Friday, May 28, 2010

Why laptops?

Much criticism gets sent OLPC's way for distributing laptops to children who may not have shoes, preventative medicine, or clean water. Some might ask, what would an African family want with a computer or a cell phone?

  • Uganda has cell phones. The impact of mobile phones in Africa gets overlooked so often, even by my college's Engineers without Borders group. Uganda's largest bank, with a million members, is based on mobile phones. Google has offices in Uganda, and is one of many companies writing text-messaging apps in Uganda.

  • The laptops are not given to kids, they are given to schools. No one is walking through the streets and handing out laptops. Each kid attends a school where they already follow a national curriculum and share a few old textbooks. Many principals have noticed that attendance of students and teachers, and parental support for their children's education, improves when laptops are used in the classroom. Each school is consulted, power and internet access are arranged, and teachers discuss their classroom curriculum with OLPC and volunteers.

  • The projects are supported locally. In countries with many laptop schools, local groups and mentors get involved to continue the project. In Uruguay, where every child has a laptop, the education department uses classroom videos, blogs, and repair offices to keep the project running. Volunteers develop activities and help expand the project to new schools.

  • Innovation takes inspiration and resources. I am fascinated by the story of William Kamkwamba, a teenager who built a windmill to power his home, based solely on a picture he found in a book. When he used the internet for the first time, the millions of results and images for 'windmill' left him awed. "Where was Google all this time?" he wondered [interview with Jon Stewart], and he took home an OLPC laptop for his school. Even without the internet, a USB drive can hold thousands of books and pictures. It takes just a few like-minded and resourceful students for more of these amazing stories to come true.

There are some theories about the future of education, business, and technology which are relevant, too. I'll keep the critics in mind when I write about those another day.

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