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Why a laptop for learning?

The argument for one laptop per child is simple: many children—especially those in rural parts of developing countries—have so little access to school—in some cases just a tree—that building schools and training teachers is only one way—perhaps the slowest way—to alleviate the situation. While such building programs and teacher education must not stop, another and parallel method is to leverage children themselves by engaging them more directly in their own learning. It may sound implausible to equip the poorest children with connected laptops when rich children may not have them, but it is not. Laptops can be affordable and children are more capable than they are given credit for.

Once upon a time only the very adventurous could travel and only a few privileged individuals had access to knowledge. Technologies like the compass, paper, and printing changed the world by expanding these limits. Today there is the opportunity for Ethiopia to revolutionize knowledge once more, by participating in a revolutionary use of digital technology that will empower school children to explore the most distant places and to access knowledge on an unprecedented scale.

Throughout the world, computing and communications technologies are sparking a new entrepreneurial spirit, the creation of innovative products and services, and increased productivity. The importance of a well-educated, creative citizenry has never been greater.

Most people see a natural connection between computers and education. Computers enable us to transmit, access, represent, and manipulate information in many new ways. But they can do much more than that. They can move beyond static information-centric views of computing and learning by taking full advantage of new computational technologies, such as those in the One Laptop per Child (olpc) program. These will enable students and their teachers to become better learners and thinkers.

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Why is the concept of one laptop per child the most promising approach for delivering the needed changes in education and social equity?

The computer is the most powerful learning tool yet invented. The growth of knowledge in the world enabled by the computer is unprecedented. The use of computers for expression, construction, modeling reflection, and discussion enables these dramatic improvements. Seymour Papert of OLPC and MIT changed how the world viewed the capabilities of children, and how computers could revolutionize learning. Papert and his colleagues transformed the role of computers in education from a presentation device to a creative tool for the development of critical thinking. Concepts considered out of the reach of children were proven to be attainable. Learning has been enhanced through immersive access to computers, not only in mathematics and science, but in every discipline, including basic literacy, reading, writing, music, and the arts.

Innovative educators around the world have adapted and further developed creative approaches to learning with computation and have proven that these incredible learning results are not limited to the elite. To the contrary, countless examples have illustrated how children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds as well as those who have not succeeded in traditional educational environments are able to develop to their full potential with such approaches. These children lack opportunity, not capability.

We can certainly achieve basic improvement merely through inclusion and bringing connectivity to children. We can achieve a mega-improvement by re-thinking activity, content, and collaboration. We can achieve basic improvement by giving access to traditional content to all. We can achieve mega-improvement by re-designing our educational processes and re-structuring the disciplines.

There are literally thousands of examples of using computers for such mega-improvement in learning. What has limited change to the overall system has been the high cost of computers that limited access, one consequence of which was the advent of the computer lab. The problem has not been the computer: the problem has been not having enough computers and administrative imagination.

Why do children in developing nations need laptops?

Laptops are both a window and a tool: a window into the world and a tool with which to think. They are a wonderful way for all children to learn learning through independent interaction and exploration.

What is the alternative for education? The laptop is cheaper than two or three ordinary textbooks, but provides access to the entire wealth of information on the Internet. This is for children who cannot walk to a library, and are out of range of any kind of television, educational, commercial, or otherwise.

Is this project really about getting computers to kids?

The answer is an unequivocal yes! But it doesn't stop there. We also want to get millions of textbooks to kids and give them an excellent education as well. This is an education project, not a laptop project.

Why computers for children when they have other, more pressing needs?

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a good place from which to start the discussion. Clearly if a child is starving, we should feed him; if he is thirsty, we should give him clean water; if he is in the midst of war, we should try to bring him peace. However, most children have their basic physiological and safety needs met. (And where these needs are not being met, there are numerous agencies trying to meet these needs. One could make the argument that giving children and their families access to learning will in part help alleviate these basic needs as well.)

Moving up Maslow's hierarchy, we assert that learning is critical to "belonging," "esteem," and most important, "self-actuation." The long-term development of the "developing" world is incumbent upon education. A connected laptop is a catalyst or agency for enabling children everywhere to lift themselves out from under the burden of ignorance. The status quo is failing too many children.

