OLPC pilot machine South Africa I’d better start by declaring a prejudice: I have been a natural born sceptic about the $100 lap top project, now known as ‘One Laptop Per Child [OLPC]’, ever since I first heard Nicholas Negroponte proselytise about it. There are lots of good reasons, which I’ll own up to later in this post. So: imagine my surprise when I learnt from Russell Southwood’s unique mailing list about African digital media that pilots are about to start happening.

Let’s deal with my scepticism first. However influential Nicholas Negroponte was in the great “bytes to atoms” debates of the 1990s, he’s still a rampaging technological determinist (the technology will make the social change follow). Seymour Papert’s educational theories about the role of technology in the classroom are beguiling but probably wrong. The business model required massive scale (minimum orders of one million machines which precluded pretty much anyone from actually buying them). Anyone who takes a technology to show off at Davos is more interested in performance than implementation. The list could go on.

But putting that aside, the pilot version of the laptop is made of tough white and green plastic, has a four-hour battery, a color screen and built-in Wi-Fi. For last week’s issue of Balancing Act, Russell interviewed Antione van Gelder, who’s part of OLPC’s South African pilot programme. Some headlines from the interview:

  • The current price of the machne is $175US
  • But the minimum size of order is now down to 250,000 – so the minimum order costs $4.375mUS
  • Obviously that means you don’t have to worry about marketing and distribution, since the price means that only governments, the United Nations and the Gates Foundation (OK, I made that last bit up) can afford them. In South Africa van Gelder believes that the government can be persuaded to underwrite the cost (it’s not huge compared to the total education budget
  • The machines are designed to have a five year life
  • They’re hoping to mitigate the risk of theft with a ‘revocation key’ system which will disable machines in the wrong hands.
  • But there are still problems about training (“after we leave the teachers will sink or swim”).
  • And the school needs a server (about $250-300)
  • The battery life is “awesome” – currently four hours and could climb to eight.
  • There are other pilots in Nigeria, Nepal, Argentina, and Mexico. In the Nigerian trial, in a village, the arrival of the computers is said to have increased school attendance strongly – even among kids who were thought to have quit education.

There’s an interesting part of the interview about an earlier trial, albeit in an affluent white heighbourhood, which is worth repeating in full:

To start with we put in a free mesh network. After a year, the whole village was connected. One of the first things that happened was that the kids started socialising using the network and playing games. There’s an incredibly strong community of kids as a result. We gave them a whole universe of their own they can play with. They’re now running their own radio station.

After about six months the adults started to get it. Scarborough has a huge but not much used community hall. A couple of parents started a youth centre with ping-pong and pool tables and a DVD player. They set this up for the kids. All kinds of politics came with it. There are new power structures, leaders and followers. So it’s not been all wine and roses but new life has been pumped in.

Balancing Act is a website and a weekly email newsletter. For a recent post from a reader about Balancing Act’s coverage and view of Africa, try this from Ethan Zuckerman.