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One Laptop Per Child Redux

Declared dead just two years ago, the plan to provide every child in the developing world with a computer shows signs of life.
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The New York Times called it,  “The Laptop That Will Save the World,” while the renowned Computer Graphics Laboratory at Stanford University  referred to it as “a monumental feat of engineering and design.”

Dressed up like a toy in a Kermit-the-Frog green and white plastic shell, this durable little computer was the progeny of the nonprofit organization, One Laptop Per Child.

When the laptops went into mass production in November 2007, OLPC’s ambitious plan aimed to place a free computer into the hands of the world's 1 billion impoverished children. Education is the exit ramp off the endless road of poverty, the organization argues, and because young people naturally take to computers, the idea is to use them as a way to bridge the so-called “digital gap” between the haves and the have-nots. The little laptop is seen as both a virtual classroom and teacher, with playful software designed for self-learning and an Internet connection to the Internet Archive, which has a dedicated OLPC gateway to its 1.6 million book library.

But in 2009, Scrooge came knocking on the organization’s door, accompanied by One Laptop’s own three ghosts: rough economic times, soaring costs, and technical glitches. Tumbling financial markets crippled donations, while its skittish supporters, chiefly philanthropies and foundations, abandoned it for greener pastures. Desperate to stay afloat, it fired half its staff, and cut pay to the 32 who remained.

These days, the company has been reorganizing, rehiring, reinventing, and aggressively making its way into the developing world. As many as 3 million of the nonprofit's laptops are now in the hands of children and educators in 46 countries spanning 25 different languages. The company has staffed back up to 53 employees, although some are temporary software writers.

And in early 2012, a new super-low cost tablet, the XO-3, will debut, with a promised price-point of $75 for the nonprofit. Significantly, the XO-3 will be available outside OLPC. One Laptop hopes to prod the big manufacturers into using their distribution channels for their own branded versions of the tablet.

This is a big change for OLPC, an acknowledgement that they aren't the only kid on the cheap-computer block. While iPads, Kindles, and other low-cost computers and tablets are sweeping the market, none of them are designed specifically as educational devices for primary and secondary school students. Intel’s Learning Series does make the Classmate netbook, but even discounted it goes for $505.

How does a computer designed for education differ from one used for education? “A child can do anything to this software and never break it,” explains Walter Bender, a co-founder of OLPC and a former director of the MIT Media Lab that created Sugar, the XO's user interface. “Why? When you make mistakes you’re learning. When you don’t, you’re being incremental. Yet if penalty is high for making mistakes, you stop taking risks, you stop learning. We try to give kids a safe place to do trial and error, to go out there and do it in a way they can’t screw up.”

OLPC turnaround has reignited its bravado and swagger, stunts included.

Next week, the company plans to drop XO-3 from a helicopter — Santa has gone high tech — into the hands of some the poorest 5-to-8-year-olds in the remotest regions of the world. (Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Liberia are likely candidates ) In a recent interview appearing in New Scientist, the father of OLPC Nicholas Negroponte explained that the idea is to discover how much a child working on his own can learn from a computer with just “modest” intervention. In turn, OLPC will learn from the kids. After two years, trained researchers will return to the site to evaluate its effects.

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Negroponte is recognized as one of the forefathers of the digital revolution. As chairman of MIT's renown Media Lab, Negroponte announced the birth of the One Laptop Per Child project in January 2005 at the World Economic Forum. He carried around a prototype of a $100 laptop to meetings, and by the time he had packed his bags to fly home, he had collected letters of intent from several national leaders to buy as many as 9 million. That was very good news because the resulting economies of scale lowered costs to OLPC.

Negroponte soon sadly discovered that a letter of intent was a long way from a hard-boiled contract. Manufacturers who saw the original numbers and leapt on board to churn out laptops for $100 reversed themselves when actual orders came in for fewer than 800,000 machines, and their prices doubled.

The price hike hurt Negroponte's grand design and also scuffed his reputation. He failed to deliver on his out-sized promises. At a well-attended technology conference in 2006, he told his audience his year-old operation — which had yet to begin mass production — would not launch without five to 10 million units in the first run. Further, he predicted that by 2008, OLPC would have 100 million to 200 million computers in place around the world.