It should be mentioned that a common criticism of the project is to say, "What poor people need is food and shelter, not laptops." This comment, however, is ignorant of conditions in improvished nations around the world. While it is true there are many people in the world who definitely need food and shelter, there are multitudes of people who live in rural or sub-urban areas and have plenty to eat and reasonable accommodations. What these people don't have is a decent shot at a good education.
In Canada for many years, the Unitarian Service Committee ran public service announcements on television soliciting donations to help feed hungry people in the Third World. The slogan of these commercials was Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. The OLPC project follows this philosophy that you can feed more people, more effectively by providing effective educational tools to the people. This is based on the experience of Bangladesh's Grameen Bank and similar Third World investment projects. The OLPC project is really a special type of microfinance project that supplies a tool rather than cash.
In one instance, a poor Bangladeshi villager borrowed enough money to purchase a mobile phone. He sold phone-calling services in his village for a fee. This was the first time that villagers had access to a telephone at any price. They quickly realized that they could offset the cost of using his phone by phoning to nearby towns to find out where their produce could get the best price. This gave them a higher earning ability, which led to better life all round for their family. The extra money that they earned was partly spent inside the village further increasing other villagers quality of life.
These events were repeated a thousand fold as Grameen Bank loaned money for mobile phone purchases in villages across the country. The OLPC is expected to have a similar multiplier effect by increasing the educational level of disadvantaged people which will, in turn, increase the number of teachers available to the next generation.

Isn't this project just a techno-Utopian dream? A band aid when more serious surgery needs to be done?

Neither band aids nor serious surgery work. What is needed is evolutionary, done in fast time. The basic assumption is that education is at the root of any solution.

On the other hand, they say, "those that can't do, teach." As you're probably realizing, education is our primary goal.

Isn't food for children a higher priority?

Shouldn't we be making sure that there is at least one meal per child rather than one laptop?

There are numerous organizations that have combating hunger as their priority—perhaps most notably the World Food Program—you are free to contribute to their cause; we consider education to also be a very important cause.
I'm all for it! But what about drinking water? That too! And medicines? No doubt! Shelter? Peace? Love? Education? We is a lot of people (sometimes, the whole 6.5 billion)... much in the same way that specific organizations try to bring medicine to the dispossessed (ie: Medecins sans frontieres), or fight for their human rights (ie: Amnesty International), provide better feeding and agriculture technologies (or emergency rations) (ie: FAO / UN), and education (ie: UNESCO), the OLPC is trying to get this 'simple gadget' (a full-blown laptop) into the hands of kids for them to learn, communicate, interact, and many other things...
Not one of the aforementioned organizations can make a better world by itself, each one is needed in their domain of expertise and competence. So let the specialized organizations do what they are good for: battle the odds to make a better world in their 'little' areas of competence. They are all needed, in an interconnected set of efforts that together they stand, divided they fail... (I know, it should read 'fall', but in development issues, it usually and nonchalantly fails).--Xavi 12:27, 5 January 2007 (EST)
Can we look at them as two approaches to solve short-term and long-term problems of the developing world? Giving basic needs to the poor and needy in the 3rd World = helping them with their immediate needs while giving them OLPCs = investing in a better future for them and their societies. While I agree with Maslow's hierarchy of needs we must also realize that teaching IT to children in the 3rd World countries is equally important so that hopefully one day they can use that knowledge/skills to get out of poverty and hunger. --JK

Why a laptop?

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What is the $100 Laptop, really?

The proposed $100 machine—we hope with mass production that over time the price for each laptop will drop to $100 USD—is an innovative hardware design, based on Linux, with a dual-mode display—both a full-color transmissive mode and a black and white reflective mode (sunlight-readable at 3× the resolution). The laptops have a 433 Mhz processor and 256MB of DRAM, with 1GB of NAND flash memory (there is no hard disk). There are three USB ports and one SD card slot for expansion. The laptops have wireless broadband that allow them to work with a standard access point or as a mesh network—each laptop is able to talk to its nearest neighbors, creating an ad hoc, local-area network. This is a special low-power, extended range wifi with its own CPU that allows data transmission to continue while the main CPU is idle. The laptops use a wide range of DC power inputs (including wind-up and solar).

Why not a desktop computer, or—even better—a recycled desktop machine?

