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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OLPC needs to have a stronger programme to help teachers adapt to alternative teaching methodologies, said Novica Nakov, president of Free Software Macedonia, who evaluated a classroom that incorporated OLPC's XO laptops.

The organisation may also be out of touch with localisation issues that, left unaddressed, could discourage broad adoption. For example, despite the fact that Macedonian uses Cyrillic characters, the XO laptops supplied to the classroom used Latin-character keyboards, Nakov said.

The OLPC pilot in Macedonia, being conducted by United Nations Development Program, comes in the face of the government ordering 180,000 NComputing thin clients for classrooms. OLPC may be an innovative computer, but it will be difficult to convince politicians to spend more money on computers, Nakov said.

India early on decided not to buy XO laptops. "We need classrooms and teachers more urgently than fancy tools," India's education secretary Sudeep Banerjee reportedly wrote in a letter to the country's Planning Commission.

As governments in developing countries question the value of investing in XO laptops, OLPC needs to prove the XO laptop valuable by placing it in more classrooms in the US and globally, Vota of OLPC News said. User groups in the US are already forming to build out content and applications for the XO laptop, Vota said.

"In the developing world, the ministers say, 'Why aren't you using [XO] in the US? Why should I risk my limited budget on your dream?' [OLPC] hasn't done objective testing - no data that shows XO laptop is a better option to educate kids in the classroom than other computers, or better-trained teachers," Vota said.

A lot of OLPC's problems today date back to the original buzz about the "$100 laptop," in Vota's opinion. With the price point capturing attention, OLPC didn't speak to the concept of this being a revolution in education, Vota said. He contends that now that OLPC has successfully created interest in the technology, it should focus on empowering education with technology.

Endpoint Technologies' Roger Kay sees OLPC as a legitimate business plan that had no execution strategy. That has come back to haunt the effort, Kay said. OLPC dabbled in every idea that occurred to them, and the project today is stamped as having fickle and unfocused management, including Negroponte, Kay said.

Negroponte is well-known in high-tech as the founder of the MIT Media Lab, which released influential technologies in the 1990s. But under his leadership, the organisation foundered in attempts to open satellite labs in India and Ireland early this decade, closing down both after disputes with government officials in those countries, according to the Boston Globe. The Media Lab is now run by veteran tech executive Frank Moss, whose emphasis there has been on building more bridges with the business community.

"Most people didn't know Negroponte until he announced [the XO laptop]," Kay said. "If this thing fails, he will be remembered as the guy who launched this crazy idea." However, it's too early to call the project a failure, he said.

To achieve a goal as vast and challenging as that set by OLPC, it may go through several transitions of management and leadership, as any commercial organisation does, Harvard Business School's Quelch said.

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