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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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Intel and the $100 Laptop: What Does it Mean for U.S. Schools?

Last Friday, I nearly did a spit-take when I saw the headline: after years of acrimony, computer chip manufacturer Intel is forming a partnership with MIT’s so-called $100 laptop program. It’s big news, no doubt, but how will the move impact education in the United States?

It’s been one of the most hyped products of the last several years - a low-cost laptop designed by MIT specifically for students in developing countries. Many people refer to it as the “$100 laptop,” but that’s sort of a misnomer. It’s not likely to cost that little for several years, but everyone loves a nice round number, right?

More formally known as the XO, the laptop has been under development at MIT’s Media Lab for around three years now, as part of an initiative called One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). As the name suggests, the goal is to develop a device that’s affordable enough to developing countries so that they can literally buy them by the million to supply them to students. The laptop’s operating system is based on constructivist learning theory, largely thanks to the influence of MIT professor Seymour Papert, who helped inspire the creation of the program in the first place.

The XO has been the subject of much controversy, even preceding the rollout of the very first demo model in late 2005. Critics have taken issue with various aspects of the strategy, from the hardware and software design to the question of whether developing nations should be shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars on an unproven technology when they have other priorities at home. Supporters, meanwhile, counter that the proliferation of the device will help students leapfrog the limitations of local education and technology infrastructure, giving them a helping hand at developing new skills.

MIT hasn’t been the only entity seeking to create a low-cost Internet device. To date, their biggest rival has been Intel, which has spent a lot of time lambasting OLPC and their XO laptop as merely a $100 gadget. The trash talking has gone back and forth for at least a couple of years now - so much so that many of us would have never imagined they’d reach a detante.

Then came the news last Friday. As reported by CNET and elsewhere, Intel has agreed to join the board of OLPC and fund further development of the XO laptop. “Intel joins the OLPC board as a world leader in technology, helping reach the world’s children,” said OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte. “Collaboration with Intel means that the maximum number of laptops will reach children.”

“What happened in the past has happened,” added Will Swope of Intel. “But going forward, this allows the two organizations to go do a better job and have a better impact for what we are both very eager to do, which is help kids around the world.”

My initial reaction to the announcement was one of immense satisfaction. “Hallelujah,” I wrote on my personal blog, adding:

When it comes to global development, different tools work best in different circumstances. There is no one single magic bullet, technological or otherwise, that will solve the ills of poverty, corruption or educational inequity. Sure, mobile phones have spread like wildfire throughout the developing world and are helping countries make important leaps. But that doesn’t mean those countries shouldn’t explore using telecentres or low-cost laptops for different situations. Try telling a small-business owner in Ghana that they can only use their mobile phone for all of their productivity needs. And sometimes technology isn’t the answer at all, either - we shouldn’t be afraid to admit that when that’s the case. Similarly, you can’t expect a single branded device, even one created by entities as talented as Intel or MIT, to suit the needs of every development challenge in a particular country. Like the AP article notes, technological needs in an urban context differ from tech needs in a rural context. Classroom settings and business settings are different. The needs of an NGO working in a refugee camp are different from the needs of officials working in a governmental office headquarters.

Of course, this enthusiasm of mine is based on a big assumption: that both devices produced by the two entities will continue to develop on unique paths, making each of them individually more suitable for certain contexts. I’m still hopeful this will be the case, but let’s face it: the partnership isn’t exactly formed on the basis of equals. The timing couldn’t be better for OLPC, which has been struggling to get countries to sign the dotted line when it comes to actually purchasing the laptops. Intel, as one of the leading chip manufacturers worldwide, stands to benefit from the goodwill of working on a project that has attracted so much global attention.

“It’s like a merger,” Lee Felsenstein, spokesperson for the Fonly Institute, told LinuxInsider. “The interests of both parties are going to be represented. The real open question is which party is more powerful, and I’d put my money on Intel…. When an 800-pound gorilla gets on a boat, it’s going to tilt.”

Wayan Vota of OLPCnews.com, which follows the development of the MIT laptop, offered his own concerns:

Intel did not get to be a multi-billion dollar multinational computing dominator by playing for second in a target (or emerging) market. Intel will invest in OLPC to become the main chip supplier for developing world computers, squashing any other entrant or competition, and not always with better technology. And that may be the worst result of the Intel + OLPC agreement, a decrease in technology competition….

With this competitive pressure removed, neither organization will be pushed to innovate specifically for the developing world’s educational market. Oh you and I will definitely see commercial innovation, but that’s not the point of one laptop per child (nor is eliminating poverty).

OLPC is about education, about empowering children to learn … using the most cost-efficient and applicable technology. Let’s hope Intel remembers that when it joins AMD at the OLPC Board meetings.

Ever since the OLPC initiative was announced, educators around the world have been champing at the bit to get their hands on one - and U.S. educators are no exception. Early on in the project, the commonwealth of Massachusetts suggested they would be interested in purchasing XO laptops for their students, and OLPC has suggested they would offer a laptop to U.S. consumers at a somewhat higher pricepoint to help offset costs of laptops for the developing world.

So might the Intel-OLPC partnership benefit U.S. schools? It’s going to depend on a lot of factors. As Wayan and others have suggested, if the partnership leads to squashing competition, the educational marketplace will be worse off. Early statements from the two partners have suggested that they will design and promote their devices for different educational contexts, and if that’s the case, that would be a good thing, since no single device can be suitable for all educational contexts. And meanwhile, let’s not forget that they’re not the only game in town when it comes to low-cost Internet devices - Microsoft, among others, has their eyes on this market as well.

The bigger question in my mind boils down to schools’ attitudes towards one-to-one computing initiatives in general. As I’ve written about in the past, there are many programs around the country in which school districts and even states have invested heavily in student laptop programs. The results have been mixed, partially due to the fact that schools don’t always reform their pedagogical methods when they change the way students and teachers access tools. So whether it’s a $100 laptop or a $2000 laptop, you’re bound to get disappointing results if you don’t alter the environment in which students learn and educators teach.

I have no doubt that the moment the OLPC becomes readily available, many educators and parents will jump at the chance to get one. On a larger scale, we’ll probably see experiments across entire school districts or even states. But will the promise of student-centered, one-to-one computing be enough to convince schools to reinvent the way they teach with these devices? Only time will tell. -andy

Filed under : Cool Tools, Digital Divide, Policy


From OLPC aat Wikipedia :

Intel was a member of the association for a brief period in 2007. It resigned its membership on 3 January 2008, citing disagreements with requests from OLPC’s founder, Nicholas Negroponte, for Intel to stop dumping their Classmate PCs.

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