Desktops are cheaper, but mobility is important, especially with regard to taking the computer home at night. Kids in the developing world need the newest technology, especially really rugged hardware and innovative software. Recent work with schools in Maine has shown the huge value of using a laptop across all of one's studies, as well as for play. Bringing the laptop home engages the family. In one Cambodian village where we have been working, there is no electricity, thus the laptop is, among other things, the brightest light source in the home.

Regarding recycled machines: if we estimate 100 million available used desktops, and each one requires only one hour of human attention to refurbish, reload, and handle, that is tens of thousands of work years. Thus, while we definitely encourage the recycling of used computers, it is not the solution for One Laptop per Child.

Why is it important for each child to have a computer? What's wrong with community-access centers?

One does not think of community pencils-kids have their own. They are tools to think with, sufficiently inexpensive to be used for work and play, drawing, writing, and mathematics. A computer can be the same, but far more powerful. Furthermore, there are many reasons it is important for a child to own something—like a football, doll, or book—not the least of which being that these belongings will be well-maintained through love and care.

Why not a cell phone?

Why can't it be a phone, a lamp, a radio or whatever too? All this could be added very cheaply, and features like the swivel screen seem such a distraction compared to such basics. Cellphone technology would also enable this to be networked over much larger distances.

A phone, a lamp, or a radio doesn't make a great learning tool like a laptop does. Cellphones have limited capabilities like the screensize, lack of full-size keyboard, costly air times, data storage, etc. A radio doesn't allow interactive learning like a laptop does. A lamp is a necessity but with the LCD screen in the laptop the child will be able to read and do his homework in dark. OLPC project isn't about providing them with life's basic necessities, it's about giving children a great tool for education so that they can learn skills to end poverty and hunger in their communities in future.

Indeed the idea of this as a laptop is a bit limiting. The OLPC project has put a considerable effort into making this much more than a laptop. If a student wants to use it as a lamp, they can because they are the producers of the electricity required. If they want to communicate with their friends, not only can they send text messages and SVG drawings, they can also record messages and share activities that they have programmed. This is far more flexible than existing cellular phones. The main thing missing is the long-range communications ability of cellular, but since that comes with a very steep fee per minute of use, it won't be missed. Because the OLPC laptop is an open system, it will allow people to build low-cost cellular bypass systems like Motoman.--Memracom 05:21, 13 January 2007 (EST)

Why not a thin-client?

While it may be possible to build a thin-client system more cheaply than a laptop, there are many problems with that approach, not the least of which is that it restricts the use of computing to a classroom setting, precluding the opportunity for learning in vivo and it greatly restricts the reach of computing to the family and community.


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What are the key elements for success?

  • Saturation (1-to-1 access for all children and teachers);
  • Ubiquitous connectivity;
  • Mobility;
  • Immediate scale;
  • Free and open software and content.


Adults with their own laptop computers would never want to return to a world where they have no computer or have to share intermittent access. This is because of the wide-ranging utility of computers. Computers have not totally transformed learning, yet, not because they are not valuable but because critical mass has not been achieved. With at best, one computer lab per school, with 10 computers for 40 children who attend the lab once a week for 50 minutes, on average a child has 12.5 minutes of access per week. Children love the time, but this is insufficient to transform learning.

The computer lab winds up as a place for peripheral activity: the teaching of IT skills and browsing. It brings value, but it is insufficient to change the way children learn mathematics, science, history (or any subject). When all children have laptops at all times, learning can be active, customized, collaborative, and creative, taking advantage of the protean power of the computer.

Ubiquitous Connectivity

The learning life of children is not limited to the classroom. Children with 24-hour access to connected laptops learn not only with their classmates, but they and their classmates learn with others around their community, around their country, or around the world. Connectivity through mesh networking brings learning home to the family. In our laptop project in Costa Rica, not only did families move into the rural community so that their children could benefit, the vast majority of parents entered adult education. Children taught their parents and grandparents computer use and these elders worked with the children on their mutual interests. Families and communities moved closer together, to the benefit of the emerging learning culture.


Rather than being forced to create de-contextualized and abstract situations to learn, the whole world becomes the classroom and learning lab.


