About 6,000 attendees at the National Educational Computing Conference packed the main hall of the San Diego Convention Center yesterday to hear about an education project that aims to provide up to 150 million low-cost laptop computers to students in developing countries by 2008.
Nicholas Negroponte, a co-founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and the creator of the ambitious One Child Per Laptop project, told the audience of mostly district and state-level educators that the laptop initiative, which began last year, aims to bring wireless-enabled, human-powered computers, which will cost from $50 to $138, to poor countries worldwide.
The project has $30 million in start-up funding and backing from international government and finance organizations such as the United Nations, the Inter-American Development Bank, and technology companies such as Google, eBay, the Taiwan-based Chi Mei Communication Systems, and Taiwan-based Quanta Computer Inc., a manufacturer of laptop computers.
The concept of bringing cheap but effective computers to developing countries is not new, but previous attempts failed, Mr. Negroponte told the audience, because the technology was given to adults, not children. The innate creativity of children, he pointed out, will help revitalize education in countries such as Brazil, Thailand, Argentina, and Nigeria, where the first computers from the project will go this fall.
“We’ve lost the fundamental concept that technology is not about teaching, it’s about learning,” Mr. Negroponte said. “You have to leverage children. To do part of the teaching, you have to have more peer-to-peer learning.”
‘Doing Something Right’
In a previous technology project he helped develop in Cambodia, children in villages that were so rural that they weren’t connected to a road explored the Internet. “The kids’ first English word was ‘Google,’ ” Mr. Negroponte said.
The newest iteration of the so-called $100 laptop was previewed here at the conference. About the size and weight of a hardcover book, the orange laptop has a dual-mode display to help users see the screen both indoors and in direct sunlight. The rugged computer also has small “rabbit ears” to connect to a Wi-Fi, a wireless local area network, which allows a student to log onto the Web if he or she is within 1,800 feet of another computer connected to a Wi-Fi.
The computer will also use “open-source” software and hardware to cut down on cost. Open source technologies are cheaper because they are free of copyright restrictions. “People keep adding features and features [to software] and they cost us,” said Mr. Negroponte. “So if we skinny it down and think … in terms of making something fast and cheap, the computer will be very different.”
Craig Barret and Bill Gates, the heads of hardware and software giants Intel Corp. and Microsoft Inc., respectively, famously disparaged the laptop initiative when it was first announced last year, saying the tool was not a real computer, but merely a “gadget.”
In response, Mr. Negroponte said to widespread applause from the audience, “When people like that don’t like it, we must be doing something right.”
‘Crank It, Pedal It’
The laptop, which can generate its own power, will operate on less than 2 watts, whereas regular laptop computers operate on 20 to 40 watts. A hand crank, which supplies power and was prominently displayed on the side of the machine in former versions, is now on the AC adaptor. That means it can be connected to a device that allows a user to hand-crank it, which would generate 10 watts, or connect it to a bicycle, which could generate up to 50 watts.
“You can crank it, pedal it, pull string, even tie a dog to it and have it run around [to power the computer],” Mr. Negroponte told the audience.
The laptop project, which is based in Wilmington, Del., is seeking educators’ comments and ideas for improvements. Teachers and others can contribute to wiki.laptop.org. Those who are personally interested in the $100 laptop and want a developer board to test should send an email to: email@example.com.