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Rory Cellan-Jones

Can a laptop change the world?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 22 Sep 09, 11:10 GMT

The One Laptop Per Child project is no longer about laptops. That might sound bizarre, but it comes from one of the leading executives in the charity which aims to bring cheap but effective computing to children in the developing world.

I've followed OLPC quite closely for a couple of years, visiting a Nigerian school running a pilot with the little XO green and white machine, interviewing Nicholas Negroponte, the visionary thinker behind the idea, and now in Rwanda filming the biggest implementation of the scheme outside Latin America.

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I veer between optimism and pessimism about its prospects. Walking into a village just outside the Nigerian capital of Abuja and being greeted by dozens of children all wanting to show off their laptops was an uplifting experience. But on that trip, I also interviewed the Nigerian education minister who made it quite clear that laptops for children were low on his priority list, whatever commitment a previous incumbent might have given to order hundreds of thousands of them.

Now I've learned that the scheme appears to be on the retreat in Nigeria, and the school I visited is no longer involved - which must be very disheartening for children who had embraced the idea with such enthusiasm.

Meanwhile there have been plenty of internal wrangles, with one OLPC faction determined to make sure the laptop sticks to its open-source roots, while another believes that only a Windows machine will make much headway in many countries.

And the credit crunch hasn't helped - the charity had to impose severe cuts in its workforce after its "Give One, Get One" promotion - where American buyers help fund laptops for the developing world - failed to prove a winner.

So it was cheering to come to a primary school on the fringes of Rwanda's capital Kigali and find that more than 3,000 children had access to XO laptops and were using them in creative ways.

In one class, a teacher was showing the pupils how to make a simple animation; in another, they were learning about journalism, using their laptops to put together a newspaper - though I bet it will be full of glowing reports about Rwanda's transformation, much like the government-supporting New Times - and a third class was learning about the solar system, using materials stored on the laptops.

Rwanda has now ordered more than 100,000 XO laptops and plans to roll them out to as many schools as possible, with part of the funding coming from the sale of mobile phone licences. Finally, OLPC has found an African country which appears to be committed to going beyond a pilot and making the laptops an integral part of its education system

So it was something of a surprise when I met David Cavalllo who runs OLPC's operations right across Africa and he told me, "We don't want to be a laptop company." But, as we discussed the project's future over a beer in a Kigali hotel, I came to understand what he meant. One Laptop Per Child isn't really about hardware or software, it's about a philosophy of education. In any case, the idea of small low-cost laptops has proved so compelling that the computer industry has picked it up and run with it:

"If the market creates low-cost high quality machines, all the better - that's a huge success," Cavallo told me, though he appeared dubious that the likes of Intel would provide products that Africa could afford.

OLPC will now concentrate on making its laptops cheaper and even less power-hungry - and I got the impression that the shiny touch-screen prototype unveiled a year ago might never become a reality. But the real focus will now be on promoting the project's central idea, that children learn better when they are active and involved.

That's not an easy idea to sell in Africa where education systems tend to favour Victorian methods of strict discipline and learning-by-rote. But David Cavallo believes that Rwanda is proving receptive because of its traumatic recent history:

"After the troubles that were here, there's an incredible focus on human rights, on human development... so there's a broader view of education towards full human development that you don't always find in other countries."

Indeed OLPC has moved its entire training operation from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Kigali as a mark of its faith in the country. From what I saw, Rwanda is actually quite hard-headed about what the laptops might bring - at the school I visited, the man from the education ministry told me the aim was that out of 3,000 pupils, 100 would go on to become software engineers.

Nevertheless, the well-meaning but sometimes unrealistic visionaries from OLPC who want to change the world with a laptop seem finally to have found willing partners in the young technocrats now trying to turn Rwanda into a knowledge economy. Both have set themselves seemingly impossible targets - but if one succeeds, maybe the other can too.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Although I have supported the philosophical aims of the OLPC initiative (though squirmed at the business politics that accompanied the idea), I do have a fundamental problem with the a "laptop" being the ideal solution. Especially a rather small one.

