One Laptop per Child ... a new perspective

A response from one of my readers led me to an epiphany this morning! Maybe this OLPC thing isn't such a bad idea after all!
Written by Marc Wagner, Contributor

In my most recent post, It's not what their losing, it's what they stand to gain, I came across a response from Antonio M. Battro, the Chief Education Officer of the One Laptop per Child association. 

I want to publicly thank Mr. Battro for his response and to share with you some aspects of this approach which have not appeared in any article I have read about Mr. Negroponte's project.  Being a strong advocate for using IT tools wherever possible to engage students in innovative yet cost-effective ways.  I must admit, somewhat sheepishly, that the points Mr. Battro brought to my attention had simply ever occurred to me. 

Mr. Battro called me, and my Colleague, Chris Dawson (see What are students really losing without technology?), to task for misinterpreting some of the aims of the One Laptop per Child initiative -- and I am glad that he did!

Mr. Battro objected to my characterization that OLPC has "lame toy-like laptops" and countered with:

"The XO laptop is a powerful computer with many new features, but we must know that the XO is made for children, and children play. Without playing there is no learning."

Of course, Mr. Battro is absolutely correct.  Whether six or sixty, human beings learn by 'playing'.  The fact that children will 'play' with these laptops wasn't my point.  I am also aware that the guts of these laptops are remarkably robust.  That said, if you've ever seen pictures of these little guys, you too might conclude that they wouldn't stand up to the abuse of your seven-year-old, let alone a hot and humid third-world jungle.  I'm still skeptical -- but here's what really got my attention ...

"OLPC is very careful about the choice of the resources and has already prepared the tools to offer, for example, one hundred e-books per laptop. Each country will choose the desired books and this selection will show continuous improvements."

This was my epiphany!  Posing as a link to the Internet in an extremely harsh environment with little or no infrastructure to support high-speed access, this "little laptop that could" stands little chance of long-term success.  But, as an entire library of textbooks, this is potentially a remarkably powerful tool.  Assuming this device can survive its harsh environment and continue to function over a period of a half-dozen or more years (still a stretch, in my estimation), a single lightweight (but rugged) device, could easily outlast 100 textbooks in a hot and humid environment.  And, by any measure, a $100 laptop equipped with 100 electronic textbooks could be worth its weight in gold in such a third-world setting.

My conclusion?  Well, I remain skeptical that the device I have seen pictured will be rugged enough to still be functioning even one-year after they have been distributed.  Further, I am skeptical that even the most committed third-world governments will be able to provide sufficient network infrastructure to the jungles of the third-world to insure its children reliable access to the Internet. 

Nevertheless, the opportunity to deliver 100 textbooks to each and every child in the under-developed world is most compelling and deserves every opportunity to succeed. 

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