In Peru, a Pint-Size Ticket to Learning
Sunday, December 30, 2007
ARAHUAY, Peru -- Doubts about whether poor, rural children really can benefit from quirky little computers evaporate as quickly as the morning dew in this hilltop Andean village, where 50 primary school children got machines from the One Laptop Per Child project six months ago.
These offspring of peasant families whose monthly earnings rarely exceed the cost of one of the $188 laptops -- people who can ill afford pencil and paper much less books -- can't get enough of their XO devices.
At breakfast, they're already powering up the combination library/videocamera/audio recorder/musicmaker/drawing kits. At night, they're dozing off in front of them -- if they've managed to keep older siblings from waylaying the coveted machines.
"It's really the kind of conditions that we designed for," Walter Bender, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology spinoff, said of this agrarian backwater up a precarious dirt road.
Founded in 2005 by former MIT Media Lab director Nicholas Negroponte, the One Laptop program has retreated from early boasts that developing-world governments would snap up millions of the pint-size machines at $100 each.
In a backhanded tribute, One Laptop now faces homegrown competitors everywhere from Brazil to India -- and a full-court press from Intel's more power-hungry Classmate.
But no competitor approaches the XO in innovation. It is hard drive-free, runs on the Linux operating system and stretches wireless networks with "mesh" technology that lets each computer in a village relay data to the others.
Mass production began last month and Negroponte, brother of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte, said he expects at least 1.5 million machines to be sold by next November. Even that would be far less than Negroponte originally envisioned. The price, higher than initially advertised, and the non-Windows operating system that is still being tested for the XO have dissuaded many potential government buyers.
Peru placed the single biggest order to date -- more than 272,000 machines -- in its quest to turn around a primary education system that the World Economic Forum recently ranked last among 131 countries surveyed. Uruguay was the No. 2 buyers of the laptops, inking a contract for 100,000.
Negroponte said 150,000 more laptops will be shipped to such countries as Rwanda, Mongolia, Haiti and Afghanistan in early 2008 through "Give One, Get One," a U.S.-based promotion ending Dec. 31 in which participants buy a pair of laptops for $399 and donate one or both.
The children of Arahuay prove One Laptop's transformative conceit: that you can revolutionize education and democratize the Internet by giving a simple, durable, power-stingy but feature-packed laptop to the world's poorest kids.
"Some tell me that they don't want to be like their parents, working in the fields," first-grade teacher Erica Velasco said of her pupils. She had just sent them to the Internet to seek out photos of invertebrates -- animals without backbones.