Chat with Mr. One Laptop per Child

Published: 02/12/2008 05:00

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VietNamNet Bridge - The name Nicholas Negroponte in the IT world is directly connected to the ambitious project One Laptop per Child, which aims to give cheap laptops to poor children in developing countries. VietNamNet interviewed Negroponte about this project.

Nicholas Negroponte and the XO laptop for children (photo: theage.com.au)

OLPC is an ambitious but humanitarian and non-profit project. You once said that OLPC is not only about laptops but also education. Why has education for children in developing countries drawn so much attention from you? And what are your suggestions for education in these countries?

The five OLPC principles

Child ownership

Every student has the right to own a laptop. A laptop can be transformed in a mobile school, into a portable learning and teaching environment. A connected laptop is more than a tool. It is a new human environment of a digital kind.

Low ages

The XO is designed for the use of children of ages 6 to 12, covering the years of the elementary school but nothing precludes its use earlier or later in life.

Saturation

The OLPC commitment is with elementary education in the developing countries. In order to attain this objective we need to reach a “digital saturation” in a given population. The key point is to choose the best scale in each circumstance. It can be a whole country, a region, a municipality or a village, where every child will own a laptop. As with vaccination a digital saturation implies the continuous intervention on the successive cohorts at the proper ages.

Connection

The XO has been designed to provide the most engaging wireless network available. The laptops are connected to each other, even when they are off. If one laptop is connected to the Internet, the others will follow to the web.

Free and Open Source

The child with an XO is not just a passive consumer of knowledge, but an active participant in a learning community. As the children grow and pursue new ideas, the software, content, resources and tools should be able to grow with them. The very global nature of OLPC demands that growth be driven locally, in large part by the children themselves. Each child with an XO can leverage the learning of every other child. They teach each other, share ideas, and through the social nature of the interface, support each other’s intellectual growth. Children are learners and teachers.

If you look at any big problem – I mean really big ones like peace, the environment and the elimination of poverty – the solutions (always plural, as there is always more than one) always include an element of education, in some cases can be achieved with only education, and in no case does a solution not have an element of education. Education is the key to health, prosperity and happiness.

I am particularly focused on primary education because it is the base of intellectual development, from which must come a passion for learning, not a drill and practice and mere rote acquisition of facts.

Developing countries are prone to emphasise rote learning, which is not what leads to a creative society.

The theory of OLPC is to leverage children and allow them to have a seamless learning opportunity in school and out of school, in play and in work.

OLPC has the first goal of using computers to bring educational opportunities to the poorest places in the world. But in your opinion, beside modern technology, what else do developing countries really need to fundamentally change themselves?

A leadership that understands that the nation’s most precious natural resource is children, not oil or coffee, children.

If somewhere in the world, OLPC is refused for the reason that technology and the Internet are far too luxurious for the people there, whose biggest needs are still food and clothes, what would you say?

OLPC is a concept. As an organisation, we built the XO laptop that for many children is a school in a box. For others it is mostly a book. We have 1 million books available. Substitute the word “education” for the word “laptop”. We never ask if we should provide clothes and food before education. We do them in parallel, because education is the long-term solution to clothes and food. So now the only question is whether the laptop is education. For the most remote and poorest children it might be. But just look at the cost of books and you will find it is less expensive than they are.

OLPC doesn’t always get praise and support, but you said you ignored the critics. So what will you do to persuade people who still disagree with you?

There is no disagreement about “one laptop per child” as such. Some people see the project as too daunting and others think they have a better solution. We do not try to persuade people, but work with the many countries that come to us. We have no shareholders or need to sell laptops. Let’s take three very different countries: Peru, Rwanda and Uruguay. In each case the head of state has declared his intent to do all children in his nation. The results are astonishing.

Internet access gives great opportunities to children; meanwhile the Internet is not always the safest environment for them. What can we do to reduce the risk of putting into children’s hands laptops connected with every kind of accessible database?

