught interactive lessons to 300 students at the St. Vincent Pallotti School in the Gikondo district of Kigali. 
5th grade kids at St Vincent Pallotti School in Kigali

Utilizing XO laptops provided by One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) and their own creative imaginations, the students explored a number of ways that they could cultivate their unique talents.  The core subjects covered in these lessons included computer programming, keyboarding, and fine arts.   From animated game development using the Scratch software to performative reenactments of their favorite pastimes, the students had the opportunity to engage themselves in a wide variety of fun learning activities.  Not only did the students enjoy themselves while actively participating in these educational exercises, but they also taught their teachers a wealth of information about their fascinating culture.  We are incredibly excited to share these inspiring personal stories with the Carnegie Mellon University community in Pittsburgh, and we cannot wait to see how the students continue to further their interests in technology and the arts!” – report written by Sara Faradji, CMU student leading the project.

While the project was a success, I want to share some reality faced on the ground by the CMU students when using the OLPC XO computers. Between a product conceived by smart people in developed countries and the reality on the ground in Africa there is often a gap. The major problem encountered was the computers’ battery lifetime. The average battery lifetime was 2.5-3 hours maximum (these were brand new computers) which corresponds to the average battery life of 3 hrs announced by OLPC. It seems that the computers were equipped with low quality batteries to keep the cost low (below $200).
What is the impact of that battery life limitation for the school in Rwanda? The school has received more than 900 XO computers and there are only two power plugs for all the classrooms in the school. Considering that it takes three hours for a full recharge of the battery, you can imagine the nightmare for recharging 900+ computers every day. The CMU students had to take a maximum of batteries back to their hotel every night for recharging them. When talking with the local OLPC representative about this problem, he told me that they were going to help the school installing more power plugs. But that is not the solution. The reason why there are only two power plugs in the school is that they want to limit usage of electricity as it is very expensive. The cost of electricity in Rwanda is twice the cost of neighboring countries. A quick calculation showed that the cost of recharging the 900 computers every day for one month would be equivalent to the salary of one teacher. The best solution seems to be for the students to take their computer with them back home and charging it at home over night. That is if they have electricity at home which is mostly the case in Kigali, but not in rural areas. Electricity penetration in Rwanda is only 16 %.

Another problem encountered was keys and buttons breaking after less than two weeks usage. It was not clear how those could be repaired even if OLPC claims that XO computers are designed to be repaired quickly in the field by users with a minimum of training.

So it seems to me that the XO computer is not appropriate for Rwanda from a technical point of view. Even more so that today, 8 years after its design, you can buy a Netbook in Africa for less than $200, i.e. cheaper than the XO. It is true that XO is loaded with special education software that was specially designed for it. The cost of installing this software should be added to the cost of the Notebook for a fair comparison.

In another posting published in 2010, I explained that a better solution could be tablets or iPods. They offer the advantage to have longer battery life but also they don’t have keyboards and buttons that can easily break. Keyboards and buttons are virtually represented on the screen. But more importantly they are examples of real mobile internet devices that will be used in Africa in the coming years. In addition, solar panels on the back of these devices could help with recharging the battery at no cost. A couple of years ago, OLPC claimed to be working on such a solution showed in my 2010 blog posting, but no news since then. Instead they seem to try to sell their inappropriate XOs which they build by the millions to get their money back ... at the cost of poor Rwanda!

Seeya later alligator...


mafredy said...

This totally true, on other hand I think XO laptop are not user friendly for those primary Kids who will facing later a big challenge by using windows pc which are available in secondary school, they are also not compatible with many application which may be a problem for Rwandan developer .

Sara Faradji said...

Salut, Michel! Great post on the successes and challenges of the OLPC laptops. Would be very curious to learn more about the development of tablets for the primary school students to use!

Robert Julian Braxton said...

Continuing to struggle. We have experience in Kenya in 2008 (took six), 2009 (took a hundred) and 2011 with a planned August 2013 two-week trip to a different town in a different part of Kenya.

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