Isaiah Mwebwa weds
If you have been following the on-going #Africa3d0 discussions on Twitter from my talk at SxSW in Austin, TX, then you have noticed that @OLPCnews challenged me to a debate. The challenge was stoked by my comment during the Q&A session that “…OLPC was dead in the water.” I have kept a skeptical eye on Nicholas Negroponte’s pet project since its initial announcement. This is not the first time that I have spoken out against OLPC. I had the same skeptical point of view last year at Ars Electronica’s Cloud Intelligence Symposium round table.
First things first. There are a couple things that I think the XO accomplishes and I applaud Negroponte for his efforts in these areas.

  1. OLPC makes an effort to introduce technology to children.
    I can’t argue with this effort at all. Fundamentally, it is right up there with my views that Africa’s future will ride largely on a digital renaissance.
  2. As @OLPCnews put it, “OLPC begat netbooks.”
    The form factor proved that you can make a portable, cheap laptop. This has had the effect of reducing the barrier to entry in many markets.

Now, let me admit that @OLPCnews has it right, I am no MARK WARSCHAUER, (who articulates the many structural failures of OLPC from a learned professional’s view point). Nor am I Jon Camfield, whom I have had the pleasure of meeting and discussing the many angles of OLPC. You can find his excellent posts on the subject here, here and here. I will address this from a Ugandan perspective, and as an ever-curious African futurist in terms of the connected learning and cultural experience in Africa.

With that in mind, let me address some of my points in greater detail (and hopefully greater clarity than offered in 140 characters). That being said, here are my reasons for declaring OLPC a failed strategy for Africa.

Failure to Address Failed Education Systems
I applaud OLPC’s attempt to have the governments pay for the laptops and distribute them to the children, but I do not see this going very far beyond a few progressive governments like Kagame’s Rwanda. If the government does not acknowledge and address its poor education system, and put massive weight behind making sure that the cornerstones of their country’s education system are overhauled to be inline with 21st century educational best practices, then OLPC is dead in the water.

Pointing out the successes of individual schools is analogous to putting a bandage on a patient with thousands of festering wounds and maladies and then proclaiming in the loudest voice capable, “see, see, it does work and you are an idiot for saying it doesn’t!!” What Africa’s education system needs is a massive injection of reform from within. In particular, Uganda’s education system stopped progressing at the end of British colonial rule over 40 years ago. It is the same “stuff and regurgitate” method of instruction that doesn’t inspire individual exploration. The teacher is the gate keeper of information. Don’t question authority. A system like this leaves very little room for outside-the-box education systems like OLPC. Injecting XO in just a chosen few schools does not address the problems inherently wrong with the system. XO’s are not a panacea for fundamentally flawed education systems.

Why not go the distance by making sure you have teachers that can leverage the power of such a platform so they can educate better and more effectively.

  1. “Train the trainer” first, by empowering teachers to believe in the tool. Additionally, provide on-going, practical training for every teacher involved in the program.
  2. Pay and certify the teachers to use this tool so they feel the inherent value instead of adding another thing they have to do for the same measly pay
  3. Ensure a supportive political environment that values digital learning tools. Therefore, an ecosystem of governance that simply “gets it,” that the whole educational value chain has to be supported and sustained in order to gain maximum value.
  4. Build the infrastructure that will continue to support e-learning initiatives beyond the involvement of one vendor.
  5. More precisely, diversify the electronic teaching tools so that you have a hybrid electronic ecosystem that can respond to the particular needs of the environment. A hybrid learning system that resembles real-world atmosphere is better than limiting students to sugar OS. Add in mobile learning initiatives so they can also interact with the real world.

With nearly 50% of Africa’s population under the age of 15, we are at a critical cross roads in preparing for their future. We need forward-thinking governments that can take the helm and man up to their institutional responsibility of educating their country’s future leaders, innovators, and change makers. This is not Nick Negroponte’s responsibility. No matter how hard he tries to stuff the XO into children’s hands, the war will still be lost, save for a few anecdotal battle successes.

African governments are not equipped to purchase, distribute, maintain 450 million XOs in Africa while simultaneously overhauling failed infrastructures. Let  us also remember, that a majority of these African countries function on donor capital. How is this good for us again?

