Tech Tidbit #4: The Revolution will Not be Televised (but Will Likely End Up on YouTube)

submitted by Jeff Moore on 12.7.2007


It’s been an important couple of years in technology. New operating systems from Apple and Microsoft, the rise of personal media players, the reinvention of television through TiVo and other “on demand” technologies, hybrid and even fuel cell technology in transportation, next-generation entertainment consoles, the slow but certain mainstreaming of “electronic paper” … and a ton of other things, to be sure. Ten years ago, futurists made all sorts of promises about technology. It’s starting to feel like the technology is actually delivering. (A big qualification, though. A Jetsons fan as a child, and now a Turnpike commuter, I won’t be satisfied until I have a flying car that makes “bubbly” noises as it swoops over grounded traffic.)

One of the biggest innovations, however, isn’t getting a lot of attention in the mainstream media. Some, but not a lot. You may not have even heard of it. The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has spent the past several years designing and manufacturing a laptop to put in the hands of every child in the developing world. The laptop was designed to be at the cutting edge of thinking in technology (mesh wireless networking, for example), but also to meet the needs of an environment that is not accustomed to supporting technology. The original design even had a hand crank for power. When you’re done snickering about that, consider how cool (and how “green”) it would be to have one on all of the devices that sit charging from that one overloaded outlet in your kitchen every night.

The laptop was also designed to be cheap. $100. Open source software keeps licensing fees down. Innovative technology also helps. The project also envisioned a quantity of scale that would insure efficient production. Governments of developing countries would buy millions of them, and hand them out like we hand out textbooks.

Challenges have stalled the vision. The resulting laptop actually costs closer to $200 for developing countries. Tough break, there, as everyone in technology circles spent three years calling it the “$100 laptop.” Oops.

More importantly, the OLPC project just isn’t capable of fending off the behemoths poised to jump on the emerging market. The humble, well-intentioned OLPC attracted the attention of Microsoft, Intel, and other technology giants who decided that there were too many potential customers in the developing world to simply roll over and let a little nonprofit run the show. Still, the OLPC hasn’t gone away. And it can certainly claim to have set large chunks of the agenda.

You can even buy one:


$399 buys one for you, and also one for a child in a developing country. Many folks who’ve gotten their hands on one consider it to be a very cool little piece of technology. (I’ve only seen pictures.) And the holidays: just in time for a last-minute tax deduction.

Even if the OLPC fails, however, the revolution is underway. Low-cost, power-efficient laptops for the developing world: imagine what it would mean in those countries. It begs some important questions. If all children in both the United States and, say, Bangladesh went to school on Monday to find laptops waiting for them in homeroom (or in their cubbies, or wherever), would those laptops have different impacts in the two countries? Would it make any difference in either case? Would other things need to be in place first? What would YouTube, Facebook, etc., look like on Tuesday?

One thing we’ve noticed over the past couple of years: we often speak of education (and, by extension, skills in technology) in terms of competition. How often do we cite global competition, competition in college, competition in the workplace, etc., as a context for what we do every day? Developing countries do the same, to be sure, but cooperation and social justice are demonstrably larger in their policy than in ours. For an interesting example of the intersection between social justice and technology in the developing world, check out the National Curriculum of South Africa, posted to the web through innovative software that you’ll probably recognize, under an “alternative” and “open” license (see Tech Tidbit #3).


We have to consider the possibility that every child in Uganda may receive a laptop before every child in America has one. Maybe this bothers us. Maybe it doesn’t. (We have to ask why, in both cases.) No matter where we stand on that, we can certainly agree that there are many unanswered questions. Here are a couple of mine:

·         When we teach with technology, are we using that technology to enhance our students’ ability to compete, to give them more tools to cooperate, or simply to better illustrate our content?

·         Thinking one step further about cooperation and competition: are these at odds, or can we teach toward both? Can we, or even should we, attach values to these different motivations?

·         Weren’t we supposed to have flying cars by now?


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