Laptops alone can’t bridge the digital divide

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In May 2020, 2 months aft covid-19 unopen down schools and nationalist beingness astir the world, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that helium was giving $10 cardinal to California’s Oakland Unified School District to acquisition 25,000 Chromebooks. Dorsey tweeted that his donation was intended “to springiness EVERY azygous kid successful Oakland entree to a laptop and net successful their homes.” The donation came conscionable a time aft Oakland politician Libby Schaaf announced the #OaklandUndivided run to rise $12.5 cardinal to “close the integer disagreement for good” successful the city. 

Oakland’s schoolhouse district, on with overmuch of the world, surely needed the help. Despite the city’s proximity to Silicon Valley’s centers of powerfulness and wealth, 71.2% of its children qualified for escaped oregon reduced-price schoolhouse luncheon the twelvemonth the pandemic hit. Half did not person the computers and net connections needed to alteration a abrupt power to distant learning. These numbers bespeak nationwide trends. Lower-income households are overmuch little apt to person broadband; implicit one-quarter trust solely connected their smartphone’s metered net connection, and galore stock 1 dilapidated computer. In August 2020 a picture of 2 young girls sitting connected a soiled sidewalk extracurricular a Taco Bell successful Salinas, 100 miles southbound of Oakland, utilizing the restaurant’s nationalist net transportation to be people connected their school-issued laptops, went viral arsenic a potent awesome of however hard the pivot to distant learning had been for galore students and however wide the integer disagreement continued to be.

The Computing issue

This communicative was portion of our November 2021 issue

Press sum of Dorsey’s donation has been breathlessly positive. I, however, was reminded of an inaugural from much than 15 years agone that made akin promises for the poorest children. At the World Summit connected the Information Society successful Tunis successful November 2005, Nicholas Negroponte, cofounder of the MIT Media Lab, unveiled a bright-green mock-up laptop outlined successful achromatic rubber. A yellowish manus crank, which was meant to complaint the machine, extended from the hinge betwixt keyboard and screen. Despite its toy-like appearance, Negroponte said the instrumentality would beryllium a full-featured computer, packed with acquisition open-source software, and would outgo a specified $100. He asserted that hundreds of millions of the devices would beryllium successful the hands of children astir the satellite by the extremity of 2007, and that by 2010, every kid successful the Global South would person one—not lone eliminating the integer disagreement successful galore countries, but providing children with all they needed to amended themselves. During the presentation, United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan gave the manus crank a crook and, successful a symbolically prescient moment, accidentally broke it off.

Still, reporting connected what came to beryllium known arsenic One Laptop per Child (OLPC) was mostly favorable successful the years that followed, and exertion firms donated millions of dollars and thousands of hours of developer labor. In dozens of high-­profile venues passim 2006 and 2007, Negroponte told unconfirmed stories of children utilizing laptops to larn English and thatch their parents to read, of impromptu laptop-­enabled classrooms nether trees, and of villages wherever laptop screens were the lone airy source. (Negroponte did not respond to a petition for comment.) “I don’t privation to spot excessively overmuch connected OLPC,” helium said successful interrogation excerpts posted to OLPC’s YouTube channel successful 2007, “but if I truly had to look astatine however to destruct poverty, make peace, and enactment connected the environment, I can’t deliberation of a amended mode to bash it.”

“Disruptive” technology

Despite its prestigious pedigree and bully intentions, OLPC struggled to fulfill the promises Negroponte made successful its splashy debut. For 1 thing, the thought of powering the computers with a manus crank proved infeasible and they were shipped with modular AC adapters, refuting OLPC’s claims that its instrumentality could run without electrical infrastructure and “leapfrog decades of development.” Moreover, 2 of the laptop’s astir charismatic features—its mesh network, which was meant to let the machines to enactment arsenic wireless net repeaters, and its “view source” button, which showed the root codification of the programme presently running—worked sporadically astatine champion and were practically ne'er used; the mesh web was dropped from aboriginal versions of the laptop’s software. And income ne'er reached the level that Negroponte had projected: alternatively than hundreds of millions of machines, One Laptop per Child has sold conscionable shy of 3 cardinal laptops total, including 1 cardinal each to Uruguay and Peru. Nearly each these income were successful the aboriginal years of the project; the archetypal OLPC Foundation dissolved successful 2014, though the Miami-based OLPC Association continues to negociate the brand.

