Bake-offs

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Nicholas Negroponte detests bake-offs, that is, head-to-head comparisons and trials of XOs vs. any other "school" computer. But the real world doesn't conform to our desires. Illinois, for example, is considering a bill to allow up to 300 schools to choose any under $400 laptop for a large two-year pilot project, and to evaluate the results.

Questions to ask vendors

There are many questions that a prospective buyer might ask about school computers, depending on background and interest. Certain questions are natural to a questioner who knows about personal computers, conventional education, and government procurement. For example:

  • What's the biggest computer we can get for the money? This focuses attention on processor speed, hard drive capacity, and the like. In government procurement, there is a desire to spend all of the available money because next year's budget will be reduced if this year's budget is not fully used.
  • Does it run "industry-standard" software? This is supposed to mean, "Will our students be prepared for the software they will use on the job after they graduate?" Since software changes significantly every few years, this is actually irrelevant to elementary school purchase decisions. Think of the children who entered school in the 1980s, and are now in their 20s. In 1983 the choices were the Apple II and PC-DOS. When they graduated in the 1990s, the choices in the market were Macintosh and Windows, except for those few engineers using Sun and other Unix workstations. What will be the market share of Macs, Windows, and Linux in 2020, when current kindergarteners graduate from high school? Well, if several hundred million XOs are in use by then, Linux will be way ahead of the Mac. If Windows Vista turns out to be "the world's longest suicide note" as some say, where will Microsoft be? Who knows? But we do know that essentially all Free/Open Source software will run on Windows.
  • Do these laptops improve test scores? Where there were previously no textbooks at all, certainly. In the developed countries, we think so.

There are less obvious questions:

  • Which computer has the lowest cost? Well, the XO, of course, particularly if someone wants to teach proprietary software on Windows beyond what comes pre-installed. Other costs of wireless infrastructure, training and the like will be comparable for all computers.
  • Which computer will stand up best to use by children? The XO is notably rugged, except that we have found that some children will peel keycaps off the keyboard. It still works, though.
  • Which computer has the lowest power consumption and the longest battery life? The XO was designed for environments without regular electricity service. Battery life is up to 3 hours for computing with the backlight on, but is said to be 18 hours with the backlight off in book-reading mode with the latest development software. YMMV.
  • Which computer is best for non-English-speaking students? This is critically important in bilingual education in the US. The XO minimizes the use of text in the user interface, and OLPC aims to make the software as discoverable as possible to minimize the need for documentation. This greatly reduces the language burden for the children and for the localization teams. Any community is welcome to localize XO software to their language and culture.
  • Which computer has the lowest environmental impact? The XO has the IEEE EPEAT Gold certification.
  • Which computer provides the best tools, so that children can learn by doing? Laptops may include hardware features for measurement (as the XO does), and software features like a spreadsheet (which the XO does not).

So you can see that the results of a side-by-side comparison can be decided by the set of questions asked. That means that we have to educate prospective purchasers on these distinctions.

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