Prior efforts towards change were effective, but only at a small scale. Universities, companies, and NGOs did not create content, activities, applications, and services because critical mass did not exist. Tools for creation were limited to a few. With large-scale access to laptops and connectivity, all those included can create content, share and collaborate, and truly learn to learn. It is also only at scale that the culture of learning can change.

Free and Open

Open and free access to software and content are also key to scale and high quality. Without these elements, the ability to share and collaborate is greatly diminished. Further, computation affords the opportunity for children to appropriate, transform, and use knowledge. The web grew exponentially as people everywhere were able to create their own web-based content and applications. Since people were free to see what others created; they were free to appropriate and modify that work and make it their own. Content for learning will also grow exponentially when enabled by such appropriation. 2.Where can we find more information about previous experiments and test cases that prove the validity of the pedagogy?

All the elements for success—powerful learning by all, incredible progress in education in developing countries, 1-to-1 access to laptops, community-based initiatives—have already been demonstrated. One laptop per child puts them all together.

Mega-improvement in learning with computers has a long and documented history starting with Papert, best expressed in his book Mindstorms, but also demonstrated in 40 years of books, papers, reports, and articles from educators around the world. Perhaps the best example of the 1-to-1 use of laptops is in Australia; this is described in Transforming Learning: An Anthology of Miracles in Technology-Rich Classrooms, edited by Jenny Little and Bruce Dixon (See also http://www.techlearning.com/db_area/archives/TL/012001/australia.php).

Professor Michael Russell of Boston College has also documented the superiority of 1-to-1 access where children bring laptops home over both conventional classrooms and classrooms with 1-to-1 access where the laptops remain in school.

Previous Experiments

In 1983, Seymour Papert and Nicholas Negroponte did a computer immersion program in a school in Senegal; while this was not a laptop program, it was one of the early attempts to explore the merits of computing and learning in the developing world—a harbinger of what was to come.

In 1989 the Methodist Ladies College in Melbourne, Australia began requiring all incoming students from the fifth to twelfth grades to arrive with their own laptops.

The U.S. State of Maine where the state legislature four-years ago began issuing all middle school students their own permanent laptops. An estimated 1000 U.S. school districts have followed Maine’s example.

There are two similar programs currently underway in France, including one in Marseilles, the nation's second-largest city, and another in a poor town with enormous ethnic and cultural diversity.

Comprehensive report on previous experiments

The most extensive study to date, a four-year investigation of 50 schools across the U.S. conducted by Saul Rockman, a widely-respected educational consultant, ratifies the constructionist theories of Papert that underpin the One Laptop per Child philosophy. Among Rockman's key findings:

Learning environments are transformed:

  • Educators involved in laptop programs … promote collaborative learning and … provide individualized instruction;
    • students and teachers move around more. Instead of staying put to do “seat work”, students gather to work on projects;
    • (this) frees teachers to roam about the room helping those who have problems or need remediation;
    • learning in laptop classrooms is often more self-directed.

Assessment techniques change:

  • Teachers in laptop classrooms are more willing to assign presentations and multimedia projects to students, and score them using customized, project-driven rubrics and even self-assessments.

Students are highly engaged: Like teachers, students also show improved technology skills and sophistication. Productivity increase: Students develop better organizational skills because they are needed to keep track of what's on their computer and to accomplish complex project work in a timely manner. Attitudes toward writing improve:

  • 76% of students said they enjoy writing more on the laptops than on paper;
  • 80% indicated laptops make it easier to rewrite and revise their writing;
  • 73% said they earn better grades for laptop work;

The data demonstrate shifts in not only students' writing attitudes, but also in their practices. These are changes we've also observed in language arts teachers' writing instruction strategies, and in the attitudes and practices of other content area teachers.

How can we best prepare our teachers to make the most use of this initiative?

Connected laptops enable new approaches to teacher preparation beyond standardized, centralized, hierarchical approaches. We can create pockets of excellence, connected communities of practice, strong exemplars of powerful learning activities, new content, and mechanisms for the spread of ideas. A significant impact of OLPC will be the degree to which connectivity affords support to the teachers. Typical “training” efforts have been limited by the amount of time and the degree of access to the teachers in order to support their ongoing development. Because OLPC ensures that teachers will have their own laptops and high-bandwidth connectivity, we have a means of supporting them that previously did not exist. Teachers, parents, and concerned experts can join in to create new learning networks to improve educational thinking and practices.