Wrong Platform

As of 2009, there were approximately 450 million phone subscriptions across Africa.  A few countries on the continent have an estimated 90% rate of penetration. To many, this is the first introduction to a piece of technology, the first introduction to a computing device, and if you count SMS and MMS services, the first introduction to electronic communication.

The mobile phone in Africa does something that the OLPC will never do, it integrates itself into the rhythm of life in Africa. Its use flows with the pace of life: it augments ones life experience when it needs to; it plays rescuer when the need arises, it creates incomes where none were possible previously; it makes the world smaller where previously distances were vast. Most importantly, it educates everyone. Try doing that with an XO. Anyone that comes across a mobile phone instantly experiences the benefits of a mobile simply by accomplishing a necessary task; call someone, text someone, calculate a price difference, set an alarm, tell time, research a particular crop disease. Even the dumbest of phones provide immeasurable exposure to technology to the greatest number of people in Africa. If this isn’t a prime example of educating a nation, I don’t know what is.

The rise of smart phones far outpaced the OLPC.  A majority of Africa’s half-billion children will come of age on smart phones more suited to their traditional lifestyles than OLPC and they will learn real-world experiences. Phones are not getting dumber with features being stripped away. They are getting smarter, ubiquitous and cheaper. @OLPCnews should educate itself on the potential to educate on a mobile by visiting my good friend Steve Vosloo’s Innovating Education project in South Africa. The project is proving success even without the use of smartphones. If they can the mobile phone as a viable pedagogical tool without the use of smart phones, how much more successful will they be with smart phones? OLPC is not the only way, nor is it the best way to introduce technology to children, nor is it the best. Defending OLPC’s relevance is analogous to defending either Blueray or HD-DVD when prevailing data shows digital downloads are the way to go. That whole race was lost the minute Steve Jobs introduced the iTunes Music Store.

Cultural Disruption

My third point addresses something that is dear to me. I am not sure how many people will agree with me so mileage may vary depending on your cultural experiences. As I said above, the mobile phone goes about educating and enriching lives in rhythm with Africa’s variety of cultural norms. Outside forces empowering children with their very own laptop (however well-meaning the altruistic gesture might be), puts a majority of children at odds with their place in the family structure. In some cultures, children have their place in the social order, with responsibilities to perform accordingly—be it washing dishes, collecting water and firewood, or cooking. In this structure, children learn social responsibilities to one another and how family functions. They learn things you can’t teach in a classroom.

Throwing something as complex as a laptop into the ownership of a child disrupts this social knowledge transfer mechanisms. Examples were given of successes in Kenya where parents learned from children because of the presence of the laptops. This is by no means a cultural norm. Exceptions are going to happen but the overall effect will be the loosening of the traditional family bond when the child knows more than the parent.

The crux of my argument here is the ability for children to take these laptops home. These laptops should be left at the schools, perhaps to serve as the community computer library. This accomplishes two things, it gives open access to the community, and preserves cultural family orders.

I will posit that mobile phones provide a parallel learning experience where both parent and child can interact with the technology without upsetting the social balance. Both can talk on it with fair ease, they can both text on it with equal aplomb and both are able to use it to enrich their respective worlds. Parents can use the technology to run the family, while the children can interact with the games, stay in touch with their friends, or complete simple tasks designed to introduce them to how their world functions.

Finally, I will address some of Wayan’s comments from his rebuttal to my remarks. I won’t address them all, lest this dialog fall into a disappointing discourse of “Does to! Does not!!”

Wayan: “…And with the low attendance already prevalent in Africa, it makes sense to give out XO’s there, as a rationale for sending children to school, rather than charging poor parents who cannot afford much.”

TMS: I am really tired of this argument that we are poor so incidentally everything should be given to us for free. Stop treating us like your indigent dependents. If there is a value proposition for us to own a cell phone, we will find a way to pay for it. Clam-shelled arguments that we “cannot afford much” is insulting. The West is not responsible for saving us. Please shelve the “white man’s burden” argument. It is not Africa’s responsibility to reinvent America’s declining public education systems, except for America.

Wayan: … “The mobile phone vs. computer argument is an old one, and the results are always the same: there is a place for both. You’ll not read (or write) a textbook on your mobile phone, but it is handy for short text, and for voice, its the killer app…”

TMS: See my point above on regarding Steve Volsoo’s mobile learning projects at Shuttleworth Foundation in South Africa. Also, see my points on a hybrid system, (I think we agree).

