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Lara Smallman
Campaigner, film-maker, blogger (London, United Kingdom)

Self-taught film-maker interested in exploring human rights issues. See more on


Can a small laptop make a big difference?

Published 29th April 2010 - 15 comments - 3633 views -

Following up on Mark Charmer's recent editorial post, I set about looking further into the impact of technology on developing countries. Low and behold, I uncovered something quite remarkable...

This is the story of One Laptop Per Child, a non-profit organisation, which aims to give a computer to every child in the developing world. You heard right, that's EVERY single child!

It gets even better than that. The people at the OLPC Foundation have not left a single stone unturned: Rugged, so it can cope with any climate and terrain, low cost so it can reach more and more children, low power so it's inexpensive to run, and with built-in connection, kids can go online whenever they like.

The energy efficient XO laptop has been designed and built specifically with children in developing countries in mind. The XO laptop has a special place in children's education in regions that are disrupted by ongoing violence, said Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the organisation. OLPC's vision means that children living in poverty get the education they deserve. Those living in war, who can't get to school are no longer prevented from learning. With the targeted age group being young children, this ingenius invention will no doubt play a big role in achieving Millennium Development Goal 2: to achieve universal primary education by 2015. 

And so, when we talk about development, let's not forget the immense importance of education. Neither should we forget how powerful technology can be, nor how vital it is that we put our money to good use, and respond directly to the needs of those living in developing countries.


Category: Education | Tags:


  • Maria Kuecken on 30th April 2010:

    Although laptops can be useful and OLPC’s ambitions are admirable, there are a lot of critiques against OLPC’s work and goals.

    For one, the laptops often need more content or content in different languages so there is a lack of options in terms of software.  The fact that internet infrastructure doesn’t exist in many rural environments often puts them last in line of expansion. For example, though OLPC has been in Rwanda for years, they have stuck mainly to schools in the capital where students are much more likely to have regular computer access already. 

    But my main issue is with the OLPC philosophy that students putter on the computers and are supposed to mainly teach themselves.  Teachers are only marginally involved, even though many examples show that technological training could be improved in many cases if they were to help.  Of course, this assumes that trained teachers are available, but in general OLPC lacks curriculum and professional development, and many people are finding that just giving laptops on a large scale is not enough if they can’t be integrated properly into education.

    In other words, it’s not that laptop provision isn’t useful but that it has should be more holistic that just handing children a piece of durable equipment and expecting that to work.  So unfortunately I am sorry to say I am not much of a fan…

    What’s your opinion on all this, Lara? I’m glad you brought up the topic.

  • Daniel Nylin Nilsson on 30th April 2010:

    I think OLPC is a great project. The critizism is probably well founded, but the project has a potential to change how we think of education, and how we interact with computers.

    Someone must be ther to instruct how to use the laptops, of course, but if they really work to make kids less teacher-dependent, that is great news, since teacher’s wages is the absolutely greatest post on any educational budget, and most developing countries struggle to provide enough teachers.

    If you want to play around with teh OLPC interface, which is different from most other computer interfaces, it can be found here:

  • Maria Kuecken on 30th April 2010:

    @ Daniel: I think it has the potential to, yes, but that doesn’t mean that it necessarily will in all cases. Trained teachers exist for a reason.  ICT is a tool for education but not a substitute for other educational tools, like teachers.  Students are perfectly capable of figuring out how to use technology, but they just may not be able to figure out all of the features unless someone helps them—same way with many of us, myself included.

    To their credit, OLPC is working on more extensive teacher trainings. But it’s very difficult for laptops to be integrated into curricula after quick trainings with teachers,especially when many educational systems are teacher-centric and memorization-based. In Ethiopia, for example, the XOs were banned from classrooms because they were seen as toys, not tools for education.

    I am a BIG advocate for learner-centered methods of instruction and, like you say, OLPC does get at that by giving more independence to the students.  But it has to be properly integrated in the existing educational system (like their success in Uruguay).  I admire OLPC in terms of their innovations and scale but, particularly because it’s on a large scale, I suppose I am harder on the project since I think some changes could make a big difference in achieving all they hope to accomplish.  But maybe I am too harsh…do let me know. smile

  • Lara Smallman on 30th April 2010:

    Thank you Maria and Daniel for your insights.

    I’ve passed this post on to the OLPC to get their feedback and see how they are progressing with their plans.

    As for my personal opinion, I think it’s a fantastic starting point and the right intention is definitely there. In response to my own question - can it make a difference - yes, potentially it could be quite incredible. But, as with these things there’s always room for improvement, it’s by no means a quick fix solution, and I’m eager to hear their response to your constructive criticism, Maria…

  • Ivaylo Vasilev on 30th April 2010:

    “many people are finding that just giving laptops on a large scale is not enough if they can’t be integrated properly into education. “

    Totally false. You’re underestimating the ingenuity of kids. Perhaps they need to be taught how to read, taught letters, and all that, but perhaps even that can be self-taught. Really.

