Book Review | Learning to Change the World: The Social Impact of One Laptop per Child

  • Post category:2.3 / Book Review
  • Reading time:8 mins read

By Claire Wilker

Global Campaign Director, Human Society International’s Be Cruelty Free Campaign 

Most organizations seeking to achieve social change focus on utilizing and directing human capital and resources toward solving social problems. One Laptop per Child (OLPC), however, is one of a few organizations which attempts to achieve social change through a product-driven model. In Learning to Change the World: The Social Impact of One Laptop per Child, international development and social change consultants Jody Cornish and Neal Donahue pair with OLPC’s Walter Bender and Charles Kane in an attempt to chronicle the story of OLPC from a critical perspective. In 2006, James Surowiecki wrote in an issue of Technology Review that a successful OLPC could “serve as a new model for getting the non-profit, private, and public sectors to work together efficiently and productively;” in essence, create a new type of “philanthropic machine.” Learning to Change the World attempts to make the case that OLPC can be the model for a new type of philanthropic social change. The authors aim to present OLPC as such a model through three key goals: telling what they believe is the success story of OLPC; providing the opportunity for social innovators and entrepreneurs to learn from OLPC’s successes and mistakes; and inspiring readers to become involved both in the work of OLPC and other social change initiatives. 

One Laptop per Child began in 2005 with a mission to create opportunities for learning by all children in developing countries. Because OLPC’s founders believe that education is the primary engine of social and economic development, they felt that it was necessary to change the way that children are educated. The organization’s work is based on an underlying educational philosophy of constructionism. Constructionism in education changes the lives of children, particularly in developing countries, by shifting the way they learn. Rather than rote instruction and memorization techniques, children are given the tools they need to change and improve their circumstances and environment themselves. By teaching life skills such as how to learn, problem solving, “learning through doing,” critical thinking, and innovation, children are enabled to become the human resources and human capital necessary for social change within their own communities. 

To achieve these results, OLPC based its theory of change on filling what it believed were key gaps in the educational system of most developing countries—children lack sufficient learning tools and information along with the appropriate hardware and software to learn these skills in a meaningful way. Under the premise that a computer is a “thing to think with,” OLPC’s founders sought to bridge these gaps by equipping children with sturdy laptop computers that could withstand the rugged conditions and potentially rough treatment of children. Additionally, the computers needed to preserve power in locations with limited and unreliable access to electricity, as well as create network connectivity so that children could interact with each other through their computers. Finally, the development of specialized software to facilitate constructionist learning was required. All of this needed to be achieved at a price point low enough to ensure that computer saturation within the community could be achieved. Thus the idea of the $100 XO laptop was born. 

OLPC’s founders began their efforts believing there were three barriers the organization must overcome in order to have a sustainable impact: a tool divide, a learning divide, and a digital divide. Over the course of the next seven years, they learned that the obstacles they would face within these barriers would be far more complicated than first expected. 

Learning to Change the World chronicles the evolution of OLPC from an organization into a social movement. From the beginning, OLPC grappled with the realities of how to bridge the tool divide. Decisions such as whether to be a non-profit or a for-profit entity and how to convince private enterprise to engage in the actual creation of the laptop and accompanying software continually forced OLPC to re-evaluate its role and mission. At its start, the organization made bold claims regarding the ability to place a $100 laptop in the hands of every child that it reached and achieving no less than one million laptops placed in no fewer than each of five developing counties. However, OLPC’s founders soon learned that both technological and structural realities would prevent them from fulfilling these goals with both ease and with the hands-off role they had envisioned for themselves. Over the course of seven years, OLPC evolved from being “an enabler of social change to being a direct actor in achieving the mission.” In addition, over time, the focus on scale and the delivery of advertised numbers generated tension with the organization’s original goal of creating meaningful impact in the lives of the children it intended to serve. 

Once an affordable and durable XO laptop and accompanying Sugar software had been developed, OLPC faced new challenges in bridging the learning and digital divides. Rolling out the computers themselves, providing the infrastructure and ongoing support necessary to support the program, and actually realizing the educational philosophy behind their philanthropic mission all faced numerous unforeseen obstacles. Political regime changes, financing difficulties, teacher resistance, learning expectations, and community support for implementing the program all caused clashes with OLPC’s social change ideal. The story of how OLPC handled and learned from these challenges provides both a learning opportunity and a potential guidebook for others within the philanthropic and social change communities. 

The author’s acknowledgment of the missteps and problems they faced, which are analyzed in sections on Lessons and Reflections included at the end of each chapter, form the key strength of the work. However, the work lacks an analysis or response to the numerous criticisms of OLPC. Although the authors note that much of the criticism OLPC has received is in large part due to the organization’s expansion beyond core areas of competency and that many of the criticisms are valid, these few criticisms are mentioned only briefly and almost dismissively. The book notes that there are “anecdotal stories” which question OLPC’s impact and effectiveness yet fails to provide and address any examples. 

Whether or not OLPC can be the new philanthropic model Surowiecki foresaw is yet to be determined. The authors admit that evidence regarding the success of OLPC’s efforts and its impact are mixed and inconclusive, a result which is not unusual in social impact efforts. More time is needed to develop an evaluative model and fully test their theory of change. Moreover, they must discover ways to achieve the meaningful scale of change that was first envisioned. However, if OLPC can continue to learn from a critical analysis of its successes and failure, then it just may fulfill its promise of becoming a model for truly learning how to change the world. 

Claire Wilker 

M. Claire Wilker holds a B.S. in Political Science & Law from Spring Hill College and an M.A. in International Relations, International Law and World Order from the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. She has over a decade of experience in campaigning, politics, and government including: working for former House Minority Leader, Congressman Dick Gephardt, on both his Leadership PAC and his 2004 Presidential Primary campaign; and serving as Chief of Staff to former Virginia House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong, overseeing legislative, electoral, and PAC operations. She is also a contributing author to Primarily New Hampshire, chronicling the experiences of young campaign staffers on the 2004 Presidential Primary race in New Hampshire. Claire has also managed multi-state advocacy initiatives for Generations United, a non-profit organization focusing on intergenerational programming and policy. She is currently the Global Campaign Director for Humane Society International’s Be Cruelty Free campaign.