Angela Natividad's Live & Uncensored!

01 January 2008

One Laptop to Rule Them All

My landlord Atif has a One Laptop per Child XO, which he brought over the other day. For the next hour we sat around discussing its merits and exploring the functionalities.

The XO is a super-durable Linux-powered laptop. Its mission is to enrich the lives of children in developing nations for less than $100 per unit. (At a current retail of $200 per unit, it's a bit shy of that goal.) Atif put himself in queue for purchase the second they were available for order.

It's a pretty spiffy computer: Ten inches across, more or less, and totally weather- and childproof. It's wi-fi ready (buy one now and get a year of free HotSpot access, courtesy of T-Mobile!) and it automatically searches the area for other XOs so users can communicate with one another even if the 'net isn't otherwise available.

"Right now I'm the only XO user in Ithaca," Atif lamented. I patted his shoulder.

Other neat features: A memory game that teaches sums and spelling (multi-player-ready), a Fruity Loops-type application for making beats, audio and video recording capabilities, writing and content sharing features, a game for fledgling programmers that reminded me of Etch-a-Sketch, and a cute little app that teaches kids Python.

The laptop comes with a handful of gigabytes of memory (see it stripped down at Engadget), but you can add a great deal more with an external plug-in. (Atif took advantage of this. And to showcase its productivity, he gave us a trial sample of Paprika.)

He also installed Skype and Opera on his XO because he thinks the stock browser is crap. (I never got to look at it.) Then he pulled up The New York Times website and turned the backlight all the way down.

In high light, the XO's screen reflects text like print on paper. This makes the best use of its battery life, which ain't exactly the 10 hours promised by the founder -- clocking maybe 3 1/2 to 4 hours at most.

My first reservation with the XO was with its lack of casual usability. The kid-friendly icons and GUI are easy enough to navigate if you have the time and willingness to learn them, but parents buying the unit just to get their kids a laptop will be unpleasantly surprised. It's not exactly Windows XP, which is what most people are used to using.

Atif acknowledged the usability issue but pointed out the laptop is for improving the educations of kids in developing countries. "They'll have lots of time to learn its feature set. What else will they be doing all day?" he kidded.

But this poses another challenge. I don't get how OLPC proposes to improve the education system with these machines. It's wildly educational if you want to learn coding as a hobby, but how will it help teach kids history or pre-algebra?

Atif tied the logic to textbooks. He explained that textbook companies don't stand to make much money from Second or Third World institutions, so they provide schools with material for little cost. Naturally, it burns money to print a textbook for each student, so if they can save there, all the better.

If the contents of a textbook are USB-accessible, Atif argues, it would cost publishers less than printing books for schools who can't pay for them anyway. Students can learn from their XOs, which will also help the laptops pay for themselves.

That sounds pleasant and all, but I just don't see textbook companies doing that.

I'm thinking back to my 600-page AP Chemistry book from high school. Did it really need that gloriously glossy hardback cover, or all those deliciously slick blinding-white photo-quality pages?

And was the supplementary DVD necessary? Nobody never watched it.

The books were, in fact, so expensive that we weren't even allowed to take them home overnight.

Spending money lavishly on textbooks, even crap textbooks, justifies the existence of a textbook publishing firm. If children in developing countries can get complete texts in a little USB stick, plusher countries will go, "Why can't we?"

Think of it: No more lugging heavy books around, and no more high-cost print publishing on yards and yards of glossy paper. We'd really only need to pay for the content.

With that said, it won't be long before some stingy educator goes, "Why buy textbooks through Macmillan/McGraw-Hill at all? We can go straight to established authors and license the content directly."

It won't be long before all this comes to pass anyway. But with the little time they've got left before obsolescence yawns open and swallows their business model, I doubt textbook companies will put their precious data on a memory stick -- for starving kids or anybody else -- out of the kindness of their hearts, and certainly not as a replacement for a real-live book.

It would be innovative, it would be forward-thinking, hell -- it would be learning from the mistake of the newspaper industry when the internet flew into its face -- but it would also be perceived as boardroom suicide.

I'm willing to be wrong on this one, though.


Olivier said...

I'm not sure what you mean by "Third World." Real "Third World" countries are mostly in sub-Saharan African countries these days and have way bigger problems than not having computers for kids, such as scarce drinkable water or a high number of orphans because of ongoing guerrillas and diseases. One teacher per classroom is a more pressing matter than one laptop per child in these countries.

Now if you're talking about "emerging" countries (what I'd call the Second World), they have everything you find in the US or Western Europe, only it's much less broadly distributed because you have much thinner middle classes. The rich in, say, Brazil, have access to world-class pretty much everything. As a matter of example, kids in the private school my daughter is attending in Chile all have a wifi laptop starting at age 13. It's a more digital school than most even in Western countries, but at 450 USD/mo, not all Chilean parents can afford that kind of school by far (for scale it's 150% of the minimal wage). However, many Chilean kids have access to cheap internet cafes so not being able to afford a PC doesn't mean you never get to use one.

Arguably "bit literacy" would be a helpful skill to get more poor children out of poverty, though you have to wonder whether more basic skills are properly taught as is. My Chilean housekeeper reads the newspaper everyday but she recently had to use her cell phone to get the result of (2x410) + (2x300), which I would argue is arithmetic 101. The question Negroponte didn't address properly is, is this the best use of the funds for these schools, as opposed to say, better teacher training, or better facilities, or free meals at school. Even in upper Second World countries such as Portugal some schools close for lack of heating when winters happen to be harsher than usual. I'd argue that keeping them open and heated would be more of a priority than OLPC.

Say, it's Angela Natividad! said...


Point made about the definition of "Third World." I've made the changes. (Homie, do you ever switch off?)

No matter what kind of product you're talking about (PCs, SAT prep courses, crack-cocaine), it's relatively easy to say some people have more access to them than others, but that the latter isn't barred from them entirely. It's a matter of ease, frequency of access and familiarity with the resource.

My wish is that Negroponte be frank about what he's doing. There are myriad merits to making personal computers more available to children who might otherwise have to go out of their way to use one. He doesn't have to behave like that's a banal goal in and of itself.

But to propose to be improving education from within the system? That's a tall order, and there's no end to the source of the existing system's problems. Teachers need better training. Class sizes could be smaller. We could always use better resources. And yeah -- perhaps the simplest way to tackle the educational system, if that's your goal, is to install heating.

Bringing laptops into schools are generally a result of teaching methods changing with the times, not the source. One cannot improve an education system if one's "improvements" demand a fundamental leap in methodology that no one is actually trained to administer.