The sods must be crazy: OLPC to drop tablets from helicopters to isolated villages
The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project has devised a bizarre plan for deploying its new XO-3 tablet. The organization plans to drop the touchscreen computers from helicopters near remote villages in developing countries. The devices will then be abandoned and left for the villagers to find, distribute, support, and use on their own.
OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte is optimistic that the portable devices-which will be stocked with electronic books-will empower children to learn to read without any external support or instruction. The strange scheme reflects the OLPC project’s roots in constructivist education theory, which emphasizes self-directed learning.
The OLPC project was originally founded to produce low-cost education-focused laptops for children. The organization planned to sell the devices in bulk to governments in developing countries, which would then distribute them in classrooms. The plan was to leverage economy of scale in manufacturing to bring the costs down, making the laptop cheap enough that governments would be able to supply one to every child.
Although the ambitious project sold several million laptops, it fell far short of its lofty goals and has been on life support for the past few years. In addition to fundamental logistical and technical failures, OLPC also suffered from internal friction, ideological conflicts, and poor management. OLPC was forced to downsize half its staff and discontinue its software platform in 2009 (a separate organization called Sugar Labs was founded to pick up where OLPC left off on the software) after its second give-one-get-one fundraiser fell through the floor.
After the staff cuts, OLPC dropped its plan to produce a dual-touchscreen laptop and instead decided to focus on tablets. The organization showed off glossy concept art of an impossibly-thin XO-3 tablet at the end of 2009. Last year, they announced a partnership with hardware component maker Marvell. OLPC pragmatically chose to adopt Marvell’s off-the-shelf reference design instead of trying to pursue the unrealistic form factor that was shown in the original XO-3 mockups.
The tablets that Negroponte intends to fling from helicopters are based on that Marvell design, but with a few enhancements, such as solar powered batteries that will allow them to be used in regions without access to electricity. It’s not clear yet if the organization was able to successfully meet its target $75 production price.
Negroponte described the helicopter drop plan at the Open Mobile Summit event in San Francisco. According to a PC Magazine report, he compared the project to the classic 1980 film, The Gods Must Be Crazy, which depicted how an isolated tribe in the Kalahari Desert might react to discovering a Coca-Cola bottle that fell from an airplane.
“We’ll take tablets and drop them out of helicopters into villages that have no electricity and school, then go aback a year later and see if the kids can read,” Negroponte told The Register. He reportedly cited Professor Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall experiment as the basis for his belief that dropping the tablets will encourage self-directed literacy.
Among the major challenges that the OLPC project was never able to fully overcome during its laptop days were supporting the hardware in the field and providing teachers with the proper training and educational material. In light of the cost and difficulty of tackling those issues, it’s not hard to see why the eccentric stealth drop approach looks appealing to Negroponte.
The obvious downside, however, is the sheer improbability that a majority of the dropped devices will ever serve their intended function. It seems unlikely that Negroponte will find governments that are willing to fund such an odd boondoggle, though Marvell has provided some financial backing. Perhaps somebody needs to air drop Negroponte a healthy dose of common sense to go with his change-the-world ambitions.
- New OLPC Idea: Literally Throw Them at Children from Helicopters [Olpc] (gizmodo.com)
- OLPC Plans Solar Charging, Satellite Internet for XO-3 (pcworld.com)
- XO Helicopter Deployments? Nicholas Negroponte Must be Crazy! (downes.ca)
- OLPC XO-1.75 hands-on (armdevices.net)
- Why is OLPC so apprehensive about MHRD’s $35 device! (trak.in)
- OLPC XO-3 to get satellite Internet, solar power (electronista.com)
- OLPC XO-3 cases may sport solar panels, satellite internet, grant three wishes (engadget.com)
- 9/15 2011 NYU Reynolds Speaker Series: One Laptop and WiRed Magazine founder Nick Negroponte (sibd.wordpress.com)
- OLPC Summit: San Francisco Proclamates October 21st 2011 OLPC Day (armdevices.net)