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5 Reasons Why Educational Laptops Were Doomed in Papua New Guinea

By Wayan Vota on March 28, 2019

OLPC in Papua New Guinea

Back in the day, One Laptop Per Child promised a digital revolution in education. By handing out “$100 laptops” to children, and for the most part sidelining teachers, the organizers believed that children would learn learning on their own. OLPC had massive media coverage, and for a while, it looked like it actually would revolutionize education.

I happened to be a major critic of the program, citing the need for teachers and school administrations to be involved with any educational effort that hoped to grow past pilotitis. In time, those of us who pointed out its failures were proved right. OLPC was a failure outside of a few special cases like Plan Ceibal.

One Laptop per Child in Papua New Guinea

That doesn’t mean we should stop learning from OLPC’s mistakes. The most recent entry in our continued education comes from Geoffrey Saxe and Kenton de Kirby, at the University of California, Berkeley in their paper Analyzing the Evolution of a Digital Technology Intervention that focuses on an OLPC deployment in Papua New Guinea.

The three Oksapmin schools for the OLPC pilot program are managed by the Baptist Union, the national organization representing the Baptist denomination in Papua New Guinea. The schools are a half-day hike from each other in a remote, mountainous area of PNG with no roads that connect the area to other parts of the country.

The OLPC laptops, solar panels, and other OLPC material resources arrived in the Oksapmin area in late 2010 and distributed to the schools several months later. The researchers arrived in the Oksapmin area four years later, in the summer of 2014, and their initial observations showed the limited impact of XO laptops at each school.

5 OLPC Threats in Papua New Guinea

The researchers identified five sequential threats to the development of OLPC that occurred during the 2010-2014 period. They defined “threat” as a set of circumstances that an individual interprets as a risk to the continued use of OLPC technology in teaching and learning.

Threat #1: Computers Alien to Most in the Community

For most Oksapmin people, computers were alien prior to the OLPC program. The uninitiated user, whether a teacher or a student, faced a steep learning curve to use an XO to serve elementary functions, and had many, many questions:

  • Fundamental ontological questions: what is this? is it a toy? a magical machine, a divine creation (or an evil one)?
  • Hardware questions: how to open the computer (which is not straightforward), turn on the computer, or power the computer with solar panels and connecting wires.
  • Software questions: understanding the idea of an application (or as these are named in Sugar, “activities”), the functionality of any one of the many activities, and how to navigate across activities.
  • Pedagogy questions: what activities to privilege in relation to a curriculum, and how to use the software in productive ways, whether in whole class instruction or individual activities or in small group work.
  • Support Questions: with so little technical knowledge in the community, whom can one turn to for support when something goes awry?

Efforts to manage the threat occurred both outside and inside the Oksapmin world. Sometimes management efforts were planned and organized; other times they emerged on the spot in efforts to accommodate local challenges. School staff organized a one-week training session that covered a range of topics related to the operating of XOs and basic teacher training. Technicians installed servers and solar panels.

Crucially, one school headmaster had an enthusiasm and deep interest in computational technologies and one community volunteer had a strong background in computational technologies and education. Had both not been in Oksapmin at the time of the deployment, the program would likely have met a different fate.

Threat #2: Religious Zeal that Targeted Laptops

Several months after the XOs arrived in 2010 and were distributed to the three schools, the XO laptops became a target of religious concerns by some, a zeal that energized church and community meetings.

In the Oksapmin area, there is a strong and widespread Christian religiosity (only introduced in the 1960s) that exists alongside and is fused with indigenous cosmology. This led to local conversations in which people expressed fears of the laptops – fears linked to talk by pastors and others who broadcasted concerns. As a result, some parents were choosing not to send their children to school, a decision that, if spread rapidly, could have jeopardized the continuation of the program

Here the headmaster played a pivotal role.  He engaged in a campaign to quell the concerns, speaking with pastors, parents, and students. His successful focal argument was:

  • Computers were important for children’s futures;
  • Computers were used in the world outside of Oksapmin
  • Computers would help Oksapmin children to succeed.

