One Laptop Per Child

(photo credit: Zach Copley, - license: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

MIT was developing a $100 LaptopComputer running Linux to market to third world countries. Mass production of the XO-1 started in November 2007. This laptop is aimed at education, and may replace paper textbooks, maps, and similar resources with the computer in developing countries. What type of software should be included to help children think? PythonLanguage is intended to be the main third-party development language. SqueakSmalltalk will be included to run SqueakEtoys.

OLPC espoused five core principles:
  1. child ownership
  2. low ages
  3. saturation
  4. connection
  5. free and open source

Then tragedy struck the children of the world. MicrosoftCorporation got involved. You can guess the results!

The machine (also known as XO) will be a Linux-based, full-color, full-screen laptop that will use an innovative low-power design (including human generated) and will be able to do most everything except store huge amounts of data. Its current specifications ( are: The specs have been getting better over time as the market for its electronic components has evolved. Earlier prototypes used a 366 MHz Geode, 512 MB Flash and 128 MB DRAM.

MIT is also planning a commercial product in the $200 range, according to a recent lecture by Negroponte. Lecture notes:

As of November 2006, the laptop is set to cost a bit over $200; the project aims to reduce it to $100 somewhere between 2008 and 2010.

It is said that OLPC (OneLaptopPerChild) has already delivered (10 units) with costs said to be between $125 and $150.

The notion of outfitting children with laptops for school is not without its detractors. For example, take a look at "Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood" (Alliance for Childhood, 2000.

First, and easiest, let's consider the physical aspects. A laptop screen is at the correct ergonomic height for no-one but a toddler. If you're taller than 3 feet, your posture is toast when using a laptop. Unless, of course, the laptop is on a table that's too high for comfortable keyboarding. Either way, you're hosed. So, laptops teach lousy posture or dangerous keyboard use. If the laptop opens up 180 degrees, the kid's best bet might be to loll on his tummy and poke at the keyboard and mouse pad with one hand. But that probably means the kid's eyes are aimed too high for comfort. In short, a laptop is an ergonomic nightmare. (I can also argue that a desktop computer is an ergonomic nightmare for children and other small people, but this page is about laptops.) Then there's the weight. How old are these children before they're expected to lug the laptop in a backpack or carrying case? Plus, keep in mind that books, worksheets, posters, and "manipulatives" are easier on the eye than a screen full of pixels no matter what a person's age. They're easier to read than a screen, and the reader is less likely to go nearsighted.

Second is the question of obsolescence. The machine and its software are obsolete by the end of the school year. The file formats the kid's work is stored in are obsolete and unreadable within a few years. You can plan on the poor kid having no treasured mementos of school projects unless he gets a fresh machine and converts his files every few years, but who's going to go through the trouble? Then there's the ever changing software in addition to the usual material that the school is trying to teach. Some "skills" like drag-and-drop will be useful for another decade, but others will need to be learned and unlearned every couple years or each semester with the software that comes along. Plus, the harried teacher needs to keep on top of the technology ball and figure out how to use whatever "educational" software and equipment get tossed at him/her by the higher-ups. One can argue that money is better spent on items that never go obsolete: books, paper, pencils, crayons, scissors, glue, balls, jump ropes, musical instruments, teachers, classrooms, lunches.

Third, most importantly and I guess most controversially, is do youngsters do better in school when they use a computer? I don't think anyone's shown that they do better, and there's evidence that they do worse (where? I need to go find this again.).

Handing laptops to school children undoubtedly would make technology buffs and companies feel good about attempting to do good. That's all very nice, but as I put on my cynical hat I think of providing wind-up computers to schools as an excuse to develop a cool gadget. Even more cynically, I think of creating a market and fostering brand loyalty and dependence. When I'm really cynical, I shudder at the thought of performing an experiment in education on the most powerless people on the planet, the children of the Third World mentioned at the top of the page.

