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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Computers for Peace: The $100 Laptop

The goals of a global one-to-one laptop program go beyond learning.
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia

Drop a laptop computer into the hands of a child in a remote Chinese village, and Nicholas Negroponte predicts a cascade of results will unfold: The child will encounter new knowledge and ways to express herself through images, words, and sounds. She may help her parents find markets for their products in other cities via cheap satellite Internet -- or even develop a business plan herself. One family's growing prosperity will lift the village's fortunes and expand opportunities for their neighbors.

Credit: Design Continuum

Millions of chains of events like this one are the goal of the One Laptop per Child Foundation (OLPC), the nonprofit organization founded by Negroponte and other faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. The group has developed a children's laptop, made in bold colors, which it intends to manufacture by the millions and sell at just over $100 to developing countries for their education ministries to distribute like textbooks.

The Linux-based machines will have a hand crank for power in places without reliable electricity, and a display screen with a black-and-white mode that's readable in bright sunlight. Internal wireless devices will enable each laptop to talk with others nearby, creating local-area networks. The XO, as the computer is called, is being tested in Argentina, Brazil, Libya, Nigeria, Palestine, Pakistan, and Thailand. Its makers aim to start full-scale production in mid-2007.

Nicholas Negroponte

Credit: MIT

Here, Negroponte, chairman of the OLPC Foundation, discusses the XO's prospects on the eve of its launch.

Has the XO ever been envisioned for U.S. markets? Do you see any potential benefit in the United States now?

This has always been for the developing-world market and conceived for places where less than $200 per child per year is spent on primary and secondary education. The benefit to the United States is perhaps a wake-up call. The nation should just do it. We are not needed. When you spend $8,000-$10,000 per child, whether the laptop costs $150 or $400 is not meaningful.

Whom do you expect to benefit most from the laptops?

Children. We are targeting the full span of age groups, six to sixteen. The most benefit will be for those in remote and rural areas. We have designed the machine to run on human power, for example. Likewise, in places without telephony, we have the means for children to connect to the Internet for less than $1 per month.

How will the laptops change kids' lives?

Think of these as books, pencils, music machines, and toys to make things with. The children will not be just consumers but will be expected to create things. Lives are changed by hope. In the places where One Laptop Per Child has been practiced, parents are more engaged, truancy drops to nearly zero, and teachers say they have never had more fun teaching.

Are there regions of the world where the OLPC model will not work?

There are some cultures where it works more naturally, like Brazil, which is a very bottom-up society. There are others where it is harder, like China, not only because it is a teacher-centric and top-down society, but because Confucius would not have advocated laptops. His theories about teaching, the centricity of teachers, and the required obedience of children are pretty strong.

Credit: fuse-project

Critics of one-to-one laptop programs in the United States say the computers facilitate more in-class distraction (instant messaging, MySpace, and so on) than learning, that they allow children access to inappropriate content, and that the benefits of constant access are so far unproven. Do you share those concerns?

We do not share those concerns, but that is not to say they are not real issues. Our kids in Cambodia learn English using chat and MySpace. Children are distracted if the teaching is not interesting. One education minister just said to us, about the $100 laptop, "Finally, education will include learning."

How significant of a setback was India's choice not to buy any XOs? Any lessons learned?

India did not make that decision, actually. The country decided to do it at the state level versus the federal level, and is doing so. The fuss in the press was created artificially by large corporate interests and a small academic irritant in Chenai. The setback was merely the wasted time needed to combat an orchestrated campaign. The lesson we learned is that being a nonprofit, humanitarian organization does not make you immune from dirty tricks.

Does your work end with supplying an affordable laptop, or will you press for concomitant changes in teaching, too?

We are an education project, not a laptop project. When somebody like Intel enters the market with a $330 laptop, as it has done, that is the best news we can hear. Our goal is to maximize the number of children who have laptops -- any laptop. By so doing, we approach a different kind of learning. Teaching is only one way to learn. It should and will be supported by OLPC and others. I would liken us more to Wikipedia, where most previous tools for teaching have been like the Encyclopedia Britannica.

In an ideal world, what is your single greatest hope for this project?

A three-step hope: World peace through the elimination of poverty through education through learning. Education is the goal; learning is the means. A lot of learning can happen without teaching. We're banking on that.

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.

Comments (15)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

School Nurse's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Many students in the USA live at or below the poverty level. As a school nurse working in a school for the Deaf I see students daily that don't have socks to wear or warm appropriate clothing let alone a computer and internet access in their homes. School districts are pushed to the limit with providing for all students as well as complying with the "No Child Left Behind". Having these $100. computers available for all students world wide only seems right. It benefits all students equally on a global level, regardless of economic and handicapping conditions.
I do not agree with the statement regarding these computers being a distraction in the classroom or that it gives the students access to suggestive materials. A paper clip can be a distraction for some students! And filters can be established to prevent access to areas that are not considered acceptable.

philippe Mazet's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for your "initiative"
Is it possibel to get your site in french language?
I am french, i do'nt speack fluently english, but i have the same interest as you for the education for all the children of the earth.
Whith some friends we have create an "association" to work for and with one littel village of the west of Mali. His name is "Kundaye78".
The village is Kundaye in the district of Kayes.
We begin by tree littel actions 1)repare their water-pompe and try to offer them a solar-pomp. 2) repare their "moulin a grains"
3) help them, if nessecary to create a school in the village.
If you have some ideas, or experiences who could be useful for us and they, please tell them us.
Thank you, philmaz

Peggy Bass's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

On September 24, 2007, there was another article, from OLPC.org, that states the laptops are now $200 per computer. Starting November 12, North American residents can purchase an XO laptop for $400, and the second computer will go to a child in an impoverished country. What a great Christmas gift it would be to buy one for your own child and let them know that they have in turn bought one for another child in another country.

Rob Siegel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I truly applaud this initiative. Innovative designs using technology to ensure that there is education for all is definitely a step in the right direction. Education is NOT for only the economically priviledged. Proof of this dates back to Beijing and how a fax machine created a revolution by opening up a closed world. However, that said, I believe that WORLD PEACE is a stretch. My understanding, having lived and worked for over 25 years outside the USA, is that until we have a higher consciousness of and belief in the unity or oneness of humankind (i.e. that we are one race upon the planet) no matter how much poverty is eliminated, world peace cannot be achieved.

Eden Samadan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I admire you for this noble endeavor. I'm a teacher in the Philippines and a strong advocate of technology integration in the teaching and learning. I have seen how the use of technology has made an impact in the learning of my students. My students' faces light up whenever I tell them we will hold our class in the computer laboratory. Using technology enables my students to improve not just their technological skills but also their research skills, communication skills and creativity. They are able to express themselves better with the aid of technology.
When I assign projects, almost all my students come to school early because they do not have computers at home. Our 1300 students need to share 70 computers. Many of them get disappointed whenever they come to school thinking that they can use the computer only to see that the laboratory is jampacked with students wanting to have access.
I do hope that this project would come to the Philippines soon. I hope our government also looks into this possibility of providing one-to-one computer to our disadvantaged students aside from the cyber education project that they want to implement.

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