OLPC struggles to realise ambitious vision

The One Laptop Per Child project is now beset by waning orders and competition from commercial vendors that threaten to sideline the non-profit effort.

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Earlier this year, Negroponte publicly said that Intel's Classmate efforts hurt his project, given the well-funded nature of the chipmaker's initiative. The two organisations buried the hatchet by signing a collaboration agreement that put Intel on OLPC's board, but Intel continued to distribute its Classmate PCs through its for-profit "World Ahead" effort.

Meanwhile, as the cost of the XO have increased, companies such as Asus and Everex have developed competitive low-cost PCs, which governments may also find attractive as XO alternatives.

"OLPC did not fully appreciate the adoption barriers when they targeted government agencies as their principal target audience," Quelch said. The government procurement processes are complex, and there is a trade-off between investments in teachers and technology by governments, which OLPC didn't realise, Quelch said.

Even US customers that purchased laptops through the Give 1 Get 1 programme have grumbled, with OLPC providing little or no communication about laptops - either the ones they donated or the ones shipped to them. "XO laptops just appear on doorsteps without even an email to tell us when or how they will arrive." said Wayan Vota, an OLPC observer and donor who runs the website OLPC News. "OLPC is lucky we are so committed to their cause - we sure wouldn't put up with this treatment from Apple or Dell."

If OLPC had issues distributing laptops in a developed country such as the US, it doesn't bode well for XO distribution in developing countries, Vota said. Officials from Brightstar, the distributor of XO laptops for OLPC, were unavailable for comment.

Despite OLPC's identity as a nonprofit educational organisation, its focus has been predominantly on the hardware it has pioneered, said Anders Mogensen, co-founder of Seismonaut, which carried out an assessment of an OLPC pilot project in a government-run primary school in Abuja, Nigeria, for the Danish government. "If OLPC is about education, the focus should be around the activity and education results. So far the conversation has been around the hardware and technology," Mogensen said.

OLPC's casual approach to matching its offering to Nigeria's educational agenda is causing it to lose ground against Intel, which has successfully integrated its Classmate PCs in secondary schools, Mogensen said. Nigeria follows a strict curriculum for students based on specific study material, and Intel is working with the government and schools to integrate Classmate PCs into curricula. OLPC has yet to clarify its plans to support curricula, Mogensen said.

OLPC in Nigeria is primarily involved in promoting the idea of the laptop rather than working with the government to develop a structure to implement the curricula, Mogensen said.

Until OLPC improves its teacher-training infrastructure, it could face barriers in countries such as Nigeria, where a rigid education system puts teachers in full command over students. "The teacher loses authority when kids in primary school know more about PCs than they do," Mogensen said. That is unacceptable in Nigeria, he said.

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