The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program is back in the press lately, triggered by an Economist article critique of a recent study conducted in Peru, coverage from Mashable and a thoughtful response from Audrey Watter’s Hack Education. And after overwhelming comments the members of the Peru study posted their own response as well.
So, while the launch and perceived failure of these types of programs is complex, it is clear that no one is surprised. The OLPC project is a classic example of an over-engineered product (too much tech) where little time and resources were actually devoted to the training and implementation (not enough ed.) Teams spend years designing and building the product without much thought on how to distribute and integrate these tools into the learning goals and systems. This is illustrated by Negroponte’s plan to just drop OLPCs out of a helicopter, which luckily was scrapped, but that type of distribution plan highlights all that is wrong with edtech solutions that are focused more on the tech and less on the actual education mission. I’ve have one (from the 2007 Give One, Get One program) and find myself wishing I had some training to help me understand its full potential.
While no one is surprised that the initial efforts of the program were unsuccessful, I don’t believe it’s fair to use standardized test scores to deem the entire endeavor a failure. Rather, I’d like to draw upon the popular notion amongst many valley startups that ‘failing doesn’t mean you’re a failure’ and there is a lot that OLPC and other edtech companies can learn from the past several years. Clearly, OLPC wasn’t quite a lean startup they didn’t fail fast, but they were blazing the trail for others and executing on a very ambitious vision. We should focus on the lessons learned and move on.
By disproportionately focusing on the tech and then labeling the whole effort a failure, this undermines the real role that technology can play, as a tool that improves and enables better teaching and learning, when put in the hands of trained teachers and learners. The real question we should be asking is not whether or not technology tools are needed but more so what are the best methods for integrating these types of tools into the learning environments of global communities. We know that in order to educate a global citizenry that investment in edtech tools are needed, but larger emphasis must be placed on the distribution and adoption plans if we truly want to see impact on student outcomes (and that means more than just standardized test scores.)
I still love the vision behind OLPC, as it was probably my first crush in the edtech world, and believe we will get to a place where access to devices and connectivity will no longer be an issue. However, to truly make an impact on education, from the perspective of teaching and learning, we have got to focus on more ed and less tech.