Let them eat cake? No, let them change the world.

picture-2.pngJohn Dvorak (PC Magazine) recently wrote a column called One Laptop per Child Doesn’t Change the World. He asked, “Does anyone but me see the OLPC XO-1 as an insulting “let them eat cake” sort of message to the world’s poor?” He goes on to belittle the computer, calling it “cute” and after citing hunger statistics, drops his sarcastic solution.

“So what to do? Let’s give these kids these little green computers. That will do it! That will solve the poverty problem and everything else, for that matter.”

Well, yes, actually, that’s the point. Maybe it will solve the poverty problem and everything else.

The developed world has tried all sorts of interventions to help developing countries, and from what I can see, most have ended up in failure. Our skewed ideas about how to help have historically ended up with many good intentions gone awry, mired in corruption, or worse.

So how about we give the developing world the gift of the most powerful intellectual tool ever invented. Then, here’s an idea, we let them solve some of their own problems and stop blaming them for being poor. And how about we use a different distribution method than the usual aid.

picture-6.pngUsing children as the focal point for change is an innovative (and controversial) aspect of OLPC. Some detractors have ridiculed this as meaning that teachers aren’t important or necessary. Yet this is far from true. It’s simply not an either/or situation. In my recent post, The Hole in the Wall, I discussed that fact that there is ample evidence that children figure out how to use computer technology, even without instruction. Years of research also showed that although adults did not need to participate in order for the kids to learn, having caring adults around amplified the impact.

So is the XO project just more imperialist nonsense about encouraging people to pull themselves up with their own bootstraps when they have no boots? No, and the facts are beginning to come in from the pilot projects to prove it.

picture-4.pngConsider this Peruvian XO pilot project in Arahuay, a poor, rural town in the Andes. This project was profiled in the Washington Post, Dec. 30, 2007 In Peru, a pint-size ticket to learning. The monthly income for most villagers is less than the cost of one laptop.

Many adults share only weekends with their children, spending the workweek in fields many hours’ walk from town and relying on charities to help keep their families nourished. When they finish school, young people tend to abandon the village.

So did these people sell the XO laptops for food? No. Were they stolen? No. Were the children confused by Slashdot and entangled in email scams (as John Dvorak suggests)? No.

At breakfast, they’re already powering up the combination library/videocamera/audio recorder/musicmaker/drawing kits. At night, they’re dozing off in front of them — if they’ve managed to keep older siblings from waylaying the coveted machines.

Antony, 12, wants to become an accountant. Alex, 7, aspires to be a lawyer. Kevin, 11, wants to play trumpet. Saida, 10, is already a promising videographer, judging from her artful recording of the town’s recent Fiesta de la Virgen.

Today they are drawing pictures, tomorrow they may draw plans for an invention to make farming more productive, picture-1.pngand then fabricate it using techniques found online. Maybe they will communicate with a rural Cambodian village that successfully built a wind-powered electrical generator and build one for themselves. One day not far in the future, a ten year old might save his mother’s life with medical information found online. Today Saida is making a video about her village, tomorrow she could be running for public office using video to communicate her message.

Should we helicopter in a few more bags of rice instead?


What these kids are doing is building intellectual prowess that might lift their village out of the unending cycle of rural poverty that is destroying their families and their future. They are seeing a world of opportunity, information and solutions. Maybe, just maybe, this IS the catalyst they need to solve the problems they consider most important, most likely in ways that we could never imagine.

girls-xo-peru.pngThese kids are smart, creative and in the understatement of the century, have a world of authentic problems to solve. Plus, there are caring adults who could help if given the chance. The least the “developed world” can do is give kids, their parents, and teachers access to the most powerful intellectual amplifier ever invented – the computer, and a connection to the world of information and expertise.

And then get out of their way.


PS If you read Spanish, check out this story about the OLPC pilot in Arahuay – Reportaje NAPA 26: OLPC, laptops en Arahuay. There is a great video about the laptops coming to the village, and even if you don’t understand the narration, the pride on the kids’ (and parents’) faces says it all. All the stills in this blog post are clipped from that video.