Threat #3: OLPC’s empowerment vision in a cash poor community

In 2011, a representative from the PNG government made a 1-hour stop on a chartered small plane in Oksapmin to celebrate the distribution of XOs to the schools. During his visit, he made a recommendation that the laptops be owned by children, to be taken home so that they would always be available to them. This was a core tenant of the global OLPC program – the laptop should be owned outright by the students.

This created a problem in the Oksapmin world, where sharing is traditionally a central value to the community, so if children, least powerful members of the community “owned” the laptop, it might well become the property of extended families and  sold for cash. The three school headmasters reacted in different ways to this threat.

  • School Ownership: Tomianap’s headmaster disregarded the representative’s advice and retained the laptops at the school, though he did allow children to write their names on a computer and enter their name in the Sugar software, indicating that the laptop belonged to them.
  • Student Ownership: The headmasters of Mitiganap and Tekin allowed students to take a laptop home, and over time, fewer and fewer computers returned with students. Some computers were used as currency in trade with outsiders. Adults and older peers appropriated others. Solar panels also disappeared into the community. As a result Tekin and Mitiganap had insufficient hardware to support major use of laptops in classrooms.

Threat #4: Reassignment of Headmasters

The OLPC program seemed to be on a successful trajectory at Tomianap, as that school had the most knowledgeable and motivated headmaster. Then, at the end of 2012, the headmaster at Tekin resigned, and Tomianap’s headmaster was transferred to Tekin, resulting in:

  • The headmaster most knowledgeable in the OLPC technology was transferred to a school with few laptops and solar panels.
  • A new Tomianap headmaster who had comparatively little knowledge and motivation to actively support the OLPC program.

The sad epilogue was that by the researcher’s visit in 2014, most of the laptops in Tomianap were left in storage at the school, unused, while the laptop-boosting headmaster was left to emphasize the educational value of the XOs by dedicating a room to displaying artwork that students had created using XO software in prior years.

Threat #5: The Nationalization of Development Funds

The funding of the OLPC program in Oksapmin came from the Papua New Guinea Sustainable Development Program, and in late 2013, the Oksapmin OLPC funding was cut off due to a change in the development program’s organization.

The termination of outside support meant that there was no possibility for replenishment of computers, servers, and other aspects of the infrastructural supports, including software upgrades and additional teacher training. There were local efforts to sustain the laptop project, however, these efforts were limited in their impact on the continued access to OLPC technology.

The project was functionally dormant by the time the researchers arrived in Oksapmin in 2014.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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14 Comments to “5 Reasons Why Educational Laptops Were Doomed in Papua New Guinea”

  1. Cavin Mugarura says:

    I don’t think One laptop per child failed – actually most of the things we think we know are not true. In some people’s eyes they might judge it harshly, just like the woman who run the boston marathon which was an exclusive club for men. I think OLPC opened people’s eyes that technology can be introduced in the classroom, a place most people thought was ridiculous, Whether it succeeded or not is a story for another day. Remember even Jesus was crucified in his home town, at times a hero is not recognized till they die. lets not throw out the baby with its bath water.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      You make a good point. OLPC failed in its original idea – that children could learn learning with just a laptop and no teacher or administrator involvement. Yet they did create lasting impact on technology (netbooks, Chromebooks, etc) and education (more laptops in schools that we can count).

      • Cavin Mugarura says:

        Am not sure OLPC claimed kids could study without a teacher, if this was the case, then the house foundation was built on quick sand. Some of us got involved in EduTech inspired by OLPC.

        • Wayan Vota says:

          Oh yes, that was the whole point of early OLPC. We didn’t need to wait around for teacher training or school construction. We could just give laptops to kids and they would automagiically grow up to be founders of the next Google or Apple. OLPC was very inspiring, and totally build on fantasy. To their credit, almost all things inspiring start with a dream.

  2. Aimee Ansari says:

    I wonder what language the computers operated in? PNG is the most language diverse country in the world. I imagine that, even if most of the computers operated in the language of instruction, a lot of mystery around them, and possibly barriers to sustaining learning how to use them, could have been overcome by simply ensuring that materials were in text and voice in languages that people understood well, spoke at home, etc.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      XO laptops shipped with the Sugar operating system in English. It was theoretically possible to translate the UI into other languages as Open Source software, and larger deployments in South America did use Spanish, but there is no indication that the PMG laptops were in any other language besides English.

