Some ideas feel great when you first hear them. These are the ideas where everyone says, “Let’s do that.” For example, what idea had more promise than the One Child / One Laptop initiative?
This was developed under the leadership of Nicholas Negroponte at the MIT Media Lab in 2002-3 and, well, it sounded just terrific. So, how did that initiative turn out and why?
The idea here was to give children in underdeveloped countries specially equipped laptops which would allow them to access the internet. They had hand crank generators, specially designed software, a price tag of under $150.00 (short of the original target of $100.00). They were built with donations and technical contributions from all around the world. Everyone felt great.
But, broadly, this initiative has been quite unsuccessful – at least in terms of the Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAG’s) the world had planned on. From a recent interview with Kentaro Toyama in MIT Technology Review:
“There are now several randomized, controlled trials of schools with and without One Laptop per Child. Generally, what most of these studies show is that schools with laptops did not see their children gain anything in terms of academic achievement, in terms of grades, in terms of test scores, in terms of attendance, or in terms of supposed engagement with the classroom.”
This has to be very disappointing to people, especially the donors who have heard all the anecdotes about how their investment was paying out. Anecdotes are not data. Again, Toyama:
“It’s the anecdotes that really keep the technology sector going in [on Economic] development context. It is so easy to get an interesting story if you take some gadget and give it to a child. I have done this myself multiple times. The first thing that you see is kids just overjoyed that they have this new gadget in their hands. It’s a new toy, and they love it. You can’t not take a photograph of a smiling kid holding a laptop.
The reality is, that joy is the same joy that you see when you peek over the shoulder of a kid who has a smartphone in their hands in the developed world, which is to say they’re overjoyed because they’re playing Angry Birds. On the one hand, I do think that a certain amount of educational toys and play is important, but I just don’t think that KI through 12 education of any serious kind can be based entirely on that kind of play.”
The point here is that many times in innovation, we fail to think through all the human-scale issues which get in the way of ideas that seem, on their face, like they should work. Nowhere is this more frequently the case than in education. The truth is, we all make these “leaps of faith,” all the time, without thinking it through. The next time you experience one of those “magic moments,” it is worth reciting to yourself this adage: Nothing is easy. If you want to do nothing, that is easy. Anything else requires multiple rounds of failure as a precursor to success.