I've broken my vow of wiki silence because I'm steamed. -- ElizabethWiethoff

Good for you, on this topic, and nicely said, IMNSHO. May I ask why you got burnt out on wiki recently? I was sad to hear you say that you felt so, and that we would be missing your contributions. -- DougMerritt

Thanks for the compliment on my rant. -- Eliz

A number of these issues are discussed on the OLPC wiki: and As with other Grand Challenges, much of the value of the project is in the solutions to the difficult intermediate problems, even if the main goal is never met. In this case, this project will tackle cheap displays, OpenSource i18n, OpenSource constructionist educational software, electronics recyclibility, data migration, P2P networking, etc. Many luminaries such as NicholasNegroponte, SeymourPapert, AlanKay, and JimGettys? are contributing.

Now that the OLPC XO has debuted, there are competitive offerings from Intel, Microsoft, etc., that are adding to the confusing market. The latest low-cost option came from an Indian entry called Mobilis. Samples are already shipped to Brazil and the price is supposed to be around $220 US.

Also early supporters for the OLPC project are dropping out. Thailand is pulling out from use of OpenSource software after its recent coup.

Contrast "Fool's Gold" with:

The above rant would be better if it left out books, paper, pencils, crayons, scissors, glue, and musical instruments. These laptops can (and are expected to) fill the roles of those things - musical education, literature, scratch space for artistic and intellectual expression. On the other hand, the balls, jump-ropes, teachers, classrooms and lunches form a good enough list, if those things are at risk. (I think that the word laptop conjures up a picture of today's mass-market laptops, which would not be very useful for those other things.) -- JesseMillikan

Regarding the weight, they're amazingly light. I was privileged enough to try them out at RoCoCoCamp (where the photo above was taken). -- EarleMartin

Eliz, I feel your pain! For we know that greed is often at the root of much of what corporate humanity does. PeopleAreGood? - not. But don't you think that as the entire world is moving to computerization, introducing children to the realities of that world is a necessity? I know people who only buy their Christmas presents over the internet. I've been corresponding with a young Kenyan pastor who could reach me only because of computers. The fall of the SovietUnion is partially due to globally available information through the net. Can they live healthy, prosperous lives without laptops? Sure. But the direction of global living is headed that way. Why not introduce them to the access to the world in this way? -- BrucePennington

I want wwaaaaaaan!!!! -- PhlIp For two weeks starting today (November 12 - 26, 2007), folks in North America can "Give 1, Get 1". For $399, you buy two laptops, one for yourself and one donated to an OLPC member country. If you order soon, delivery may be in time for Christmas.

I saw a development one last year. What impressed me most wasn't the mesh networking, the GUI, the sealed keyboard. Nope, it was the fact that the power adapter was the same distinctive shade of bright green as the OLPC's case. It was a blindingly obvious solution to the perennial problem of matching power adapters to their devices. If the rest of the machine is as well designed, it could be a real success. -- AnonymousDonor

Well, in practice, I think that the undeveloped world will have much, much greater access to pornography and spam. With respect to school, you are going to have a solitary effect: children will be able to play games and send little messages to one another rather than pay attention to the teacher. I'm surprised that most of the objections to this toy haven't brought up such obvious things.

I think the best use-case for these laptops is to allow children to further explore the ideas they learn in the classroom. Etoys is very good for this. For example, a child might be taught in the classroom that the Earth rotates, orbits around the Sun and that the Moon orbits around the Earth. Visualising this might be difficult at first, but making a simulation is easy; draw the Earth, Moon and Sun, put the Earth and Moon inside a container, then use the simple Logo programs "Container forward 20; right 1" to orbit the Sun, "Moon forward 5; right 12" to orbit the Earth and "Earth right 60" to make the Earth spin. By putting a dot on the edge of the Earth to represent an observer, it becomes much more intuitive to see what comes into and out of the observer's line of sight over the course of a day, a month and a year. Then, with a computer to hand, it becomes much easier to persue "what if" questions, which can often be a great way to gain insight and test your own understanding of a subject.

I've got an XO laptop and have built many Physics simulations in Etoys (I'm currently compiling them into an interactive book on Thermodynamics).


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