To conclude, I am no Mark Warschauer, for sure. But then again, while he is accomplished, he is not me. I am an educated Ugandan with the ability to speak for myself and my continent. Many of my original points were concurred by the @OLPCNews crew. So, it was disappointed that they descended to a level of being catty and condescending. Call me what you may, but accepting yet another Western-driven top-down solution unchallenged, is not going to be my cup of tea. Threatening me with the OLPC fanboy army doesn’t exactly inspire respect either. Thanks for playing.


  1. Great response. I just finished a meeting with BOSCO-Uganda and their US Board Members. Many of the points that you mentioned are being discussed as we try to determine the role of BOSCO in a Uganda where Internet (eventually) becomes cheap and accessible. Basically, we’re trying to develop curriculums and training models that lead to ICT+, i.e. an ICT training with a focus on the Internet that encourages responsible, constructive and engaging interaction (whether economic empowerment, education [research & analysis], creativity etc.) Not sure what OLPC does in this regard, but here are a few thoughts as a response to your suggestions:

    1. Train the Trainer: BOSCO has been using this model in the deployment of its Web 2.0 training curriculum, as well as in its existing ICT centres (which range from a computer in a CBO office to several computers for ICT training in schools). Aga Khan Foundation also uses this model in education, “the cascade approach.” The point is to decentralize knowledge as much as possible. We both target “change agents” in communities, as well as teachers. While we don’t offer incentives (this might be why implementation and seeing a change takes so long), I think it’s important to integrate these programs well enough that they do not offer an added burden, but become a pleasure. You get a true reflection of how well you are doing by keeping monetary incentives out of the picture (though diplomas etc. are always appreciated).

    2. Supportive Environment: We don’t work through a political environment, so to speak, but being associated with the Archdiocese has given BOSCO a huge boost in legitimacy and impact. I would suggest others working in ICT for development or education consider establishing strong relationships with community leaders – churches, district education offices etc. – to support their work and better understand their environment.

    3. Electronic teaching tools: One big challenge, from what I understand, of working in Northern Uganda is a limited reading culture and literacy level. We’re trying to brainstorm alternative models of ICT interaction and education that lead towards increased literacy without putting too much of a demand on people to write (which can be discouraging). We’re thinking audio, as well as visual (we just acquired a few Flips for the field). Thoughts?

    4. Continued learning: On that note, we have a working proposal to fund an ICT Training Centre that would reach beyond the basics of most telecenters which do mainly Word, Excel etc. We would take on intermediate and advanced computer users (basically, they get Word etc.) and teach programming, HTML (perhaps with some design training), and Web 2.0. It would be great to include Web. 3.0 as well. I’m hoping Gosier at Appfrica labs might have some advice.

    Otherwise, I think you make an important point in terms of culture. We do use OLPCs, as well as the normal desktop/laptop, but they remain in schools/CBOs/community centers as key tools of learning available to everyone. While I think you might be over-estimating the potential of “cultural disruption” through the computer, I do agree that it seems more in line with current norms, which I think are very valuable in terms of teaching responsibility and community, to divorce computers (work or leisure) from the household, which comes with a specific set of duties and values.

    In closing, I think BOSCO would love to integrate cellphones into their current structure, particularly as they are more widely available and intuitive. Would love some pointers on organizations similar to BOSCO using Web 3.0 regularly.

  2. OLPC in Education

    OLPC's goal was to blow up the “stuff and regurgitate” method of instruction and bypass the teacher as the gate keeper of information through the XO. Children would have direct & personal connections with information (like their parents do via mobile phones) with their own tool.

    Yes, that upends the current culture and that was the point – if you want to make radical change (like you suggest in the education system) you also have to make radical cultural changes. Putting children first was one of them.

    At the same time, we called for a cultural integration plan, less the XO end up as a Coke bottle tossed into the sea: http://www.olpcnews.com/countries/libya/2b1_cultu

    OLPC vs Phones

    I would not equate "call someone, text someone, calculate a price difference, set an alarm" with the level of learning from one eBook (even White Man's Burden) or the Wikipedia, or even a library of Alexandria – which the XO is when paired with 1.5 million eBooks: http://www.olpcnews.com/content/ebooks/millions_x

    The XO laptop is a targeted tool to teach primary school children in the developing world. As such its amazing at its role, but crap at everything else. On the same token, don't make the mistake thinking the mobile phone is amazing at every ICT role in Africa. For voice, for adults, its a killer app. For children, for children to learn and explore, its not.

