Jun 12, 2006

OLPC Follow Up

The following is a follow up on to the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative post from last week, and is in response to concerns raised by a CETPA member:

Several of the concerns have already been considered, and while some of the solutions may not be ideal, they are at the very least a step in the right direction. Conditions on the ground will always be a factor, and there will always be differences from country to country. Ultimately, getting the devices in the field will be the proving ground for these theories, and I am certain that they will see much revision. The following is my understanding, from reviewing the project materials and full text of the comments and presentations of the project group, of the appropriate responses to the questions (listed below) about OLPC:

Q - How will these devices be maintained? They will break, everything breaks, and these will be in the worst of environments for electronic devices. I don't think parts distribution is part of the current plan, at least not in anything that I've read.

A - The current plan is to provide maintenance in much the same fashion that we in the United States do with our OLPC projects - train the upper grade kids to provide this support. While this may not be perfect, it is truly the only way to get it done on a scale such as this. As near as I can tell there is no spare parts distribution plan. However, since the laptops are extremely inexpensive, it stands to reason that buying some extra units would allow for initial replacement until a critical mass of spare parts could be established. The devices are completely sealed (ie air vent free) and contain no moving parts, in an effort to avoid much of the maintenance requirements of traditional PCs. True, failure is inevitable, but it seems reasonable to assume a fail rate of less than 1%, considering the design. And if 1 in 100 (I'd bet it will be even less) fail and aren't repaired, there will still be ninety-nine more that work.

Q - How many different languages are there in the target countries? How much open source software already exists in these languages? If none exists, who will write and distribute this software? How will the kids find/download this software? Content will be as much a key to success as the device or the connectivity.

A - Modern operating systems, and especially open source software, are designed with multiple languages in mind. I can't think of a project that doesn't use internationalization libraries, which allow for any language to be used with the software. This technology is very robust, and widely implemented, especially in open source projects.

Q - In countries where children are exploited as labor, slaves or even as prostitutes how will a laptop help them in their plight to be educated, or to rise out of their poverty?

A - Obviously, this is beyond the scope of the project. The real question is, in such countries, will their government care enough to provide these in the first place? I would hope that neighboring countries may one day apply pressure to those who would engage in such exploitation, and perhaps education is indeed the answer. The key point is that these are not being given away, these are being purchased by the governments of these countries for a purpose.

Q - How will a child in these countries retain "ownership" and "control" of "their" laptop? Will their parents take control of it to use it as a light for their living space (this was one of the examples sited when laptops were sent into the homes of some of the kids in third world countries in some of the interviews)?

A - Would a better connected, educated, and informed adult population be a bad thing? Is it really that likely that the parents would hoard the machines for their own use and not share them with their families? What parent is not interested in improving their child's education? All of these questions will be answered when we begin to see these machines actually reach their destinations. My take on it is this: if the parents are illiterate, they won't have a use for it, except as a tool by which their children may become literate. If the parents are literate, one might expect them to share, as it will benefit the future of the family.

Q - Will others in the house use them to "cruise the net" when the students are not actively using them? We have addiction to online use here in this country, can you imagine how intoxicating online access will be to people who have never used computers or been exposed to the social ills that are ever so present on the Internet?

A - Somehow, I find it hard to compare life in these countries to that in the United States, and to assume that there are a bunch of lazy adults in the house with nothing better to do than "surf the net." From what I understand, it is quite difficult and exhausting to provide for a family on $40 a year in a third world country. At the same time, I defer to my statement about an informed adult population above.

Q - How will the laptops be tracked to ensure that the kids still have them in a year, two years, or even five?

A - Not sure what you are referring to here, except perhaps theft? There has been a great deal of effort placed on designing the parts to be of little value or use outside of the device, so parting them out and selling the components should be rather unprofitable. Assuming that the devices are pervasive enough in the society, it seems reasonable to assume that their resale value would also be low. And again, I defer to statements above. There will, of course, be extensive research and scrutiny of the results of the project throughout the global education community, so I think it is safe to assume that this will be well reviewed, even if the project founders choose not to do so (which doesn't seem likely.)

Q - Will the local gangs and crime syndicates take them from the kids? What will prevent a black market from developing in these third world countries for these laptops?

A - Another "what if." Again remains to be seen but seems awfully unrealistic on any significant scale. In any event, this would be the individual country's problem to solve. But, if the machines are ubiquitous and durable, who would want to buy them on the black market? They would be like rocks, and noone sells rocks on the black market.

Q - A mesh network depends on computers being on and connected to multiple other laptops to maintain the network connectivity. Basing the communications network on alternate forms of power laptops introduces the factor of loss of power and outages of entire sections of the network.

A - Actually, the mesh network features of the laptop are designed to remain on, even when the laptop is turned off. Obviously, power will eventually run out of the machines remain untouched for extended periods of time (days,) but what is the likelihood of that? Again, difficult to tell until they get into the field. Once again, if the distribution of machines is pervasive enough, this will be less of an issue.

Q - The storage of these devices is very limited. Without a connection they will have limited use. These are always promoted as "communications devices" before "computing devices". If an "always on" network is not in place, how will the kids know when they can connect? How many times will they connect if every time they are online their connection drops because someone else let their device run out of juice, or they were in a thin part of the mesh?

A - Again, hard to say until they get into the field.

Q - A modified popular axiom of business (Real Estate actually) is clearly obvious here, but never addressed in the presentations for this project: "It's all about Infrastructure, Infrastructure and Infrastructure." You can quote me on that, no matter the "location".

A - Doesn't look as though you are looking for a response on this one, although it is as well addressed as can be reasonably expected.

In response to comments about the satellite driven solution, I agree that there are many issues to iron out. Luckily, satellites are not the only option. In fact, the project's aim is to use whatever means of connectivity is most effective and available in each region, and satellite is only one example. Some have microwave, for example, while others have different solutions. The ultimate decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis, with the support of the governments who are purchasing the laptops.

All of this discussion begs the question, "what would you do differently, considering the conditions?" It seems obvious that the economically and politically realistic alternative is to do nothing, which will help noone. There is far too much apathy and inaction in the world already, which, in my opinion, has much to do with our current global strife. Will it work? I hope so. Will what we have learned from the project, successful or not, have significant value? Absolutely. Will it directly benefit me? Probably not, but I am confident that it will certainly indirectly benefit my children and the future of education, both in this country and around the world.

Do we need to work on a better project for the United States? Absolutely, and we can afford it. The Intel project looks interesting, although by the time they get their act together I imagine the $300 laptop will already be a reality. Will doing everything we can to criticize the OLPC initiative hurt our own efforts to achieve the same in this country? I think so, and we should consider this as we introduce such doubt in the success of OLPC. How can we say it won't work, and then turn around and expect our leaders to listen to us when we say that our's will? They won't care about the technical details.

The important thing to remember is that the project is evolving, and will continue to evolve. Adjustments will be made, before, during, and after deployment. Lessons will be learned, solutions will be tailored, approaches will be refined. Pilots are planned to iron out many of the issues for which there are concerns.


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