In 2005, MIT Professor Nicholas Negroponte unveiled a project to supply inexpensive laptops to children in the developing world. One Laptop per Child (OLPC) gained a lot of initial support, with backers that included Google, eBay, Red Hat, Quanta, as well as the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
The concept was straightforward: Children in developing nations lag far behind the rest of the world when it comes to technology. Providing every child with an inexpensive laptop may help to bridge the digital divide. Two current case studies, one in Uruguay and the other in Ethiopia, offer a glimpse into the benefits and challenges to this strategy.
Since it began shipping in 2007, OLPC has managed to distribute over 3 million laptops to children in 40 countries. In 2009, Uruguay became the first country to supply all primary school-age children with their XO-model laptop — a design that has won recognition for being inexpensive, energy-efficient, and fully recyclable. Today, Uruguay has over half a million XO-series laptops, due in part to the devices being selected for the ambitious Plan Ceibal Internet connectivity government initiative that was actually inspired by OLPC’s mission. Because of Plan Ceibal, almost all schools throughout the country have Internet access today and the implementation of outdoor connectivity in public spaces is underway.
On the face of it, providing free laptops to children and making sure they are wired to the Internet seems like a sensible step. Yet problems have cropped up, including issues with reliability, and teachers who are insufficiently trained in using the laptops and integrating them into lesson plans. Fortunately, Plan Ceibal tracks this well (http://www.ceibal.org.uy/), and is diversifying by introducing a robotics program as well as developing remote English-language learning programs. More broadly, a separate fiber-to-home initiative is now in place that is devoted to bringing affordable broadband access to all of Uruguay. Indeed, the country is now becoming known for what is likely to be its first wave of gaming start-ups, such as Ironhide Game Studio in Montevideo. Within the next five to ten years, a second wave of startups will likely emerge to reveal the true impact of Plan Ceibal.
While Uruguay is well on its way to becoming one of the first if not the first wired Latin American country, the rest of the world has over 100 million six-year-olds with no access to schooling. In 2012, OLPC embarked on an experiment guaranteed to excite some and turn off others. The goal was to target rural locations — in this case, two villages in Ethiopia — where all the inhabitants were illiterate, give all the children tablet computers with programs already loaded, and see what happens. No teacher, no other adults to help other than to show how to use the solar charging setup on the Motorola Xoom they received.
Researchers dropped off the tablets in early 2012, and would show up weekly to swap memory cards so as to track the children’s progress. Within minutes of opening the box, one child found the on/off switch and powered up. After five days, each child was using close to 50 apps. One week later, they were singing the ABC song, and after five months, they had hacked Android. The hack was a workaround for the desktop settings — frozen by OLPC’s technicians — so that each kid could have their own unique tablet.
Granted, this a potentially radical approach to schooling in remote areas populated by illiterate people. Yet, some would not call it “schooling” at all but an experiment on a population that has no guidance or mentorship present. They bemoan the substitution of teachers by tablets and feel that the Ethiopia could become just another dumping ground for good intentions. As it stands, the Ethiopian Ministry of Education, which worked closely with OLPC to explain the project to the adults in the village and get their support, endorsed this project. They are willing to take a wait-and-see approach.
So how do we best serve children when the technology is available to introduce them to a broad spectrum of information and ideas? Does a teacher’s participation offer a vital context to what a child is learning that digital tools cannot? Perhaps there is a legitimate concern that as a society we throw technology at things we are trying to solve and education is just one more thing to be solved. Maybe. But for now, we should give OLPC the benefit of the doubt. Far from dumping on either Uruguay or Ethiopia, they are trying to make a path to learning that has been unavailable to disadvantaged populations.