OLPC: The Revolution Begins? 17 February, 2007Posted by paralleldivergence in Brad & Phil, children, education, ICT in Education, Internet, Life, My Thoughts, OLPC, Politics.
In February 2007, the first of almost 2,500 “$150 Laptops” will be rolled out to school children in the poorest areas of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Nigeria, Libya, Rwanda and Cambodia. The ambitious “One Laptop Per Child” (OLPC) project was first devised in January 2005 with the concept of producing an affordable laptop computer specifically for the poorest and most-remote children in the world. Just two years and several prototypes later, the impressive lime-green and white “Children’s Machine” dubbed the XO is almost ready for mass-production.
The XO is offered for sale only to the governments of countries for distribution on a one-for-one basis to children by each nation’s educational authority. The OLPC association has received orders for one million units to date and is preparing for a production schedule of five million units this coming July. A further fifty million XOs are expected to be produced in 2008, when the unit price is predicted to drop below US$100.
Comprising a 7.5″ colour tilt-and-swivel LCD screen, AMD Geode 366MHz processor, 128MB RAM, 512MB Flash RAM, 802.11g Wireless LAN, camera, microphone, stereo speakers and a battery that can be manually recharged using a string-pulley, the ruggedly-built XO packs a lot of punch for its bargain-basement price. Of course, at this price and with these specifications, we can’t expect Microsoft Windows to be included. Interestingly, Steve Jobs offered Apple OSX free of charge to the OLPC association. This would surely have been a great way to increase the market-share of OSX around the world and also be excellent springboard marketing for future Mac purchases. Alas, because OSX was not open-source and the association wanted to be able to modify the XO’s operating system, Linux was chosen – specifically a cut-down version of Fedora. In addition, a internet broswer built on the Gecko engine, AbiWord for word-processing and custom educational software such as music sequencing and video capture.
One of the XO’s main educational strengths is in the area of collaboration. With wireless-mesh networking, groups of students can work together on projects, swap images and link to repositories of educational content stored on local servers and USB drives. Where satellite connection to the Internet is available, so is access to the whole world. In theory, the devices have been well-devised – but there are vocal critics of the OLPC project.
What good is giving a laptop to each child if many children barely have access to the essentials of civilized life - food, clean drinking water, shelter and public health services? Why would third-world governments catering for one million children spend $150 million to equip each child with a laptop when for a fraction of that, they could build better schools and develop better quality libraries to each cater for hundreds or thousands of children? Why would a family that earns less than one dollar per day keep their free laptop when they could sell it and buy enough food to feed the family for a year?
Poverty, hunger and child mortality are complex worldwide problems. Organizations such as the Red Cross, UNICEF, World Vision and CARE among many others are all working hard to address the symptoms. Campaigns like “Make Poverty History” are informing the general population of the struggle that half of the world faces and the actions that the first-world can take to alleviate the underlying burden carried by the governments of the third-world. But solving the problems of poverty is not only the responsibility of the first-world. It is also the responsility of the poor to contribute to their own renewal. Their contribution should be through a commitment to work and learn. To educate their future generations so that they may take an even stronger role in the ongoing building of their nation.
Just as food and health organizations provide poorer countries with subsidised and even free food and medicines, the world’s ICT industries should also contribute what they can toward an overall solution. The development of cheaper and targeted technologies is a worthwhile initiative, but here is where I believe the OLPC people have made a mistake. They have developed a product with worldwide marketability, but they are only offering it to the governments of disadvantaged countries with a stipulation that the government must buy the laptops on a one-for-one basis. There is to be no general distribution of the XO laptop.
Very few schools in even the most developed countries have a one-for-one laptop program due to the enormous costs associated with commercial laptop computers. Yet most educators will say that a one-for-one scenario would provide enormous educational benefits. Why wouldn’t the OLPC make the XO available to all governments? With even greater production, the price could be driven down even further. The development of more open-source educational software and content for the XO would also eventuate.
Recently, the BBC reported that the OLPC could be sold to the public on a 1 for 2 basis – anybody who can afford it would in effect buy two XOs, but only receive one, with the other going to a developing nation. Unfortunately, the OLPC association was quick to dispute this report, saying they had no plans to commercialize the XO computer. I think virtually every educational authority in a developed country would seriously consider the option to pay $300 per laptop on the understanding that not only their children, but an equivalent number of poor children would have one of their own. This would then relieve the up-front cost for the poorer nations and fast-track the implementation of better and more modern educational resources.
I hope this OLPC pilot is a glowing success and that ultimately there is a realization that all the children on Earth represent our planet’s future and are an investment well worth contributing to and nurturing.
As for Brad & Phil, well they see another side to the whole OLPC story…