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Take a Tablet and Wake Up Smarter?

• December 10, 2012 • 5:43 PM

The One Laptop Per Child initiative is still struggling to find cheap computers for the developing world.

Over the years we’ve taken occasional peeks at the fate of the One Laptop Per Child initiative, an intuitively positive-sounding program that reasons giving every young students in the world a key to the digital future has just gotta be a great idea. Perhaps not all that surprisingly, it hasn’t turned out that way, at least not on the scale that visionaries like Nicholas Negroponte have suggested.

The seven-year effort retooled itself (again) a year ago, as Jeff Shear reported on this site, with a third version of a cheap (i.e. inexpensive) laptop that would be handed out to children in developing parts of the world. It seems that one of the necessary ingredients for the initiative–having remarkably cheap computers to dole out – was harder to find than initial estimates had it. The goal announced in 2005 at the World Economic Forum was $100 per, but even the first effort was $399 for two, with a rich-world person paying for both but hiving off the second machine for distribution in the poor world.

Now whether at any price this is a good way to educate the world remains an open question, and not something I want to get into now. But getting the price down to sustainable levels has been nettlesome, even though the Kurzweilian natural rhythms of the electronics world dictates that it was just a matter of time. The One Laptop people a year ago were talking up their XO-3 touchscreen tablet, which was going to be just $75 and available commercially.

Well, that didn’t happen, and late last month the XO-3 got the ax and One Laptop has discussed getting out of the computer-design biz while staying in the computer-distribution biz. As One Laptop’s CTO, Ed McNierney, told the IDG News Service:

“There’s a lot of decent tablet technology out there — it’s really a question of putting things together in the right package for the children we’re trying to serve. The Nexus 7 is nice, too, and a more kid-friendly size, and there are other good examples.”

And cheaper ones, too. Mr. Market, in the form of Google, has just delivered a $99 Chromebook for public school teachers. Google says the Samsung-built machines are “heavily discounted,” and certainly there’s some self-interest in seeding the Chrome Operating System more widely. But it remains a major breach of the $100 Rubicon for education. Now we need to wait for the evidence that the gadget makes the difference in teaching.

While being plugged in can’t help but matter for future competitiveness, I suspect the crucial educational benefit will in fact come from the software, not just the code-monkey variety but the kind that gets the odd apple put on their desk now and then.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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