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EdTech: Remembering The "One Laptop" Debacle

Need any reminders of what an edtech bubble looks like -- the hype, exaggerated promises, enormous influxes of cash and media attention and wastes of time -- then refresh your recollection of the 2005 One Laptop Per Child phenomenon in which Nicholas Negroponte said he was going to transform the world by giving poor kids low-income laptops.

image from farm2.staticflickr.com

Well, he did -- 2.4 million XOs have been given out -- and the world remains largely unchanged.  The plastic green and white machine seems downright ancient from the perspective of 2013 -- not to speak of being expensive (at $200).

According to this Reuters column from last week (Hotspots and have-nots), the main problem Negroponte faced was that the problem he proposed solving -- getting computers into peoples' hands -- was about to be solved on its own through cheap smartphones and netbooks. The main problem he didn't solve -- Internet access -- remained a massive obstacle.  The solution? According to this columnist, it's a massive universal Internet access initiative to make the Internet really accessible and help nations solve their own problems and develop their own economies -- and, hey, learn online.  

In that sense, I guess OLPC's failure could be used as a justification for online learning's future disappointment.  There's really no stopping the enthusiasts -- just like there's no stopping the naysayers.  Image via CCFlickr


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Yes, we often solve the wrong problem when working at the frontier of change. BUT, that shouldn't prevent us from persisting. A soon to be released report from VIVA Teachers makes strong statements in favor of dramatically increasing use of technology for instruction, assessment, and teacher training. Teachers recognize that the potential is too high. The tech folks should spend a little more time with teachers before devising solutions to avoid these kinds of failures. Look for the VIVA report in February.

Wait, you mean this little green laptop?

The wheel is still in spin on those, Alexander. Notice in this example, the XO-mediated activities haven't been visibly monetized, but somebody nonetheless did get a village internet node up in a Peruvian backwater. Consider how and why internet access will be built to reach every corner of humanity, and what forces will drive the expansion, whether a profit can be turned at it or not.

Not long ago, you were thinking some deep thoughts about Anil Dash's "The Web We Lost". I made some notes toward an answer, actually. Dash observes, “The web was an interesting and different place before links got monetized…”

The struggle to monetize the applications of technology in education is choking us, Alex. In my real life, I'm a strong proponent of place-based environmental chemistry. I'm a pioneer in efforts to crowd-source, coordinate, and share data through Google Earth, but the Apps I dream of can't and shouldn't be monetized. The information needs to flow the wrong direction for that.

For example, imagine GoogleEarth Watershed, which would allow schools to sign in to their own geographic watershed group, and see the other schools and communities on their portal map. They could all upload and share data. Just water temperature data could be transformative. I asked some expert presenters at a National Park Service workshop last summer if we could bring the water temperature down in tertiary and higher order waterways by having middle schoolers plant appropriate shade vegetation on denuded primary and secondary banks. Yes, this generation could save whole ecosystems from seemingly inexorable destruction by global warming, with their own hands. But nobody would make a goddamned cent off it.

On a more prosaic level, smartphones and netbooks aren't the breakthrough in monetized delivery systems investors imagine, either. Go spend a few months observing them in practice, as I have.

Wow, your comment is really resonating with me, Mary. I'm the technology & engineering teacher at a public K-8 school. Our school is in our second year of incorporating Place-Based Education - perhaps we could put our heads together.

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