Since 1990, I have worked in schools where every child has a personal laptop computer. In fact, I led professional development in the world’s first two “laptop schools.” Ever since, I’ve worked from Melbourne to Mumbai to Maine trying to help educators enjoy the transformational learning experiences made possible by personal computing.
In some school districts the notion of a laptop per child remains a sci-fi fantasy from a utopian future. For others, laptops are viewed as typewriters, encyclopedias or testing systems in support of traditional school practices. Schools struggle to find the courage, imagination and financing to make 1:1 computing a reality. Despite the seemingly high cost of investing in a laptop per child, I know of schools that have urged manufacturers to keep prices high in order to reserve the laptop as the tool of rich children.
MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte formed the non-profit One Laptop Per Child Foundation (OLPC) a few years ago to meet the challenge of providing every child in the world with a robust, powerful, personal, environmentally responsible and rugged affordable mobile computer. If that weren’t ambitious enough, Negroponte recognized what many have known for years – current operating systems make no sense for children, particularly children in the developing world. If you’re a kid in Rwanda, what do desktops, trashcans or file folders mean to you? OLPC also believed that software should be free, open-source and collaborative. Sounds like a tall order.
With the release of the XO, often referred to as the $100 computer, Negroponte and a few dozen colleagues did what Silicon Valley could not or would not do. They made a low-cost energy-efficient laptop for children complete with a new graphical user interface and collaborative software applications. And boy was the high-tech industry mad! The Times of London and 60 Minute have documented Intel’s wide scale attempt to discredit OLPC across the globe while Bill Gates says snarky things about it at every opportunity. OLPC is like kryptonite to Business Week, a magazine that cannot resist writing about the failure of the XO as if it were oil prices or tax policy.
It is easy to understand why OLPC has earned the ire of the corporate community. They made a computer with a superior screen, energy management and ground-breaking mesh networking for less than the cost of marketing a bloated retail laptop. To make matters worse, they challenged the hegemony of Intel and Microsoft.
Looking at the world through school colored glasses
It is a lot harder to understand why many in our edtech community have been so hostile to the XO. The same educators whose students use the computer lab for little more than web surfing and word processing mock the XO, a device capable of a lot more for more children at a lower price. They complain that it’s not powerful enough, yet continue to use their existing computers in trivial ways.
I hear lots of “yeah, buts from the American edtech community.” What about professional development?” is a favorite mantra chanted as if American schools have succeeded in computer integration after more than 25 years of effort.
Why would anyone copy us?
Another favorite question is, “What about tech support?” That question is easily answered; local kids and adults will repair their own XOs. All you need is screwdriver and some parts. Remember when Americans used to repair things themselves? It wasn’t that long ago!
When the XO is the first computer, “book,” or even light source in a community there is a different sense of urgency. A few stories stand out. The President of Uruguay was on hand to distribute the first XO computers to students and the computer has been featured on an Uruguayan postage stamp. Poor slum dwelling Pakistani students had their school closed down and are required to work agricultural jobs. These kids have formed an XO Club and hold meetings during work breaks and nearly every night in order to keep learning.
During a recent OLPC workshop I met two Columbian women who exemplified the commitment to progress shared across the developing world. The educators wanted to provide XOs to a Columbian school without electricity. Due to its remote location where students arrive via individual boats, a petroleum-based generator is impossible. The women considered solar power, but they would need to hoist the panels above the rainforest canopy. Without missing a beat, the women looked at each other, shrugged and said, “We have a river.” That’s right. They’ll figure out a way to turn water into electricity in order to charge student laptops.
To countries where Internet access may be a four-day walk away and per pupil spending is $40/year, computers represent so much more than a way to practice multiplication tables.
SIDEBAR: This Fall, you will once again have the opportunity to change the world for a deserving child and get yourself a wicked cool XO laptop. At the end of the year, OLPC is likely to once again offer its Give One, Get One program. For $400 (price not yet set), you get an XO and a kid in the developing world gets one as well. This has the effect of reducing the cost of a laptop to less than $100 each since your donation is matched by a local purchase. Student clubs might get involved in this worthy endeavor as well. Go to www.laptop.org to learn more about G1G1 and to keep up with XO developments around the world.
Veteran educator Gary Stager, Ph.D. is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, publisher at Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools thirty years ago and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Gary is also the curator of The Seymour Papert archives at DailyPapert.com. Learn more about Gary here.