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