Bringing Laptops to the Third World
BackBy Daniel Margolis — December 2007
In First World nations such as the United States and the United Kingdom, computers are ubiquitous in schools and have been for some time.
In Third World nations, however, this does not yet hold true — students in developing countries might complete an academic career without much or any interaction with a computer, putting these nations at a tremendous disadvantage in competing globally in the digital age.
Nicholas Negroponte, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory chairman emeritus, is acting to change this with his One Laptop per Child program, which launched more than two years ago. It has since been established as an independent nonprofit.
One Laptop per Child has developed a machine called the XO, billed as a “$100 laptop.” The organization is acting to put the XO in the hands of children in developing countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Thailand and Uruguay. Each country gets versions programmed specifically to its native languages.
Manufactured by Quanta Computer Inc., the XO is a small, white unit with a green keyboard and framework, and it comes with a manually operated battery charger. When turned on, users are greeted by a screen with a stick figure icon in its center, which represents themselves. The figure is surrounded by a ring populated with icons for programs running on the machine. In this way, the XO’s operating system escapes the enforcement of a computer organized by files and folders. In fact, the machine has no hard drive.
It does, however, feature three USB ports and headphone and microphone jacks, as well as an internal microphone and dual internal speakers. The keyboard is a sealed rubber membrane, accompanied by a touchpad and cursor-control keys.
Because it’s intended for use by students who might be having their first experience with a computer when they pick it up, it’s designed to function as an organized presentation of programs as tools for learning, creating and communicating rather than merely working.
Toward that end, the XO is Wi-Fi interactive. During classroom operation, end-users see other stick figures in different colors appearing on their screen, which represent other students in the vicinity. Moving the computer’s cursor to these figures produces students’ profiles, and from there, they can chat or work together on projects.
On One Laptop per Child’s Web site (www.laptop.org), Negroponte discusses why it is important for students in developing countries to have their own computers.
“One does not think of community pencils — kids have their own,” Negroponte stated. “They are tools to think with, sufficiently inexpensive to be used for work and play, drawing, writing and mathematics.”
A computer, Negroponte points out, is the same thing but far more powerful.
“Laptops are both a window and a tool, a window into the world and a tool with which to think,” he stated. “They are a wonderful way for all
children to learn through independent interaction and exploration.”
Ninety percent of the XO’s programming was taken from code available in the open-source community, which is one of the reasons the machine’s cost is so low.
Chris Blizzard of Red Hat Inc. served as lead software integrator on the project, and he said he doesn’t think One Laptop per Child would have been possible without the availability of open-source software.
“Open-source software has enabled more and more people to participate in IT all over the globe,” Blizzard said. “These technologies are used from San Francisco to Singapore to Mumbai because anyone can acquire and use it without permission. It’s possible that One Laptop per Child could start to move that from the back office into people’s homes.”
– Daniel Margolis, firstname.lastname@example.org