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One Laptop Per Child 

"It's an education project, not a laptop project."

— Nicholas Negroponte

Every so often an idea comes along that lodges itself in the back of my mind and sticks there, on the edge of conscious thought, incubating, until it finally emerges as a fully realized plan of action.' That's the way I feel about the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) foundation and that's why I purchased a very special laptop computer for a child in Africa this morning.

OLPC came on my radar several years ago when one of my favorite visionaries, Nicholas Negroponte, took a leave of absence from running the MIT Media Lab, in order to lead an effort to design and manufacture a $100 laptop computer that could be distributed to every child in the world.  The notion seemed so grandiose as to be fanciful, but the fact that Negroponte was leading the effort made me take a second look.  Mr. Negroponte has been on the faculty of MIT since 1966, and he co-founded the justifiably famous MIT Media Lab in 1985 with Jerome Weisner.  He's also one of the founders of Wired Magazine and the author of the 1995 best seller Being Digital.

Mr. Negroponte is an all around Brainiac with a knack for translating high-tech concepts into reality and my ears perked up when I learned back in 2000 that he had stepped down from his active roles at MIT and Wired in order to lead the OLPC organization. In 2005, OLPC presented its first prototype of the $100 laptop at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis.  The laptop, dubbed The Children's Machine was interesting from a technical perspective, using some very artfully selected compromises to maximize the utility while keeping the price low.  More interesting to me however, was the philosophy behind the OLPC effort which has remained consistent over the years.  Unlike many efforts in the past to put computers in the hands of underprivileged children, the emphasis was decidedly not on the technology, and it abandoned entirely all fuzzy-headed notions that computers by themselves were a panacea for reforming education much less society.  OLPC set out from the very beginning to change the equation by broadly providing a powerful tool to children that would allow them to "learn about learning" irregardless of their financial or cultural background.  Here's a quote from the OLPC mission statement that says it pretty well.

Most of the nearly two–billion children in the developing world are inadequately educated, or receive no education at all. One in three does not complete the fifth grade.

The individual and societal consequences of this chronic global crisis are profound. Children are consigned to poverty and isolation—just like their parents—never knowing what the light of learning could mean in their lives. At the same time, their governments struggle to compete in a rapidly evolving, global information economy, hobbled by a vast and increasingly urban underclass that cannot support itself, much less contribute to the commonweal, because it lacks the tools to do so.
It is time to rethink this equation.

Given the resources that developing countries can reasonably allocate to education—sometimes less than $20 per year per pupil, compared to the approximately $7500 per pupil spent annually in the U.S.—even a doubled or redoubled national commitment to traditional education, augmented by external and private funding, would not get the job done. Moreover, experience strongly suggests that an incremental increase of “more of the same”—building schools, hiring teachers, buying books and equipment—is a laudable but insufficient response to the problem of bringing true learning possibilities to the vast numbers of children in the developing world.

Standing still is a reliable recipe for going backward.

Any nation's most precious natural resource is its children. We believe the emerging world must leverage this resource by tapping into the children's innate capacities to learn, share, and create on their own. Our answer to that challenge is the XO laptop, a children's machine designed for “learning learning.”

XO embodies the theories of constructionism first developed by MIT Media Lab Professor Seymour Papert in the 1960s, and later elaborated upon by
Alan Kay, complemented by the principles articulated by Nicholas Negroponte in his book, Being Digital.

Extensively field-tested and validated among some of the poorest and most remote populations on earth, constructionism emphasizes what Papert calls “learning learning” as the fundamental educational experience. A computer uniquely fosters learning learning by allowing children to “think about thinking”, in ways that are otherwise impossible. Using the XO as both their window on the world, as well as a highly programmable tool for exploring it, children in emerging nations will be opened to both illimitable knowledge and to their own creative and problem-solving potential.

OLPC is not, at heart, a technology program, nor is the XO a product in any conventional sense of the word. OLPC is a non-profit organization providing a means to an end—an end that sees children in even the most remote regions of the globe being given the opportunity to tap into their own potential, to be exposed to a whole world of ideas, and to contribute to a more productive and saner world community.
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The ideas that guide OLPC2 stemmed from Negroponte's experience in 2002, when he provided networked laptops for children in a Cambodian village and watched as the kids and their families taught themselves how to navigate the Internet and discovered multiple uses for the machines.  Following this, Negroponte described his idea for a $100 laptop to Hector Ruiz, the CEO of AMD, who immediately saw the possibilities.  Soon after, OLPC received endorsements from News Corp. and Google who joined as founding members. The idea was widely praised at the World Economic Forum in Davo, Switzerland and survived a bungled demo of an early prototype when the U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan broke the bright yellow hand crank off the little green machine in front of a few thousand reporters.  

