In the competitive world of computer science, OLPC stands by its core value that the software used in the XO series should be open source and free. While Walter Bender’s team at Sugar Labs are in charge of the software development and implementation, much of the actual programming of educational “apps” and tools is done by the millions of children around the world, who are connected to the OLPC program. “One connection in a school can serve everybody,” says Arboleda. In parts of Africa and those countries with limited electrical coverage, many of the laptops run on solar energy.
The foundation believes that education is the solution for many of the ills that plague contemporary society. As governments invest in health and housing, there isn’t much urgency to bridge the “technological divide” between the haves and the have nots, whether a child lives in a rural village or an urban slum.
“There is a vicious circle of ignorance that leads to violence, and poverty that also breeds the violence,” says Arboleda regarding the Colombian condition. “The only way we can end this, is through education.” One Laptop per Child is expanding quickly though India and Africa. Although Latin America remains a high priority, the focus is on children and not the market.
With dozens of internet startups going public to the tune of billions of dollars, there is plenty of capital circulating in bringing people together. Yet, the benefits of living online also present difficult challenges, particularly for children.
As the engineer behind Sugar – the operating system of the XO open source computer – Walter Bender’s objective is to give children the skills to navigate safely online. “We need to give children good decision making skills. The fact that we are giving laptops to kids doesn’t mean that parents and teachers no longer have responsibility,” claims the information expert. “One Laptop per Child is going to transform the role of the teacher from the one who provides information to the one who helps shape the experience for the children.”
A global initiative, OLPC works to create community at home and in the classroom. It’s as much a social network as it is a means by which children around the world can share their computing knowledge with an older generation. “We had a school full of parents wanting to know how the computer works to share the experience with their children,” recalls Bender of an experience in Paraguay.
The community aspect is built in to the computer’s original design. Two green antennae protrude from each laptop, enabling children to interact with each other via wireless network. “Education requires critical dialogue with others. It’s not something you do by yourself.”
Bender believes that the computer is the most powerful tool out there “for thinking.” Taking a leave of absence from MIT’s Media Lab since 2006, this investigator is all consumed by One Laptop per Child, as he sees no greater mission than putting invention into practice. Too many academics, believes Bender, are removed from the digital “utopias” they themselves create. “There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the children using the tools we’ve built.”
Although many in the tech cluster scoffed at One Laptop per Child’s announcement back in 2006 that it could distribute a US $100 computer when other big name manufacturers were selling theirs at a premium, the philosophy became more important than the price. It wasn’t a question of getting the right hardware or processors, but the fact that the computers needed to be energy efficient to run in hostile conditions. “It was a radical idea,” says Bender.
With its share of corporate skeptics, OLPC remains committed to empowering education around the world. From Afghanistan to Sudan, Negroponte and company created a virtual “habitat” for the most vulnerable of humanity. But the senior management insists that a computer remains a computer. The ultimate software doesn’t need to be invented. It’s the potential for children to dream.
For more information: www.laptop.org