$100 Laptops? Ultimately, It Is Not About Machines!

I'm in the process, with my counterpart at the Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers, Steve Glazner, of interviewing EDUCAUSE vice presidents Richard Katz and Diana Oblinger about their view of the next 10 years in higher education. Our article will be published in several places in support of 2006's Campus of the Future Conference in Honolulu.

One early statement by Oblinger struck me hard the first time I read it yesterday: "The stakes will simply be too high in 2015 for us to not work very hard to ensure each student has a successful learning experience." That was resonating in my head this morning as I glanced at a news story titled "A Low-Cost Laptop for Every Child," which is about the MIT-related initiative to create a $100 laptop for children in developing countries, the nonprofit organization, One Laptop Per Child.

Put that together with Thomas Friedman's "Flat Earth" perspective that we have "entered Globalization 3.0. And it's shrinking the world from size small to size tiny, and flattening the global economic playing field at the same time" and you get: "The stakes will simply be too high in 2015 for us to not work very hard to ensure each student [in the world] has a successful learning experience." Now, that sends chills up and down my spine. I definitely want to live in that world. Can we get there? Anthony D. Cortese of Second Nature likes to go on about environmental problems being mislabeled. He'll say, perhaps about various unnatural parts of the Mississippi delta, "What we have here is not an environmental problem. What we have is a design problem."

We view health, social, economic, political, security, population, environmental, and other major societal issues as separate, competing, and hierarchical when they are really systemic and interdependent. We don't have environmental and health problems, per se. We have negative environmental and health consequences of the way we have organized [designed] society from a cultural, social, economic, and technological perspective.
--From We Rise to Play a Greater Part

In this broader sense of sustainability, helping the world's children to get better educations would be a major move forward. And the OLPC group, like all good planners do, worked very hard at the early design stages of this $100 laptop project. The laptop itself, as it nears production and then distribution in 2006-2007, is a design marvel, and I'll get to that. But as Seymour Papert, a childhood learning expert who works with Negroponte says, ultimately "this is not about machines. [I]t is the next big step toward a vision of learning being transformed as radically as medicine, communications, and entertainment."

They've had to think about distribution. One early conclusion was that there would be no individual sales, and no sales in anything but huge quantities. They're only going to sell to organizations like national ministries of education, which will distribute the laptops, although the governor of Maine is interested. Believe me, those are "design" considerations, because design has a lot more to do with how thick or thin some material thing is.

And it effects the budget - one of the ways they can afford to charge so little is they will be working with assured, large pre-purchases and can scale up to manufacture big. They've got the cost-per-unit down to $130 now, and are continuing to slash fat. The MIT team calls today's laptops "obese" - with two thirds of their software being used to manage the other third. Some of the cost is cut by using Linux and free software.

I really like the way they've worked on this project. It would have been so much fun to be along for the ride. For example, one thing they looked at is how to make the laptop work in places that are far from the power grid. Judging from the images they've decided that crank power is the way to go. But another thing that they looked at, they call "parasitic power," that would use the impact of typing on the keys to generate electricity.

Sigh. That brings back memories of only one of the ways in which I could now be wealthy beyond my wildest dreams if I never procrastinated. I didn't call it parasitic power, but when the first kids' sh'es came out with flickering lights in the heels, I was kind of disgusted to learn that there were nasty chemicals, destined for landfills, in the little batteries charging up those lights. It occurred to me that the fantastic power of what locomotion experts call the "heel strike," when your foot hits the ground while walking, could be used to charge up, say, AA-cell batteries slid into the heels of your sh'es to power a Personal Area Network. Sad to say, I did nothing about it, and the idea was patented a couple of years ago by someone from France.

And you can see from the images that this laptop can be used with the keyboard for typing, with the keyboard tucked away for just viewing, or with the keyboard further tucked away and the screen turned sideways as a digital book reader. One criticism of the project is that the end users, say kids in Liberia, may live far away from any Internet connectivity or wireless network. No problem, says the MIT team, when you pop these little laptops out of the box and turn them on they will find each other and connect automatically in a LAM, Local Area Mesh. (I just coined that term, they don't use it.)

In the end, the development team says that the only thing that these $100 laptops will not do that $1,000 ones will, is store large amounts of data. That's probably because for durability, they've opted for flash memory instead of drives, and the capacity there is currently limited. Finally, the OLCP initiative says to notice the cost savings, as well as the reduced price of the units themselves.

For example, if, and that's a big if, the students who end up getting these laptops were provided with paper textbooks, the cost of printing and distribution would be huge. These tiny machines can be the libraries that do not exist in, say, Borneo. Me, I wonder what's going to keep them out of the parents' hands. I guess nothing will, and that's part of the plan, too. In many children's homes, at night, off the power grid, the laptops will be the brightest source of light for the entire family. And a bright source of hope for their futures. Ultimately, it's about the learning.

(All photos courtesy Design Continuum)
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