The US$100 laptop: A well-intentioned waste of time?

Non-profits claim that scheme will fail unless support is given to third world nations to exploit technology.Sustainability of the project is also questioned.

Some claim the only piece of educational technology known for sure to work is the school bus and have little faith that cheap gadgets alone can bridge the digital divide.

While the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative from the Media Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is laudable, it is unlikely to succeed without suitable support mechanisms to help the developing world exploit the technology.

That's the opinion of a range of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that deem the scheme well-intentioned but doomed to failure if the right infrastructure is not put in place.

Nicholas Negroponte, chairman and co-founder of MIT's Media Lab, announced the US$100 PC project and the formation of the One Laptop Per Child not-for-profit organisation to great euphoria at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2005.

More details emerged on the 16 November at the International Telecommunication Union's World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis, when Negroponte announced that his group was working closely with manufacturers and should have an order placed by February or March 2006.

The US$115 laptop?
However he admitted that the price may rise to more than the magic US$100. "We're not even going to promise they're US$100," he said. "They may be US$115. What we're promising is that the price will float down."

The aim of the US$100 laptop initiative is to provide each child in the developing world with a laptop that can also act as an e-book, a tablet PC and a TV in a bid to help bridge the digital divide.

The benefit of such devices over more traditional educational materials, Negroponte believes, is that they can become "both a window and a tool: a window into the world and a tool with which to think. They are a wonderful way for all children to 'learn learning' through independent interaction and exploration."

Nonetheless, he is adamant that this is not a technology-based project, but an education-based one, although "not teaching or education as we know it".

"Only a part of learning comes from teaching. A lot of it comes from exploration and interaction due to curiosity. That's how we learned to walk and talk and it's the kind of learning that kids do very well so this is a tool to make it more continuous and seamless. At age six, we say 'learning that way, learn via books and teachers', but there's another piece that's very important," he says.

Free textbooks
The intention is for the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organization to sell the machines directly in consignments of a million or more to ministries of education, which will distribute them for free. Initial orders, however, will be limited to one million each for the five pilot countries--China, Brazil, Thailand, Egypt and South Africa.

The preliminary goal is to have initial units ready for shipment by the end of 2006 or early 2007, but manufacturing will not begin until between 5 million and 15 million have been ordered and paid for in advance.

As for OLPC, this is being 75 percent funded by MIT and 25 percent by its founding members, AMD, Brightstar, Google, News Corp and Red Hat, which are each believed to have put in US$2 million so far.

Meanwhile, the devices themselves will come with a 500MHz processor, 1GB of memory, four USB ports and a 10-inch dual-mode display that provides a full colour or black-and-white option if sunlight is strong to make it more readable and consume less power.

Hermetically sealed
Linux will be the operating system of choice with applications developed in-house by MIT. To protect the machine from damage, it will be covered with a rubber casing and will hermetically seal when the lid is closed.

To cater to children in areas where electricity is in limited supply, it will be possible to power the machines using a crank that operates on a "ten to one ratio--you crank for one minute and get 10 minutes of power", according to Negroponte.

Moreover, the laptops will be Wi-Fi-enabled and connect together using mesh networking technology. This will not only cut potential costs for networking infrastructure, but also of Internet connections for the devices.

"When you open each laptop, it becomes a node in a mesh. This means that only one or two laptops need to go to an Internet backbone and all of the kids are connected, so [a 2Mbps line] can serve 1,000 kids. If you have [a 2Mbps line] for 1,000 kids, you're in great shape, although you're not in such terrific shape if you download video," says Negroponte.

NGOs need convincing
But despite its laudable intentions, some NGOs are not convinced that the concept will deliver the results that Negroponte and his team hope. David Grimshaw, international team leader for the new technologies programme at charity Practical Action, believes that there are three key aspects to this type of project and providing access to computers addresses only one of them. Practical Action focuses on helping people in the

developing world to use technology in the fight against poverty.

"MIT potentially have an excellent idea here. But to make it really work in developing countries, it needs to be well thought through in partnership with content providers, perhaps in education, and also NGOs and civil societies that are in touch with grass-roots community-level organizations," he says. "It's about working in a participative way to allow people to develop their own solutions rather than have them imposed on them."

