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Skeptics Question OLPC's Focus With $75 Tablet 159

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the put-them-in-touch-with-arrington dept.
With the recent announcement of OLPC's shift in focus, many are criticizing the nonprofit's attempt to design what could be seen as unrealistic hardware at an impossible price point. "The OLPC project has become an unrealistic hardware 'dream' and lost its focus on education, wrote blogger Wayan Vota on OLPC News, which has followed the OLPC since its inception. The project comes up with unrealistic hardware designs and price points that destroy its purpose even more, he wrote. 'Excuse me if I get mad at the XO-3 hype. I'm angry at the energy devoted to fantasy XO hardware instead of OLPC educational reality. I miss the original OLPC Mission, where children, not computers, controlled our dreams,' Vota wrote."
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Skeptics Question OLPC's Focus With $75 Tablet

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  • by Animats (122034) on Friday December 25, 2009 @06:47PM (#30553216) Homepage

    Yes. The OLPC needs to be coupled with software that gives children a basic education with little or no teacher assistance. Then it's worth deploying in places where the educational system has broken down.

    Like Afghanistan.

    • If educating children without teachers or other instructional figures there to guide them were easy (or even possible), we'd already be doing it. That said, there is a ton of educational software available in distributions like Edubuntu [edubuntu.org] that can go a long way toward that goal.
      • I'm visualizing a computer that would help people who don't even know how to read. The first, most visible icon on the desktop would be a reading tutorial. The literacy rate in Afghanistan is around 28%. Afghanistan is a good potential case for this (one they are no longer in danger of violence from various armies, perhaps) because they mostly don't have trouble feeding themselves, they are self-sufficient, and now they are ready to move to the next level.

        To move to the next level, they need informatio
        • The problem is, without literacy there is generally very, very, very little aptitude for learning and in order to be self-taught you have to have an aptitude of learning. For example, to an illiterate person, why would they want to read in an unstable world? They have lived all their life without reading, see no possible advancement with literacy (for example, a farmer isn't going to think they can suddenly bring rain if they can read). Teachers on the other hand, can persuade people to want to learn, they
          • It seems like when you are using the word aptitude, you mean motivation. If aptitude is really the only problem, it can be solved with good software. Reading pedagogy is a well developed field, and there should be little difficulty making such software.

            I agree teachers are better, but they can be expensive, and certainly computers by themselves are good motivators. You have this cool toy, and you want to learn how to use it, so you have to learn how to read. It won't work for everyone, of course, but a
            • I agree teachers are better, but they can be expensive,

              Yeah, but you also have to realize that most of these countries are extremely poor. A (native) teacher can live on a lot less there and have a better life compared to their students than here. A lot of these people live off of a dollar or so a day, so if you give a teacher $5 per day for each day of school, assuming there are 160 school days in a school year, that is $800 a year while keeping the teacher roughly 5 times as rich as their students. That is only enough for 10 of these laptops assuming the un

              • See my comment here [slashdot.org], it addresses most of your points.

                As for the remaining points, if there are enough competent teachers, it would likely be better to have teachers. The US is such a place. But in some places competent teachers are hard to find.

                Finally, I am not sure how to keep people from stealing/selling the laptops, but I'm sure if I thought about it, I could come up with a solution that worked most of the time (the war on stealing is like the war on drugs: it may never be won all the way). Any su
            • after the others start seeing the benefits of reading, the popularity will grow

              Nope. There are two very human reactions:

              1. Don't admit that you can't read. Avoid situations where it would be obvious to others.

              2. Claim that reading is unimportant. Say that people who waste time on reading are nerds.

          • by DG (989)

            As stated elsewhere, I've been to Afghanistan - in fact, this time last year I was there, in Kandahar.

            Afghan society has been smashed FLAT. It started with the Soviets, got worse during the warlord era, still worse during the Taliban era, and is now slowly starting to recover.

            All the mechanisms of government - gone. No government services. No social programs of any kind. The concept of a policeman being someone you go to when you need help, instead of being a stoned agent of extortion - completely alien.

