Published Online: May 21, 2007
Published in Print: May 23, 2007, as Cheap Laptops Getting Tryouts in Small Pilot Projects

Cheap Laptops Getting Tryouts in Small Pilot Projects

Bold initiative still faces questions about worth.

The audacious plan to put $100 laptop computers into the hands of children and teachers in some of the world’s poorest countries has enjoyed a lengthy afterglow from its celebrated launch in 2005—without yet proving it is both workable and wise.

Since Nicholas Negroponte, the former head of the MIT Media Laboratory, first presented the plan to international leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, two years ago, many have questioned the initiative on both scores.

Craig Barrett, the chairman of Intel Corp., the computer-chip-making giant, argues the low-cost laptop lacks such essential features as sufficient data storage. And more recently, in an interview in the journal Foreign Policy, he said “the money would be more intelligently spent on creating the infrastructure—training teachers and creating the environment for education.”

Others agree that poor countries would be better off spending their money on teachers, classrooms, and textbooks. When India decided against purchasing the laptops last year, Education Secretary Sudeep Banerjee, the head of the Indian Ministry of Human Resource Development, called the idea “pedagogically suspect” and controversial even in the United States. “We need classrooms and teachers more urgently than fancy tools,” he wrote in a letter to the nation’s planning commission.

But so far, the One Laptop Per Child Foundation, the Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit group formed to carry out the plan, has shown itself to be as adept technologically as its leader, Mr. Negroponte, is in charming heads of state.

The foundation has lined up funders for its outreach activities and corporate partners, including the chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., and the Taiwan computer manufacturer Quanta Computers Inc., that have helped develop and produce the laptop.

Prices Up

A handful of countries have said, at least tentatively, they will buy what Mr. Negroponte calls the “learning machines.” Since February, small pilot projects have been initiated in seven countries—Argentina, Brazil, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Thailand, and Uruguay, according to Walter Bender, the president for software and content of the One Laptop Per Child Foundation. Plans are under way to have similar projects in the Palestinian Territories and Rwanda, he added.

AT A GLANCE

■ Antennae enable a wireless network that can access the Web using nearby XOs.

■ Uses “flash” memory instead of hard disk. Large data files stored on other computers.

■ Display screen presents fine-grained images and text clearly in full sunlight.

■ Operates with very little power. Can be recharged with a string-pulley device.

■ Operating software is a version of Linux, an open-source software program.

More than a thousand prototype “XO” laptops have been made, with many shipped late last year to the pilot sites. Though Mr. Negroponte has said the full-scale production by Quantas will not begin until he receives 5 million orders, he believes that will happen by fall. Nigeria alone has ordered 1 million of the laptops, according to the foundation.

But rising materials costs have pushed up the price to $175 per machine, even though $100 is still the goal if sales volume grows.

By comparison, the London-based charity Making Poverty History estimates that a child in Africa could receive an adequate basic education for a year for $100.

With shipments having barely arrived in some countries, little has happened on the ground to date, Mr. Bender said. “There’s not too much to report; we haven’t finished installing infrastructure yet,” he said, referring to the servers and networks needed to support use of the laptops.

About 200 XOs were delivered to a primary school in Abuja, Nigeria. Over the school’s April spring break, children were supposed to take them home, Mr. Bender said.

And earlier this month, laptops were delivered to a 150-student school in Villa Cardal, Uruguay, OLPC reports.

But the idea of using digital technology and the Internet to access world-class educational resources and tools is alluring, raising the hope that it can be a springboard to help poor countries leap beyond their circumstances.

Unlimited Reading Material

A final version of the laptop is expected this spring, but the design already has been widely praised as innovative.

“It is something more than a prototype but less than a production model,” said Mr. Bender.

Though it has most features of a general-purpose computer, the laptop is designed to operate in a difficult, resource-short environment.

One of its main purposes is online reading, Mr. Bender said. The screen and the wireless networking make the XO an effective electronic book for places where printed books rarely reach children’s hands.

Communication is to be initiated simply by turning on the laptop, at which point it will automatically connect wirelessly with every other XO laptop within a range of up to a half-mile in optimum conditions.

Users will see symbols representing other laptops in the area and be able to “zoom” in or out, to see the whole community, a smaller working group of partners or friends, or just the user’s own project. Users can send invitations to other users, or everyone in the area, to join a game or project.

The software will not just play digital music files or video but will also allow users to compose their own music and make videos with a built-in camera.

Users, of course, will be able to explore the Web, including curriculum sites that participating countries are expected to create and possibly share.

Software for text-reading will be equipped so students can contribute to “wikis,” Web sites or similar online resources that allow users to add and edit content collectively. The purpose, Mr. Bender said, is “so we have a generation growing up in which the native format for books in the laptop is wiki, not PDF [portable document format]—read-write, not just read.” Indeed, the foundation intends to use wikis in broader ways, such as by tapping the talents and generosity of international online communities that have grown around the project and the problems of developing nations.

“We’re working with a number of different developers on certain software applications that would be of value to every child, so there’s a basic elementary school tool available to children” worldwide, Mr. Bender said.

Drawing in collaborators for that task—as for almost every task—is essential for the foundation, which has only 15 employees. The pilot projects, for example, rely on the governments or partner organizations in each country to provide curriculum, training, and support to use the laptops.

The hope is that students and their teachers will use the laptops to explore the learning universe rather than as tools to present or produce traditional instructional materials. “It’s not our goal, but we don’t get in the way of that,” Mr. Bender said of traditional methods.

Changing the Discussion

Michael Laflin, the director for the international education systems division of the Education Development Center Inc., has worked for many years in harnessing technologies—primarily radio—to provide education in developing countries. He says that creating a laptop that can sell for $100 would be “a real breakthrough,” but is not enough.

“The key is finding an instructional design that meshes with the technology, whether that is radio or laptop computers,” said the Washington-based Mr. Laflin, noting that generally speaking, systems that have adopted technology successfully have done so in the context of broader reform.

Regardless of whether the One Laptop Per Child Foundation achieves its goals, it has transformed the discussion about education in developing countries, said Mark Summer, the chief executive officer of Inveneo Inc., a nonprofit group based in San Francisco that assists partner organizations in deploying information technologies to benefit poor communities in Africa.

“Before, when you talked about the need for technology in developing countries, people would look at you and say, ‘Isn’t food and water a more important problem?’ ” he said.

“It is, but [in order] to have a living, and income, and to grow income, technology is really a key,” Mr. Summer said.

“The project has drawn attention to this need, which is really, really important to all the players in this space,” he said.

PHOTO: THAILAND: Students in a village in Thailand use XO laptop computers to take pictures of local vegetation, mushrooms, and herbs. The students in Samkha and their teacher are testing the technology to see how they can integrate it into their schoolwork.
—Courtesy of laptop.org

Vol. 26, Issue 38, Page 10

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