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February 20, 2007

One Laptop Per Child?

One Laptop Per Child?

Click to Listen to the Show (24 MB MP3)

The number, one billion, is so staggering it’s hard to wrap your head around. But that’s how many school-age kids there are in the world, and the number of laptops the One Laptop Per Child project wants to eventually distribute to live up to its name. Think of it as No Child — from the rich north to the poor south — Left Behind the Digital Revolution.

Childrens_machine

The Machine [Brendan Greeley / Flickr]

We know that many of you have heard of this project before: It was suggested, about a year and a half ago, by mjking. And Avecfrites. And ExScite. A lot has happened in that year and a half. The machine itself evolved. (As did its name: the “$100 laptop” was scrapped in favor of the “Children’s Machine XO” because the laptops cost about $135.) The technology is “clock-stopping hot” according to Wayan Vota, who writes OLPCnews.com, an unofficial clearinghouse for anything and everything OLPC. From energy efficiency to screen technology to connectivity to open source software, Vota argues that OLPC laptops are revolutionary machines, not stripped down playthings, and that they’ll soon be leading the rest of the computer world, not following.

Politically, too, OLPC keeps chugging along. Nicholas Negroponte, the media-savvy frontman, unveiled a prototype in 2005 with then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. At least fifteen countries (including pioneers Argentina, Brazil, Libya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Thailand, and Uruguay) signed on. And full-scale production is scheduled to begin within a few months.

But the basic idea hasn’t changed: create a rugged, efficient, powerful but intuitive laptop and get education ministries around the world to buy it for their young people in large numbers. (No order below one million laptops will be accepted.) This is “an education project, not a laptop project,” Negroponte is fond of saying. Walter Bender, who runs content and software for OLPC describes the project as a Trojan horse: You think you’re getting an e-book reader, or a math helper, or a digital camera, or a music composition system (it is all these things and more), the analogy goes, when the secret payload is actually kids with laptops, connected to each other and to the world.

So what’s not to love? Some people worry about the breakneck pace of the project — that millions of laptops will be produced before the kinks have even been ironed out. Or, as Ethan Zuckerman has argued, that much more attention is being paid to the technology than the software, and more to software than support, and more to support than the environment. Or that while $100 alone doesn’t sound like much, it sure adds up: Wayan Vota writes that buying one laptop for each Nigerian child would use up 73% of the country’s total budget.

Where do you fall on the love-worry spectrum?

Walter Bender

President of Software and Content, One Laptop Per Child

Senior Research Scientist (on leave), MIT Media Laboratory

Ethan Zuckerman

Founder, Global Voices Online

Fellow, The Berkman Center for Internet and Society

Wayan Vota

Director, Geekcorps

Editor, One Laptop Per Child News

Extra Credit Reading

Frederick Noronha, Village kids find computers a useful, educative toy, Asia Pacific Network Information Centre, July 3, 2002: “Mitra’s work has already drawn wows internationally. He says poor students — from anywhere — take about an hour to learn basic operations of the computer like getting things running. In one day’s time they begin to locate games or painting-programmes.”

Makh, The 100 dollar laptop: The beauty in the idea, Makh’s hut: An African’s tale in Cyberia, January 11, 2007: “I will begin with this so that you know my position. The 100 dollar laptop is one of the best ideas I have ever heard in my life. These laptops are to be provided to school going children in developing countries. One thing that makes me crazy about this laptop is the power crank.”

Bill Gates slams 100-dollar charity laptop, Monsters and Critics, March 16, 2006: “Gates also blasted the crank system that can provide some of the laptop’s power. ‘Geez, get a decent computer where you can actually read the text and you’re not sitting there cranking the thing while you’re trying to type,’ he said.”

Jon, What is the Real Cost of the OLPC?, One Laptop Per Child News, November 13, 2006: “At the end of five years of training, continued Internet, and maintenance, the actual cost is USD$972 per laptop, almost quintuple the Libyan estimates, and ten times the original laptop cost. Of course, a more expensive computer system would just drive all of this upwards, so at least we’re starting cheap.”