            And

      • by KermitJunior (674269) on Friday December 25, 2009 @07:26PM (#30553344) Homepage
        It already has been proven. Three groups of kids. First group traditional education. Second is guided but loose (like a lot of decent homeschoolers - not all, mind you) and Third was kids who just had someone to ask questions of and list topics/projects. Guess which group scored better at the end of the testing? Yep... group three. With little more than the Google equivalent of a "teacher". You ever see how quickly school can suck the imagination, creativity and desire to learn out of a kid?

        And before you ask... "Values for a New Millenium"b Dr. Robert Humphrey. Info is in the last part of the book.

        Now, when he proved several techniques that took Inner City kids from drug addicts to straight A students... who do you think shut him down? Kids? No. Parents? No. School Board? You betcha. (And that isn't knocking all School Board people...) Read the book.
        • by causality (777677) on Friday December 25, 2009 @07:37PM (#30553388)

          It already has been proven. Three groups of kids. First group traditional education. Second is guided but loose (like a lot of decent homeschoolers - not all, mind you) and Third was kids who just had someone to ask questions of and list topics/projects. Guess which group scored better at the end of the testing? Yep... group three. With little more than the Google equivalent of a "teacher". You ever see how quickly school can suck the imagination, creativity and desire to learn out of a kid? And before you ask... "Values for a New Millenium"b Dr. Robert Humphrey. Info is in the last part of the book. Now, when he proved several techniques that took Inner City kids from drug addicts to straight A students... who do you think shut him down? Kids? No. Parents? No. School Board? You betcha. (And that isn't knocking all School Board people...) Read the book.

          You'd love what John Taylor Gatto has to say [johntaylorgatto.com] on this subject. He also has a shorter essay here [cantrip.org]. He highlights how many of modern public schooling's techniques are profoundly anti-educational and seem designed to encourage dependency. He also advises that it takes about 50 contact hours to transmit basic literacy and mathematics skills; after that, the person is capable of educating themselves given access to books and other resources. One trivial example of the damage this does can be found in those computer users who get confounded by very simple issues that are found in Page 1 of the manual, the README file, the help file, the FAQ, and the vendor's Web site, yet they still need handholding, not because they are incapable of reading and understanding the information, but because they feel helpless.

          I am very grateful that there are people like this who will stand up and say something, who will expose these important ideas. Make no mistake, that takes courage. It's little wonder that you generally don't see folks like that on the prime-time evening news, for what they have to say, however true, is also quite inconvenient to many powerful interests.

          Incidentally, you may appreciate my sig; it's quite apropos.

          • by Penguinisto (415985) on Friday December 25, 2009 @09:42PM (#30553836) Journal

            I can second Gatto's theories, both as someone who has read and bought his book (The Underground History of American Education), and as a former teacher.

            I've discovered many times over that once a student is genuinely passionate about a subject (I taught CompSci), the absolute best thing you can do (besides encouraging them) is to give them a few guidelines, help them when they get stuck somewhere, supply them with all the reference material they can stand, and then watch them go at it... I've seen kids take on Linux with zero previous skills in *nix, and in less than a year gain a better mastery of it than any recent CS grad. The biggest trick is to give them the tools from which to do the research, and from which to better themselves - in or out of a classroom. Then you give them the knowledge, but only when they need and desire it.

            /P

          • by bcrowell (177657)

            Gotto has some interesting things to say, but:

            He makes statements without backing them up. For instance, he insists sincerely that dumb people are rare, and that the schools make people dumb. Okay, interesting hypothesis. Where's his proof? Actually there's quite a bit of evidence that there are vast genetically determined intellectual differences between human beings. For instance, there are studies of twins separated at birth.

            He also seems to have set up a very comfortable self-reinforcing belief sys

            • It's not necessarily a case of his assuming that all kids possess some incredible amount of intellect that just needs massaging.

              Look through the whole book sometime (he has it for free online as well). The thing is, a good teacher (in spite of protocol) can handle both the bright and the slow. Give most kids the tools they need to discover and learn on their own, a solid set of guidelines to follow, and they can rapidly take care of themselves. This actually gives you time to focus on the not-so-bright kids

        • that's great for science and math but what about fields where we're not talking about understanding systems of operation?

