I've heard of the OLPC (laptop.org) before. It was originally called the "100 Dollar Laptop".
But it's only after Kevin's blog post & video that made me find out more.
In the video, Kevin and friend gives a 18-minute walk-through of the USD$188 XO Laptop's features. They conclude that the XO Laptop isn't as powerful as "regular" laptop (it isn't meant to be) but it's impressive enough.
A summary of the XO Laptop's features, from what I gathered from Kevin's video and the XO Laptop feature & Specs page:
1) Design - it's handy, portable and stylishly designed. No sharp edges and ruggedised. Very child-friendly.
2) Hardware and software - It has what I consider the "basic" features, and more:
- WIFI Internet connectivity & built-in web browser
- Text editor (saves documents in text, RTF, HTML formats)
- Built-in video & audio recorder functions (captures 15-second video clips with a button-push)
- USB ports
- Audio input/ output jacks
- Simple graphic editing software
- Simple audio player and editing software
- Email and RSS reader
- UNIX terminal
- Something called the Acoustic Tape Measure (seems to measure the distance from one OLPC to another OLPC)
- Instant Messenging feature (with other connected OLPCs in the vicinity, I think)
- One key aspect is the "Neighbourhood" feature. It allows XO Laptop users to see who's connected on the network (Kevin says "designed for Mesh-networking and almost any application allows for collaboration"). This certainly makes the XO Laptop live up to its "Education Project" tagline.
Kevin asks in his blog post: do you think the OLPC will actually help third-world students learn?
I'd say it will help them get connected, and become more computer-savvy. The ability for children to handle and use computers is no longer an optional skill. So OLPC is good in that way.
But to result in effective learning, that's beyond what OLPC set out to do.
Mission of OLPC
OLPC's stated goal is to "provide children around the world with new opportunities to explore, experiment and express themselves".
It elaborates that:
OLPC is a non-profit organization providing a means to an end—an end that sees children in even the most remote regions of the globe being given the opportunity to tap into their own potential, to be exposed to a whole world of ideas, and to contribute to a more productive and saner world community.The Five-C Equation
On it's own, the XO Laptop represents an affordable computing device. There are other "Building-blocks" that have to be present to make the whole equation complete. For illustrative purposes, I can think of Five-Cs in this "equation", where:
Effective Learning (in OLPC's context) = C1 x C2 x C3 x C4 x C5
With the five Cs being:
C1 - Cost
Given it's features, at USD $188, I feel it's cheaper. Definitely as affordable as a basic mobile phone. Of course, "cheap" is relative when it comes to monetary exchange rates.
But OLPC has a simple yet clever business model called "Give 1 Get 1" (for a limited time only, it seems). Essentially you're buying two XO Laptops -- one for yourself and the other for a child in a Third-world country.
OLPC has made it easier to narrow the Cost aspect of the equation.
C2 - Content
I'm referring to Educational and Learning content.
The XO Laptop doesn't come loaded with them. But it's not a major issue, with the XO Laptop's social collaboration and connectivity features.
Children will always find ways to do something fun through play. And play is learning. I see kids in Third-world countries creating their own content. They won't be distracted by the availability of ready-made games and toys, e.g. Xboxes, LAN games (I feel that the more sophisticated the toy, the less room for creativity). I see the Third-world children use the social collaborative features like ducks to water.
Potentially, educational software might also be created by software developers/ students in First-world countries for the XO Laptops. Like what's happening in Facebook now.
I'm also sure there will be innovative and passionate educators in those countries. They might be able to think of creative ways to incorporate the use of the XO Laptop in the classroom.
In a Web 2.0. world, apps and services have moved to web-based delivery systems rather than local installations (e.g. Google Open Docs, Snipshot's online photo editing, Blogs).
I see this "C" in the equation as well met.
C3 - Collaboration
Part of OLPC's Educational Proposition says: "Put this ultra-low-cost, powerful, rugged and versatile laptop in their hands, and the kids will do the rest."
True to some extent. Give children some room and they'd surprise us in pleasant ways. But I feel there will be a limit to what children alone can do.
You need altruistic developers to create interesting and meaningful apps, people who have money to donate, educators who are willing to invest time and effort to find relevant ways to use the XO Laptop.
What's also critical is to concurrently engage educators and parents in Online Safety. We know about potential dangers and issues that comes with the use and proliferation of Internet and social networking platforms. While we can't prevent the misuse, abuse and exploitation (those will happen), we can limit the danger.
This part of the equation is an unknown. A lot would depend on the particular community or country, not OLPC.
C4 - Connectivity
I mean this to be the infrastructural aspect -- power supply, Internet access, WIFI nodes.
Electrical power supply is fundamental of course. No power = no computing device.
If there's power but no Internet or WIFI access, I believe the individual XO Laptops can still "talk" to each other. That still presents opportunities for localised interactivity.
In short, the country's infrastructure needs to be in place. The onus is on that particular country's government.
C5 - Committment
The OLPC project and organisation was announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January 2005.
OLPC has made good on its promise to deliver an afforable laptop for children in Third-world countries (so it exceeded the laptop cost by USD$88... who's gonna niggle?)
But having cheap computing devices do not automatically mean a better educated and globally responsible child.
I believe it's the commitment from parents, the community, and the government that ultimately the key success factor (not just education but the whole country, naturally).
They play a major role in determining the importance placed on having their children complete school; making sure there are jobs available for those who complete their education; imparting meaningful values to children; equipping the child with the means to be able to work and contribute in a globally connected environment.
This C is the most important and the hardest to achieve.
OLPC and education in Third-world countries
So clearly, OLPC is just one building block in the larger equation of "Making The World A Better Place".
What's hopeful is that when you let children get connected and discover things for themselves, positive things tend to happen.
That's what I like about OLPC.
A noble cause.
Humanity needs that, if nothing else.
[UPDATE: Check out the Libraries and Librarians with XO Laptops Flickr group]