“This is not just a matter of giving a laptop to each child, as if bestowing on them some magical charm. The magic lies within—within each child, within each scientist—, scholar—, or just-plain-citizen-in-the-making. This initiative is meant to bring it forth into the light of day.”Kofi Annan

Soon after, it seemed that everyone wanted in on the OLPC project.  With its rising popularity, came the inevitable power politics and at times it appeared, to me at least, that the project would founder as larger and more disparate supporters came forward. Brazil, Thailand and Nigeria all commit to the program and Negroponte reports that over 50 other countries have expressed and interest.  At the same time, battles raged over the specifics of the hardware design and the software that will be included with each machine.  In 2006, the well respected industrial designer Yves Behar assumes a lead role in the design work and the many proposals coalesce into a workable design dubbed the XO-1.

The guiding design principles for the XO-1 hardware were that it be durable and low cost, but still provide very high level functionality.  The XO-1 includes a small but very high resolution screen (7.5 inch, 1200×900 pixel, TFT screen), video camera, microphone, combined stylus/touchpad and integrated Wi-Fi networking.  Flash memory is used in the XO-1 instead of a hard disk and the power consumption is extremely low (less than 2 watts). A variety of power sources are accepted including human-powered pedals, cranks and pull-strings will be available for use where power is not often available.  A very clever "transformer hinge" allows the XO-1 to be configured as a standard laptop, or an e-book.

The XO is scaled for children-sized hands and made of bright Kermit-green plastic to appeal to kids and to discourage gray-market traffic.  It has two "ears" that pop up for use as wireless antennae, rounded edges and a sealed rubber membrane keyboard.  OLPC describes it as the size of a textbook and lighter than a lunchbox and it satisfies the European Union's  RoHS Directive regarding recycling and the absence of hazardous materials. The XO is being made by the Taiwanese company Quanta Computer Inc., the world's largest laptop manufacturer. Quanta will build 40,000 units in November, then ramp up production to 80,000 in December and 120,000 in January.

The software provided with the XO-1 is still evolving and expanding, but the initial systems will ship with a Fedora-Linux operating system and a desktop operating system called Sugar that is designed to naturally facilitate interaction and collaboration. The XO software automatically searches for wireless networks and other XO laptops, enabling it to create ad hoc mesh networks.  Each XO functions as a full-time wireless router, so a village provided with XO systems would have a robust broadband wireless network available to all.  I wish my home town were so lucky!

The Sugar software platform and the applications that will ship with the XO are all being developed as open source projects and interested programmers are invited to participate.  As of November 2007, the initial applications that are scheduled to ship with the XO-1 include a Firefox-based web browser, a versatile document viewer, a wordprocessor, RSS reader, email and chat clients, VOIP, a personal journal, multimedia authoring, music composition, drawing programs, games, and a suite of programming tools including Python, JavaScript, a version of Smalltalk and Logo programming languages.

In short, the XO-1 is cute as a button, (pic on my Homenode) but has enough cool-factor to catch the acquisitory fancy of most any nerd.  To see one is pretty much to want one, especially at the low low price of, $200 (they claim it will come down to $100 as the volumes ramp up...).  Happily, OLPC anticipated early on that their baby would be a coveted toy for the technoscenti and they made a truly bold move: you can't buy one!  Well, almost, but I'll explain that in a minute.  

To avoid the distraction and overhead of producing a retail-consumer version of the XO, the One Laptop Per Child foundation decreed that the machines would only be made available to governments for delivery directly to children by their schools on the basis of one per child.  That proved to be a wise move because it has allowed OLPC to focus all of its energies towards the creation and launch of the laptop itself.  As they correctly surmised, there has been plenty of support for the project without a consumer product plan.  Rwanda, Uruguay and Libya recently joined the countries pledged to distribute the XO-1, and Mr. Negroponte recently voiced the opinion that their biggest problem at this time was just getting the first one hundred million units out the door.  That sounds like a success by most any measure.

So, why did I say that they're "almost" not available for purchase?  Well, as it turns out, in an unexpected move to get the ball rolling and generate even more buzz, OLPC launched the "Give One Get One" program4 that allows supporters to donate an XO to a child in a developing nation and also receive one for a child in your own life.  The program began today, 12 November 2007 and was extended until the end of December.  In addition to the XO, donors also received a complimentary year's worth of free WiFi hotspot from the T-Mobile company.

Even for a grouchy old misanthrope like me, the Give One Get One program is a no-brainer.  I was planning on supporting OLPC anyway and this made it an even greater pleasure.  I've got a beloved niece who is going to be very surprised on Christmas morning, a young child somewhere will get an XO and, in the meantime, I hope to update this writeup with some hands on comments on the XO.  GeekChic at its finest!

This isn't really the place for impassioned sales pitches, so I won't try and tug on your heart strings to support this very worthy cause, but I would encourage anyone reading this to take the time to browse the OLPC website and consider whether there's some way in which you'd like to play a part.

 

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LATE BREAKING NEWS!

- May 20th, 2008 OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte announced the development of the XO-2 computer, at OLPC’s Global Country Workshop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The new system will have two touch-sensitive displays, opening like a book. The XO-2 will be much smaller than the original XO-1 machine. According to Negroponte, the XO-2 is scheduled to be released in 2010. Negroponte also announced that the Give 1, Get 1 program, which allows consumers to give one laptop to a child in the developing world and get a low-cost laptop for themselves, will start up again in August or September 2008.