We certainly don't need to train children how to use the laptop. Likewise, approaches that infantilize teachers, or do not respect them or believe in their capabilities, or only focus on teaching IT skills and office tools, have proven to have limited impact on education despite the investment of millions of dollars. The point is not to have teachers re-create the same lessons in PowerPoint. The point is to help them learn using technology and reflect on this learning. We need to engage them in those learning methodologies that are enhanced by connected laptops: the design and construction of personally meaningful objects using a variety of computational and traditional materials—a more diversified, humanistic, holistic approach to learning than previously was logistically possible. This process is ultimately liberating.

What are the metrics by which we should evaluate the impact of OLPC?

Any evaluation metric must appreciate the importance of “knowledge capital” and that cognitive skills are “more-powerful predictors of economic development than the average number of years of formal education.” If we shift the primary focus to the development of knowledge capital and creating mechanisms for organic growth and development, and use existing metrics such as years in school and test scores as secondary, then it leads to different ideas for how to proceed in regard to evaluation.

Examples of increased knowledge capital from laptop programs abound: when children bring the laptops home with them, many parents began adult education courses at night using the laptops. Many families chose to move into communities with laptop programs. Children develop the skills to do normal maintenance on their laptops. Most important, though, is that the children engage more deeply in learning and school work over the year; the computer helps deepen this interaction.

The typical measures of test scores and years in school are important, but miss the key points that make quality education critical for human and social development. A child who learns to read but hates it so much that he refuses to read may test well, but is really an example of educational system failure. A child who does not learn to think, imagine, and create with or without new technology will have difficulty with full social and economic inclusion in the modern world.

Knowledge capital is a better indicator of success than years in school. Children who develop a passion for knowledge; who retain the curiosity with which they all enter school; who maintain the desire to continue to learn; and the knowledge of learning to learn are children who have the ongoing capacity to develop to their full potential. They will, in turn, form the foundation for a country that has the capacity to develop to its fullest potential. For a valid assessment of a child’s development, the whole child must be taken into account.

What do we need to evaluate?

  • the potential to enhance learning by children due to immersive presence, new methodology, new content, and collaboration;
  • the potential to support teachers more closely, more contextually, more personally, and more continuously;
  • the difference in attitude between attending a class periodically in a computer lab and owning one’s personal laptop;
  • the potential impact on family and community and the development of knowledge capital throughout the community and beyond the school; and
  • the potential to create full inclusion on a large scale, not merely through connectivity to the web but as primary participants towards developing full * participation and fluency in a digital world.

What questions related to design and implementation of the laptop program should we be asking?

  • Were laptops distributed to the children in the manner expected?
  • Did the communications infrastructure perform adequately both within the mesh and the Internet as a whole?
  • Did the school server operate as anticipated?
  • Were there any systemic hardware failures?
  • Were there problems with security? With software updates?
  • Did the children learn to perform the normal maintenance of their laptops themselves?
  • Were the laptops used at school? Were they used at home?
  • Were they used by teachers? By parents? By siblings?

How do we consider the whole child?

  • What was the impact on the children's personality, psyche, self-esteem, and dealings in home, community, and school?
  • What was the affect on the children's cognitive development?
  • Do children with laptops engage in different types of activities outside of school than their peers without laptops?
  • Do they acquire a love for learning?

What is the community impact?

  • Is education more inclusive? Is there a positive impact on access? Enrollment? Truancy (drop-outs and retention)?
  • What are the perceptions of parents, teachers, and community leaders? Does the learning spread beyond the child to the community?
  • Does the relationship between children, their parents, and their teachers change?
  • What are the implications for academics in terms of teaching learning processes?
  • What is the impact of support for the teacher that the connected laptops enable?

What about more traditional metrics?

  • How does one laptop per child enhance learning? Did new methodology, new content, and new ways of collaboration emerge?
  • Who is performing better in school—children with or without laptops?
  • Have different provinces or districts done better than others (e.g., urban vs. rural; north vs. south; etc.)? What are the factors responsible for this?
  • Are girls performing better than boys?
  • Collectively, we need to ask: Are there lessons for others who would like to do similar interventions?