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




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