- 2 June 2008 Microsoft has announced that it will be releasing a version of Windows XP for the XO laptop. The XO version of XP will be available in September via the non-profit One Laptop Per Child corporation. The hardware/software combo will cost about $200, and will provided an e-book mode, networking, and camera.

- 29 July 2008 The Polynesian country of Niue will be the be the first country where every school student and teacher will have a laptop. Over 500 laptops are being donated as part of the Oceania One Laptop Per Child initiative, which is aimed at providing children in developing countries with effective and affordable educational technologies.

1 Content from the OLPC website is included here under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5.  OLPC has not reviewed or approved this work.
2  The primary website for OLPC: http://www.laptop.org/
3  For a developers viewpoint on the XO check the OLPC development wiki:  http://dev.laptop.org/wiki
4  The entry point for the Give One Get One program: www.laptopgiving.org/ 

 Addendum

I couldn't let this go without adding the five guiding principles behind OLPC.  Like many things of true genius they are deceptively simple but deeply disruptive of the status quo.  From the OLPC website:

Child Ownership

OLPC has created the XO laptop to be very low cost, robust and powerful, beautiful and friendly. It has been designed explicitly for children of the elementary classes, the first one of its kind. The ownership of the XO is a basic right of the child and is coupled with new duties and responsibilities, such as protecting, caring for, and sharing this valuable equipment.

A laptop can be transformed into a mobile school: a portable learning and teaching environment. A connected laptop is more than a tool. It is a new human environment of a digital kind. A key OLPC asset is the free use of the laptop at home, where the child (and the family) will increase significantly the time of practice normally available at the standard computer lab in the school.

I wear my XO like my pair of shoes.

Low Ages

The XO is designed for the use of children of ages 6 to 12—covering the years of the elementary school—but nothing precludes its use earlier or later in life. Children don’t need to write or read in order to play with the XO and we know that playing is the basis of human learning. Moreover those digital activities will help the acquisition of the writing and reading skills.

Every year a new cohort will be incorporated into the program. Accordingly the assessment of the OLPC program should be intrinsic to each cohort and every student will keep an individual portfolio or journal with the trace of his or her learning paths in the most diverse disciplines at school. In particular small children with learning, motor or sensory disabilities may use the computer as a prosthesis to read, write, calculate, and communicate.

I have good XO shoes for a long walk.

Saturation

The OLPC commitment is with elementary education in the developing countries. In order to attain this objective we need to reach a “digital saturation” in a given population. The key point is to choose the best scale in each circumstance. It can be a whole country, a region, a municipality or a village, where every child will own a laptop. As with vaccination a digital saturation implies the continuous intervention on the successive cohorts at the proper ages.

The whole community will become responsible of the OLPC program and the children will receive support of many institutions, individuals and groups of this community. Because of the connectivity inherent to OLPC these different communities will grow together and expand in many directions, in time and space. They will become solid and robust, because they are saturated, without holes or partitions.

A healthy education is a vaccination, it reaches everybody and protects from ignorance and intolerance.

Connection

The XO has been designed to provide the most engaging wireless network available. The laptops are connected to each other, even when they are off. If one laptop is connected to the Internet, the others will follow to the web. The children in the neighborhood are thus permanently connected to chat, share information on the web, gather by videoconference, make music together, edit texts, read e-books and enjoy the use of collaborative games on line.

The battery of the laptop can work for many hours and it can be charged in special gang chargers in the school or by mechanical or solar power. The unique XO display allows the use of the laptop under a bright sun, enabling the user to work outside the classroom or home, in the wild as well as in any public open place.

The connectivity will be as ubiquitous as the formal or informal learning environment permits. We are proposing a new kind of school, an “expanded school” which grows well beyond the walls of the classroom. And last but not least this connectivity ensures a dialogue among generations, nations and cultures. Every language will be spoken in the OLPC network.

When we talk together we stay together.

Free and Open Source

The child with an XO is not just a passive consumer of knowledge, but an active participant in a learning community. As the children grow and pursue new ideas, the software, content, resources, and tools should be able to grow with them. The very global nature of OLPC demands that growth be driven locally, in large part by the children themselves. Each child with an XO can leverage the learning of every other child. They teach each other, share ideas, and through the social nature of the interface, support each other's intellectual growth. Children are learners and teachers.

There is no inherent external dependency in being able to localize software into their language, fix the software to remove bugs, and repurpose the software to fit their needs. Nor is there any restriction in regard to redistribution; OLPC cannot know and should not control how the tools we create will be re-purposed in the future.

A world of great software and content is necessary to make this project succeed, both open and proprietary. Children need to be able to choose from all of it. In our context of learning where knowledge must be appropriated in order to be used, it is most appropriate for knowledge to be free. Further, every child has something to contribute; we need a free and open framework that supports and encourages the very basic human need to express.

Give me a free and open environment and I will learn and teach with joy.

 

 

 

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