The Forgotten Mission of the OLPC

This is definitely a moment in OLPC’s history of big changes as views are conflicting on what the mission should really be about. This week, we have two important announcements: Microsoft is officially pushing Windows XP into the XO and Sugar Labs is no longer dedicated to the XO but will now offer the possibilities of building a “learning ecosystem” on all platforms.

The Forgotten Mission of the OLPC


Is the XO sporting windows a good or bad thing? This is such a trivial question and so besides the point that we need to look at the real issues with OLPC. OLPC and Microsoft have officially announced that Windows XP will be part of the mission and the XO laptop. Windows XP being the most widely distributed OS in the world, it only makes sense to make it available as a standard operating system on which children can develop some experience and familiarity. OS X would do very well in this regard too but I digress. However, the potential of Sugar, the open source and free software developed specifically for learning is detrimental. It should not matter on which platform it is developed for. The XO would do better as a multiplatformer but let’s forget about the darn laptop for a minute.

Microsoft and One Laptop per Child Partner to Deliver Affordable Computing to Students Worldwide , former  director of security at OLPC recently criticized the project on his blog and identifying its failures but also suggesting where to go next.

Indeed, not only politics have deeply wounded the efforts but internal conflicting ideologies and visions at OLPC appear to continue to hurt the project. OLPC has always declared itself to be about an educational project first and foremost and learning for the children in the developing world was the mission. However, OLPC is dangerously focusing on manufacturing the hardware and shipping laptops wildly with apparently no experience or system in place for a successful deployment. Even if OLPC succeeds in deploying the laptops massively, what next? The mission was about learning after all. There are many things I have read that clearly showed that to some people, the XO was about bringing the good fight of free open source software to the developing nations or simply giving out laptops. If all efforts and resources are going to shipping devices with a proprietary OS where is the project of creating a sustainable, open and shared learning environment and teaching experiences?

As a an international comparative researcher in youth issues, what made me believe in the OLPC’s efforts was the focus on the educational and learning mission by fostering international collaboration and sharing around one project and community. Sugar is a powerful environment to create tools to support these fundamental elements of the mission. Does it matter on which OS it runs in the end? Not at all. The fantastic thing about the XO is that it forced manufacturers to finally look at producing cheap devices that would work in the developing nations to support an international effort to foster an open, shared and sustainable learning and teaching community brought together. Actually, that last part is being forgotten in everything that is being done right now. The worse thing is that it appears even the OLPC has forgotten about it.

The OLPC should focus on the free software for the educational mission, Sugar, the international collaboration program to get the learning started. The OLPC should be about the educational values of the software it ships on the machines, the community that will build around it for collaboration and sharing should be the main goal. Well, I thought this would be the main goal, many of us did. However, the device is taking center stage and now, the os it will become attached to and this is a big problem. I don’t think anyone wanted to see a proprietary OS taking over the XO and the open ideologies accompanying education go down the drain with it. In truth, it doesn’t matter which OS powers the darn device as long as the fundamental international learning and collaborative mission is intact with the proper software to further that mission. The beauty of Sugar is that it is being developed to do that. The potential of Sugar would be immensely increased if it was not concerned about being an OS itself. It can be made to run on anything and the software developed for the mission should remain open and free. What would be horrible is an XO with only a proprietary OS on it. Where would be the educational mission, the collaboration, the tools to bring together a growing world community of teachers, learners and developers? Yes, that was the dream we all saw in OLPC.

In the end, it does not matter on which OS it happens. The mission is not about making children discover Windows or OS X or Linux. It was about getting them to use the free and open tools to which the international education mission is attached to.

Sugar Labs carrying the fire?

In an announcement today, just I am writing this, the Sugar team declared they will be moving on to other platforms while still working with OLPC. The Sugar Labs founded by Walter Bender have developed the platform for the XO. Bender resigned in April because of conflicting views. Walter Bender said, according to BBC’s Jonathan Fildes: “I didn’t leave OLPC because of the Microsoft deal – it was a symptom rather than the cause[…] I left OLPC because I think the most important thing it is doing is defining a learning ecosystem. […] One goal is to just maximise the number of laptops you get out to kids. And that is unequivocally Nicholas’ goal. […] Bender believes there is another more efficient approach and it resides in creating an open, shared and collaborative learning ecosystem independent of any device or platform:

By being independent of any specific hardware platform and by remaining dedicated to the principles of free and open source software, the Sugar platform ensures that others can develop diverse interfaces and applications for governments and schools to choose from.

Speaking of the XO, I was supposed to write a review of the thing but, believe it or not, I have not yet received mine since I have made my donation last December.

Link: Microsoft and One Laptop per Child Partner to Deliver Affordable Computing to Students Worldwide
Link: 0 laptop’ platform moves on

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3 Comments on "The Forgotten Mission of the OLPC"

  1. I still shake my head to think about making laptop ownership a priority for children in developing countries.

    It’s not politically correct to say, but I find the whole concept, just plain weird and out of place.

  2. Joel McLaughlin | May 18, 2008 at 4:15 pm |

    Wayne: I couldn’t agree more. Richard Stallman and Jon “Maddog” Hall were big fans of this, however, what I never got was WHY? Why on earth would a illiterate and hungry child want anything to do with something that wasn’t food?? Got to learn to walk before you can run. Computers are not necessities….no matte rhow much we at gear diary love them! We don’t NEED a computer to survive.

    Granted, I DO think that there IS a need for a cheap computer….just not one focused on those who can barely get by.

  3. Bjenk Ellefsen | May 18, 2008 at 6:05 pm |

    Well, it is my understanding that development is not just about making children “survive” and feeding them. Its a very complex process involving many fronts. The developing nations need help in putting in place sustainable structures for building an economy, education, etc. We have tried many things to tackle the education front but many have failed. Simple laptops projects are not working and ordinary schools either.

    What was great about the XO is that the device was meant to be the medium for a meaningful concerted effort into an international collaborative, shared and open learning ecosystem. Looks like it is just becoming a simple laptop thing with a proprietary OS to booth. Without that, the XO is very questionable indeed.

    I just got news that I would be getting my XO soon.

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