Atanu Dey, OLPC — Rest in Peace, Deeshaa: Atanu Dey on India’s Development, July 28, 2006: “The Human Resources Development (HRD) ministry of the government of India recently decided to just say no to the $100 laptop that Prof Negroponte of MIT Media Lab has been furiously peddling. He wanted the government to buy, oh, about 1,000,000 of those at the modest cost of $100,000,000 and give it to school children. Mind you, noble intentions motivate this: so that no child is left behind and the digital divide is bridged and all the kids will become computer savvy and what not.”

Laptops: easy fix for global education?, The Christian Science Monitor, January 5, 2007: “Easy fixes in education are often alluring. Such projects as the $100 laptop should be treated with both open eyes and open hearts. Global solutions require that an experiment be able to be replicated across many cultures. But even if this laptop project fails, the desire for learning via computers and the Internet will ensure someone else will succeed.”

Carlo, Poor People Need The $100 Laptop Because It Can, Like, Do Stuff, Techdirt, January 2, 2007: “Again, it seems like Negroponte’s a little bit out of touch and very obtuse in his communication. It’s not hard to see why schools in developing nations would want to teach kids how to use office applications, since they likely see it as a skill that will serve students well down the line, particularly when compared to the much more nebulous activities Negroponte mentions. He’s right in that there’s much more computers can offer than word-processing and spreadsheets. But to sell developing nations on the XO, he’s got to make it much more clear what kids can do, and why it’s beneficial, not just talk in abstract expressions in an attempt to sound visionary.”

7:35

The transparency and the access that open source gives you, we think is really important to learning. We want the children to be able to reach inside the machine we want their teachers to be able to reach inside the machine; and touch it, and transform it, and explore it as deeply they want to. And a closed system doesn’t allow that.

Walter Bender

11:55

We’re not advocating that you don’t invest in teachers, that you don’t invest in schools. We’re advocating that you make this investment in laptops because we think that it’s going to enhance the whole ecosysytem of learning in a country.

Walter Bender

15:40

Walter alluded before to a slight difference in reaction between heads of state and ministers of education. Every head of state thinks the notion of having every child in their country have a laptop is a brilliant idea. No one wants to be left behind. Everyone wants to be India; everyone wants to be a cyber-nation going forward, whether you’re Rwanda or Ghana. But once you actually think about putting this device in the hands of every student, you have real questions about what the classroom is going to look like. This device has some really interesting pedagogical theory built into it.

Ethan Zuckerman

24:30

This is sort of where the tension comes up around OLPC. I think for a lot of kids… this is going to be a revolutionary educational tool. It’s really going to expand their horizons; it’s going to give them a chance to create in other ways. But it’s also going to be quite revolutionary in what happens within a classroom. What I’m worried about in some ways is I’m not sure the schools and the nations buying into the project understand just what a revolution this is likely to be.

Ethan Zuckerman

30:00

It is clock-stopping hot technology. And I really hope the security program does work, because if you can take it apart with a screwdriver and the technology is amazing… I think kids are going to have a great time taking it apart and reselling it, which is good and bad depending on your viewpoint.

Wayan Vota

40:55

These low-cost devices so far have not had the same sort of explosive growth that mobile phones have. And in many cases, it’s because a mobile phone has an immediate transformation on an economy. If you’re a farmer and you’ve got a mobile phone, suddenly you can call a market and get a different price for your crops. The computer is a much longer term investment.

Ethan Zuckerman

48:30

Next year, if all goes according to plan, there will be tens of millions of new photojournalists in the world, sharing their pictures with the world.

Walter Bender

Related Content


  • Lumière

    This is the stuff of dreams for kids: give them access to another world.

    It will be partially ruined by politics and the adult content on the web.

  • http://fauxascii.com/ascii Faux_Pseudo

    The Polio vaccine was the greatest thing given to the third world other than independence from the imperialist colonisers. More than even donations of food it allowed people to lift themselves up and function on the world stage.

    The OLPC project has the power to surpass that as each kid will have the ability to educate them self regardless of local resources or infrastructure as the wireless networking ability of these systems create its own infrastructure and with that they create a limitless amount of opportunity.

