No child left behind: One laptop per child

A version of this note has been posted on ATP: All Things Pakistan

olpc1.jpgThis is not a crazy idea: What would the world be in 20 years if each child growing up in today’s developing countries had access to a computer and internet, and being connected to knowledge sources locally as well as across the globe? Is it possible? Is it even affordable? and what good can a computer bring to communities where roti, kapra, makan are still the fundamental unmet needs.

Well, one visionary has an idea, and his idea is gaining popularity across the globe. That visionary is Nicholas Negroponte, a professor at MIT’s Media Lab, who envisioned an educational eco-system for children in the developing parts of the world that revolves around the use of computers and connectivity.

He wanted to see a future where children in developing countries were not left perennially behind because they simply did not have access to the tools that others in affluent countries did. Aware of the economic situation in most parts of the world that has given the term digital divide a new meaning, Negroponte envsioned a laptop that would be available to children at a cost of less than 100 dollars.

The vision of Negroponte, and the non profit organization One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) that he created, is not just to promote another tech tool with over-promises of benefits – but to boldly address the critical technical and economic research areas that have hampered the availability of digital tools for the developing world. Ever since the first declaration at the World Economic Forum in Davos 2005, OLPC has set out to create a world class performance laptop that is not only unbelievably cheap, also creates a system for education and development of children who use them.

The $100 laptop is a mobile platform for kids, complete with a rugged weather proof casing, a color & black and white sun-light reable screen, 500 MHz processor, 128MB of DRAM and 500MB of flash memory. The laptops will have wireless internet, which will allow them to link up with mesh networks, allowing neighboring users to ‘talk’ to each other and create networks.

Nicholas Negroponte and the OLPC organization believe that “Laptops are both a window and a tool: a window into the world and a tool with which to think. They are a wonderful way for all children to learn learning through independent interaction and exploration.” OLPC learnt that it would be possible to reduce the cost of the laptop to $100 only if millions of them were made (not to mention the many innovations in technologies that had to be done along the way). The mode they have adopted for reaching millions of children was by targeting a few countries that had large populations and represented different parts of the world: India, China, Egypt, Nigeria, Brazil, Argentina and Thailand were chosen as the initial partner countries.The laptops would be sold to the governments in these countries and then issued by the governments to schools on a One Laptop Per Child basis.

This initiative has gained a lot of momentum, but has also seen some opposition. The largest opposition came from what the OLPC members sometimes fondly call the Microsoft/Intel block which was unhappy that OLPC chose to go with a Linux system software and olpc2.jpgAMD chips. The reality is that Microsoft and Intel were also given a chance to join the movement early, but they passed on it, thinking it was just a crazy idea. Now they sense competition in some of their largest markets and are fiercely lobbying governments against OLPC. In a recent move, India announced that it was withdrawing from the project, citing unsatisfactory expectations from the pedagogical theories.

However, some recent successes have bolstered the commitment of OLPC core team members. Other countries are willing and ready to sign onto the project and the first prototype units (displayed in the photo attached here) are going to be tested in Thailand very soon. Argentina, Nigeria and Brazil are also signed up up for the delivery of millions of laptops. China and Egypt are still negotiating, and guess what, OLPC team has recently showed interest in talking to Pakistan as well. Some of us are trying to reach out to government officials to get them interested in at least learning from OLPC. I hope it will be given a serious thought by them.

I am very interested in hearing what the development community in Pakistan thinks of such projects, and if they have any experiences with introductions of digital gadgets into the hands of people from less-developed and more rural areas of the country. Do we need more tree-schools, or better training for teachers, or laptops with internet connectivity for both generating and accessing local knowledge? Gervase Merkham of Times Online, I think, sums up the OLPC philosophy and intent quite well:

Being connected changes the way people use computers. Before the internet, the data on a computer was mostly either there when it arrived, or created by the owner. Today, the vast majority of the information which flows past our eyes comes from somewhere else – which could be a different country, a different culture, a different perspective. Our biggest problem has changed; it used to be tracking down the oases of information. It’s now working out how to drink from the water cannon of knowledge. But given tools to manage the flow, no child should ever waste their time trying to turn lead into gold.

OLPC’s greatest gift to those children will not be the computer itself, but the ability to document, publish, share and build. When every child has a laptop, the chatter of a hundred million keyboards will deafen the world.

For additional information, visit:
PCs for the poor: which design will win
Getting the World’s poor logged on
Podcast of Walter Bender’s (OLPC President) MURJ lecture on One laptop per child


5 Responses to No child left behind: One laptop per child

  1. wayan says:

    Do you really think that a laptop alone, without trained teachers to incorporate it into the classroom learning experience, can change the educational system for the positive?

    What tool have you ever known to change behavior without training, especialy a tool as complicated as a computer?

    And at what cost? In Thaiand, they are forgoing books, that time tested medium of knowledge transfer, for untested laptops?

    If you do the math, for those Thai students, the government is paying $100,000 over the same costs for books.

  2. glenda says:

    I salute you, however right now there are kids in america, Two that are my nephews who need laptops for technical school. They grew up in the projects, their mother is disabled and their father is a drunk. They won scholarships to go to technical school in Florida, to escape poverty, maybe have one shot at a life without violence and abuse. They can barely afford rent there. They are both working and attending school full time. THese boys are in the top five of their class. They have the drive to succeed and I am going to help all I can. Im not a rich woman. Their father wont help and their mother only gets a 500.00 check once a month to live on. yes there is poverty and kids struggling everywhere, you dont have to go to another country, they are here in rural appalachia, kentucky, tennessee, virginia mountians. So if someone wants to do something good and has the means to do it try helping the kids here please. They are American kids who love this county and would die for it.

  3. Really this is a good idea. This is a photo of vast development.But since I am an Indian so I want that this idea must also be applied in India.

  4. sharnekqua says:

    i could really use a laptop for school work .

  5. Gadget Review…

    […]No child left behind: One laptop per child « BZNotes![…]…

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