OLPC and Measuring if Technology Helps

I have a penchant for dating teachers who have worked in Australia’s 3rd world. This has given me a deep, personal appreciation of just how hard developing world education can be.

So I was wondering: where has the OLPC project gone? And in particular, has it helped people? I have had some experience with this wonderful initiative, and it was the subject of much excitement in my geeky, open source community.

I started to question the educational outcomes of the OLPC project in 2011. Too much tech buzz, and I know from my own experiences (and those of friends in the developing world) that parachuting rich white guy technology into the developing world then walking away just doesn’t work. It just makes geeks and the media feel good, for a little while at least.

Turns out 2.5M units have been deployed world wide, quite a number for any hardware project. One Education alone has an impressive 50k units in the field, and are seeking to deploy many more. Rangan Srikhanta from One Education Australia informed me (via a private email) that a 3 year study has just kicked off with 3 Universities, to evaluate the use of the XO and other IT technology in the classroom. Initial results in 2016. They have also tuned their deployment strategy to address better use of deployed XOs.

Other studies have questioned the educational outcomes of the OLPC project. Quite a vigorous debate in the comments there! I am not a teacher, so don’t profess to have the answers, but I did like this quote:

He added: “…the evidence shows that computers by themselves have no effect on learning and what really matters is the institutional environment that makes learning possible: the family, the teacher, the classroom, your peers.”

Measurement Matters

It’s really important to make sure the technology is effective. I have direct experience of developing world technology deployments that haven’t reached critical mass despite a lot of hard work by good people. With some initiatives like OLPC, even after 10 years (an eternity in IT, but not long in education) there isn’t any consensus. This means it’s unclear if the resources are being well spent.

I have also met some great people from other initiatives like AirJaldi and Inveneo who have done an excellent job of using geeky technology to consistently help people in the developing world.

This matters to me. These days I am developing technology building blocks (like HF Digital Voice), rather than working directly on deployments in the developing world. Not as sexy, I don’t get to sweat amongst the palm trees, or show videos of “unboxing” shiny technology in dusty locations. But for me at least, a better chance to “improve the world a little bit” using my skills and resources.

Failure is an Option

When I started Googling for recent OLPC developments I discovered many posts declaring OLPC to be a failure. I’m not so sure. It innovated in many areas, such as robust, repairable, eco-friendly IT technology purpose designed for education in the developing world. They have shipped 2.5M units, which I have never done with any of my products. It excited and motivated a lot of people (including me).

When working on the Village Telco I experienced difficult problems with interference on mesh networks and frustration working with nasty closed source chip set vendors. I started asking fundamental questions about sending voice over radio and lead me to my current HF Digital Voice work – which is 1000 times (60dB) more efficient than VOIP over Wifi and completely open source.

Pushing developing world education and telecommunications forward is a huge undertaking. Mistakes will be made, but without trying we learn nothing, and get no closer to solutions. So I say GO failure.

I have learned to push for failure early – get that shiny tech out in the field and watch how it breaks. Set binary pass/fail conditions. Build in ways to objectively measure it’s performance. Avoid gold plating and long development cycles before fundamental assumptions have been tested.

Measuring the Effectiveness of my Own Work

Lets put the spotlight on me. Can I can measure the efficacy of my own work in hard numbers? This blog gets visited by 5000 unique IPs a day (150k/month). Unique IPs is a reasonable measure for a blog, and it’s per day, so it shows some recurring utility.

OK, so how about my HF radio digital voice software? Like the OLPC project, that’s a bit harder to measure. Quite a few people trying FreeDV but an unknown number of them are walking away after an initial tinker. A few people are saying publicly it’s not as good as SSB. So “downloads”, like the number of XO laptops deployed, is not a reliable metric of the utility of my work.

However there is another measure. An end-user can directly compare the performance of FreeDV against analog SSB over HF radio. Your communication is either better or it is not. You don’t need any studies, you can determine the answer yourself in just a few minutes. So while I may not have reached my technical goals quite get (I’m still tweaking FreeDV 700), I have a built in way for anyone to determine if the technology I am developing is helping anyone.

One thought on “OLPC and Measuring if Technology Helps”

  1. Hi David and all,

    VERY good questions and points.

    I got into ‘ham radio’ about age 15. Eventually I went on to become an electrical engineer. Mostly because the stuff I built didn’t work :). I am still at it today.

    I suspect that HF radio, freedv, etc. as an open source feature of the villagetelco.org box would get some young minds excited. At one point I had a “PBX” that you could dial a number and listen to 40m ham radio. I thought it was pretty neat. I even tried VOX via dialup.

    One problem that really needed/needs a simple solution is: “Don’t make the long and hard trip into town today, fresh produce not needed right now.” So simple easy communications that works reliably seems like it might get interest started?

    Freedv and friends offers MUCH better connectivity at MUCH lower SNRs. And hearing a familar voice live or as a voice message is MUCH more convincing than an easily hacked text message.

    Now if I can just get freedv up and running on my box….

    Lots of fun :).

    Just my 2 cents.

    John

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