    On the other side of the coin there is the potential for abuse. Anything with value can and will be sold or stolen. Over at slashdot.org there are plenty of naysayers on this topic and while I am normally the first person to find a reason why something can’t be done I also know that it is better to move forward than it is to sit still when moving forward has the potential to do so much good.

    When I was a 18 I could read at a 13th grade level and spell at a 3rd grade level. It was only after getting a laptop that I started to make rapid progress in both my self education and in my writing ability. The best special education teachers money could buy did amazing work in getting me that far but a laptop at age 12 would have changed my world in ways that getting one at 25 couldn’t. The tools of self study are all in that magic little box waiting for one billion kids to open one billion idea factories .

  • http://www.bicyclemark.org bicyclemark

    I did a program last month asking the same questions, specifically about how the program might be abused. You’ll be glad to hear there are some plans in place that ultimately reduce the opportunities for corruption and stopping the OLPC’s from reaching children. As usual, here’s a shameless plug for that show.

    I also recommend you get in touch with SJ: sj(at)laptop(dot)org, he’s one of the travelling crusaders for the OLPC project and he would gladly talk. Tell him bicyclemark sent you. (insert evil laugh)

  • http://www.bicyclemark.org bicyclemark

    And obviously if you get Nicholas Negroponte, that would be interesting as well. Maybe one of the representatives from Rwanda that recently signed on to the project… website looks scary.

  • Lumière

    ////As part of its stated vision of transforming Rwanda into a knowledge-based economy by the year 2020, the government of Rwanda through the Ministry of Infrastructure, the Ministry of Education, and the Minister of Science and Technology and Research in the President’s Office will collaborate with the One Laptop per Child non-profit association to realize the project.\\\\

    http://laptop.org/vision/news/january_03b_2007.shtml

    Funny, I saw this as giving a kid a laptop and she/he goes on-line – that makes no sense. Obviously instruction is needed and someone has to build/maintain the wifi network.

    This requires multiple government agencies, which is where politics starts to corrupt open access. In this country, we have open access, but it is part of a system that politicians get to manipulate.Take away the ability of politicians manipulate information and you can bet open access in this country would struggle with regulation.

    The OLPC project in some countries might be the only resource for dissemination by a government – you bet they are going to get control over it.

    *sigh*

  • http://www.bicyclemark.org bicyclemark

    In the particular case of Rwanda you already have a very good wireless intitiative in some parts of the country. (search the net for wireless in rwanda you’ll find the particular millionaire and his project) The OLPC org has a particular method for distribution and followup that will be able to track, for example, where laptops have gone and who is using them. *ping*

    Anyway I dont work for them and Im not here to evangelize for them… but your comment and your skepticism would be best addressed to the OLPC people because they have most certainly considered your very fundamental concern.

  • Bobo

    It seems as though abuse of this program is being discussed as a bad thing. Slum-culture is the future of the world, and a huge part of that is being far more ingenious than your colonial masters. We’re giving these laptops to kids, hoping they’ll learn those great western standards of reading writing and arithmetic. What they’ll learn instead is how to strip a motherboard in under a minute, which circuit boards can be tinkered with best, and how to build some truly kick-ass new machines out of scrap computer parts. And who are we to criticize this? We’ll globalize the digital revolution all-right, but not in the ways we expect.

  • DancingMan

    Negroponte continually says that “this is an education project, not a laptop project”. As a laptop/technology project, this is certainly a cool one. But just how is this an education project? As I understand it, the ‘education’ here is to simply give kids a computer and expect them to ‘learn learning’ (whatever that means). I find it interesting that your guests (if I read the posting here correctly) are technology people, not educators. Do any educators (Seymour Papert aside) really believe this stuff? Where are their voices in this debate? Ask a teacher what most of their students do on their computers at home and you get answers like “download music”, “chat”, “play games”, “surf the web for sports scores (for boys) or entertainment news (for girls)” [and one suspects one or two kids might look at naughty pictures].

    “I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks. It is possible to touch every branch of human knowledge through the motion picture.” (1922)

    Thomas Edison said this in 1922 about North America. Replace ‘motion picture’ with ‘laptop’ and this sounds exactly like what Negroponte and Co. are saying about Africa.

