Monday, November 11, 2019

The OLPC: Suicide, Homicide, or Death by Natural Causes.

Reading “The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child,” by Morgan Ames, interim associate director of research for UC Berkeley’s Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society is about as much fun as attending a psychological autopsy. Yes, I've done both. One of the problems with Ames' book is that we're left wondering about the cause of death. Was it suicide, homicide, or death by natural causes. It's not a fun book, in any case.

The book explains the origin story of the One Laptop per Child project and how it was badly implemented. South America is where most of the machines were deployed. It was an intriguing idea that captured the imagination of lots of people and also had lots of problems. Ames details some of the problems in excruciating detail. She goes on and on about how the machine and the concept were designed by mostly men for mostly precocious boys. (It was a product of the now infamous MIT Media Lab.) She rightfully points to that flaw (of men for boys) being shared with other projects in ed tech and cautions readers to watch out for that. That’s not bad advice.

Ames provides readers with a lengthy ethnography of her time observing the implementation of the OLPC in Paraguay. Instead of an ethnography, I would have preferred an account of what happened and an analysis of what was done right and wrong and why. I would also like to have heard more from the people of Paraguay. The people of Paraguay appeared as objective lab subjects of a researcher from Berkeley. They deserve a bigger and better role in the story.

The shortcomings of the OLPC would make a good starting point for a book about how to actually effectively implement technology in education or, at least, get a good start at it. Ames doesn’t do that, though. She doesn’t really tell us what she thinks would be a good implementation of technology in education except to use a short paragraph to recommend David Tyach and Larry Cuban’s limp idea that tinkering is good. She also quotes Donna Haraway’s call to ‘stay with the trouble’ and says that is what her book also tries to do. I’d rather that she had moved on from the trouble to some practical solutions about how to implement technology effectively.

This blog is called DevelopingProfessional Staff-Mpls because of my experience that the key to effective implementation of anything is the support and development of those who will be responsible for guiding the use of the thing. That was true when I was in telecom and computer sales with AT&T, and it’s been true in education at all levels from elementary to graduate programs. Teachers are necessary and natural to teaching and learning. Providing adequate training for teachers to use technology is crucial and complicated. The OLPC project was not dealing with reality when they thought that children would be in charge of their schooling in South America. That’s not true for any country. It was true, too, when I wrote about another book that also had some misguided ideas about making changes in education, Clayton Christensen, Curt Johnson and Michael Horn's Disrupting Class.   Destroying schooling in the name of making education better is not healthy and will lead to an autopsy of someone.

Jeffrey R. Young from Edsurge has produced a podcast of an interview that he did with Dr. Ames about her book. I don’t think you’ll be getting any more information that will be useful by reading the book than you will by listening to the podcast or by reading the edited transcript of the podcast. It will also save you 35 U.S. dollars. The podcast is here.


  1. Thanks for your insights about the One Laptop per Child project.

    I especially appreciated this thought --- my experience that the key to effective implementation of anything is the support and development of those who will be responsible for guiding the use of the thing. ---

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