Comments on Jeffrey James’s olpc critique

By Antonio M. Battro, OLPC’s Chief Education Officer

Jeffrey James wrote a critique of OLPC last year, proposing a balanced pattern of “sharing computers” among children (say 5 children per computer, in the US or the UK) instead of the olpc “one to one” model – one laptop per child (and per teacher). As an alternative to olpc, James proposes that “the number of students per laptop stands in roughly the same ratio as the difference in per capita incomes between the rich and the poor country” (p. 385). In his view, the OLPC idea to persuade the developing countries to exceed the standards of shared computers of developed countries seems “utterly perverse” (p. 386).

It seems that his reasoning will fail if we substitute mobile phones for laptops. We don’t frequently share mobile phones, and in many poor countries their number exceeds James’s predictions about ratios of income and information and communication technologies in the hands of people. It seems difficult to accept the universality of his model about “sharing”, because laptops, tablets and mobile phones are rapidly converging in new hybrids.

On the other side, his ideas for successful low-cost technology sharing are not clear. One of his options, for instance, is “to purchase Intel’s Classmate computer at a similarly low price and let [them] be shared by as many students as is thought desirable” (p.389). In Argentina, where the Classmate has been most widely adopted, the national government is deploying some 3 million Classmates to cover the whole population of students and teachers of the secondary public schools in the country, on a one to one basis – an idea first proposed by OLPC some 5 years ago. It would be interesting to know the current state of affairs of other options he references (Simputer, NComputing, sharing multiple mice). However the quoted references are from 2006 and 2008, and 3-5 years is a long time in the digital era.

From the point of view of psychology and education, some comments about “teaching” need careful revision. First, in his paper James never speaks of the need to give laptops to the teachers, despite the significant mass of teachers in the world. On the contrary, OLPC programs start in every country by giving a laptop per teacher and providing corresponding teacher training. We know that a) “digital skills” develop in stages from the very early ages, as a second language (Battro & Denham, 2007) and b) most teachers didn’t have the opportunity to early access to this new global environment in the poor and developing countries.

What seems strange today is that James takes the old model of a “computer laboratory” as a standard, while it has been replaced in many places by the “extended school” that includes connected laptops at home as well as in class. The classical view of a teacher “in front” of a class or a laboratory, even if each of them has a laptop, is not a model to follow. Teaching and learning are now expanding because of the vertical and horizontal interactions in real pedagogical situations in a digital environment: children to adults, adults to children, children to children. In most cases children work in groups, like musicians, in duos, quartets, quintets and sextets. The solo case is rare.

The mention en passant that Seymour Papert has promoted an educational philosophy of school-age children that “teach themselves” is appropriate. In fact, children teach! This impressive skill is included in many successful initiatives around the globe known as “learning by doing”, “hands-on”, ”la main à la pâte”, ”project Zero”, etc. (Strauss, 2005; Battro, 2009) But none of us has promoted a “teacherless world” as suggested on page 387. On the contrary, since the time of Piaget in the sixties, several of us, along with Papert, have been working together to better understand the role of both teaching and learning in different cultures. In this sense, the neurocognitive sciences have done in the last decade formidable work to understand the learning brain. We now expect a leap forward in the realm of the teaching brain as well (Battro, 2010; IMBES, International Mind, Brain and Education, Surprisingly, James does not mention the developing brain in his paper, but “neuroeducation” is now a fact and laptops are a mobile and portable laboratory for recording many brain activities (Battro, Fischer & Léna, 2008; Aoki, Funane and Koizumi, 2010). We are entering a new digital era, with many more intellectual and technical tools than those provided by the teaching and learning restricted to a classroom or computer lab.



Aoki, R., Funane, T. & Koizumi, H. (2010). Brain science of ethics: Present status and the future. Mind, Brain and Education, 4, 4, 188-195.

Battro, A. M. & Denham, P. J. (2007). Hacia una inteligencia digital. Buenos Aires: Academia Nacional de Ciencias.

Battro, A. M, Fischer, K. W. & Léna P. (2008). The educated brain. Essays in neuroeducation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Battro, A.M. (2009) Multiple intelligences and constructionism in the digital era. Multiple Intelligences Around the World. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Wiley.

Battro, A.M. (2010). The teaching brain. Mind Brain and Education. Vol.4, 1, 28-33.

James, J. (2010). New Technology in Developing Countries: A Critique of the One-Laptop-Per-Child Program. Social Science Computer Review, 28, 3, 381-380.

Strauss, S. (2005). Teaching as a natural cognitive ability: Implications for classroom practice and teacher education. In D. Pilmer and S. White (eds). Develop

4 thoughts on “Comments on Jeffrey James’s olpc critique

  1. I guess Mr Battro has never been to rural Sub Saharan Africa to experience the conditions. Laptops AT HOME, the new trend? A old-fashioned computer lab at a school, where things can be locked away and equipment can be supervised, is still an infinitely better idea in many of those remote and (materially) primitive places!

    • I don’t know how much he has travelled in Africa, but many OLPC staff have – and our most transformative projects are in rural communities where laptops and tablets are taken home, yes.

  2. Pingback: One Laptop Per Child Redux - Miller-McCune

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