- 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.
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.
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