How not to run a development program

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, has adopted the “oh f- it, I don’t even care anymore. Let’s just throw laptops out of a freaking helicopter.” theory of development.

“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.”

There are so many problems with this idea, I don’t know where to begin. For starters, I’m wondering how the tablets won’t break when falling out of a helicopter. I suppose the local kids could just order new parts online with their tabl – oh wait.

Now I could be wrong, this plan could turn out to be a great success. Of course, we will never know, because its implementers (shockingly) don’t seem to have any plan to really measure progress.

“We’ll take tablets and drop them out of helicopters into villages that have no electricity and school, then go back 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.

I know not every intervention can be measured by Randomized Control Trials, but shouldn’t there be any attempt to develop some  way to observe a causal mechanism? (Okay, where the tablets land may be “random”, but that doesn’t count). Seeing what a society is like one year later is about the worst way one can evaluate any program. Are they worried about spillover effects, or the other billion variables that exist in a society that might have some impact on literary during the year? How would they know what an increase in literacy looks like if they aren’t willing to measure a baseline sample? It’s true that the villagers may find the tablets to “distribute, support, and use on their own.” It’s also true that the tablets might start a civil war Maybe the parents will be so busy playing Angry Birds, they will fall short on their other duties, and agricultural output will decrease, leading to mass death. None of these scenarios are likely, but neither is making everybody literate by chucking electronics out a window. So, what if OLCP comes back and they find that everybody in the village is dead? Would they be willing to attribute that to the computers? If not, they shouldn’t assume the same causality they are willing to claim if the kids can read.

With that being said, if OLPC is looking for part-time help, I would be more than willing to fly the helicopter.

Posted on November 22, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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