  • VeritasRox

    Harvard recently started a program where the university selected a small group of public high school students from around Boston and showered them with resources and enrichment programs. They also gave each student a laptop–a state of the art macbook, to be precise. Although this was very generous and many kids said that this was their favorite part of the program, there were some problems. In addition to giving the kids anxiety that their macbook would be stolen or left on the bus or T, the students were unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the operating system; they were more interested in games, music, AIM and other social internet functions than in informational websites or learning tools; and once they went home, all access to the internet ended, as the fancy laptops were configured for ethernet and wifi and many of their families had no access or issues with dial up.

    The point of this anecdote is to again reiterate that there is a huge social and technological infrastructure that supports computer and internet usage, and that allocating resources for learning is more complicated than raining laptops on poor students. Setting an internet/IT access benchmark might be a wiser goal, one that communities could then reach in diverse ways that made sense to them. This could include having specialized internet centers which could also feature support teams, increasing funding for libraries and other multi-media learning centers, and trying to reduce the overall cost of high-tech computer equipment so that extended families could reasonably invest in them.

  • darwhin

    the 9/11 squad were college educated. education and access is no magic bullet. these laptops are a misuse of resources for those with a fetish for technology.

  • darwhin

    plus look at us schools, still behind in the world and we have the internets. all for nothing:P

    did all those genius indian engineers india cranked out and fly over here have internet at home growing up? course not.

  • SamVieira

    This is a brilliant project. Brilliant technology. And if they pull it off, an even more brilliant business strategy:

    (1) Get the open source community on your side to evangelize on your behalf and provide free labor (while still maintaining good ties with Microsoft …)

    (2) Sign up third world governments (not always known as the most discriminating consumers) to buy these things in bulk (all the better if they can use aid money!)

    (3) Insist on minimum orders of one million (to get your economies of scale)

    (4) Use the press, and governments, and open source fanboys, to do your marketing for you

    (5) Politely protest that this isn’t really a $100 laptop (wink wink nudge nudge), knowing that this magic number has a life of its own

    (5) Use open source software, but insist on proprietary hardware, so when the economies of scale kick in and all the kinks are worked out, you can sell components (like the excellent display technology) to Dell, HP, Acer, etc. for big bucks!

    Nothing wrong with making money in support of a worthy cause (especially in these days of corporate social responsibility) — an HBS case study in the making!

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    Why not Microsoft, Chris asks? A proprietary system from a corporate entity tends to be tied to market forces, which dictate and necessitate competitive advantages for proponents of their proprietary offerings (e.g. concepts & requirements (anthropological in nature), designs, implementations, distribution channels, etc). One important task, among several, for proponents of proprietary systems is to correctly calibrate how offerings will be a achieve a state of commodity over some term of business/tech cycle. Open source tends to be platform oriented that is tied to less proprietary market forces, but not vacuously (e.g. different Linux distributions/vendors, value-add vendors, network infrastructures, etc.).

    Both approaches are still currently viable, regardless of quasi-religious fervor which surrounds much discussion and corporate/organizational bloodbaths. Different solutions applied to different types of problems. Understanding the nature of the problem should lead to the appropriate solution (hardly ever happens). These matters tend to be decided for a variety of non-technical reasons.

  • polsmeth

    What about letting people buy one at double cost and have the second one donated for education use?

    I think a lot of people would be happy with a $200 computer for their basic needs, and this way it would help finance the education use.

  • bmchenry

    The laptop has great design features but it seems like the top down approach to distribution is a weak link. Why couldn’t this product have been brought out to retail outlets starting at, say, $400? Wouldn’t this be a better way to work out the software while costs run down the production curve?

  • JoyceB

    If you can break down walls that geography and economics put on the development of most of the world’s children we hae the possibility of opening up the door to amazing future pontential.

    The ability to create, express themselves and connect with each other is a powerful thing and you see that in MySpace and virtual spaces like Second Life. A great example of how education can go on in these new spaces can be seen on the teen space of Second Life and how organizations like Global Kids are using it to facilitate learning. (http://www.holymeatballs.org)

  • mulp

    Wow! a great question, Chris: “Why does Bill Gates not think this is great?” (sic)

    Well, he should be remembering his and Steve Jobs’s coversations with Ken Olsen, founder and CEO of DEC, Digital Equipment Corporation, who is widely alleged to have not seen any use for personal computers.

