What’s special about the One Laptop per Child XO (http://laptop.org/en/laptop/) computer is that it is designed for children in third-world countries. The XO is a very impressive piece of consumer electronics engineering. It includes a number of breakthrough implementations: low power consumption, a display that’s easy to read in the sunlight, a built-in camera and microphone, a flash disk, child-friendly user interface and applications, and mesh networking – each laptop acts as a wireless network router as well as receiver.
I ordered my OLPC computer using the Give One/Get One program. For $399, you receive one XO laptop for yourself and sponsor one for a child somewhere in the developing world. Mine arrived before Christmas. It would have been great to know where the “sponsored” one went and when it arrived.
My goal: test the XO laptop to see whether it might be useful for the Girls’ School (http://urdt.net/girlsSchool.html) in Kagadi, Uganda – where 240 girls (8 to 17 years old) from low-income, rural households participate in a unique, successful, and proven educational program. Their co-curriculum includes the approved national curriculum plus applied courses in organic farming, appropriate technologies (solar, computers, internet, water treatment, sanitation, etc.), radio programming, journalism, drama, music, gender/sex education, and visionary leadership training. The curriculum also incorporates a two-generation approach – students empower their parents with the skills they learn and, through “back home” projects, work with their families to improve their family’s living conditions and increase their incomes. This seems to me to be an ideal application for these hardy, laptop computers that the students could use on campus and take home with them to enrich and empower their communities.
How did it do?
THE PROS. My XO laptop worked fine out of the box, connecting to WiFi easily. The basic start-up guide was sufficient to get it up and working. The starter set of applications include a basic word processing program, calculator, drawing, music synthesis and composition, journal, programming environment (Python), and a couple of simple measurement and analytics applications. You can flip the screen around to lie flat as an e-book, or upright. The display is crisp. The keyboard works, although the keys are designed for small fingers.
I was impressed enough with the functionality and robustness to send my XO off to the principal of the Girls’ School in Kagadi. My hope is that he’ll be able to test it with his students and teachers and determine whether it would make sense to put some of the Girls’ School’s unique curriculum on it. Handing laptops out to kids works best, in my opinion, if the teachers are involved in shaping and directing at least some of the kids’ activities. Of course, the kids will experiment, explore and create new things on their own without the need for adult guidance. In addition to acceptance testing and curriculum development, before these laptops could be deployed at the Girls’ School, they’d also need to install parental controls over the Web sites kids could visit and the material they could download.
THE CONS. The current OLPC software does not include printing! And there is no users’ guide that comes in the box with the computer. Although you can go online to access a users’ manual in PDF form, as well as a Wiki and discussion forums, you can’t print anything that you download or create from the laptop. Instead, you need to have a thumb drive, transfer any files you want to print to it (in RTF or PDF) and print from another computer (assuming you have one). The OLPC team promises that printer drivers will be available soon. Without printing capability, these laptops are definitely not ready for prime time.
Monitoring the user discussion boards over the holidays, I noticed that a number of parents bought these laptops to give to their kids, and the kids were disappointed. I suspect there are a couple of reasons. In addition to the lack of printing and reports of malfunctioning cameras, the rest of the applications are pretty basic for American kids. If you enjoy surfing the Web, it’s fine for that purpose, but it doesn’t include many of the games and other applications that Western kids would want and need. So, I don’t recommend it for kids in developed countries – those who have many other options from which to choose.
The Connectivity Question: Although the XO is very adept at finding a WiFi Internet network and connecting to it easily, the cost of accessing the Internet in most third-world countries is very high. For example, on the Girls’ School campus, it costs $800/month to provide medium bandwidth connectivity for 24 computers. As we add WiFi, the network slows down and/or the costs increase beyond what’s affordable. So anyone considering donating computers to schools in developing countries should also be willing to finance the relatively higher costs of Internet connectivity in these locations. Perhaps Nicholas Negroponte could use some of his proselytizing skills to convince governments to mandate lower costs for Internet provisioning in their countries. The fact that it costs 4 to 5 times more to get online in a developing country than in a developed country continues to disenfranchise people in the third world. Low-cost Internet and mobile phone networks should be right at the top of the priority list along with clean drinking water and passable roads.
The Operating System Question: The OLPC XO is a Linux machine with open source applications. What would be even more useful would be a machine that enabled kids to run any operating system: Mac, Linux, or Windows/Vista. For example, our Girls’ School is part of a larger educational institution—Uganda Rural Development and Training Programme (http://urdt.net). On the campus there’s a Vocational Institute, a Women’s’ University, and extension programs serving about 3 million people in rural western Uganda. There are other computers on campus—all of them currently running Windows and Windows applications. Providing technical support for two different operating systems may be a lot to expect.
As laptop prices decline and, battery life and power efficiency increase, the good news is that there will be more and more viable options becoming available in the “under $200” range. Nicholas Negroponte’s public spat with Intel may have spurred acrimony, but it’s probably healthy to have a number of companies targeting the third world as a market for low-cost computers.
Linux/OLPC Is a Good Bet. For now, the rugged, child-friendly and eco-friendly $200 XO seems to me to have a lot of advantages for kids in developing countries. It will be fascinating to see what applications these kids and their teachers develop over the next year or so.