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Big Fractal Tangle

the OLPC airdrop model

Yesterday in a talk with OLPC, we were again confronted with their “airdrop model” of laptop distribution (the term is mine). OLPC advocates a “full saturation” approach to giving laptops to schools and countries. When Waveplace then says, “Our plan is to start with a smaller pilot and scale teacher training to assure effectiveness”, they counter with their belief that larger numbers have a magic all their own. Their experience is that full saturation is more important than scaled training.

Now these are smart guys with a lot of experience at this, so I’m tempted to believe them. I’m also aware that this airdrop model has been a chief criticism of OLPC’s approach. While I agree with making a laptop that’s “better than a bad teacher, or no teacher”, I’d have to say I’m with Alan Kay when he says, “you can buy pianos for a school, but they work better with music lessons,” so much so that it’s the chief mission of Waveplace. We make laptop lessons. Moreover, we’re following Alan’s advice with a one-to-seven teacher/student ratio, which seems opposite of OLPC.

So here’s the question … does OLPC’s airdrop model have merit? If you drop a thousand laptops on a school system so that every child has one, does a kind of kid-to-kid ecosystem really emerge that’s beyond the reach of adult interaction? Or does it just seem so because we’re increasing the odds of incredible anecdotes from a small percentage self-starter students?

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