          Libertarianism and the 9/11 truth movement is what happens when you let people decide for themselves what the hell is true in the fields of history, civics and the arts.

        • by winwar (114053)

          "Now, when he proved several techniques that took Inner City kids from drug addicts to straight A students... who do you think shut him down? Kids? No. Parents? No. School Board? You betcha. (And that isn't knocking all School Board people...) Read the book."

          Sorry, I'm not going to read the book. If it works so well there should be plenty of peer reviewed articles that you could link to. This whole thing sounds similar to alt-med conspiracy theories. A whole lot of woo.

      • Nonsense (Score:3, Interesting)

        by tehdaemon (753808)

        Kids can, and will teach themselves given the chance. [ted.com]

        another link [hole-in-the-wall.com]

        (you may want to skip about 5 minutes into the video. The comments are good too.)

        T

    • The problem is, without much teacher assistance, education for the sake of learning, won't exist and without that there is no way for them to get ahead. For example, without a teacher to prod students in learning chemistry, there is very little motivation for the student to learn chemistry in a third-world country. Why would the average kid there study about valence electrons when there is seemingly little future for it? In a student with a developed, or developing economy, a student might want to be a chem
      • by daveime (1253762)

        Baby steps man.

        Afghanistan and many other places don't need their children to become chemical engineers just yet. They need people growing up with practical skills like farming, irrigation, building etc, so they can create some kind of infrastructure and foundation for the next generation.

        Being able to even read the instructions on the seed packet will help them far more right now than being able to make a chemical weapon.

    • by couchslug (175151)

      They'd just get snuffed for having OLPCs. Taliban routinely bomb schools, education being the enemy of religion.

    • The OLPC needs to be coupled with software that gives children a basic education with little or no teacher assistance.

      This is the fantasy that sank OLPC the first time around.

      Every culture has its own educational tradition. Its own theory of how children should be taught,what they should be taught, and by who they should be taught.

      There are gatekeepers, secular and religious.

      "No" means "no." No purchase orders. No deployment. No support. No protection.

      You can't work openly.

      You can't work secretly without

    • by arpad1 (458649)
      Oh, the OLPC was always about Nicolas Negroponte.

      All that eye wash about education was just a way to attract the necessary talent at below market rates as well as to get foundation funding. Once it became clear that Dr. Negroponte wasn't going to ride the OLPC to fame, if not fortune, he ditched the project having gotten a lot of high-level international press coverage and the red-carpet treatment by a bunch of presidents, prime ministers and the like.
    • "The OLPC needs to be coupled with software that gives children a basic education with little or no teacher assistance."

      Why? And if you could, is it workable?

      Even in Afghanistan there are plenty of sufficiently educated people capable of teaching. Or learning to teach. Or assisting in the process. You don't need a low student to teacher ratio for effective teaching. If that were the case then US primary and secondary schools would be awesome and US colleges and other countries primary and secondary sch

  • Why laptops? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by acidradio (659704) on Friday December 25, 2009 @06:55PM (#30553238)

    It is nice that they want to make laptops for these kids but I think they are overdoing it. It seems like the proponents are more enthralled with the sizzle rather than the steak. Why can't we just put in reasonable computer labs with Internet connections?

    I studied in Mexico for a while and it is quite common for many people, especially kids, to go to the neighborhood Internet cafe and pay a small fee to use their computers. There were always lots of kids there and they didn't mind that it was a "community" computer. While it would be nice to give everyone laptops, the whole idea of providing computing to masses of schoolchildren in the developing world needs to at least start with computer labs in the schools.

    Fundamentally I see problems with giving kids in the developing world laptops:
    1.) These are poor countries and the devices may be lost/stolen/sold to pay for essentials of life
    2.) Not likely to have Internet access at home, may not even have reliable electricity
    3.) Access to teachers in school (and tech support...).

    I think they just wanted to make glitz and glamor out of this. The idea of a computer lab is not very sexy when compared to giving kids expensive pieces of hardware which will magically transform their lives.

    • Re:Why laptops? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Darkness404 (1287218) on Friday December 25, 2009 @07:37PM (#30553394)

      Why can't we just put in reasonable computer labs with Internet connections?

