Digital magic for millions: Will cheap laptops create active learners or “green box” slaves?

TUNIS, Tunisia – Justin Mupinda hurried up to the crowded stall at the Tunis World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). “I want to see this device with my own eyes,” he said. He was among the thousands at WSIS who were curious about what was fast emerging as the biggest technology story of the event — a laptop that costs only $100.

The laptop — hailed by its developers as a technological breakthrough — was proudly displayed at the UN Development Program stand, with the slogan “One laptop per child.”

“I like it,” said Mupinda, a Zimbabwean IT expert and country coordinator for WorldLink, an organization campaigning to bring a million personal computers to schools in Africa. “It’s a good start toward getting more youths using ICTs” (individual computer terminals).

Digital magic cheap Laptops

Mupinda’s enthusiasm is shared by many people eager to bridge the digital divide between poor and rich countries. “Our university has 25,000 students and it would be wonderful if all of them could have laptops to access the Internet,” said Alain Capo Chichi, manager of Cerco, an education project in Benin.

In Tunis, journalists covering the launch of the $100 laptop, developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), frequently used the word “magic” in their questions about the device. And indeed, to many it seemed nothing short of magical. Not only is the green-cased notebook-size laptop incredibly cheap, it also has wireless connectivity and a hand crank allowing it to operate without electricity.

“We are quick and we have very good relations with MIT,” Thailand’s ambassador to Geneva said with a smile as he inspected the laptop for the first time. Thailand, Brazil, Nigeria, and Egypt are lined up to be the first four recipients early next year.

Nicholas Negroponte, chairman and co-founder of the Media Lab at MIT, and leader of the team that developed the laptop, said learning environments have been transformed through the use of laptops, as students become more engaged in class. Nearly three-quarters of students surveyed by a U.S. project said they earned better grades by working on laptops, and a similar number said they enjoyed writing more on laptops than on paper.

“It’s the single most dramatic thing I’ve seen affect the classroom in a very positive way,” a Florida school administrator was quoted as saying in a press release. At the launch, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan added, “These robust, versatile machines will enable children to become more active in their own learning.”

The aim is to provide the machines free of charge to children in poor countries who cannot afford computers of their own, said Negroponte. The laptops will be paid for by governments, private corporations, and donors.

Around the world, there are roughly one billion children of primary and secondary school age. International production of laptops is just below 50 million units. The U.S.-based One Laptop per Child association, a non-profit that will manufacture the laptops, said its mission is to spread learning rather than sales. Profit margins would translate into more research and lower costs.

Reactions in Tunis ranged from the overexcited to the doubtful. “Everybody likes it because it’s cheap,” said Sanjaa Ganbaatar-Ceo, president of the Internet Service Providers’ Association of Mongolia, a country that is trying to build a $250 personal computer. But Ganbaatar-Ceo is disappointed because the minimum order for the laptop is half a million sets. With population of 2.5 million, Mongolia doesn’t have enough children to place an order, he said.

“It has not been mass-produced yet so I don’t know if it will really work,” said Mabrook Chouk, a Tunisian businessman. And Subbiah Arunachalam, a grassroots information scientist from India, noted that there were several problems associated with the laptop. He pointed to hidden costs: “Who will deliver these laptops? How many poor countries have got that kind of extensive distribution network? And who will repair them if something goes wrong?”

Content may prove to be another difficult area. Alan Kay, the man who invented the laptop, said U.S. materials will accompany them, together with homegrown content. This, experts said, could cause concern in some countries. “The laptop is just the first small thing to be done,” said Key. “It is harder to set up content.”

Negroponte remarked that component suppliers will make profits from the project, and it would also be a good marketing opportunity for the project sponsor, Google. For poor children in developing countries, their “first English word will be ‘Google’,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Washington Post. On the other hand, Negroponte points out that the laptop can be used in any local language and that countries should start thinking about making textbooks available on the web.

“With this laptop, kids can write their poems or stories and share them on the web,” said Justin Mupinda.

By 2007, five to ten million of these laptops will have been shipped to developing countries. By the year after that, the number is expected to have grown ten-fold. What is not known is whether this project will mark a new phase in the spread of knowledge, or whether hundreds of millions of children will become slaves to their little green boxes instead of playing in the backyard.

Tran Le Thuy is correspondent for the Saigon Times Group (Vietnam). This article was provided by Panos London.

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