One Laptop per Child Association Aims To Revolutionize Education

By Elisa Walton
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -The key to improving education lies in distributing a $100 laptop to children around the world, says Nicholas Negroponte, founder and chairman of the nonprofit association One Laptop per Child.

Negroponte, who spoke at the Organization of American States (OAS) July 25, is the professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who founded the computer-distribution program in order to address the shortage of computer access in poor and rural areas of the world.  (See related article.)

The high price of laptops and the limited ability of users to share them creates that shortage, he determined.  With the $100 laptop - financed by a host of U.S. companies and purchased at cost by participating governments - his organization aims to address this lack.

The One Laptop per Child effort parallels some programs of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other U.S. government agencies.  The USAID Digital Freedom Initiative, for example, is a public-private partnership that helps fund Internet connectivity for entrepreneurs and small businesses in the developing world.  (See related article.)

The U.S. mission to the OAS helps fund the Educational Portal of the Americas, which promotes "distance learning," aiming for greater equality of education for those who otherwise might not have access to it, particularly in rural areas.

"This project is about learning, not about laptops," said Negroponte.  The issue of education is fundamental for development, peace and other important goals.  "No matter which global problem you are addressing … the solution always includes education," he said.  But it is through using technology - both as a tool of learning and as a window on the world - that he believes children will learn the most.

As an example, he cited children who learn to create a computer program to draw a circle.  Because their efforts rarely work on the first try, they learn how to recreate and debug their own programs.  These children then begin to focus on their mistakes in other fields of learning as well, and automatically work on improving instead of being satisfied with a lower level of performance.

As a result, the children gain a deeper understanding of what their work means.  Children need to create, not just be told what to learn, he emphasized.  He called this approach "learning learning."

The $100 price for the laptops is achieved by operating with no profit, cutting all unnecessary frills - including marketing campaigns - and assembling large quantities of computers. Negroponte estimated the program will launch with a distribution of at least 5 million computers, and said he hopes to increase that number to 100 million by the second year.  He predicted that as the laptop design improves, the per-unit price will go down.

But low cost does not mean low quality, Negroponte emphasized.  "You might find [this computer] in the Museum of Modern Art," he said.

The latest model is bright orange, with "rabbit ears" sticking up from either side to allow Internet connectivity.  A hand crank on an AC power adapter provides the power because many of the users will not have access to electricity.  It even has a special feature not found in commercial laptops - to reflect sunlight for better use outside - as well as a camera and an excellent sound system.

Internet access will be achieved with a "mesh network."  With this network, the central Internet server, located at the community school, could be extended by letting users connect to the closest computer linked to the server, up to a distance of 600 meters. A child who lives too far from other computers could attach a device to boost the signal.

An early test of the ideas behind the One Laptop per Child initiative came in 2002 with the Maine Learning Technology Initiative.  The U.S. state of Maine, working in partnership with Apple Computers, equipped all of their seventh- and eighth-grade students and teachers with wireless notebook computers.  The program is still considered the largest of its kind in the world.

Outside the United States, Costa Rica is the "poster child" of computer use in education, Negroponte said.  A program of the Omar Dengo Foundation began there in 1987 with some support from the MIT Media Lab and quickly achieved substantial sustained success.  According to the foundation’s Web site, the project introduces computer technology and innovative learning into the country's public schools, with an emphasis on teacher training.  This program has reached approximately 1.5 million students and teachers in an attempt to improve rural learning and close the gap between urban and rural students.  Negroponte would like to use this as a model for other programs in the area.

Most countries have expressed some level of interest in the program.  For now, the program will focus on larger countries for its launch, scheduled for 2007.  In Latin America, Argentina and Brazil will host the pilot programs.  In Africa, Nigeria and Egypt will be first nations to participate; in Asia, participants will be China, India and Thailand.

The spread across three continents is intentional, said Negroponte.  He wants children from many different countries and backgrounds to have the chance to communicate using their laptops, so that they will understand their similarities with other children around the world before they have the chance to learn prejudices.

Children might gain "a whole different status because of this," added Negroponte.  They will be able to teach their parents and teachers how to use the new technology and help them gain faster access to information such as crop prices.