    Selling XO's to families

    First, the XO is an educational tool, and like schools, teachers, etc, should be provided by the state – ideally through local taxes, but often in Africa by the far off capital government. Or do you suggest that each family should pay directly for primary schooling as well?

    Beyond the basic supply, I too feel strongly that the XO should sell its laptops – to Africans, Americans, anyone with $200 and a desire to educate: http://www.olpcnews.com/laptops/xo15/free_xo-15_l

  3. I don't buy your argument that the poor children can afford computers and do need handouts. But let's suppose you are right.

    In every major economy in the world, the education system is an important way to reduce inequality. First world countries paid for it by raising taxes on the middle income and upper income groups.

    But you can even go further: Some countries like Italy are so frustrated at absorbing hoards of African immigrants that the West should consider new an innovative ways of proactively helping Africa.

    • Not a very constructive comment. I do not think Teddy meant that “poor children can afford computers and do {not} need handouts.” Rather, I think he meant that when there is market demand for a family tool like the cellphone, people have ways of making it happen. There is a huge informal economy in Africa, that, to its great fortune it might seem, has not been tapped. Call this the money under the mattress system.

      As to your closing comment, I would suggest you look at the immigration as a tool of development argument. Harnessing the current Diaspora and ensuring a legal system of immigration that enables newcomers to find necessary work at fair wages for a temporary amount of time, is a great start for the frustrated Italians “absorbing hoards of African immigrants.” This is not a hand-out system, but one based on hard work and merit, values that most African societies agree with.

    • Hi Nic,

      Perhaps I didn't elaborate enough on our failed systems. The dependency on aid erodes the need to raise capital through effective taxation of our own citizenry. Governments are beholden to international funding organizations instead of their taxed citizens. Thus we have propped up systems everywhere resulting in organizations like OLPC thinking they are responsible for erecting our failures.

      Honestly, who do you think pays for these laptops? Where do you think these governments are going to get the money? It is aid money!

      “Major economies around the world” as you say are able to pay for these education systems because they have a taxable base to pay for social and institutional expenditures like education. I never said the students would be paying. Students in Kansas don't pay for the Macbook laptops the school district places on their desks. Taxes, municipal bonds, and government grants pay for them.

      And your immigration argument is bunk. See Siena's point above. I would also add that continually propping up our governments' failed responsibilities towards developing & sustaining necessary infrastructures like the education system is what leads to “hordes of immigrants.”

      “Proactively helping Africa?” – The West has been at this for 40+ years to the tune of $600 billion. Stop beating that horse. It has been dead for years!

      • I know that aid has performed dismally over the last 40 years. But, AFAIK, much of that aid has gone towards infrastructure. Infrastructure make it harder for citizens to criticize their governments constructively and makes it harder for them to leave.

        In contrast, OLPC will make it easier for the next generation to evaluate their governments (comparing them with historical tendencies / other countries. And OLPC will make it easier for the brightest citizens to leave, if they feel that their governments are incompetent.

        I'm not saying it will work, I'm just saying it's worth a shot.

        Siena is wrong in believing that a temporary work permit system can be legally enforced. In Italy, the will power and man power to deport illegal immigrants does not exist. As a South African it is getting harder and harder for me to visit Europe as a tourist, let alone work there.
        Europeans are tired of immigrants not assimilating and then becoming a burden on their socialist system.

  4. Hey Teddy my friend,

    So this is where I have some misgivings…

    On government and education

    Well I couldn’t agree with you more in that the most optimum way might be for a government to “…acknowledge and address its poor education system, and put massive weight behind making sure that the cornerstones of their country’s education system are overhauled to be inline with 21st century educational best practices…“ – as you eloquently put it. The only issue is that we will wait forever. I reckon certain things need to happen in parallel. If I can borrow from the popular sales quote, “Always Be Closing”. While those with the ability continue to lobby the powers that be, things should happen on the ground. Hey, some of the results can be used as ammo too. Perhaps by the time governments come on board there’ll be enough case studies and definite best practices from the teething pains the OLPC project might be going through today.

    I also do believe that if a kid is interested in computers [knowingly or not] and you leave them with one for sometime, you will have added value to the kid’s life and opened up their world. I know this because it happened to me years ago! Now add a few more educational resources to that computer and make it more communal – even more value right there.