  3. Steven says:

    Great writeup on airdropped tech again, Wayan. What’s the latest mutation of that ideology, do know? Anybody new leaving tech someplace, and expecting an outbreak of learning? It does seem like one of those ideologies impervious to evidence against it.

  4. Cavin Mugarura says:

    we have a saying in my language, omumpi wakoma wakwaata, translation doesn’t give it justice but literally means that a person’s hands can only stretch to their length. Khan academy has improved from just a repo – the new features are cool, though still a long shot from a true learning platform, its still very elementary stuff they are doing.

  5. Tom says:

    Hi Wayan,

    Actually this article rings fairly true in my experience in Timor Leste but I would also agree with the comment above that the OLPC programme created some change and showed opportunities the benefits of which have spilled into the wider endeavour of ICT. Simply put OLPC did not revolutionise the education of kids in the developing world BUT it did teach us a huge amount about the problem space and highlight the opportunities and potential benefits.

    cheers and thanks for your ongoing efforts in this area.
    Tom Daly
    p.s. ever hear from Bruce Baikie at all, is he still involved in ICT ?

    • Cavin Mugarura says:

      We have to remember education is not only broken in the developing world, if you do some reading you will note that Detroit, New York , DC public schools don’t fare too well.

  6. Sam Lanfranco says:

    As one of the long-time observers and critics of the OLPC program, and a critic involved with computers and education since the early 1980s, I would like to offer several short observations. One has to distinguish between two issues here. One is the introduction of computers into primary education and the other is the role of the OLPC program. In its intended locations OLPC seldom was a flagship program raising the profile of computers in education. The three main reasons for this were: (a) the marginalization of the teacher, (b) the computer’s incompatibility with virtually all of the rest of the digital ecosystem, and (c) a persistent failure/refusal to learn from its implementation mistakes, as well as a blindered focus on tweaking the technology itself.

    These reasons were augmented by excessive promotion of the OLPC idea in the western press, where the computers were not used, an overall failure to understand the context in which they were trying to enhance education through the use of technology, and an almost absolute reluctance to consult and listen to the key stakeholders, i.e., the teachers, the parents and the students.

    Many of these shortcomings were flagged at the onset but OLPC refused to take them seriously. There were repeated suggestions that the use of computers in the target areas could be used to augment the teaching skills of teachers and be used for educational systems strengthening. A program of skills development for local teachers, using a telecentre or Internet cafe, would have had a higher rate of return in education, and paved a better road forward for computers in the hands of students. In the end the failures were not because of where they started, but because of their persistent failure/refusal to learn.

  7. Cavin Mugarura says:

    Good observations, even the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The OLPC project had good intentions, let’s assume they had got the strategy right from the onset, that would no way guarantee it’s success. As the old saying goes, the taste is in the pudding.These projects are complex and require a clear set of spectacles to dice and chop, while tweaking along the way. Someone penned a master piece which you can read here – https://medium.com/@pjskids/dear-minister-d37d75c0d6e9

  8. Sam Lanfranco says:

    Thanks for the link to Paul Skidmore’s piece. While he does reference developing country examples, much of the advice is relevant mainly to the context in OECD (developed) countries, and much is the common sense that can get lost in bureaucratic rigidities. He is on the mark when he says “…provide the practical support teachers need to improve their teaching”. OLPC failed miserably on that front. Also, while there is an emphasis on the STEM curriculum at the moment, we will gradually realize that it misses the critical thinking and broader perspective and problem-solving skills, and Arts will be included in STEAM. As a thought experiment, look at the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and consider how we would advance drawing only on STEM areas of knowledge. In a sense one could say that OLPC was a STEM-centric project. It focused on science, technology and engineering, to build the device. I guess the computer did the math. But, it was the failure to understand the context, or to adapt strategy to lessons learned in the social and organizational context, that sank the effort.