The One Laptop Per Child Program Was Supposed to Revolutionize the Developing World—Then It Imploded

The engineers behind OLPC ignored the concerns of the very people it was meant to benefit

Photo by Tayler Smith. Prop Styling by Caroline Dorn

InIn 2005, MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte introduced a program he believed would change the world. Called One Laptop per Child (OLPC), the initiative would deliver $100 XO laptops — small, boxy machines, constructed to be virtually indestructible — to children in the global south. Governments would buy and distribute the laptops to children between ages six and 12. These children would then use these computers as tools, teaching themselves — and, later, their parents — new languages, mathematics, and coding.

The vision was enthusiastically received by media and tech companies, who poured millions of dollars, software, advertising, and employee hours into the program. When a group of African leaders and journalists raised concerns about the viability of the program, no one listened.

They should have. OLPC did not turn out as planned: Laptops broke, and in areas with limited access to electricity, charging was a challenge. The cost of running the program and training teachers was much greater than expected. Children showed little interest in the machines, skill levels did not improve, and eventually, funding dried up.

Many people working for OLPC really wanted to do good in the world, but they got caught up with the charisma of this project. They got blinded by it.

Morgan Ames tells this story in her new book, The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child. In 2010, after finishing her computer science degree at the University of California, Berkeley, Ames moved to Paraguay, which was, at the time, seen as one of the most successful models for the OLPC program. Although teachers in landlocked South American country were stretched thin — earning merely half of minimum wage — at least the infrastructure to support OLPC was in place, and schools were enthusiastic about the program. Ames wanted to see how, under the best circumstances, the program worked.

OneZero caught up with Ames, who teaches data science and researches inequality in the technology world at the University of California, Berkeley, to discuss how a utopian vision of tech education went wrong and why similar initiatives should be more inclusive while heeding the opinions of the people they’re meant to benefit.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

OneZero: What was the promise of OLPC, and how did it build on similar programs?

Morgan Ames: Negroponte would say, “We can hand these laptops out and walk away and the kids will take them up to really fully and learn.” Many people on the project expressed similar thoughts. “If we just build it right, the kids will find inspiration in it, and they will leapfrog past the adults in their lives.”

This learning philosophy is called constructionism. [The philosophy was previously applied to a program called Logo.] In the mid-’80s, Logo was framed as a playful alternative to BASIC — the standard programming language kids learned. [The idea was that] based on their interactions with [Logo], [kids] would fall in love with programming and mathematical thinking. This was true for a few children, but it didn’t capture the imagination of all children. Evaluations in the late ’70s and early ’80s showed that, without the researcher in the room helping children, there weren’t any measurable benefits. So between the lackluster results of this nationwide rollout and the results of these studies, Logo faded from broader significance.

But many of the ideas stayed alive. OLPC definitely has threads of that same legacy. It was a sense of the mission of computer science and of the technology industry. Maybe their own identities. And it echoed all across the technology media at the time.

OLPC sold 600,000 laptops by the end of 2007, the year it officially launched — many in Uruguay, Peru, and Mexico — but things went downhill pretty fast. The project, which partnered with over a dozen countries at first, now has about 3 million units worldwide, many in Latin America. But it’s far from Negroponte’s ambition of selling ‘hundreds of millions.’ You say the project is a ‘pitfall of technological determinism.’ What is that?

Technological determinism refers to the belief that a piece of technology can create cultural change regardless of the social conditions or the people or any of the economic conditions that it interacts with. Social scientists have recognized the pitfalls of this view for a very long time, but it’s still very popular more broadly, including in the technology world. My fieldwork in Paraguay demonstrated the pitfalls of technological determinism. These technologies are always culturally embedded.

[By] 2010, [only] about 40 of the 40,000 kids [served by OLPC] were doing interesting things with the laptops. They had photo blogs. They were shadowing the tech support.

