Want to know something cool?

One point of view, taking note of sundry "cool" things that affect-- or could affect-- the education business.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Every student may finally have a computer!

Kudos to the folks at the MIT Media Lab and the entrepreneurial John Negroptone: Their $100 "laptop" is a reality. Thier undertaking, called One Laptop Per Child or OLPC, has spent the last eighteen months or so cooking up this little bit of gadget goodness. Open-source software, low-end hardware requirements, and a "generous" smattering of loss-leader thinking all contributed to the prototype being revealed at last.

OK, Michael Dell isn't worried. We should be up front about that. This is a paperback-sized gizmo, more of a console than a true lappie, and it's sporting some attributes that will make it commercially unattractive-- low-res screen, minimal memory, almost nonexistent storage space, and really, um, "eye-catching" color scheme. But it's a computer. To be fair, it do compute, and it's been designed to act more as a wireless point on a mesh net than as a typical notebook. And its' specifications cut the risk that the units will be targeted for theft and resale in their intended third-world markets.

There's actually a neat anecdote that accompanies this little number. Seems Steve Jobs, the guy who brought you a 5% market share with a monopolist's attitude, stepped up last fall to offer his operating system, Macintosh OS X, for the program. Jobs was allegedly willing to donate-- yep, as in, "free"-- OS X. Negroponte et al. turned him down flat, citing their commitment to open-source software and mumbling something about the old Broadway standard "Showboat" under their breath. Surely the iPodfather was unaware of the potential for the OLPC program to "seed" the market with Mac devotees, who would theoretically grow up to use and buy "real" computers one day, and would naturally gravitate toward the Fisher-Price UI.

Politics and commercialism aside, OLPC may well have ripple effects in the US and other industrialized nations in the near term. Negroponte and manufacturer Quanta have reportedly discussed the possibility of making an upscale edition of the unit for sale at home, with potential mark-ups to defray the losses required to hit the $100 price-point in developing countries. It may be possible to buy a web-enabled client unit for less than the price of a Palm Tx, which could turn the 1:1 vision into a reality right here at home.

Whether or not OLPC gets off the ground to the extent of its' goals, this is a watershed moment in technology and education, not only proving that affordable technology can be had, but making the schools of the world re-think the very definition of "computing." Sure, it's powered by hand-crank, and its' screen is blurry. But it's a durn sight better than what most kids are learning with today, and it's a line in the sand for others to challenge. Children who are today concerned with subsistence and disease may well become a legitimate part of the global knowledge economy, overcoming rampant illiteracy and hypotechnia that are as prevalent as pestilence and famine in some parts of the world. The OLPC prototype isn't the end of a development process, it's a beginning, and it's very promising. Cool, huh?

How will it shake out? Comment this blog, and let's see where the conversation leads.
For great news, views, and resources for educators, check out The Balance Sheet p
ublished by South-Western, a Thomson company. Trusted news for educators for several decades, several miles ahead.

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