One Laptop Per Child in Rwanda

In my September 2009 blog post on One Laptop Per Child, I argued that the program had largely failed to meet its expressed purpose of improving education for children in the developing world through the distribution of large numbers of low-cost laptops. I continue to believe that’s the case. OLPC’s grand goal has not, and is unlikely to be, achieved.

However, that doesn’t mean OLPC has not had any success. As the comments on my previous post demonstrated, OLPC is running very interesting programs in a number of places. Some are already showing results; some just have big plans.  

A recent Guardian article described one of those programs – Rwanda’s OLPC project, which hopes to be part of preventing future genocide. Rwanda has ordered 100,000 OLPCs for schoolchildren. According to the Guardian article, the OLPC program hopes to help prevent a recurrence of genocide by connecting Rwanda to the wider world.

It’s an exciting idea, and nobody wants to see another Rwandan genocide. I’m not really inclined to poke holes into anything that can be part of genocide prevention. And the article is downright poetic

“These laptops, the first of 100,000 that the government intends should be given to every Rwandan child between the ages of nine and 12, represent a kind of revolution. One that envisages not only the transformation of an impoverished agrarian society into one of the most advanced in Africa, but also sees technology as a tool that will help exorcise the country’s lingering ghosts.”

When I first read the Guardian article, I thought this was going to be the program that really showed the strengths of OLPC. On a second read, though, I found myself doubtful about this program. The Guardian article is heavy on theory and the history of OLPC, and weaker on implementation details. According to the OLPC wiki, 96% of schools in Rwanda have no electricity. That means slow solar charging times for the computers, and no internet access. School servers are not planned.  That does not strike me as a strong connection to the outside world.

In addition, I can’t find any conclusive data on how many computers have been deployed to date, although the best source I can find says 10,000. The program began in September 2008. A September 2009 article mentions that the Rwanda program is short on funds. It seems like that problem has not been resolved. An article published just two days ago states that the budget for OLPC in Rwanda is still inadequate. One approach seems to be asking parents to pay for half the laptop cost. That’s $100 in a nation with an average annual income of $900.

I have trouble believing that 100,000 laptops are going to have enough effect on the four million children in Rwanda to prevent a genocide. Especially when that effect is dependent on constructivist faith in children’s desire to learn rather than a plan of some kind. I also have trouble believing that Rwanda is going to end up with 100,000 OLPCs rather than the 10,000 they apparently currently have.

It’s disappointing. I really wanted to believe in this. Giving children computers because “these laptops might help to vaccinate a society still in painful recovery from its genocidal past by opening up the rest of the world to a new generation…” is a wonderful idea, and exactly the kind of thing that computer technology is good at. But to make that happen, you need the internet, too. Not just a computer.  Quoting Seymour Papert doesn’t change that.

And if you did have internet access, and a plan for using it to make children aware of their global context, you would need more than 100,000 (certainly more than 10,000) computers. You’d need – for real – one laptop per child. Rwanda is a long way away from achieving that. There are over a million children between 9-12 years old in Rwanda. 85% of them live in rural areas with little access to electricity. I just don’t see the impact of this OLPC program in light of that. One could argue that genocide is such a horror that all efforts need to be supported, and that would be true. But Rwanda’s financial resources are not infinite, and this program costs a lot.