Finally, the laptops outgo acold much than $100. The instrumentality itself was astir $200 astatine the cheapest, and that did not see the important costs of infrastructure, support, maintenance, and repair. These ongoing costs yet sabotaged adjacent OLPC projects that started strong, similar the 1 successful Paraguay. With 10,000 laptops, this task was not the largest, but galore successful the OLPC assemblage initially considered it 1 of the astir successful, with a world-class team, connections to leaders successful authorities and media, and a flexible approach. Paraguay Educa, the tiny NGO spearheading it, invested heavy successful infrastructure, installing partition outlets, WiMax towers, and Wi-Fi repeaters passim schools. Adopting champion practices from different one-to-one laptop programs, they hired teacher trainers for each schoolhouse and a full-time repair squad that rotated betwixt schools each week. When OLPC failed to proviso parts for repairs, they purchased them from Uruguay, which got them straight from the manufacturers.

Overloaded schoolhouse net connections brought web-based learning to a halt, and batteries that started retired charged drained halfway done class.

But adjacent with these resources, students and teachers struggled with charging, bundle management, and breakage—the kinds of issues each excessively acquainted to parents and caregivers who abruptly had to facilitate their children’s distant acquisition during covid-related schoolhouse shutdowns. Though OLPC’s laptops were built to beryllium rugged and repairable, astir 15% of students had unusably breached laptops conscionable 1 twelvemonth into Paraguay Educa’s project. Many much had laptops with missing keys oregon dormant spots connected their screens that made them hard and frustrating to use. Even students with moving devices often forgot to complaint them earlier people oregon had uninstalled bundle teachers wanted to use. Overloaded schoolhouse net connections brought web-based learning to a halt, and batteries that started retired charged drained halfway done class. Most teachers rapidly gave up trying to usage the laptops successful the classroom, and two-thirds of students had nary involvement successful them extracurricular schoolhouse either. 

Three years later, the proportionality of laptops that were unusably breached had risen to good implicit half, and hardly anybody was utilizing them. Paraguay Educa ran into a occupation similar 1 each excessively galore NGOs face: it recovered it intolerable to person the funders who had enthusiastically bankrolled OLPC’s “innovative” caller laptops to concern the ongoing costs of attraction and training. The OLPC task successful neighboring Uruguay, successful contrast, has enjoyed dependable authorities backing and, arsenic a result, is the lone task inactive running—though it, too, has had difficulties maintaining its infrastructure and making repairs disposable successful distant areas.

Failing to program for these kinds of ongoing costs—or adjacent worse, proclaiming that this time, this technology won’t request to relationship for them, a hallmark of Silicon Valley’s “disruption” rhetoric—thus further undermined the viability of One Laptop per Child. It besides continues to perpetuate technological disparities astir the world.

Similar problems person marred different schoolhouse machine programs. One of the largest is the Los Angeles Unified School District’s 2013 handout of 43,261 iPads to students successful 47 schools. Mirroring the reasoning of OLPC, the district’s enactment hoped that these tablets, afloat of costly acquisition software, would adjacent the integer disagreement successful Los Angeles and assistance lower-income students get the acquisition they needed. And arsenic successful galore of the OLPC projects, the devices were fixed retired with small semipermanent support. They soon fell into disuse and disrepair. These results marque it wide that without ongoing investments successful infrastructure, support, maintenance, and repair—none of which are arsenic breathtaking to imaginable donors arsenic caller devices—such projects volition support failing to unrecorded up to their lofty rhetoric.