18 Replies to “Let them eat cake? No, let them change the world.”

  1. hi. thank you for the link to NAPA.
    we’ll keep an eye on the OLPC project in Peru. we hope computers will help them in their learning process.

  2. Very well said, Sylvia.

    Our kids are far more capable than we give them credit and you’re absolutely correct: OLPC has a great chance at changing the world!

  3. Though perhaps a bit optimistic, I heartily concur with the OLPC XO project – if not, I wouldn’t have invested financially in G1G1! I believe in the underlying value – that if you merely give people the product, they’ll have difficulty appreciating the process; but if you provide them the tools and support to learn “how to,” they’ll gain much more value. Thus, providing the ubiquitous tool of XOs to children world-wide can provide the opportunity for sustainability unlike any ‘final product.’ It will be interesting to follow the research and anecdotal reviews as this project is implemented.

  4. Those of us with the luxury of access and education can debate these points.

    Right now, most of these children have neither.

    And without access, the global economy will leave these children behind, far behind.

    I applaud your post.

    We can’t, nor should we, prescribe what will work, but give people a means to an education like the world’s largest free library (internet) and see what they will do.

    Is an XO everything? Of course not. But education is a ticket to the world, a world every child deserves.

    And while the debate goes on here internally, about the intentions or the operating system, children around the world are already online, learning….

  5. Sylvia – well stated! We diminish those in the developing nations by imagining that all are starving and sick. The fact is, many communities in the developing countries are past the need for food and medicine, and access to education is the next step for sustaining their local economy – by providing them access to the global economy. I applaud Nicholas Negroponte for his vision. The OLPC not only provides a connected laptop with educational tools to children but will provide training and support to the teachers, parents and leaders in the communities that will receive the XOs. It is not just about parachuting in sophisticated “toys” to impoverished children for a good photo-op for bleeding hearts (as Dvorak may imagine), but a systemic approach promoting education to address the digital gap. Thanks for taking the time to write your post. We need to stand up and support OLPC, in spite of their many hurdles and setbacks.

  6. If current “relief” efforts are not working, then let’s try something different! I do think we need to be sure to continue to update the OLPC XO project each year, to be sure the kids have the latest in capabilities. If we only run this show for a year or two, then it may indeed never demonstrate sweeping change. It’s go to be a longitudinal study before we take the temperature of success/failure.

    But I’d also like to see a similar domestic XO project for some of our more rural and poverty-stricken areas in the US as well.

  7. Well said! So much easier to knock down ideas than to see the worth in them. This project might not be the end of poverty but it certainly can’t hurt and it might actually do some good. Education is always a good solution and, as we know, children learn in spite of us. So keep plugging the program and let’s watch for more proof of success.

  8. I’m not sure I liked the reporter’s characterization of the laptop as a toy. At one point she says that the parents refer to the laptop as a toy but she says the teachers (profes) call it a toy that educates. Still, not sure I like it being called a toy.

    I’ve got one, and I’ve been letting my 5 year-old daughter use it regularly, and she’s pretty much only mastered the camera function, not much more. I’m thinking that these are good for folks with zero access otherwise, as in the case of Arahuay. It’s only 3-4 hours from Lima, where I used to live, so seeing the village get so much attention recently has been nice.

    Thanks for the link and the post…

    Chris Craft

  9. Sylvia, So well stated! Your passion is infectious. Change is a step by step process. No one knows what will be the ripple that makes a monumental difference. It is the small ripples which continue to impact the shores of the status quo which over time make imperceptible differences in the shoreline. Along those lines, no one knows what effect the ripple of the OLPC will be, but we do know from history that the repression and lack of knowledge and education have stunted the advance of past cultures. The OLPC program offers the tool, which is important, but which provides the opportunity, which is most important, for children to reach beyond their immediate world. The opportunity to access knowledge, to access people beyond their small world has the potential to ignite their innate ability to imagine, to hope, to dream, to connect, to learn, to experiment, and thereby to craft a future that they had never even imagined. I say, stand out of the way, who knows what they will accomplish- my bets are on amazing things!

  10. Excellent write-up and response, Sylvia. You make so many excellent points and your anecdotes about ways individuals will use connections in the future to solvr problems are wonderful as well.