There are many ways to make the Internet safer and this is especially important for young children, 6-12 years old, the ones we target. See our principles.

You brought Intel from severe conflict to significant involvement in OLPC project along with their biggest rival AMD. What turned the situation around and will OLPC still be going well with new partners in the future?

There is more to the story. In May of 2007 a widely viewed, investigative television programme called 60 Minutes exposed Intel’s destructive behavior. This led to constructive talks and Intel joined OLPC in June 2007. For the next six months, however, there was a steady stream of conflicted behavior in the field, the result of which was to ask Intel to leave OLPC in January 2008, courteously doing so just before a significant payment was due by them to OLPC. New partners since then include Microsoft and more recently Amazon, with whom we are doing Give One Get One.

OLPC has been performing well in Africa. So how is it expected to expand in Asia, especially in Southeast Asia, in the future?

We are in 31 countries and will soon hit 1 million laptops. Africa includes Ethiopia, Rwanda, Ghana and Nigeria. Southeast Asia is indeed less engaged, but we have programmes in Thailand, Cambodia and Mongolia. OLPC will focus on the poorest countries and regions, post-conflict areas and displaced peoples. To this end, we have put a great deal of emphasis into the Give One Get One programme that can be seen on our website, www.laptop.org or at Amazon’s where you can give and get a laptop: www.amazon.com/xo.

You are mentioned by the media as a computer-obsessed guy. With MIT Media Lab, which you were a founding member of, you have made contributions in launching many break-through applications on the Internet. Have you ever been surprised by what computers can bring to us?

Nicholas Negroponte, 65, is a Greek-American architect and computer scientist best known as the founder and Chairman Emeritus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, and the founder of The One Laptop per Child association.

The One Laptop Per Child Association, Inc. (OLPC) is a U.S. non-profit organization set up to oversee the creation of an affordable educational device for use in the developing world. Its current focus is on the development, construction and deployment of the XO-1 laptop to promote children’s education in developing nations.

I have been doing this so long, having first gone to MIT as a student (1961) and joined the faculty in 1968 that it is hard to be surprised. My whole life has been a repetition of a classic chain: people dismiss my idea, then they envy it, then they copy it. The whole Media Lab, conceived in 1980 to harbour such work, is evidence that common wisdom is simply that, common. There is a need for iconoclastic and bold thinking that brings new ideas to the table. In some cases I am talking about simple matters. I remember people writing papers and articles about why colour (circa 1974) was a bad idea and too expensive for computer displays. When is the last time you used black & white. The same kinds of arguments were made about photographic films always being superior to solid state cameras.

The co-founder of Wired magazine, Louis Rossetto, said in a BBC News interview about you: “He was making grand predictions that seemed completely out in left field but as time has proven were absolutely accurate”. What makes you so determined with your out-in-left-field-ideas?

I have always believed that you do not predict the future, you invent it. When I wrote Being Digital I was describing work we were doing, not work we imagined might happen. Confidence comes easier when you are doing it yourself. Likewise, OLPC is something I said I would do.

Who are the people you choose to work with in realising these ideas? What policies do you expect from them?

By definition, they too must be pioneers and risk-takers. People who work at OLPC are people who believe in the concept. In that sense it is more like a religious movement. All of our professional services are pro bono, for example. The importance of this is not that people and companies work free, but that they are the best people in the world, one you could not get to be in your employ otherwise.

Today wireless connection is world-wide popular, while concepts such as Skype and Wired magazine are no longer strange to Internet users. What can the world expect from you next?

OLPC is such a large project, I do not think of there being a “next.” This has been a very big bite.

In the recent global economic difficulties, which technology fields have been negatively affected and how? Which fields survive?

Any technical field that encourages consumption will be negatively affected. Likewise, those that harness energy, live green lives, and make learning possible will mushroom.

Thank you very much!

Interviewer: Thuy Chung

Update from: http://english.vietnamnet.vn//interviews/2008/12/816617/

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