While Negroponte claims that content is being developed by Seymour Papert, also a member of OLTP and considered a leading theorist on child learning, Grimshaw believes that it is crucial for children to be able to access relevant local information in their own language. What may appear intuitive to a western mind may not necessarily apply to other cultures, not least in terms of the myriad assumptions about how people think that are written into U.S. and European software.

"You have to ask yourself to what extent are we influencing culture by taking a top-down approach? The Internet is mainly English-language and Western culture dominated so is it appropriate to people elsewhere? In my view, it would be better to develop local information first because it's about sensitivity to cultural issues too," says Grimshaw.

Top down approach
Tim Varney, a trustee of EdUKaid, an educational charity working in the Mtwara region of southern Tanzania, believes that the potential success or failure of OLTP could depend on where the project is taken up.

Interest is likely to be highest in more developed countries such as the former communist bloc, for example, where education is perceived as important and there is already a reasonable educational infrastructure in place, but where access to facilities is not as good as their western neighbours.

"But if you dumped a load of computers into Africa or other third world countries, they'd just gather dust. Without the basic teaching skills and people to implement projects of this type, they'll just become a toy to be played with or they'll pile up in a cupboard and not be used," Varney says.

Education is the best way to help countries develop according to Varney. If a school received 1,000 text books in Swahili but they weren't handed to the right people, they would still end up in that same cupboard, he says.

"You really need foot soldiers on the ground to provide back-up and training on how to use these things. There are no quick fixes for the problems in Africa and I'm struggling to think of the benefits computers would bring to children that haven't learned to read and write properly because they don't have the proper equipment to do so," says Varney.

Moreover, one of the problems with the numerous charitable initiatives that have been undertaken with the best of intentions in the region is that people tend to make too many assumptions about what their beneficiaries require without consulting them first.

Too many assumptions
"You can go into schools and help teach, but at the same time, you don't want to impose western ideals onto a country that doesn't want them. It's been done too often and people are naturally becoming sceptical. You have to help them find their own way, but give direction and assistance on how to get there rather than make their decisions for them," Varney adds.

The consensus from the NGOs is that it's vital to work out a broader development strategy when introducing initiatives such as OLPC. "There has to be a clear reason to give computers to schools and you have to work out what you're trying to achieve. Improving education seems like a good idea, but what happens to people's expectations if society can't follow through and deliver on them?" says Grimshaw.

The danger is that if people feel let down, the situation can breed "the potential for conflict, unease and unhappiness", which is not only counterproductive but also dangerous as it can disturb community power balances.

Cool technological developments
John Naughton, professor of public understanding of technology at the Open University and director of the Ndiyo Project puts such concerns another way.

"It seems to me to be a continuation of a philosophy that has bedevilled educational technology from day one. This is the mindset that thinks each new cool technological development must, somehow, have an educational use. You could caricature it as the 'technology is the solution, now what's the problem?' mindset," he says.

The main problem in his opinion, however, is that there is little evidence to suggest that computers actually improve learning. "We've invested billions of dollars in the West putting computers into schools on the assumption that it must do some good. But we really don't know if investing in a new computer system brings more educational benefits than hiring a new teacher. It's really faith-based investing," he says.

To back up his point, Naughton cites a former colleague and distinguished educational researcher, who now heads up a leading British research university. He used to say that 'the only piece of educational technology known for sure to work is the school bus'. "And I tend to approach initiatives like OLPC with that in mind," Naughton says.

Faith-based investing
His approach instead would be to ask: "What are the real educational problems that bother people in the developing world, and how--if at all--would OLPC help to solve those problems? If there's a real prospect that OLPC could indeed ameliorate or solve tangible problems, then proceed. Otherwise try and find technological solutions to the problems that really bother people on the ground".

Ndiyo itself is a non-profit organization, which is developing a low-cost server running open source software that supports ultra-thin client machines and is intended for use as an out-of-the-box four-screen Internet café among other things.

The aim with this particular implementation of the technology is to enable people in the developing world to earn a living by providing community members who cannot afford a computer and Internet connection with online access.

But Practical Action's Grimshaw raises a final point about the need to develop a model for long-term sustainability. "You might say a US$100 PC is cheap, it's simple, it's rugged and it will last for maybe five to 10 years. But what happens then? You'll need a new injection of capital or to build sustainability into the project from the outset and that's always been a major issue in the past."