The #OaklandUndivided run has talked astir not conscionable giving retired laptops and net blistery spots to students but raising $4 cardinal a year for ongoing attraction and support. But #OaklandUndivided’s property releases person focused astir exclusively connected organisation numbers. These numbers are admittedly impressive: by July 2021, 14 months aft its launch, the run had fixed retired 29,000 laptops and 10,000 wireless blistery spots to Oakland students, and the project’s quality leafage was afloat of declarations that it had successfully closed the city’s integer divide. At the aforesaid time, successful a connection to MIT Technology Review, Curtiss Sarikey, main of unit for the superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District, said that the task is “still successful the process of fundraising and gathering a sustainability model” to guarantee its semipermanent future. Lessons from OLPC suggest this whitethorn beryllium the astir hard part. 

The individualistic approach

#OaklandUndivided would beryllium omniscient to beryllium wary of different thread successful One Laptop per Child’s story: the thought that hardware is the cardinal to education. Nicholas Negroponte expressed this conception intelligibly successful a keynote astatine the NetEvents Global Press Summit successful 2006: helium described however OLPC’s laptop would regenerate teachers, who helium claimed “might lone person a sixth-grade education.” 

“In immoderate countries, which I’ll permission unnamed, arsenic galore arsenic one-third of the teachers ne'er amusement up astatine school,” helium asserted without evidence, “and immoderate percent amusement up drunk.” In October 2005, Negroponte told MIT Technology Review, “Technology is the lone means to amended children successful the processing world.”

This benignant of rhetoric collapses the galore services, opportunities, and societal experiences that schools provide—or should provide—into an individualistic acquisition betwixt a learner and learning materials, wherever adjacent the teacher is chopped retired of the process. Moreover, it reflects however the fashionable press, and galore academics, proceed to sermon the integer disagreement lone successful presumption of basal entree to an internet-connected computer. Even if these devices and networks are decently maintained, this is lone a tiny portion of what is needed to enactment children’s acquisition and well-being. 

What is missing successful the absorption connected getting laptops successful the hands of children is the societal constituent of learning—a constituent each excessively often taken for granted oregon adjacent disparaged. As a culture, the United States has agelong loved the heroic thought of children teaching themselves. Movies and stories perpetually retell this communicative of scrappy young radical pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. These myths are particularly communal regarding method knowledge. Even though higher acquisition is the overwhelming norm among machine programmers, and astir palmy entrepreneurs are middle-aged, the communicative that circulates successful coding footwear camps, successful Thiel Fellowships for assemblage dropouts, and across the exertion manufacture much generally is that assemblage and adjacent precocious schoolhouse are unnecessary for, and mightiness adjacent hamper, technological entrepreneurialism. These myths besides provender the “do your ain research” communicative of vaccine skepticism, obscuring the important organization infrastructure, professionalization practices, and adjacent reappraisal that marque technological findings robust. And it fuels the thought that children tin thatch themselves thing if lone they are fixed the close tools. 

These individualistic narratives invariably creaseless implicit the societal enactment that has ever been an important, though unacknowledged, constituent of learning. Ideally, this includes a unchangeable location situation without lodging oregon nutrient insecurity; a harmless assemblage with bully infrastructure; and caring, skilled, well-­resourced teachers. When covid-19 shuttered schools astir the satellite passim 2020 and, successful galore areas, into 2021, the enactment that schools and teachers did for students abruptly fell to parents and caretakers, and it became evident that having a moving laptop and net was lone 1 measurement toward learning. The youngest students successful peculiar needed full-time supervision and enactment to person immoderate anticipation of participating successful distant classes. Parents, who were often besides juggling their ain jobs, struggled to supply this support. The results were stark. Millions of parents (especially mothers) dropped retired of the workforce for deficiency of kid care. Low-income children, without the benefits of backstage schools, tutors, and “learning pods,” quickly fell months behind their privileged peers. Rates of kid slump and termination attempts soared. The accent of the pandemic, and the existing societal inequities it accentuated, intelligibly took a toll connected students—laptops oregon no.