    The bigger problem that I see is how can you guarantee that the kid keeps the laptop. How about parents supervising kids, and disallowing them from using the Internet freely? They have the right to do that in about every single country in the world.

  • Maria Kuecken on 30th April 2010:

    @ Lara: Thanks, that’s great!

    @ Ivaylo: What I mean is that children still have to pass specific national exams and standards in order to proceed through many educational systems.  Without integration with these standards and methods of teaching, technology like laptops can’t be used to its full potential. 

    As I mentioned, I think students are perfectly capable of learning how to use technology.  They can just learn more with additional inputs.  Technology is an effective tool but not a replacement.  For example, here is an article from Science Daily that shows 1:1 laptop ratios lead to higher academic performance.  However, it also mentions “that across all of the studies contained in the journal, one common link is clear: the value of teachers committed to making 1:1 computing work.”

  • Ivaylo Vasilev on 30th April 2010:

    @Maria I don’t know what western science journals say, but it certainly doesn’t apply to third-world kids. I’m telling you, so long as they can read letters (and maybe even that is learnable), they can achieve as high and maybe higher than anyone could imagine.

  • Maria Kuecken on 01st May 2010:

    @ Ivaylo: I do agree that children definitely learn ICT amazingly fast no matter where they’re from.  My point is just that, when we are targeting use in the classroom, I believe technology is not a panacea but a tool.  A tool that can be used with other tools to bring about a better outcome, whether in the developed or developing world. Outside the classroom, ICT should be encouraged for whatever application users can find and indeed many innovative applications arise that the inventors of the technology never imagined. 

    Do check this out because I think it frames our discussion and explains the disconnect from the constructivist learning philosophy very well (and certainly better than I do!) smile

  • Bart Knols on 01st May 2010:

    OLPC is an interesting idea. Within the UBS Optimus Foundation (in which I am a board member) we tried to get 10.000 laptops for children in Mali. But it turned out that the delivery and logistics were so complicated that we decided to abandon the project. From what I have come to know, the production of these small robust laptops has faltered, and the supplier has a hard time coping with the demand and client’s wishes…

  • Ivaylo Vasilev on 01st May 2010:

    @Maria In general I agree that ICT can work better when complemented with the rest of the stuff you’re talking about, but it’s unrealistic to reason that it’s possible to provide universal teachers, methods, standard tests, etc. What I am saying is that since we have to do with what we have - this venture seems appropriate.

  • Hemant Jain on 01st May 2010:

    What is also interesting is that in countries like India, mobile phones are doing what computers can and perhaps what computers could not. Provide the accessible and universal tool for a revolution. Let me explain by two very interesting stories:



  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 01st May 2010:


    Thanks for this stories. I was thinking of the situation here in my own country and wish that the government would indeed have more budget for education. Ofcourse, it can make a whole lot of difference.

  • Wouter Dijkstra on 03rd May 2010:

    The education system in countries where OLPC are dropped are diffrent from Western schools. Teachers in these countries still have a strong feeling of authority and respect in the classroom. When this authority is undermined by computers, they will oppose the use of the computers. Or do you want to replace teachers all together? It is not only a matter of training teachers in the use of OLPC, it is a cultural problem of who is the boss in the classroom.

    Read my post on ICT4D 2.0
    Some rebalancing should take place in the way the needs of the poor are addressed through the use of ICTs. Instead of providing ICT hardware for the poor, more recognition should be given to the importance of collaboration with local partners and national initiatives. Whereas the One-laptop per child and foreign aid-sponsored tele-centres are seen as a quick and ‘off-the-shelf’ solutions, experts in the field of ICT for development suggest that future strategies should adhere to the watchwords of sustainability, scalability and evaluation to avoid the trap of replicating Western ICT models for a quick fix in the development of poor countries.

  • Lara Smallman on 15th June 2010:

    I know some of you had your reservations about this scheme. I’ve just read that there is a redesign happening:  Let me know your thoughts!

  • Maria Kuecken on 15th June 2010:

    Thanks for the article, Lara.  The technical redesign may be important (however, considering how cheap netbooks are nowadays, they might be able to have similar effects depending on the final cost of the new model), but I do think there should be at least equal weight on improving the pedagogical aspect as well in order to answer to some of the integration problems. Here’s a recent article on OLPC in Rwanda that discusses some of the pros and cons, in case anyone’s interested:

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