Thursday, May 03, 2018

Obituary of the 100 Dollar Laptop

Way back in March 2014, OLPC News, which used to track all the OLPC-related news and developments, bid farewell to this pipe dream riding on poor people's money. Earlier this month, Adi Robertson penned a formal detailed obituary in The Verge: OLPC’S $100 laptop was going to change the world — Then it all went wrong. Buried deep within Robertson's essay (actually, right at its end), we find this:

There’s surprisingly little hard data about the long-term impact of OLPCs on childhood education, though. Zamora points to some case studies for individual countries, and says OLPC wants to commission more comprehensive research in the future. But the organization has mostly focused on anecdotes and distribution numbers as markers of success. “OLPC was always very averse to measuring how well they were doing versus the traditional school system,” says Gros. “There have only been a very limited number of attempts to actually measure how well students were doing with OLPC versus not, because it was very hard to do.”

Ames thinks that OLPC’s high-profile failures helped temper the hype around ed-tech programs. “There was a lot of worry that OLPC would crash and take everything with it — that there would be no funding in [educational technology], there would be no funding in tech development,” says Ames. “I think ed-tech in particular can still really draw on some of the same tropes, and hasn’t fully learned the lessons that OLPC should have taught it. But both of those spaces did have to mature to some degree, and stop being quite so naive in their tech utopianism.” Non-OLPC student laptop programs are still contentious. Maine Governor Paul LePage trashed his state’s initiative as a “massive failure” in 2016, and while it’s still running, its results have been ambiguous and difficult to measure. Mitra’s Hole-in-the-Wall project won a $1 million TED prize in 2013, but critics say he still hasn’t published any rigorous studies of its effects. Bender isn’t convinced that Mitra’s minimalist computing project proved anything. “We already knew that kids could learn to use computers. They’ve been doing that since day one,” he says. “What the project did not demonstrate is that kids could use computers for learning.”

Ames says the real question isn’t whether laptop programs help students, but whether they’re more effective than other programs competing for the same money. “I think that given unlimited funding, absolutely ... Learning about technology is very important,” she says. “That said, there’s always a tradeoff. There’s always some project that will be defunded or de-emphasized as a result of this.”

Thirteen years ago, OLPC told the world that every child should get a laptop. It never stopped to prove that they needed one.