Laptopping the world

Nigeria

One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), a nonprofit global education project head-birthed by MIT Media Lab Founder Nicholas Negroponte, is set to release its third-generation $100 laptop next month. The computer, called the XO-1, is the centerpiece of the organization’s plan to change the world by getting kids around the world online and computer literate.

Call it techno-utopianism (you wouldn’t be the first) but the idea is to get enough inexpensive and specially tricked-out computers into the hands of a critical mass of kids so that they can create networks among themselves, challenge themselves and each other through computer play, and easily hack the software to make the computer evolve as their skills expand. The fairly tiny XO-1 can be powered with a hand crank, read in direct sunlight and is fully opensource.

One of the central ideas of the project is that, given the present inadequate resources dedicated to education worldwide, kids themselves must be “leveraged” to provide for their education. As the organization website puts it:

“Many children ”especially those in rural parts of developing countries” have so little access to school that building schools and training teachers is only one way ”perhaps the slowest way” to alleviate the situation. While such building programs and teacher education must not stop, another and parallel method advised by OLPC is to …engage children directly in their own learning… Internet access and tools for expression (text, music, video, graphics) are the contemporary ‘toys’ for learning. Every child of any means in the developed world has access to a computer at home and usually his or her own computer, complete with music, DVD, and interactive and rich media to do anything from learning languages to playing games. Making these same resources available to the roughly one billion other children, who do not have such access, has seemed ridiculously daunting but is no longer.”

The XO-1 software includes compilations of music to “get kids into the idea of contemporary composition and digital literacy,” says DJ Spooky, one of the many contributors to the project. “I donated beats, scratches, and various midi components, as did several other electronic and digital media artists from a wide variety of cultures (and ethnic groups).”

Direct criticisms of the project include concerns that the XO-1 still costs too much, that kids in Nigeria have been surfing porn sites, that the computer material will create toxic waste, that the keyboard is too small and thus prevents older children and adults from participating in the benefits, and that parents will sell off the things to pay for more pressing stuff like food and drugs.

Proponents answer by pointing out that the expense is comparatively negligible, that you can filter porn, that the XO-1 is made of the latest most-green material available, that people of all sizes learn to use blackberry and mobilephone keyboards just fine, and, hey, what can you do about parents anyway.

They also say the snazzy colors could make hacker chicks out of a billion little would-be princesses and ballerinas. And that’s huge!

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