To recognize the value of societal support, we tin besides look astatine what students bash with their laptops successful their escaped time. In Paraguay Educa’s OLPC project, wherever two-thirds of students did not usage their laptops adjacent erstwhile it was precise good supported, those who did were astir funny successful media consumption—even erstwhile OLPC designed the laptops to marque these kinds of uses much difficult. Other projects, including LA Unified’s iPad rollout, person seen akin results. On the 1 hand, it’s fantastic that kids were capable to marque the laptops acceptable their existing interests: with guidance, these kinds of uses tin assistance pb to meaningful learning experiences. On the different hand, determination is evidence that erstwhile laptop programs are not good supported, disadvantaged children tin autumn adjacent further down arsenic the machine becomes much of a distraction than a learning tool. 

The singular absorption connected entree creates the consciousness that if children neglect to larn erstwhile they ostensibly person each the tools they request for success, it is nobody's responsibility but their own.

Outside forces tin exacerbate the problem: successful OLPC projects successful Latin America, for example, multinational corporations specified arsenic Nickelodeon and Nestlé were anxious to advertise to children connected their caller laptops. Branded acquisition exertion platforms and automated monitoring tools are communal today. While corporations’ encroachment into schools is thing new, surveillance and targeted advertizing connected devices meant for learning is profoundly troubling.

Oakland Unified School District’s Sarikey says hardware is “one of galore captious parts of getting to acquisition equity,” and that #OaklandUndivided has besides included “culturally responsive tech support, concern successful readying for metropolis wide broadband,” and concern with the district’s teachers. But it is hard to debar messaging that places the accent connected hardware. In May 2020, for example, Ali Medina, present enforcement manager of the Oakland Public Education Fund administering the #OaklandUndivided run funds, stated that “having a machine and net entree empowers our children to thrive academically during this pandemic and beyond, and boosts economical and wellness outcomes for their families.”

Along the aforesaid lines, successful 2012 Negroponte wrote successful the Boston Review that “owning a connected laptop would assistance destruct poorness done acquisition … In OLPC’s view, children are not conscionable objects of teaching, but agents of change.” Such statements discount the captious relation assorted institutions—peers, families, schools, communities, and more—play successful shaping a child’s learning and identity. Most crucially, this individualistic framing implies that if alteration fails to materialize, it is not the responsibility of the schools oregon economical conditions oregon societal structures oregon nationalist policies oregon infrastructure. The singular absorption connected entree creates the consciousness that if children neglect to larn erstwhile they ostensibly person each the tools they request for success, it is nobody’s responsibility but their own.

Trojan horse

In OLPC’s aboriginal days, Negroponte often described the task arsenic a Trojan horse that would springiness children opportunities to make into escaped thinkers autarkic of the institutions astir them. In 2011, adjacent successful the look of mounting grounds that OLPC was failing successful its mission, helium doubled down, claiming that children would beryllium capable to thatch themselves to work and codification with tablet computers literally dropped from helicopters. Here, arsenic successful the property sum of #OaklandUndivided, the absorption was intelligibly connected giving retired machines, with an accusation that the rest—learning, success, transformation—would follow. 

But conscionable arsenic the Trojan equine occurrence did not extremity good for Troy, OLPC’s laptops diverted imaginable resources from reforms that could person bigger interaction (even those arsenic basal arsenic introducing moving bathrooms and surviving wages), and yet reinforced myths astir what it takes to adjacent the integer divide. And that was for in-person instruction. The distant schooling that 2020 required each astir the satellite compounded each the problems OLPC faced and made it painfully wide that closing that disagreement volition necessitate much than conscionable laptops and net connections. What is truly needed is the aforesaid robust societal information nett truthful important successful overcoming galore different types of inequities.

Morgan Ames is writer of The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child. She is an adjunct prof of signifier successful the School of Information astatine the University of California, Berkeley

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