    This is not about money (after all, the OLPC Laptop is very cheap!), but about practicality and about userbility.

    Here at home, where thanks to my job we have far too many computers (admittedly most are servers), the resident teens have been pushing for laptops, saying they are "necessary for their coursework." The eldest has just had hers bought for her by her father.

    And is she using it for coursework? No. She uses it for Facebook and Skype.

    When it comes to writing essays for her A-Level work, she has gone back to using the family PC because it has a proper mouse, a decent keyboard and a nice big monitor. It is also hard wired into the network so doesn't lose connection through radio interference and so on. Actually, it is an old PC and not as powerful as her laptop (and still stuck on Windows 2000), but when it comes to getting down to serious work, it is much more comfortable and efficient.

    Now with the OLPC initiative, there is a major difference in that most, if not all, of the children do not have access to any computer at all at home - and this fills in the gap.

    But there is still the argument that if you want to give a child, or anyone, a really good tool for their education - something with lots of disc space, a practical sized monitor and a keyboard that is comfortable and easy to use, then a laptop is NOT what they need.

    I have to say it is interesting watching a teen on a small Notebook (their laptop of choice) trying to do some serious work. It is the computer equivalent of watching someone in huge platforms walking down Oxford street - it might be trendy, but it sure aint worth the pain!

    SO anyway - OLPC is doing a very good job - but was it the right solution?

  • Comment number 2.

    Everybody must be connected and online so that skynet can take total control ... erm, whoops, perhaps I've watched too many movies about killer robots.

  • Comment number 3.

    The fact this only has 2 comments (before mine) despite being online shows that people don't really care much for all these 3rd world broadband blog posts - Thats 4 posts in a row now, plus about 5 or 6 posts of the previous 10.... who cares? No one obviously care enough to even comment.

    Obviously its important to the region so 1 or 2 posts could be expected, but not the lions share of the last fortnights posting.

    there are real tech stories floating around involving Elite turning 25, Yahoo, Intel, Google and obviously many many more surely you can muster up at least one blog post on those

  • Comment number 4.

    I'm not sure that you can safely conclude a lack of interest from a lack of comments; these posts, unlike some some topics this blog covers, are well outside my direct experience. That doesn't mean I'm not interested (I am) but it does mean that there's not much that I can usefully add. I imagine that a lot of UK based readers will be in a similar position.

  • Comment number 5.

    Blue_Blood1 wrote:

    The fact this only has 2 comments (before mine) despite being online shows that people don't really care much for all these 3rd world broadband blog posts

    *


    I would think that more reflects on the interests of the commenter than on the importance of the post.

    Just because a subject generates less response does not mean it should not be covered. And, what you cannot see here is how often this blog has been read. It may well be that readers do not feel they have anything to add.

    As for Elite (which even I hadn't heard of before, and I am the right age - I was probably too busy still playing Zork) - See this BBC Article

  • Comment number 6.

    "2. At 4:04pm on 22 Sep 2009, badger_fruit wrote:

    Everybody must be connected and online so that skynet can take total control ... erm, whoops, perhaps I've watched too many movies about killer robots."

    -----

    No it's so they can be educated and turned into a workforce that can be exploited...

    "3. At 11:22am on 23 Sep 2009, Blue_Blood1 wrote:

    The fact this only has 2 comments (before mine) despite being online shows that people don't really care much for all these 3rd world broadband blog posts - Thats 4 posts in a row now, plus about 5 or 6 posts of the previous 10.... who cares? No one obviously care enough to even comment.

    Obviously its important to the region so 1 or 2 posts could be expected, but not the lions share of the last fortnights posting.

    there are real tech stories floating around involving Elite turning 25,Yahoo, Intel, Google and obviously many many more surely you can muster up at least one blog post on those"

    I hardly think that Elite turning 25 is newsworthy.

  • Comment number 7.

    Hmm, further to comment #3, yes, there are more technology related topics - I personally want to voice my opinion on the "Broadband tax 'to be made law'" story currently headlining the technology pages, rather than something that has no effect on me what-so-ever (apart from the increased "I am a nigerian prince wanting to give you my fortune" emails).

