a few days ago my home town, florence, launched the italian version of the project “one laptop per child”, the well known project developed at mit by n. negroponte since 2005 (at least). the basic idea is to build an oversimplified, but fully equipped laptop for a price of about 100 dollars, so that the laptop could be accessible to potentially every child in the world, especially those from the south of the world and developing countries. since 2005 the project has undergone many evolutions. we are now in the fourht generation of olpc which comes with an attractive design, full communication capabilities (LAN, wi-fi) smart power management (that includes a cranck recharge) and, of course, open source software installed on a linux based operating system. so far, so good. well, almost…
i first saw one olpc in tunis, at the world summit on information society, in 2005. there was a great excitement at the UNDP stand where the laptop was officially presented. i admit that at that time i was interested in the project and, if it would have been possible, i had bought one. unfortunately, at that time it was possible only to purchase stocks of 100.000 exemplars, which was somewhat beyond my economical possibilities.
the initiative that was recently presented in florence is based on a different schema, called G1G1: “get one give one”: for each laptop you buy, you give one to one child from the global south. much more affordable for my pocket. but now i do not like this project anymore (if i ever did). more than that, i am seriously convinced that all this “olpc” thing is just a big mistake.
in my very limited experience in developing countries, i have seen many cases where the educational system was extremely poor from many point of view: low school attendance, lack of basic infrastructures and almost everywhere very poor quality of education. But in none of the cases that i happened to know in morocco, mauritania, tunisia, senegal, sierra leone, albania and india, in none of those places a laptop would be the solution, nor even “a” solution.
if education has (and it has) to be addressed, the “tools” that we use (laptops, books, blackboards, or whatever) cannot be the starting point of our action. even under the illusion of a globalised knowledge society, we need to remember that it is actually a world of many societies the one we live in, and what is meaningful for some societies, not necessarily is meaningful for everyone. it is very difficult (and probably not even meaningful) to look for “universal solutions”.
for example in morocco the incredibly high rate of illiteracy is probably given in great part by deep cultural reasons: the official language of morocco is classical arabic which is not the language spoken everyday by moroccans that instead use a dialect called “darija” which is not official and not coded. on the other hand in india, in the region of tamil nadu, for example, school attendance is very high but the quality of education is extremely low. and again, different regions in these two countries show very different problems with respect to assuring education for all.
being a technology enthusiast and an ICT4D advocate, as i am, i am also very suspicious about “big” projects like the olpc that do not actually take into consideration the needs of the final beneficiaries and the actual conditions of the countries where these projects should be implemented. i am sad my home town has decided to follow this train, running to nowhere.
i would have preferred a project like “give one good teacher to every 30 children in the world”.