OLPC is predicated upon three basic premises:
- Learning and high-quality education for all is essential to provide a fair, equitable, economically and socially viable society;
- Access to mobile laptops on a sufficient scale provide real benefits for learning and dramatic improvement of education on a national scale;
- So long as computers remain unnecessarily expensive such potential gains remain a privilege for a select few.
By providing our most powerful tool for knowledge creation, development, and discovery to children and their teachers with sufficient time and support to enable fluency, and development, and by providing high-bandwidth connectivity to enable the development of knowledge communities, we now have the means to address seemingly intractable and critically important educational issues.
We are not merely handing down a business computer, but we designed the OLPC laptop for children, including the ability to function in difficult conditions. This means that the laptop: Provides mesh-networking capabilities to provide high-bandwidth wireless connectivity to connect home, school and community—the whole community connects to itself and the world; Is durable, robust, climate protected, and contains only safe, non-toxic materials; Consumes minimal power, thereby reducing the costs to the school and home, and enables re-charging of the batteries in sites off the electric grid; Uses free software, which not only reduces costs, but, more importantly, provides a basis for high-quality, low-cost software and content creation by everyone from everywhere. It enables all learners to see exactly how the software was created and to enter into the development communities so that they too can create software and content. While not everyone will do this, even if only 1% do, that will add upwards of 10,000 software developers per year where one-million computers are deployed. Moreover, the culture of software development and creation will spread to populations previously without access. The potential impact is enormous.
While the technical aspects create a platform for change, the real benefits will come from improved educational practice enabled by immersive access to connected laptops. Existing school practice will be enhanced through electronic access to materials, content, software, expertise, and support. Content can be updated constantly at lower cost, with the ability for teachers to select appropriate materials for local needs, particular students, and even day to day developments since these materials are available digitally on the network. The laptops also enable support for ongoing teacher professional development, peer-to-peer support, the development of communities of learners and teachers, and local content creation and sharing.
While we have witnessed significant educational gains from computer labs in schools, they have inherent limitations because of insufficient time and materials available to substantively change school theory, practice, culture, and organization. A school typically has one lab, with an average of 10 computers per lab, which a class of average size of 40 attends for one 50-minute period per week, amounting to an average of 12.5 minutes per student per computer per week. Even still educators can achieve significant results. An immersive laptop program removes such barriers to access. Rather than only having a small number of minutes per week per class, the students and teachers always have the laptops available to them and can modify their classroom practice to take advantage of their presence.
However, while computers facilitate and improve presentation of material to students, their real, unique power is as a malleable tool for construction, expression, collaboration, design, modeling, visualization, reflection, and debugging. These are the capabilities that enabled the exponential growth of knowledge in the world, and children, given opportunity, freedom, and guidance, are the most capable to take advantage of these capabilities for growth and development.
 How children learn
Educators have long recognized that children learn best when they are active, when they pursue their own interests, and when they participate in cultures of knowledge and engagement. However, until now it has been logistically impossible, except for the elites, to create such learning environments. With 1-to-1 access to connected laptops, children actively engage in knowledge construction and are not limited to passive reception of information. Each child can pursue learning in areas of strong personal interest and the classroom is not limited to a pre-determined, one-size-fits-all approach.
With connected laptops, learners are liberated to actively engage with others with similar interests in cultures of learning by doing without being limited by time or space. In this way children can learn by teaching, actively assisting other learners and thereby liberating the teacher to focus her experience and expertise where most needed. Computers also facilitate appropriation of knowledge in domains difficult to comprehend with other static, non-connected materials. Domains that involve dynamics, complexity, high levels of abstraction, micro or macro size, and more become appropriable by children through expressive uses of computers. Teachers benefit as well as not only do they get to use the laptops at home for their own learning, but the connected laptop becomes a conduit for customized professional development enabling the teachers to gain access to expertise and colleagues, to pose and respond to practical questions.
Moreover, with mobile, connected laptops the walls of the classroom open and the entire community becomes the classroom and virtually the whole world enters on demand. The children carry the classrooms and teachers of the world with them through the community and into their homes. Children can participate in the study of global issues while simultaneously using local context for understanding. They can fully participate as producers of knowledge and not just as consumers of materials produced by others.
Prior 1-to-1 laptop experiences in other countries have demonstrated tremendous gains in learning, more time spent on schoolwork, development of technological fluency, and a stronger sense of inclusion among the students. While the majority of prior experiences have been in wealthier countries, the experience in a rural community of Costa Rica in 2006 exemplifies the potential. Not only did the children go far beyond the usual curriculum, but also they learned to care for and repair their computers. The difference in how they treated and learned about their own laptops compared to the computers in the school lab was astonishing. The parents made covers to protect the laptops. The children learned to repair them so that they would not be deprived of their use. The parents entered into adult education in highly increased numbers. The teacher went from being dubious to a strong supporter after participating in the children’s gains. The greatest testimony was that families moved to this community so that their children too could get laptops and the education they enabled. (See Claudia Urrea's PhD thesis for more details.)
Connected laptops also provide a means for new models of growth. Rather than needing to rely on a centralized, standardized reform, we can develop high-quality, localized models of improved practice, and utilize the network and rich media to create mechanisms for spread. A foundation is thus created for three distinct, but overlapping, phases: enabling powerful learning in and out of school; the positive change to specific school practices; and the transformation of schools from funnels of received information to engines of knowledge construction and appropriation.
Laptops are the pencils for the digital age. The sooner we can provide high quality learning environments for all, the better and more cohesive our societies will become.