Children Provided Educational Opportunities

18 03 2009

In 2002, Nicholas Negroponte of MIT founded the One Laptop Per Child initiative. The mission of the initiative, from the OLPC Web site, is as follows:

To create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning. When children have access to this type of tool they get engaged in their own education. They learn, share, create, and collaborate. They become connected to each other, to the world and to a brighter future.

The program outlines what they call The Five Principles, which are as follows:

  1. Child Ownership – The child owns the laptop and is expected to protect it and care for it
  2. Low Ages – The laptops are designed to be first adopted by children ages 6-12
  3. Saturation – Every child should have a laptop, and nobody should be left out
  4. Connection – The laptops should always be connected, both to each other and to the Internet
  5. Free and Open Source – The laptops should use open source technologies to ensure that the experience is extensible and can grow with the child

When I first heard about this idea, I think I was in good company in being skeptical. I did not think that the manufacturing and distribution costs could possibly hit the target $100 point originally discussed, and that’s turned out to be true.  But, the project has gotten the unit cost down to $180 according to a recent CNN article, which is very impressive given the capabilities these units offer, including wireless capability and solar power.

The net cost of investing in such laptops in classroom comes sharply into focus when you consider the comparative costs of textbooks across a variety of subjects. 2005 study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups showed that the typical annual costs for textbooks at an American university are $900 per year. The cost is approximately half in Africa or the Middle East, but according to Bruce Hildebrandt of the Higher Education Association of American Publishers, those lower prices in other countries are primarily to discourage piracy, Hildebrandt says costs the textbook industry $500M to $1B annually in Asia and Africa.

Certainly elementary educational materials are less expensive than university materials on a per-student basis, but there are hundreds of millions more elementary school students worldwide. It’s a completely different scale. OLPC hits the bottom of the pyramid, not the top.

Further, textbooks can’t help students communicate with each other or peers around the world. They can’t blog, can’t connect to RSS feeds, and can’t Twitter. They can’t help a student get video-based tutorials of processes, or let them attend live streaming sessions of events around the world. And, perhaps most importantly, they can’t dynamically refresh their content when there’s an important political change in their locale or around the world. Textbooks don’t know when borders change, or when regimes change.

Some interesting and important stats from the CNN article:

  • OLPC is working actively with the Afghan government to provide laptops to girls in Afghanistan. Under the Taliban regime, girls were not allowed to attend school at all.
  • To date nearly 750,000 laptops have been distributed in countries such as Haiti, Mexico, Uruguay, and Mongolia, and according to Negroponte, that number will double by June 2009
  • In Rwanda, still recovering from the genocide in 1994, a school which received OLPC’s XO laptops went from 50% attendance to having 1,000 more students than capacity, and has students now attending on weekends

Clearly there will be further scale economies as the distribution grows, and as components naturally get less expensive and more compact. Through open-source software, the capabilities of these devices will continue to expand. The team of leaders appears top-notch, and I’m sure the stories of opportunity are just beginning to come in for this initiative.

No more skepticism. I’m in.

To get involved…

OLPC Ways to Give


Thousands of Citizens Living Peacefully

8 03 2009

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

It’s one of the 7  Habits of Highly Successful People, from the classic book by Steven R. Covey. I see the importance of that rule of thumb every day in my professional life. So often when we are engaged in debate with co-workers we so desperately want to get our point across that we can’t wait for the other person to JUST FINISH TALKING ALREADY so we can TELL THEM WHAT THEY NEED TO HEAR.

What Dr. Covey’s coaching tells us is that this is a very dangerous trap to fall into. It’s poison to professional and personal relationships, and behaving this way is a critical barrier to accomplishing anything of real significance in business, marriage, or any other setting where collaboration is needed. To be successful in these situations, it’s critical for each party to focus first on understanding the point of view of the other. This doesn’t in any way require agreement with that point of view, just a thorough understanding of it. Only then can true progress be made.

Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell are two names recently in the news who must understand this principle more than any two Americans on the planet. In their line of work, behaving in the way described above  does not just kill a business deal or threaten a marriage. In their line of work, allowing a breakdown means thousands, perhaps millions, of citizens on both sides of an armed conflict may die. 

Richard Holbrooke is a professional diplomat who was recently named by President Obama to be the Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He had previously served in as the United States Ambassador to the UN, but arguably his greatest achievement was negotiating a peace agreement in Bosnia which culminated in the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995 ending the Bosnian War. This ended the war that saw the introduction of the term “ethnic cleansing” into contemporary vernacular, and which saw the rape and murder of between 20,000 and 50,000 people between 1992 and 1995 according to estimates (see Wikipedia note). 

George Mitchell is a former Majority Leader in the United States Senate, who was also recently tapped by President Obama to be a special envoy to the Middle East. In a diplomatic context he is most well-known for leading the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland that led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. That agreement established a functional power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland as well as the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Prior to the Good Friday Agreement, the civil war between Catholic and Protestant factions in Northern Ireland had led to the deaths of more than 3,100 people through bombings and other violence that had terrorized Irish and British alike from 1968 to 1994. Recently, a police officer and two soliders were killed in Northern Ireland, allegedly by a splinter group of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), but that action was quickly condemned by Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA that is a party to the power-sharing agreement. The violence is not expected to continue, a sign of the durability of the agreement signed more than 10 years ago. 

Ambassador Holbrooke and Senator Mitchell are outstanding examples of two Americans who have given their professional lives to the cause of advancing diplomacy for the sake of lasting peace in areas of conflict. It takes a very specific and valuable skillset to be able to broker agreements of this importance and sensitivity. I wish the two of them the best of success in their new callings on behalf of the new administration. Their time and talents are certainly needed. 

To get involved…