      Location. If someone has to walk 3 miles to go to the nearest place with a computer lab, they aren't going to go that often. If they have a laptop close by, they are more apt to use it.

      3.) Access to teachers in school (and tech support...).

      Actually, I think that may be more of a negative than a positive for most kids. Most teachers are rather controlling with computers, most kids with their own computer could go more in depth with it. I don't know about anyone else, but generally on school computers I at least tried to do nothing more than what the teacher said, after all no use getting in trouble. But on my home PC I experimented with things, bootloaders, operating systems, drivers, system files, and really, it was because of this that I got interested in computers. If my only experience with computers was at school, I would have probably turned out to be one of those people who know nothing more than Windows, Word and Excel, who thinks to use HTML you must be some 1337 coder and PowerPoint usage makes you some computer wizard.

      Really, the OLPC program was a success, not only in transforming the lives of thousands of kids in third world countries, but by making computers more affordable for the first world as well with the advent of the netbook.

      • I thought Asus invented the "Netbook"? Or was that Psion?

        The price of the OLPC was what got me. I couldn't afford $400 + S&H to get one. Netbooks are a lot cheaper than that... I've seen many refurb ones for $150.

      • by pongo000 (97357)

        Most teachers are rather controlling with computers, most kids with their own computer could go more in depth with it. I don't know about anyone else, but generally on school computers I at least tried to do nothing more than what the teacher said, after all no use getting in trouble.

        [citation needed]

        "Most teachers"? "Most kids"? Do you have facts to support these assertions? No, I didn't think so. (So typical
        of those who try to paint all teachers as technophobic curmudgeons.)

        There are many school dist

      • by CAIMLAS (41445)

        Really, the OLPC program was a success, not only in transforming the lives of thousands of kids in third world countries, but by making computers more affordable for the first world as well with the advent of the netbook.

        Thousands of lives?! My god, man! That's incredible return for the millions (billion?) spent! (Granted, I don't think that's necessarily the number, but I never actually heard/read about the success stories; all I heard was nonsense about how geeky they were.)

        That said... the OLPC project was a massive success, but not for the reasons you mention. It was a success because the marketing was awesome; that was, mostly, what they produced. It was sufficient to create subequent generations.

        Oh yeah, and the new

      • by jhol13 (1087781)

        I sincerely hope most children don't (have to) "experiment with bootloaders, OS's, drivers, etc."

        Computers are far beyond that today. I really hope OLPC is not even remotely trying to make children "computer wizards". With that I do not mean that it should hinder it, but there are a bit other stuff in the world beyond tuning operating systems.

        In that area (searching and learning) teachers can be a huge help. Google or Wikipedia is not usually the best option.

      • by pclminion (145572)

        Location. If someone has to walk 3 miles to go to the nearest place with a computer lab, they aren't going to go that often. If they have a laptop close by, they are more apt to use it.

        How far do you have to walk to charge the battery? A lot of people receiving these laptops don't have electricity. If you need to walk to town to plug in, you might as well use a nicely equipped computer while you're there instead of some cheap laptop.

    • It could work. If someone with vision produced a competent educational suite, designed to help these kids actually learn and succeed in life, it could make a huge difference. There is no reason software couldn't be written to take kids all the way through high school (and give them tools they need to expand their own knowledge base afterwards). To pass the high school level all you really need is basic algebra and reasonable reading skills. After that, they could fill in the gaps with interesting topics l
    • by selven (1556643)

      Unfortunately, charities need marketing and PR just like everyone else.

    • No, you're mostly wrong, point by point:

      1. Just because something may go wrong is no reason not to do something.

      2. That's why they have wireless grid technology and wind up power chargers. Or do you not know anything about this project?

      3. Having a computer in the home where you can mess with it many hours per day is the best way to learn the most. If you never had this opportunity, you wouldn't understand.

      I think you may have a point about the sizzle and steak from a pure price point perspective
    • Parent misses the point. Which is a given, because he admits to not getting the point.

      There is a fundamental difference between GIVING a PERSONAL computer "toy" versus providing a community with a few good computers. There are also many logistical problems.

