Laptops: easy fix for global education?

For billions of parents who earn only a few dollars a day, paying for a child's education – books, etc. – often gets neglected. Many simple solutions that break that cycle of poverty have been tried and have failed. Now another one is on the horizon: a "$100 laptop."

Such a jaw-dropping price tag for a kid-friendly, easy-to-fix computer is only a hope for now. The final price depends on how many nations sign onto this "One Laptop Per Child" initiative, which sprang from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The opening price is more likely to be $150 – and that doesn't take into account the cost of setup, training, or maintenance.

So far, only eight countries are on board: Argentina, Brazil, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Rwanda, Thailand, and Uruguay. And prototypes of this white-and-green machine, which is dubbed XO, have not been fully road-tested with children. By July, though, several million XOs are expected to be shipped, with $29 million in funding from companies such as Google Inc., Red Hat, and News Corp.

If the XO does indeed greatly enhance education for millions of poor children, 2007 might be remembered as the year that the prospects for humanity took one giant leap.

Rich nations, however, have a checkered history of introducing new technology to poor nations, where basics such as electricity and clean water are still often lacking. For every success story – such as hybrid, easy-to-grow rice and wheat – there are many clunker ideas, such as sending farm tractors to remote villages with no hope of spare parts. In fact, an entire movement, sparked by the late British economist E.F. Schumacher, sprang up in the 1970s to adapt "appropriate" technology to poor lands.

The "$100 laptop" seems designed with those concerns in mind. It's powered by a hand-pulled mechanism for charging batteries (like the inexpensive radios invented for poor villages). Its unique software, based on Linux, is suitable for a preteen to master. But its real value lies in the ease of a wireless Internet connection that can download the latest "textbooks" and curricula, allowing collaborative learning and turning teachers into facilitators.

In the US, states such as Maine and Michigan have been leaders in using laptops as prime teaching tools for students. Some studies indicate a connection between a rise in test scores and laptop use in education, but only if teachers are well trained to ensure their benefit.

This year also marks the launch of a similar idea to overcome the burdens of expensive textbooks in poor countries. Richard Watson at the University of Georgia's business school has enlisted academics around the world to continuously write textbooks that will be free on the Web or on CD and DVD. Similar to Wikipedia but under stricter editorial guidance, this "global text project" expects to produce more than 1,000 open-sourced, electronic textbooks.

Easy fixes in education are often alluring. Such projects as the $100 laptop should be treated with both open eyes and open hearts. Global solutions require that an experiment be able to be replicated across many cultures. But even if this laptop project fails, the desire for learning via computers and the Internet will ensure someone else will succeed.

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