    For the formal discussion of this point, you should refer to (google) Clayton Christensen’s, The Innovator’s Dilemma. As he has written “Discovering markets for emerging technologies inherently involves failure, and most individual decision makers find it very difficult to risk backing a project that might fail because the market is not there.”

    Your question is exactly the question asked of the CEO’s of the mainframe market as the minicomputers were being introduced, then of the CEOs of the minicomputer market as the PC was being introduced, and curiously not of the CEOs of the PC market as the early PDAs were introduced, before Palm Pilots, and even after Palm Pilots were introduced.

    To Bill Gates, these computers are inferior technology, so massively inferior in his view that there is nothing that can be done with them that can’t be done ten times better with a computer that costs twice as much. But by dropping the price by 50% and then rethinking everything, discarding every assumption and building from scratch, you create an entirely new market, one that seems to be vastly inferior to the existing market, with a very long road ahead to maturity, and technology will, in a few years, produce a product that is the same as the low end PCs, so why waste all that time and effort.

    I suggest that this might be a show topic, not on computers, but on disruptive technologies, and a disruptive technology is one that disrupts the normal product evolution and drops down to a very inferior product and grows from there. It has been a while since this discussion receieved much coverage. And I would be very interested in hearing of new and possible disruptive technology initiatives. Of course the cell phone is one of them, but it is now old hat and rapidly moving up the capability scale, exceeding the capabilities of PCs of a few years ago.

    OliverCranglesParrot: you started out pretty well with the reason Bill Gates doesn’t do it, but you miss the fact that he is a billionare because he didn’t listen to people like you in the 80s, and he is missing the boat today because he is.

    SamVieira: if the technology is “brilliant” then it will fail. The technology needs to be clearly very inferior, with a strategy of doing things the hard way, duplicating effort, reinventing the wheel, and creating a product that offers too little in the way of capability to satisfy the savey consumer. ;-)

  • UtahOwl

    From most of the comments, it is very hard for us to put ourselves in the place of the majority of poor kids in the developing/underdeveloped world. Fugetabout the Internet – these kids have zero books, zero paper, zero pencils. Having elementary software to teach literacy, hygeine, major languages of commerce & politics could remove huge roadblocks that keep large populations walled off from the pathways to a decent life.

    Faux Pseudo – you make a great point. There are populations of kids who learn by alternative means and are not well served by standard scholastic methods.

  • highline5

    This is a wonderful step forward for developing countries, but what about our kids here at home? This type of tool would be an amazing way to bridge the “digital divide”, but as districts and states are typically left on their own in terms of technology aquisition, a minimum purchase of 1 million units is out of reach for many.

  • John R. Ford

    Listening to this program and others on this really cool device i can see alot of possibilities. I’m wondering though, what is the possibility of having an open source hardware basis as well as software. I mean publishing engineering data on how to manufacture all of the components of the laptop. this could allow competition to keep the cost of components low, they could be more locally available, and most importantly it could allow for an open source evolution of the hardware and new techonology as well.

  • http://herot.typepad.com cherot

    My prediction is that putting all this computing power in the hands of people in developing counties will unleash a huge wave of talent and innovation. If you consider that intelligence (unlike wealth and education) is probably distributed evenly throughout the world’s population, then there must be many budding Steve Jobs who are currently herding cattle and carrying water in the developing world. If even a small percentage of them get access to the knowledge and distribution channels of the larger world there is no telling what they will be able to produce.

    Also, I wouldn’t bet against Negroponte’s predictions for the future. Some predictions of his that many originally scoffed at:

    * Architects using computers

    * Personal/home computers

    * The demise of time sharing

    * The demise of the (printed) newspaper

    * Mainframes morphing into servers

    * Raster displays

    * Digital TV

    * E-commerce

    * User-generated content

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  • samrmadden

    Hey by any chance could you put a picture of the laptop up?