      Would you rather share a swing or have your own jungle gym in your back yard? To this end, I give OLPC props. Kids can possess something inspiring. Although, whether OLPC software really educates is a whole different debate.

      Also, I must say this. Computer

      • by gnalle (125916)
        The alternative is to reach out to a lot of schools and make sure that each school has a few working second hand stationary computers. It is better to have a cheap solution for the many than an expensive solution for the few. When I worked in India, I heard a talk by a guy from the Shikshana foundation, and I was really impressed by the way they worked. It sounded like they could achieve a lot with fairly small means http://www.sikshana.org/ [sikshana.org]
    • by fm6 (162816)

      I studied in Mexico for a while and it is quite common for many people, especially kids, to go to the neighborhood Internet cafe and pay a small fee to use their computers.

      Where in Mexico? In a fairly big urban center I imagine. Not enough customers to keep such a business in business otherwise. Go out far enough into the countryside, and you'll find villages without even electricity.

      Just because you've spent a while in a country, don't assume that you know how all the people in that country live. It's like somebody visiting NYC and concluding that all Americans ride subways.

  • Books and education (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    I don't see what the poster thinks has changed.

    Many of us have pointed out from the beginning that having a computer is not equivalent to education... let alone solving the problems of food and shelter.

    OLPC is a Westerner's arrogant fantasy and has been from the beginning. Not at all saying we should not try and level the playing field, but the targets of this program are not suffering in their education because they don't have a Laptop. They are a long way from that.

    Boondoggle? No, just misguided and ar

    • Well the OLPC can be used as an eBook reader, and from a technology standpoint possessing just a handful of the machines could mean unprecedented access to books for a school. Of course, this is assuming that the books are available, in a libre format, in the language that is being used at the school, which leaves few books available even for schools in developed nations.

      In my opinion, what is killing the OLPC program is not that it was misguided from the start, but that it must fight a tidal wave of pe
  • I think they are either trying to be overly ambitious and unrealistic with themselves, or knowingly going to the press with absurdly low pricing to get headlines and discussion (like this) happening- but when/if it comes to light the price will be 2-3x of this. OLPC has got some lofty goals, but I don't know if they fully saw netbooks coming (competition) and have obviously before have came out with announcements of unrealistic pricing ($100 laptop) and when they released they were 2x that.
  • by timmarhy (659436) on Friday December 25, 2009 @07:37PM (#30553390)
    This is what happens when you have techies trying to implement a business plan. they fail to understand the key drivers and get lost in the technical considerations. producing a $100 laptop in itself it's actually a meaningful goal, attempting to educate the poor is the goal, thats what they lost sigh of.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by DerekLyons (302214)

      Actually, it's the typical outcome of a project whose goals are political and philosophical, being executed by someone with little or no real world experience. The outcome is even more certain when you consider the real goal (outflanking wintel in the developing world and spreading the Holy Gospel of F/OSS) had to be carried out covertly under the guise of the 'cover story' - educating the world's poor.

    • to implement a business plan

      BTW, They are a nonprofit organization.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by hazem (472289)

        to implement a business plan

        BTW, They are a nonprofit organization.

        A business plan is not necessarily about profit. It's about spelling out what you intend to accomplish, then how you intend to get the resources to accomplish it. With business objectives clearly spelled out, it's much easier to be able to prioritize all the possible things that can happen and decide which ones are good to do and which ones are not feasible. Without clear business objectives it's easy to get bogged down with feature-creep

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by v(*_*)vvvv (233078)

          Obviously they have a plan. They have an NPO plan, not a business plan. People will misunderstand you if you are an NPO with a "business plan."

          Techies sucking at business plans is an old cliche which parent sited and got modded "insightful" for, to which I was taking issue. Not only is OLPC not a business, it is run by an industry icon that has a lot of pull in academia and with governments. Aligning OLPC with every other business and pretending to know what they do and don't have sight of is hardly insight

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by ceoyoyo (59147)

      "This is what happens when you have techies trying to" produce an education system.. Let's not lose sight of the goal. People implementing business plans fail pretty miserably at educating third world children too. They often fail at educating first world students, for that matter.