    I’m a big believer in the power of connections-imagine a future where people in all corners of the world are able to exchange information and problem solutions with one another.

    Negroponte’s vision is grand-it sort of follows the “If you teach a person to fish…” philosophy. His concept and idea have helped spur a whole new industry as well-low cost, powerful connectivity and communication devices for everyone. It is refreshing to see a movement in this direction, especially considering the bloated and expensive computing platforms that the masses have come to accept over the last 10 years.

    My wife and I participated in the G!G! program and truthfully, I have been a little disappointed with the speed of the computer, the battery life, and the fact that I can’t get it to connect to my invisible SSID at school or in my home (we set our SSIDs to be invisible simply as an added security measure-security by obscurity!!) But this is coming from someone who has the latest greatest apple notebook and a 2 year old Dell desktop at the school I work at. I even passed it around to some of the 7th grade students that I teach and one boy in particular was memorized by the XO-this kid is incredibly brilliant and he was getting involved with one of the programs that use logo to build simple animations.

    Touché to Mr. Dvorak over there at PC Magazine! Well Stated!

    Happy New Year!
    Matt Montagne
    Milwaukee, WI USA

  11. Sylvia,
    I think one of the points I took away from the video is the idea that the children use them to collaborate with each other to learn. They are raised in a society where there is a critical interdependence built into their family structures and village life. THEY ARE NATURALS at something we as educational leaders are trying to capture and refine. Perhaps the computers in the right hands will lend themselves to the answers we have not thought of yet. Great post!

  12. Thanks for the post.
    I have one of the XOs and I am still working on it, thinking about it, etc.
    Will it change the world?
    I certainly hope so, but there may be some validity to examining how priorities are set by countries. I think the XO and technology has a place to help developing countries make a shift to the new Flat World.
    But the point raised by many is that if people are hungry and without stable homes, technology won’t be the panacea to change the world.
    I remain an optimist, however, and hope that exposure to technology like the XO might open up some doors for kids who might not otherwise ever have had the chance.

  13. Sylvia, thank you for your thoughts and for highlighting some issues to do with the XO implementation. As a teacher who has lived and worked in third world countries for many years I know these devices in some way will make a difference. It is putting the means of communication in the hands of the children and inspiring them to look at the world in a different way. However, this is far from a perfect world and I fear for the corruption that can erode a lot of the good that comes from this new found enlightenment. I am an optimist at heart and agree with you that we are giving young people a chance to build ‘intellectual prowess’. It is what they do next is important, and how they are eventually treated by the rest of the world is even more important. These are not guinea pigs, these are people with aspirations and traditions and in many cases close family cultural ties that are largely not paralleled in many western scenarios now. We in the west also need to stop acting like the benevolent father and let them get on with what they need to do in terms of embracing knowledge and constructing it to be their own…this applies to all children of course!

  14. Thanks everyone for the comments (and Diggs). I can’t help but be excited by this experiment with learning on a scale never before attempted. It’s way too early to declare success (or failure) and we are an impatient lot, so I hope the momentum continues.

  15. Hi, Sylvia:
    I was inspired by the Peru story of Antony, Siada and Kevin, too, let’s you skip right past this at-a-distance opining and watch kids at work!

    I’m commenting on your Clrm 2.0 XO group post about not being able to write into the wiki…

  16. Sylvia,
    Does Peru use standardized tests to evaluate children? Since the goal of OLPC is education, not laptops, how have the XO children performed versus the non-XO children?

  17. My students in the USA particpate in Think.com, an online educational community. They have found one of these schools in Arahuay, Peru on the network and I have been helping them translate questions and answers back and forth.
    One of the classes has a photo of the students using the laptops.
    It is a nearly empty room, with chipped paint, bare floors and walls, and an old wooden table. The children and teacher are gathered there, around some computers. What was on that table before? I see learning. I see possibilities.
    I see my students in a mountain community in Wyoming sharing ideas with children in a mountain community in Peru. I think it has big benefits now, and what will the world be like in 15 years, when the 20somethings have grown up with a world community classroom?

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