One Laptop Per Child – why it matters, even if OLPC itself never succeeds.

One Laptop Per Child ($100 Laptop) project (Nicholas Negroponte)

This afternoon the ABC broadcast a presentation (possibly a repeat) by Nicholas Negroponte about the progress on this initiative, originally aimed at putting a laptop in the hands of every child in less developed countries. This, you may note, began several years before the recent Rudd Digital Education Revolution.

The reports back from the field are quite stunning. It really puts a focus on the innovation potential of the Rudd DER funds, if they were to be used with a bit of vision rather than as simply a “let’s buy more computers” purchase program.

Negroponte talked of overcoming the fact that 50% of the world’s kids have no electricity at home or school, so the laptop needs to be low-power and have a mechanical way of charging it. He mentioned the challenge of getting screen manufacturers to produce a small, efficient screen when their main market is making huge screens for the wealthy to watch football on.

And the wireless mesh network technology, that works from computer to computer rather than relying on every computer having a connection to the internet. He mentioned that when kids take their laptops home and are more than the km or so range of the mesh, they can nail cheap solar-powered repeaters to trees on the way home so they can still mesage their friends and teachers. And Negroponte sees the home use of these computers as a massive part of the value of this project (seriously, who’d provide laptops that stay at school and only get used a few hours a day, and not at all over the holidays?). The parental use of the technology is a side benefit, one that seems to make sense if a country wanted to succeed in a knowedge-based economy. That country might well be Haiti, Libya, Pakistan, Nigeria or Peru. Hey, it could even be Australia…

The “Buy two, keep one and give the other to a developing country” sales model for OLPC produced the highest ever traffic on PayPal’s purchasing website.

“In Cambodia those kids took the (OLPC) laptops home, the little boys had their sisters make little bags for them, they slept beside the laptops, these were polished they were like a new bicycle, it was really kept in a very different way”

“in the United States … kids take (school-owned laptops) off a cart, they bring them to their desk, they use them for the class period in science simulation or something, put the laptops back on the cart, again no ill will but those laptops last about three months before they need repair because nobody owns them and it’s government property, or school property and it just doesn’t get treated the same way”

Several countries (Uraguay, Peru) have committed to buying around a quarter of a million of these laptops, and some cities (Birmingham Alabama, Buenos Aires) are similarly providing every child with one. 

OLPC have found that they had to develop new standards, for example they had to develop a new standard keyboard for Ethiopia as one of the languages simply did not have a standard keyboard layout – there had never been enough people speaking that language who could own a computer. till OLPC came along. Quote: “the first English word of every kid in that picture is ‘Google’, it’s literally their first word.”  Some of these countries have average personal income under $100 a year

China’s minister for education had an interesting response: “Professor Negroponte your laptop is very child-centric and our education system is very teacher-centric.”  The One Laptop per Child initiative is targeting the child as the learner, rather than the school as gatekeeper to learning. The idea that schools need to be responsible for providing and maintaining computers is seriously questioned.

The support model is rather interesting – they have trialed a model of a “laptop hospital” run by kids, and the physical design of the OLPC lappie is such that many parts can be replaced at very low cost, by relatively unskilled kids.

They are churning  out 110,000 of these laptops per month, compared with the world total laptop production of about 5 million per month.

Podcast and transcript at

Hopefully all involved with the Digital Education Revolution have looked closely at OLPC, at both its specific strategy but more importantly its philosophy of putting technology directly in the hands of kids. OLPC is giving kids in developing nations personal access to levels of technology that many so-called developed nations cannot manage. To roll out a more expensive and less pervasive model would be… well. would it be the action of a clever country?

Any educational ICT policymaker who is unaware of this initiative can hardly claim to be competent.

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