Q&A: OLPC Talks Past, Present and Future

A lot of you had your own opinions as to what OLPC's biggest mistake was, be it Intel, the G1G1 program, the OS, or the fact that the XO laptop was overshadowed by the rapidly growing netbook market almost immediately after it launched. Everyone has their own opinion as to why OLPC is doing less than spectacularly.

OLPC is a great idea and it's sad to see something that endeavors to do so much good not live up to expectations. We recently spoke to Matt Keller, Director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at OLPC, about the high expectations people had for the program, Intel, the design and what the company hopes to achieve in the future. Check out the interview below for Keller's full answers.

Tom's Hardware: OLPC has been putting laptops in the hands of school children all over the globe for a few years now but deployment expectations have been less than anticipated. Do you guys feel that if you had gone about things differently, your deployment numbers would be higher?
Matt Keller: No, not really.  high numbers were talked about for two reasons:  1)  Political commitment from the top by the likes of Qaddafi, Lula etc, and 2)  It set the vision for what OLPC is truly about.  Unless we change the way people normally think about scale, then we would never have able to get the kind of attention needed to launch, and we would be reduced to playing the same old development game which in many cases is a failure. 
TH: The list of deployments on the Laptop.org wiki puts your deployments at nearly 600,000 PCs shipped, delivered and ordered. Has there been any specific period where growth has been a problem? For example, has the global economic crisis affected your sales?
MK: The number is closer to 850,000 laptops.  Growth is a challenge because our focus -- the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) -- are poor.  Our priority going forward is to strategize in innovative ways around the issue of adoption of laptops.  No country says that connected laptops filled with rich and dynamic educational content capable of delivering thousands of books without the need for electricity is a bad idea.  Quite the contrary.  The question is funding, funding, funding.  The economic downturn is not as relevant in Afghanistan or Ethiopia as it is in the U.S. so I can't say it's played a major role.   
TH: Plenty of reports claim that some teachers in developing nations see the XO laptop as a toy or a distraction from traditional class work, and as such, have banned them from the classroom. This in turn has led people to criticize OLPC for not properly preparing teachers for the type of alternative learning the XO laptops offer. What’s your stance on the issue?
MK: I have heard of very few instances where this is true.  In fact, we make it a point to work with countries where there is very, very strong pull, mainly because we know that if a country does not own olpc fully, it will fail.  If the country owns olpc fully -- ie Rwanda, Pery, Uruguay, Afghanistan -- that means the educational bureaucracy is bought in as well.  In addition, the XO is designed to seamlessly integrate into a child's life, and school is only one important place where the child will learn with the XO, but just one.
TH: The work OLPC is doing is a worthwhile cause and education is of utmost importance in developing countries. However as we mentioned before, some teachers are skeptical of the XO laptop’s uses in the classroom and have prohibited the use of the computers. How do you plan on measuring the success of the program if the numbers of shipped computers is not an accurate portrayal of how many are being put to use?
MK: Again, the examples of teachers not using them is so small I really cannot respond.  In addition, the child owns the XO, and most children use them for many hours outside the classroom where an enormous amount of learning takes place.  I know there are studies happening in many parts of the world by academics who will be using various metrics to judge the effectiveness of laptops and children.  Our metrics are probably very different than theirs.  For example, how will these reports quantify the level of excitement in a classroom once the XO is introduced?  When children receive these machines and they realize they actually own them, and a universe of knowledge is available to them, their very notion of school changes instantaneous.  Hopefully, reports will be written that will include that kind of metric.  Doubtful, but possible.
TH: What opportunities do you see in the future that might improve OLPC’s potential or performance?
MK: Building an army of millions at the grassroots level who will help get laptops into the hands of children around the world, and who will help change the way that international institutions think and act.  This grassroots approach, coupled with traditional avenues, could be hugely effective in changing the way people in LDCs gain access to this technology.  The question here isn't effectiveness of performance vis a vie the laptop, the question as always is a resource one.  It's also a question of getting traditional development institutions to understand and harness the power of technology.  The fact that these institutions are still trying to figure out ways to get more textbooks shipped is only one small example of antiquated thinking, but tragic nonetheless.     
TH: Do you find the addition of Windows XP has had a significant impact on orders compared to a time when only a Linux-based machine was offered?

MK: It's probably too early to tell. You should wait a year on that one.
TH: Intel used to be a huge partner of the OLPC Foundation. Since then, the company has launched its own low-cost laptop aimed at educating kids in developing countries. What makes the XO laptop a more appropriate choice for children?
MK: OLPC views children as a mission and not as a market which is one fundamental difference. In addition, the XO uses very little power, and as a result can be charged with a square foot solar panel.  In places where most children live off the grid, this is a very big deal.  OLPC is also child-centric, which is rather unique.  The Classmate will serve its purposes in urban areas where access to electricity is not a problem, and I am guessing that secondary school students would be the right audience. 
TH: Lastly, the color scheme and design. Any particular reason it looks like Shrek?
MK: The former President of Nigeria was so extraordinarily supportive of the vision and reality of OLPC very early on that Professor Negroponte decided that the XO should be the same colors as the Nigerian Flag. 


Over all it seems like measuring the success of OLPC is a case of "time will tell." What are your opinions on the OLPC program? Let us know in the comments below!

A huge thanks to Matt Keller for taking the time to talk to us.

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