OLPC faces 'vicious' rivalry in laptop market

One Laptop per Child exec David Cavallo says the organization welcomes new entrants to the low-cost laptop market, but describes the response of some competitors as "unfortunate."
Written by Natasha Lomas, Contributor
When the One Laptop per Child organization first mooted the idea of a super low-cost laptop aimed at schoolchildren in the developing world some years ago, it was arguably on its own in the market.

Since the not-for-profit organization first unveiled its coveted wind-up PCs, however, it's seen the number of commercial interests hungry for a piece of the same pie grow and grow.

David Cavallo, chief learning architect for the OLPC, who gave the keynote at the Association for Learning Technology's annual conference earlier this month, is upbeat about the new entrants into the low-cost educational laptop market that his organization arguably kick-started.

Cavallo told ZDNet’s sister site, silicon.com: "It's great. We take that as a huge success. Some years from now we may not be making laptops at all and that's fine because we're not a for-profit company, we're not going to be a laptop company and we really are focused on the mission and the belief--it's a humanitarian project… to really provide education everywhere particularly for the most marginalized, so the fact that there are a lot of devices coming into being everywhere we think that's great. There's more than a billion kids in the developing world so there's room for everybody."

However, he described the response of some commercial laptop makers to the OLPC project as "unfortunate".

"What I think has been surprising and somewhat unfortunate is that some of the companies have taken this as just a market to compete in — and compete in a very vicious way and that's unfortunate, because we're not trying to take market share and make profit or knock anybody else out," he said.

Cavallo said the OLPC project is going to continue to keep pushing to reduce the cost of the hardware "to really make it accessible", adding: "We hope to keep moving the market and if others come in and keep filling in the space that's created fantastic, all the better."

Giving laptops to schoolchildren in developing countries has had some unlikely effects, according to the OLPC exec. While skeptics claimed the laptops would be sold or stolen by their young owners, it seems they have been converting truants into school-lovers and encouraging kids to brush up their reading and writing skills by turning to blogging.

The laptops are also having an impact on children's career choices, according to Cavallo. "If you talk to a kid in Brazil the girls want to become fashion models and the boys want to become football players. This changed," he said.

"They do much more reading and writing. It [laptop technology] lets in other ways of thinking about teaching and learning away from rote and gives support to do that. So we've seen just in the basic kind of work that also has really improved. It's laying the basis for a much more dramatic improvement over time. It doesn't happen immediately."

The hardware has also had a positive impact beyond the children--engaging parents and teachers in furthering their own education and skill level, according to Cavallo.

"The very first thing is that, almost everywhere we went, if it was in a remote place, the people would say the kids only show up for school half the time. And that just changes. Now you have basically… more than 100 percent attendance. Because they come on weekends, they come early to school and they stay late," he said.

"We had one place in Cambodia where the enrolment doubled. There were more kids, they just weren't coming to school. So from one year to the next we had twice as many kids and didn't know it. So we had to get more laptops there," he added.

Cavallo added: "Kids in the developing world who're really disenfranchised, they know the value of a computer. They know it's such a strong statement of inclusion--of their value. And these I think are really measurable. The families start to take education seriously. One of our students — when OLPC was just getting started--did a project in rural Costa Rica, and 70 percent of the parents entered vocational education using the computer at night after the kids...

"In Uruguay the parents wait for the kids to go to bed so they can use the laptops. So you saw people move to rural communities… so their kids could take advantage of [the laptops]. In Rwanda the families brought electricity to the schools so that the kids could keep using the laptops.

Everybody's fear was that 'oh the families will sell it, the kids will lose it, it'll get stolen' and we just haven't seen that."

However, Cavallo believes giving laptops to schoolchildren in the developing world is just the first step in a process to better education itself. "It isn't just computers and it isn't just computers and connectivity because you're really trying to bring with it the ideas about teaching and learning," he said. Much of the energy of the OLPC project is therefore focused on developing learning strategies to boost education locally--appointing a co-coordinator and a team of locals to ensure the laptops become part of a new way of learning, rather than just a tool to perform outdated practices.

"In the beginning, [with any new technology] we usually just reproduce what we were doing with the prior generation of technology. It's only after some time you start to see what's different or what you can do differently and that changes both the earlier technology as well as what you're doing with the new technology," Cavallo said.

The laptop itself, however, has had a few issues too--specifically, the mesh network connectivity has delivered less than was hoped.

Cavallo said: "This is the first large-scale deployment of this type of mesh. And we hit some stumbling blocks and in some ways we might have bitten off too much in the very beginning and that I think slowed us a little bit...

"With about 20 kids under a tree that's working actually quite nicely so we're doing really quite well in the smaller schools. In the very large schools--in Rwanda one of the schools we work in has 3,000 kids--and then you just have certain kinds of problems because of the number. Theoretically you'd say that's actually where the mesh really should work so those are the things that we still have to work out."

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