OLPC’s pandemic-induced redux

Back when I was at Text 100 (now called Archetype), my largest client was Lenovo. As part of understanding the client’s context, I had done a lot of reading on the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) project by the co-founder and chairman emeritus of the MIT Media Lab, Nicholas Negroponte. The initiative was launched in January 2005 and was intended to develop and distribute $100 laptops to poor children around the world. The goal was right there in the name – one laptop, per child!

For context, Lenovo used to produce Netbooks, with Intel’s Atom processor, that was also used in OLPC machines. I had a Lenovo Netbook that I had purchased (for Rs.15,000) in the late 2000s that was in perfect working condition till last year when I gave away free while selling my All-In-One home computer!

OLPC was a very high-profile failure after massive global hype. Here’s a fantastic long-read from Verge on the project’s high and failure.

But, OLPC was far ahead of its time, in 2005. Now, during and in the immediate aftermath of perhaps the biggest push for digital education, we could look back at the initiative as a prescient idea!

I was painfully reminded of OLPC when I stumbled upon 2 pieces of news recently.

One was a tweet.

That the father had to give up his mobile phone, a source of work-related leads, for his child to study, is a fate no family should face. OLPC was out to change this, 15 years before it happened.

The 2nd was even more devastating – a spate of news reports where children are dying by suicide because they do not have access to a device to join online classes!

All these are different instances – at first, I thought they were all reporting the same incident!

When the concept of education is forcibly moving digital/online, we are leaving behind whole swathes of people who cannot afford a dedicated device. Even the famous quips of India having more smartphones per home than bathrooms is largely silly if a father has to give up his income-earning capability due to the lack of multiple devices for multiple needs of the people in the family.

This is a cause that is screaming for concerted effort. OLPC foresaw this problem way too early, with a different lens. Now is the time to revive the ethos of that initiative. One of the major reasons for OLPC’s failure (among others) was the lack of Government support in many countries. Now, given the extraordinary speed with which things are changing and digital education is being adopted as the new default, Governments may be far keener on adopting any plan that puts a computing device at the hands of every school-going child.

Plus, far away from 2005-2010, the cloud adoption is taken for granted – so imagining a cheap computing device where much of the storage and computing happens in the cloud isn’t really a problem. That’s how most machines work now! What we need is another global initiative on the scale and intent of OLPC.

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