The case for the one laptop per child program

There are many critics, but here James Cascio argues that it will be a boon to participatory culture. Large excerpt from an article on his excellent blog on Open Futures.


“I’m excited about the OLPC machine’s potential because it’s so clearly a revolutionary device, both in the sense of it having capabilities that nobody has ever before seen in a laptop, and in the sense it being a catalyst for out-of-control social transformation. The OLPC project will drop millions of powerful, deeply networked, information technology devices into the hands of precisely the population (children and teens) most likely to want to figure out the unanticipated uses.

From the startlingly long-range wifi mesh networking to the “Sugar” social interface, these devices were built to treat hierarchies as damage, and route around them.

Bletsas says his design will provide node-to-node connectivity over 600 meters. Over a flat area without buildings and with low radio noise, that connection can stretch to 1.2 km. Students can put their computers on the mesh network simply by flipping the antennas up. This turns on the Wi-Fi subsystem of the machine without waking the CPU, allowing the laptop to route packets while consuming just 350 milliwatts of power. […]

The mesh network feature lets students in the same classroom share a virtual whiteboard with a teacher, chat (okay, gossip) during class, or collaborate on assignments. […]

The OLPC team also constructed a completely new user environment, code-named Sugar, designed to break down the isolation that students might experience from staring at laptops all day. It introduces the concept of “presence”—the idea behind instant-messaging buddy lists. The user interface is aware of other students in the classroom, showing their pictures or icons on the screen, allowing students to chat or share work with others in the class.

The system shares with the other students new tasks, like a drawing or a document, by default, though students can choose to make them private. Sugar creates a “blog” for each child—a record of the activities they engaged in during the day—which lets them add public or private diary entries.

This is a participatory culture dream device. Using entirely open source software, the laptops are enormously friendly to “hacking” (in the exploration sense, not the criminal sense), yet can be returned to a safe configuration at the push of a button. Moreover, they’re extraordinarily, wonderfully, energy-efficient: at normal use, a OLPC laptop draws 3 watts, compared to 30 watts for a typical lower-end conventional laptop; and a full charge lasts for over six hours at maximum power use, 25 hours in power conservation mode.

1 Comment The case for the one laptop per child program

  1. AvatarSteve Marshall

    I agree, the OLPC is a great machine – it raises the bar and will usher in a new era for laptop technology. I was lucky enough to be able to use one a couple of days ago and I was very impressed with how light and fast it was. Right now is an exciting time for technology, particularly mobile technology covering laptops, mobile phones and PDAs. Also the web and they way they all work with the web. I get my laptops and peripherals from Portable Universe and I can thoroughly recommend them. The best thing for people to do is to talk to them, let them know what your needs are (both current and future) and they will come up with the best laptop for you. I also get blank DVDs there for my backup.

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