  • Irony (Score:5, Interesting)

    by CAIMLAS (41445) on Friday December 25, 2009 @08:25PM (#30553558) Homepage

    The irony is, the hardware more-or-less existed when the OLPC was first conceptualized - and it could've been done inexpensively at that time, too. Five years ago, a $100 linux-based "netbook" would've been entirely feasable.

    No, it wouldn't have had color or an x86 processor. And yes, it would've been a crappy monochrome LCD. But it'd have gotten great battery life, been able to do audio and the basic tasks outlined for the project, and (importantly) been able to be sold for under $100.

    It was pretty obvious that Intel was making buku bucks off the advertising associated with the original platform. The OLPC guys got taken for a ride by associating with Intel on that one.

    This time around, with enough volume there's no reason $100 shouldn't be achievable for a consumer price, and a lot less than that for production.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      It was pretty obvious that Intel was making buku bucks off the advertising associated with the original platform. The OLPC guys got taken for a ride by associating with Intel on that one.

      Beaucoup.

      I hate grammar nazis, but... Dude.

  • Not only will those developing countries use them, they'll also spend 12+ hours a day making them. Then some Audi-driving party boss(or his equivalent in the Third World) enslaves the very people that were meant to be freed by this technology.

    At that cost, you've just added a slave labor incentive to the mix. How about just cut to the chase if all you're going to get is slave labor in a Third World country?

    • by couchslug (175151)

      What you see as "slavery" is the normal path of industrial development.

      When starting from nothing, it has always been necessary to leverage human capital. The Industrial Revolution was built on cheap labor, yet its outcomes (eventually) brought about prosperity and improvement in quality of life for all classes. It made the modern socialist welfare state possible.

  • He's right. The OLPC project appears to have lost its focus on improving education for the most disadvantaged children, and is instead attempting to innovate in other ways. This falls into the same category as many other tech/geekdom mistakes: making the gadgets and gizmos the focus rather than what they can do for people. I love building and upgrading computers, trying out new operating systems, and just generally tinkering with all sorts of things, so that is a legitimate hobby for me. But crap like M$ so
    • by shess (31691)

      I excitedly got in on the original GIGO scheme, figuring that it would be useful for my young children. The software sucked. I don't mean sucked like it was badly written and crashed a lot. I mean sucked like there was no point to it, it was just a collection of independent geeky tech toys aimed at kids. Some of them were fun, but the package didn't add up to anything nearly as worthwhile as a Leapster.

      The hardware is not the right problem to solve. If someone created a comprehensive open-source early-

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      That's exactly right. The only reason the OLPC group set out to design the XO in the first place was that there were no computers in that size and price range at the time. They simply did not exist.

      Well, now they exist. Cherrypal is selling them. [teleread.org] They're not going to have the same kind of standardized architecture that the XO does, but nonetheless they're Real Live Computers that can run real operating systems (and by "real operating systems" I of course mean Linux).

      OLPC ought to be putting educational soft

  • Scam (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Osmosis_Garett (712648) on Saturday December 26, 2009 @04:19AM (#30554884)
    Its absolute garbage that a company cant produce a useful 75 dollar laptop. I may not be completely enlightened as to all of the technical hurdles, I'm sure that they can put a commodore 64 into something the side of a fingernail. Add on a flat pressure keyboard, a crappy LCD display with no backlight, and a 10 dollar 8GB SDcard for the slim, custom operating system and apps, and you start getting pretty close. It sounds like this company has blown a tonne of cash on trying to find a new iPod that even though its targetted at kids in suffering nations, everyone will want one because its 'such impressive technology'. FFS, a modified nintendo DS is nearly achieving all of the design goals of this project.

    tl;dr : this made some people rich.
    • by megrims (839585)

      Funnily enough, there's more to electronic engineering than selecting major components.

  • When the OLPC was first announced, I was surprised that they were making things so hard on themselves. A clamshell, with keyboard, with color screen? Trying to hit a $100 price point? It seemed like that would be hard, and it was... hard enough that they didn't hit their target. The OLPC XO costs double the target price, it is glacially slow, and at least the one I bought has a totally unusable touch pad.

    What I thought they should have done was to make something rather like a Handspring Visor, but bigge

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