News: AAAS 2008 Annual Meeting News Blog
Negroponte: Laptops Key to Global Knowledge
In a AAAS Annual Meeting plenary, Nicholas Negroponte, founder and director of One Laptop per Child, detailed how he transformed a desire to provide access to learning into a successful non-profit organization providing low-cost computers to children in the developing world.
At its core, Negroponte said during his 17 February 2008 address, One Laptop per Child uses technology to foster in children a desire to learn and attend school by making education both interesting and useful.
Citing a 1992 trip to Cambodia, Negroponte said he observed kids steadily losing interest as they passed through the grades. While some may have dropped out to help with other responsibilities, Negroponte attributes the loss of students to uninspiring learning environments.
“In developing nations, you sometimes have a situation where the students arrive in first-grade with their eyes wide open...and by the fourth grade, their heads are down,” Negroponte recalled. “School for them had not been a joyous experience.”
Negroponte soon sent computers to the Cambodian village and found that school attendance increased by 100 percent. “Kids were telling kids school was cool,” he said.
Following his observations in Cambodia and other experiences, Negroponte set out to develop an easy-to-use and maintain laptop that children can use in school and at home.
The first generation of the laptops, released last year, use less than 2 watts of electricity (compared to between 35 and 40 watts for most laptops), have screens that can be viewed indoors and outside, provide Internet via a mesh network, and are rugged. The target selling price was $100.
Negroponte said his program is currently manufacturing laptops at a cost of around $187 dollars and a rate of 110,000 per month, with plans for total production to reach between 10 and 50 million by the end of next year.
When he first announced his plan to form a non-profit education initiative in January 2005, Negroponte said, colleagues advised starting a for-profit company and donating the money to charity. But he disagreed.
“Being a non-profit was absolutely critical because the clarity of purpose is always there,” he said. “If a head of state meets me, they know I am there about education and humanitarian efforts, not to sell laptops.”
Negroponte said he was able to keep the laptop cost low by identifying the vital functions, suggesting that computers used by children for learning do not need extra features.
One way to cut the price: Using a very simple display. (Displays add up to 50 percent to a regular laptop’s price.) Repair costs also are lower on these maintenance-friendly machines. For example, if a light burns out in the display, you can easily open the unit and replace the bar of LED lights.
Late last year, OLPC established a program entitled “give one, get one” in which North Americans could make a $399 donation in exchange for one laptop for personal use, and one for donation to a child in the developing world.
As of the date of the lecture, Negroponte said he has received orders from nine countries: Uruguay, Peru, Haiti, Mongolia, Mexico, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Cambodia, Ethiopia and the United States, after the mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, requested 15,000 units. In addition, there are keyboards in 12 different languages, with six additional languages under development.
A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Negroponte was a pioneer in the field of computer-aided design. He is on leave from MIT, where he is the the Jerome B. Wiesner Professor of Media Technology, and co-founded and directed the MIT Media Laboratory. He also serves on the board of Motorola and has provided start -up funds for more than 40 companies including Wired magazine.