(photo credit: laihiu)

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project started out with big dreams. Founded by Nicholas Negroponte of MIT’s media lab, it promised a hundred dollar laptop that would be sold directly to Ministries of Education in huge lots. The laptop, they promised, was the new pencil. It was going to revolutionize education in the developing world.

It didn’t.

The laptop never came down to the hundred dollar price that was promised. The huge orders never materialized, and the project was very slow to allow sales to NGOs and charities instead of just governments. They abandoned the human-powered power source. They abandoned the special child-friendly OS. The laptop still didn’t sell to their target market in the developing world.

Americans wanted the OLPC. We fell in love with its tremendous promise and adorable shape. (note: I own an OLPC) We were the first market it conquered. OLPC launched a give one-get one promotion that let individuals pay $400 to donate one laptop and receive one for themselves. It was a huge success, except that OLPC wasn’t set up for that kind of customer order fulfillment. Laptops arrived far later than promised, and several thousand orders were simply lost.

Once the laptop finally started arriving in the developing world, its impact was minimal. We think. No one is doing much research on their impact on education; discussions are largely theoretical. This we do know: OLPC didn’t provide tech support for the machines, or training in how to incorporate them into education. Teachers didn’t understand how to use the laptops in their lessons; some resented them. Kids like the laptops, but they don’t actually seem to help them learn.

It’s time to call a spade a spade. OLPC was a failure. Businessweek called it two years ago. Now, Timothy Ogden, editor-in-chief of Philanthropy Action has made a compelling argument to give up on OLPC. He points out that supporting de-worming programs has more impact on child learning than the OLPC laptops.  The laptops were designed without end-user input, they cost too much both to produce and to run, and they’re now being outcompeted by commercial laptops. Only about a million OLPCs have shipped so far.

Some people call OLPC Nick Negroponte’s vanity project. I wouldn’t go that far. But it’s not going to change the world, or even affect it all that much. One Laptop per Child got everyone thinking about the education in the developing world. It spawned the commercial laptops that are now out competing it. But that’s all. The dream is over.

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