A matter of education

13 May 2008

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) scheme aims to bring about education through affordable technology but will infighting and competition muddy the waters?

A vision to eradicate poverty through education resulted in the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) scheme founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Nicholas Negroponte.

Alongside Kofi Annan, Negroponte demonstrated a rough prototype of the ‘Children’s Laptop’ or XO-1 at the World Summit of the Information Society in 2005, showing a robust, waterproof and most importantly affordable laptop that started out with a €100 price tag.

The idea was to bulk sell these machines to the governments of developing nations – machines that were cheap by virtue of contribution on the part of large tech corporations including Google, AMD, eBay and Adobe.

Although AMD was supplying the processing power of the laptop, Intel decided to come on board in July 2007, with Paul Otellini, CEO of Intel, declaring it was an example of the processor firm’s “commitment to education over the past 20 years and our belief in the role of technology in bringing the opportunities of the 21st century to children around the world”.

Less than six months down the line, Intel dramatically backed out stating it had reached a “philosophical impasse” with Negroponte, who is chairman of the OLPC project.

The real reason, it was rumoured, was that Negroponte, fearing Intel was developing a competent machine of its own, demanded exclusive support of the OLPC project.

His fears turned out to be well founded as Intel, which has dismissed the XO-1 as a “gadget”, went on to develop its own range of affordable computing for the developing world, the Classmate, which was set at a more competitive price.

Meanwhile, it has not been smooth sailing inside OLPC headquarters either. Former chief technology officer Mary Lou Jepsen left to start a spin-off company Pixel Qi, which aims to keep the cost of its children’s laptop under $100. The XO-1 was originally dubbed the $100 laptop but its price has now shot up to the $200 mark.

To date, the governments in the developing economies of Argentina, Brazil, Thailand, Libya, Nigeria, Uruguay and Rwanda have all placed orders with the OLPC foundation, while an effort to boost sales of the laptop got underway in September 2007.

For €399, US and Canadian citizens could buy two XO-1s, keeping one while the other was sent to a developing nation.

The need for laptops in existing, poorly equipped schools was previously questioned by Nigeria’s education minister Dr Igwe Aja-Nwachuku, who asked what good the OLPC scheme would be for children who did not even have chairs to sit upon.

“We contend that part of the solution to problems such as healthcare and nutrition begin with giving everyone access to learning,” says Walter Bender, president of content and software for the OLPC, in defence of this argument.

Bender has also had to fend off media reviews criticising the laptop itself, including a particularly damning one in the Economist.

“Outrageous. Unprecedented. The Economist article also complained that the keyboard was too small for fat-fingered adults,” says Bender.

“It completely missed the point that we are designing a laptop for children for learning, not adult journalists. It’s as if it would disparage Beckham because he isn’t very good at American football.”

In fact, Negroponte has stated in the past that the OLPC scheme is not a laptop project but an education project.

“The OLPC initiative is one of many exciting examples of new ways to bring information and education to children and UNICEF is working with OLPC to provide UNICEF content on the machines that are shipped out,” says Erica Kochi, UNICEF’s communications officer.

However, UNICEF does not officially endorse the OLPC scheme as the one and only solution for children and recognises other initiatives like Intel’s Classmate and Ink Media’s children’s laptop.

“UNICEF does not have official standards of hardware for children. In fact, we are quite agnostic about hardware and see that while the internet has grown exponentially in reach, power and functionality over the past few years; in absolute terms, it has still done very little to overcome the digital divide in the developing world,” Kochi points out.

Even with initiatives such as OLPC and Intel’s Classmate, Kochi says the majority of the populations which UNICEF serves will not be online in the near future and that the big tech organisations should be addressing this.

“To answer the question of how we connect those who have internet with those who don’t, the technology sector should also be looking beyond the traditional laptop/desktop/internet connectivity solution space to technologies that are already readily available and have high penetration and usage rates in the developing world.”

One existing technology is the mobile phone, which has growing penetration in many African countries. By the end of this year, it is hoped Rwanda will have 15pc mobile handset penetration, says Romain Morenzi, Rwandan minister for science, technology and research.

However, projects like the OLPC will become increasingly relevant as developing nations become increasingly connected.

“Rwanda is wiring itself. We will have a fibre backbone by 2009 and will buy international bandwidth through satellite. This will be used by businesses and will attract companies not only to Rwanda but to the whole region,” says Morenzi.

By Marie Boran

Pictured: The OLPC laptop in use in a Mongolian classroom