    I can’t help but feel as if you are proposing a halt to the OLPC project until the governments get their education act together, to which again I disagree. Sometimes we have to do the most we can with the little [resources] we have.

    On cultural disruption

    Though you have a point, I think there are ways communities can deal with this and have done so in the past.

    Families can always manage kids in that no chores, no computer time! It is earned. This is no different to how most of us grew up, in that if you don’t do chores you are grounded i.e. no play time, etc.

    “…puts a majority of children at odds with their place in the family structure…“
    Another is mobile phones. Mobile phones have shown to disrupt the social norm too. We have certainly noticed situations where children teach parents how to use mobile phones. How is this different when it comes to computers? I do think a lot of this can be dealt in teaching kids respect among other things. Just because I know how to use the computer [or cellphone] does not mean I’m smarter than my elders!

    Also another issue since the introduction of mobile phones is that children tend to spend too much time “isolated” from the family, texting friends, chatting on sites like mxit and playing games. This is being dealt with at the family level and parents can use the same rules for the computers.

    This is the era of business unusual…

    • Noto, excellent points. Thanks for adding to the conversation. I have not advocated for halting the OLPC program by any means. I simply don't agree that it's strategy.

      As you have concurred, we need an overall of the education system to match global march towards the use of ICT in education and allowance for exploratory education systems.

      You don't just plant a tree without preparing the ground.. all in a rush to have some shade.

  5. Great point, in the end no matter what form of aid Africa is given either it is financial or technical as with One Laptop per child it all in my opinion breeds dependency, irresponsibility and destroys local innovation.

    One laptop per child is a great initiative but can never really match locally matured technology based businesses or programs run by the local population themselves

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  7. Foolishly dropping OLPC XOs into educational systems with no other changes would indeed be a prescription for failure. But the other changes coming, such as the SEACOM fiber optic cable, and the next six cables coming after along both the east and west coasts. When teachers colleges adopt new curricula, now in development, and we get the first generation of free digital replacements for printed textbooks, the new technology will turn out to cost less than the old, and to deliver far more.

    Yes, XOs can destroy a rote education culture and replace it with a culture of discovery, as we have seen in trials in Ethiopia, while giving children the means of recording and sharing their own cultures, oral histories, and much more. Listen to the latest Afropop Worldwide for some of the past successes of field recordings.

    http://www.afropop.org/radio/radio_program/ID/789

    http://www.afropop.org/multi/feature/ID/935/Disco

    The communications aspect of XOs is also important. Children will learn from each other around the world, and will grow up not cut off from their governments, their economies, and the global conversation about our shared future. I believe that some of these children would like a word with you–for example to point out that you do not speak for them, as I certainly do not, except with the greatest diffidence.

    Have you been to any schools that have XOs?

  8. Why TMS Rouge is dead wrong on this article.
    I wish I could put it more mildly, but your title called for my response. Your conclusion sums it up perfectly, "I am an educated Ugandan with the ability to speak for myself and my continent." Perhaps you would love to stay the only educated African to enjoy the power to speak for a whole continent. "Who elected you in this position?" Speak for yourself Sir. I am sick and tired of African elitists, "pardon neo-colonialist" like you claiming to speak for a whole continent just because they had the privileged to know how to read and write.

    As for your arguments they are all deeply flowed, mixing laptops and cellphones, and whatever have you in between. All you have to offer at the end is a laundry list:

    "1 “Train the trainer” first, ……
    2 Pay and certify the teachers….
    3 Ensure a supportive political environment …..
    4 Build the infrastructure ……
    5 More precisely, diversify the electronic teaching tools ……" and yaadi yaadi yaada
    I would rather a concrete plan that fail than a laundry list that is ready to be rolled out every time somebody tries to do something serious. Ugandans will be better off spending half of the budget of its army on OLPCs than on guns to kill the civilians they are supposed to protect. If you don't have a better system please spear us of empty rethoric.
    Some people worked very hard to make this happen. OLPC is the first product uniquely designed with kids who can't afford it in mind. For that alone Negroponte deserves respect. Marketeers design products for people who can buy them, philanthropist design products for people who need them.
    For the record and for all conspiracy theorists out there, I am a student from Guinea, no relation with OLPC.

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