  • Comment number 8.

    Shall we discuss the call for the BBC iPlayer to turn to microtransactions here... what about the 50p tax on BT based line rental turning into law

    Or do we live in hope that their will be yet another blog post revolving around some tech story in Africa

    There are huge stories happening but no where on the BBC Tech site to comment on them

    Is Africa the new Twitter?

  • Comment number 9.

    Blue_Blood1 - this is not an open forum, or a php-nuke type site, or even Slashdot. This is a blog that two journalists use to post longer form articles on technology related subjects - in addition to their normal journalistic responsibilities.

    If you want a site where you can comment on every single item of tech news that is around, you should sign up to Slashdot. That has an incredibly active and HUGE member base discussing just about anything in detail and often with authority (and often complete rubbish too, to be honest)

  • Comment number 10.

    #8 - I agree, let's remind the BBC who pays for this blog and what WE the LICENSE FEE payers want to talk about!!!

    "Micropayments" are still PAYMENTS - if they decide to charge then I'll just go back to hitting torrents; I've paid for BBC content once via my License tax, erm I mean fee. Why should I pay again for what is essentially a repeat?!

    The flat-rate additional 50p on all landlines - which is openly being touted as a tax - is a disgrace. BT need to put their short arms in the long pockets and stump up the money need to improve the infrastructure. The gvt should not be involved here at all - they are there to provide access to all for education, health and transport. We can all see the terrible job they're doing of those so what's going to happen with the internet when these coyboys get started?

    Who's going to account for all those 50ps that are going to be heading straight to the treasury?! Who will GUARANTEE that the money will be used for what it's supposed to be and not to something else?

    The BBC should be disgraced they are not asking these questions and instead just re-printing press releases.

  • Comment number 11.

    Regarding post 3, I agree with _Ewan_ and Gurubear. I found this blog post interesting, but as I'm not exactly knowledgeable about the subject, there isn't much that's useful that I can contribute by commenting. I also never heard of 'Elite'.

  • Comment number 12.

    It is not about computers/laptops and countries/locations. It is about children and education everywhere and especially the economically disadvantaged anywhere. It is not the same as giving them cheap small computers: the olpc project doesn't make them office workers but helps them learn in this inevitably digital world in an engaging way. It promotes habits of collaboration and sharing and discovery etc. Also it is not about a debate on whether one machine per child is 'too much' to give...There is no rule against many children sharing the laptop in a school, where resources are lmited, till we can actually give one laptop to each child. I work with small olpc projects in India and here is the lesson we've learnt. It is amazing what the XO can do to kids and a community. Children do not need a threat to get them to school if learning is engaging and fun. The design of the laptop and the sugar operating system is conducive to learning in a fun way.
    The children in our village schools, when they take their XO home show and teach their illiterate parents at home all they've learnt at school. A quiet transformation takes place in the village that has an olpc project. Kids record their grandmother's songs and bring it to school to share with the classmates and in return take back stories and pictures of people who visit their school to share with their parents, who have no such opportuities. Kids in one of our DBF olpc projects in a former French colony have begun to study their environment by taking pictures of the flowers and plants in their village and creating a database of this local resource...finding out from elders their healing properties if any.
    These kids want to reach out to children in France and want to know what France is like and they want to tell kids in France what their life is like in India. There is no limit on ways one can learn wth the XO and the olpc programme. We just have to stop pontificating (especially without even seeing one) and try and get a XO laptop to hold in our hands and begin working with kids everywhere.

  • Comment number 13.

    Gurubear,

    The laptop fits children's hands - it's only small to you.
    The screen is special and is and excellent ebook reader.
    A desktop would consume a lot of electricity and cannot be
    taken home for homework and reading.

    A laptop is the correct choice for this kind of work.

    Waiting for industry is a mistake because consumer laptops
    will not be designed with electrical consumption in mind.

    This is important because many children in the 3rd world will
    be taking them home where they don't have electricity.

 

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