--Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
As I heard those words uttered aloud in a live performance of Charles Dickens’ timeless classic in my little town, I felt that common pang in my gut whenever I encounter what seems an impossible problem. Hundreds of millions of children around the world want for an adequate education. In many places, we have trouble providing for their basic needs—clean water, food, shelter, clothing, security—let alone literacy. How can we give the children of the world an education if we can’t even build them schools or staff the schools we build?
Nicholas Negroponte has the answer. As the founder of One Laptop Per Child, an organization focused on “providing children around the world with new opportunities to explore, experiment and express themselves.” These opportunities center upon a low cost, low-power, weatherproof, wireless, easy-to-use laptop, which the organization hopes to one day provide to every child that needs one.
Negroponte is clear that this is an education project, not a laptop project. It’s about enabling children to connect with one another inside and outside of schools, and learn a curriculum that helps them develop the skills they will need to make their way in life. The key skill is Web literacy, which is fast becoming the most important aspect of human literacy. But the project would not be feasible without the laptop. You could not afford to send every child in the world the latest Windows-based rugged, wireless laptop. And even if you could afford to do that, these power-hungry systems would serve as door stops more often than learning tools in places where no reliable power grid exists.
As an educator, I’m as interested in the curriculum as Negroponte is (especially the intercultural aspect). But that is not the focus of this blog. The focus of this blog is to highlight how innovative technology helps to solve the big problems facing humanity on Planet Earth. In this case, I will focus on how a radical new laptop design—coming out of MIT’s Media Lab—can enable educational transformation in places where children haul water and study by candle light. And though the laptop was designed for these severe environments, it suits the needs of children who need not worry about necessities.
The first requirement for this machine—the XO Laptop--is low cost. It is designed to cost around $100, once the economies of scale allow. For now, it costs the organization around $150. Yet it is a fully functioning, practically indestructible machine, complete with Wi-Fi and mesh networking. The primary cost savings is in software. Unlike Windows systems, in which more than half the cost is in software, all the XO software is open source. Based on Linux and a host of applications created by a community of developers, most of the cost of the machine is in hardware.
The second requirement is low power. Not only does the XO consume far less power than an ordinary laptop, it comes with two means of generating power when no plug is near. It has a crank and a pull string device that enable the kids to power their own machines as they go. There are several other innovative aspects of the machine, including a really cool interface. But I won’t dwell on them now for reasons I will make clear later.
If you are still in search of a gift idea for your child, the organization has a special Give One, Get One offer through December 31. I’m confident that my son will not read this blog, so I can say I have participated in the program for his Christmas present. I look forward to working with my son as he learns the new interface and begins connecting with children all over the world through this program. As I learn the inputs and outputs of the XO laptop through his eyes, I’ll issue updates in this blog on the machine and the progress of the program.
World literacy is one of those big problems that I have always thought was impossible to solve. Now for the first time, I can see the glimmer of hope for a solution. It will take time and a lot of social and political change to make it a reality. But One Laptop Per Child is the beginning of a whole new movement. Perhaps I will live to see the generation of children who have learned literacy through this program lead the world into a new reality of peaceful coexistence. That is my Christmas wish for the world.