  • AndyZ

    As guests on the show explained, the OLPC computer presents exciting new opportunities as well as potential new challenges. There has been nothing quite like this before.

    Nonetheless, experience with school laptop programs in the United States has taught us a number of things. For example, after a year or two of experience there is widespread support for these programs from students, teachers, parents, school administrators, and the public. That has been the case in Maine and in Henrico County, Virginia, sites of the biggest state and district laptop programs in the U.S., where there has also been continuing political support even after the initial “champions” of the program (such as Gov. Angus King in Maine) left office. We have also learned that it takes time, money, and effort for all involved to learn how to use laptops well to support learning in school.

    Laptop programs in the U.S. continue to expand. For example, Pennsylvania has announced that all high school students will be provided with laptops.

    Those interested in finding out more about schools’ experiences with so-called one-to-one computing can find information at these Web sites:

    http://ubiqcomputing.org/

    http://www.k12one2one.org/

    http://www.aalf.org/

  • houstonDave

    I’m so glad Nigeria is interested. Once that Nigerian prince puts those millions of dollars in my bank account, I’ll happily donate some of my gains to buy some of those OLPC’s for the kids there.

    I gave him my bank account number a few weeks ago, and I should be getting rich real soon. The e-mail said so, so it’s on the level, right?

    On another topic: why do some of these regimes want OLPC’s? For example, the Wikipedia article on Nigeria has the string “corrupt” (so, corruption would be included) about 15 times. Is the government going to censor the information or are the citizen-children be able to learn the truth about their rulers?

  • http://www.benjaminter.net Ben Fino-Radin

    I’m curious about the impact this will have on the environment. Sure it’s green on the outside, but is it “green” on the inside? One would hope this would be a priority. I wonder if the children in developing nations who are exposed to the toxic chemicals of computer waste in landfills are a potential consumer of the XO?

    http://www.greenpeace.org/apple/itox.html

  • Choogler

    While it definitely sounds like a nifty device, I don’t see any educational benefit. If anything, I’ve found computers to be more of a distraction from education than anything else. That was definitely the case at my university, where computer labs filled with the latest and greatest technology are going to waste. Why read literature and meet friends over beers when one could instead play Yahoo! Pool and have superficial friendships on MySpace? Walk through any dorm, library, or coffee shop at any major university and you’ll see computers doing more to waste away hours than to enlighten.

    As for as teaching these poor children essential technical skills for the 21st century economy, that goal is way off target. Learning basic skills on a computer isn’t that hard and is much less important than developing basic math and reading abilities. Knowing how to solve a problem and understand the results is much more valuable than being able to tabulate the results in Excel. What these kids really need is a low-tech solution that’s much more difficult than manufacturing computers: stable governments and stable economies where schools can actually be established and operate without being torn to bits by coups and civil wars. Once that’s accomplished, the children might have a chance.

  • http://www.liftport.com Brian Dunbar

    I’ll listen to this program today: my skepticism around this project is pretty basic; people don’t value gifts nearly as much as they do something earned. It’s an awesome amount of capital to invest in just ‘giving’ somebody something.

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  • http://place.typepad.com/digitalcommons Steve Cisler

    I’m running a Google group for info in Spanish/Portuguese (some paraphrased from Vota’s site) because several of the countries on the A list are in the region, but many people can’t read all the English chatter and news. Evidently there are some scholars in Peru who are very critical of the whole pedagogical assumptions behind the apps and o.s. Others are quite excited about shaking up the educational establishment(s) and support this. Others see it as a typical MIT top-down project (like the expensive LINCOS telecenters in Costa Rica and Dom.Republic.

    Having worked on some ICT projects in Latin America, Jordan, and Uganda, I have seen people decide not to provide some resources (like a library or a needed classroom) so they could have computers. When you are short of supplies it can be hard to turn down gifts, even if they may not be top priority. A researcher at U. of Washington has worked on a very interesting topic: the cost of a free computer. My guess is that we won’t know the training and support costs for quite a while, and what holds true in Libya may be totally irrelevant in Uruguay or Rwanda. I am also curious about how the kids will protect their machines. Many live in places with very poor security, low trust, and objects of value are hard to protect.

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