But their motivations did not come from the machine — they came from the mentors they had in their lives, their peer groups. That social context is just so important in learning. In the U.S. in particular, we have this story about learning as being this almost oppositional thing. We think about school as a factory environment, a stultifying environment.

OLPC also fit into a gendered narrative about learning. Can you talk about that aspect of it?

OLPC did talk fairly inclusively about boys and girls learning — but by focusing on technical play, on technical mastery, on video games, it leaned on about a century of marketing technical toys to boys. It’s not that girls don’t take up these technical toys at all. But there’s this legacy of marketing those things to boys, so when you talk in those terms, it makes people think, “Oh, this is something for boys.” It’s something for this vision of a technically precocious boy that you see in movies. We encounter it in advertising for kids’ toys, and unless a project really pushes back strongly against that narrative, it risks riding the wave of it.

A lot of other projects for learning to program are doing that today. Minecraft, for one, has very different gender behaviors between how boys tend to use the program and how girls tend to use the program that I would blame on this century of marketing and advertising to boys and girls differently.

What’s the current status of OLPC?

It varies by the project. [In Uruguay,] they still give rounds of laptops to new first grade students. They partnered with Quanta, the manufacturer, to make a high school version [of the laptop] with a more full keyboard. They have an ongoing funding stream based on a change in their tax structure. They have developed [the program] in a different direction — they focused on basic technical literacy rather than rich programming.

Peru didn’t have a lot of development around the project since the initial handout. There were local movements to translate the laptop into two of the native indigenous languages up in the Andes. But it’s not clear that the laptop has really taken [off] at all, even with those changes.

What happened in Paraguay?

There were a few teachers who, despite all of these complicating factors in their lives, took up the project and used the laptops in the classroom. These laptops were meant to be rugged, but they would still break, and there were very few repair parts available. Supplies were quickly exhausted. A number of kids uninstalled the software that the teacher wanted to use, because they had full control over the machine. Other kids [did not] charge their laptop ahead of time. In the classroom of 20 kids, you could only charge one or two laptops at a time.

If the teachers tried to use the laptops in the classroom, they had to design a lesson that they could either do on their laptop or in a traditional notebook, writing things down with a pencil. This limited what teachers were able to do. They would often say, “Well, let’s look up something interesting on the internet and copy something down in our notebook about it.”

[A little over a year into the project] about 15% [of students] had broken laptops. When I visited again in 2013, over half of the laptops were unusably broken. Of those who had working laptops, about half of all the kids really weren’t interested in their laptops — they found them very frustrating. They would show me their laptop with the last recorded session on it being many months earlier. They said, “I thought it was just a little toy for games.” They’d rather go play soccer, or they would help friends, or they would help their family members.

Of the remaining [kids], they mostly used it to go on the internet. This was not something that the machine was really designed for. It had a very small memory. It was pretty slow. The mouse didn’t work very well. They would download music or watch music videos, or maybe download some basic games.

Paraguay’s [program] was run by an NGO and relied on receiving grants. They put a lot of work into building out the infrastructure and building in a pretty strong support network, which was expensive. They had a lot of employees that were helping teachers develop curriculum, helping them kind of struggle with these frustrating classroom use scenarios, and ultimately they couldn’t sustain their funding.

This happens with a lot of these projects that make really grand promises. Their funders expect a quick fix — they say, “Within a few years, we’re going to see this transformation.” [But] the projects have to be honest, [and] say they haven’t seen the transformation. They might ask for more funding. But a lot of times, funders will say, “Well, no, we have this other very flashy project that is promising very grand things. We’re going to move over to that one.” So these projects are often short-lived.

Many people working for OLPC really wanted to do good in the world, but they got caught up with the charisma of this project. They got blinded by it. They didn’t see that their view of the world was very narrow.

We need to be a little bit more aware of some of the pitfalls of that charisma, and try to keep our own eyes open to whose voice might be left out.

Writer (currently) in Budapest, bylines @TheAtlantic, @Undarkmag, @VICE, @voxdotcom & more; follow on Twitter @hope_reese;

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