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Why One Child Per Laptop Didn’t Work

By Tom Kelleher

In 2005, Nicholas Negroponte founded the non-profit One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organization. The organization leveraged $1 billion of investment and partnerships with individuals, UN agencies and organizations like eBay, Red Hat, Google and News Corporation to pursue a broad goal of providing a “rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop” computer for each primary-school child in developing nations. Negroponte, who delivered the very first TED talk in 1984 and co-founded the MIT Media Lab in 1985, envisioned a program that would bridge both the access and usage divides. In a 2006 TED talk, he shared a personal anecdote from a remote village in Cambodia:

“…a village that has no electricity, no water, no television, no telephone, but has broadband Internet now. And these kids, their first English word is “Google” and they only know Skype. They’ve never heard of telephony. They just use Skype. And they go home at night—they ‘ve got a broadband connection in a hut that doesn’t have electricity. The parents love it, because when they open up the laptops, it’s the brightest light source in the house.”

Unfortunately, even with an inspirational vision, the program was not as successful as investors, educators, scholars, policymakers and designers had hoped. The technological difficulty of producing and distributing extremely low-cost laptops was part of the problem. The program originally aimed to produce the OLPC XO model at a price of $100 per laptop, but manufacturers often had to price them at $200 or more. The laptops also were criticized for lacking connection ports for classroom projectors, limited troubleshooting assistance for software issues, expensive replacement parts for hardware, and being made with environmentally hazardous materials.

Cultural issues also presented significant challenges. In Uruguay, for example, a national evaluation of the program after it launched revealed that only 21.5% of teachers reported using the laptops in class daily or near-daily, and 25% of the teachers reported using them less than once a week. The program also was deployed in parts of the United States, but results there were equally discouraging. In Birmingham, Alabama, the city invested more than $4 million to provide more than 1700 fourth- and fifth-graders with laptops. In a survey, however, 80 percent of the students said they used the laptops either seldom or never.

So what went wrong? In reviewing the data and reports, UC-Irvine Professor Mark Warschauer and Stanford Ph.D. Candidate Morgan Ames found the results to illustrate how important it is to adapt to local cultures. The OLPC programs struggled, they said, “because they ignored local contexts and discounted the importance of curriculum and ongoing social, as well as technical, support and training.”

No one faults the program for its intent and ambition. Even the program’s critics also acknowledge that the OLPC program spurred innovation in low-cost computers with more durable, low-power hardware, and collaborative software designed to improve access, use, and education. Nonetheless, analyzing the OLPC’s shortfalls yields valuable lessons for designing programs that involve strategic communication across cultures.

As Business Weeks Bruce Nussbaum wrote, the program broke a cardinal rule of program design by not focusing first on the end users of the laptops. Nussbaum suggested that OLPC would have been more successful if it had involved its primary publics earlier in the planning. “It would have been far better to begin in the villages, spend time there and build from the bottom up.” Had teachers, parents, and students been consulted more in the research and planning stages before implementation, OLPC strategists may have been in a better position to tailor the program to needs at the local level. Public relations professionals should apply this type of design thinking that focuses on end users (i.e., key publics) in any kind of planning. Access to technology is perhaps the first concern, but any effective communication strategy also requires careful attention to social and cultural contexts.

Tom Kelleher is a professor and the chair of the Advertising Department in College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida.

This story was originally published on Oxford Presents as part of an on going series of case studies from his new textbook, Public Relations.

Posted: December 14, 2016
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