Negroponte was both boastful and crotchety, a formula for making enemies. He was rude, too, scoffing at the idea of offering test runs to prospective countries. Speaking before a large audience, he said, “When people say we'd like to do three or four thousand [OLPC laptops] in our country to see how it works. [We say,] ‘Screw you. Go to the back of the line. ...’

And it wasn't just Negroponte's attitude that didn't sit well with partners. A $100 computer selling for more than $200 looked to them like a raw deal. Some donors thought that the high cost of the laptop was eating up money better spent immunizing children from measles and providing mosquito netting to fight off malaria.

Even Miller-McCune piled on with a widely quoted story by Timothy Ogden titled “Computer Error,” which suggested that the downfall OLPC might be a blessing in disguise. Ogden argued that, “If the goal is improving education for children in the developing world, there are plenty of better, and cheaper, alternatives.”

In the world of foundations and philanthropies, charities with donations under seven-figures, view organizations like OLPC as a zero-sum game. A dollar spent here is a dollar unavailable to spend there, a large part of Ogden’s thesis. Holden Karnofsky, co-executive director of GiveWell, which evaluates charities says, “If someone only has $100,000 to donate, they’re not going to buy computers. They’re going to give to a proven global health program.”

Large foundations, however, don’t see giving as a zero-sum game. “They look for programs that work,” says Rob Reich, at the Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University. “To use a phrase from a different realm, they want to maximize their return on investment.”

And that's exactly what Negroponte was trying to do as he pulled OLPC out of its 2009 tailspin. That September, he split OLPC into two nonprofits. One was a cutting-edge research foundation based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which he chaired. The other was an association based in Miami and run by Rodrigo Arboleda Halaby, a longtime Negroponte associate and former classmate at MIT.

The business end of OLPC was left to Arboleda, whose mantra is, “OLPC is a mission and not a market.” OLPC has ever been out to make money. The association doesn't talk about sales; it talks about “deployments.” A high-powered entrepreneur and former trustee of Save the Children, Arboleda made two significant changes to OLPC. First, he focused the association's energies where it had its earliest and greatest successes: Eighty-percent of OLPC's first million sales came from Latin America.

Arboleda also looked to Latin America to restaff. He hired Roberto Interiano, a former vice minister of foreign relations for El Salvador, to manage overseas operations. Dr. Antonio Battro, an Argentinian researcher in the field of “neuroeducation” became the association's chief education officer. It was a good fit; OLPC already used his research, while Battro says, “We believe the computer gives the child access to higher levels of logical thinking.”

Arboleda's second big move was to take OLPC off life support. “Our original financial model was devoted to donations,” he says. “You can’t go with hat in hand begging.” The association is now a contract-driven enterprise, working chiefly through governments.

And one more thing: the new tablet being introduced early next year aims square at Africa’s sweet spot. Rwanda has already deployed 110,000 OLPC laptops as part of an effort to create an industrial/service-based economy by 2020. Ten years into the program, its Ministry of Education claims nearly universal school enrollment and a dropout rate falling from 47 percent to 25 percent. Arboleda says he is thinking about dubbing 2012 the Year of Africa.

Matt Keller, OLPC's “global advocate,” and his family will be moving to Addis Abbaba, Ethiopia, where he plans to make the Horn of Africa his base in the next nine months. “What we're asking ourselves,” says the former legislative director of Common Cause and senior program officer for the U.N.'s World Food Program, “is whether children in non-literate communities with no access to schools can teach themselves to read by using the XO-3.”

A hundred million African children have no access to schools, let alone electric power. The back of the XO-3 tablet is a solar panel used for re-charging.

“The XO-3 is a world in a box that can be accessed by any child anywhere. My chief aim is to reach kids off the grid in remote sub-Saharan Africa,” he says of the project also being backed being backed by the artificial intelligence unit at MIT. “We want kids to be connected to other kids everywhere.

“It's not a choice between mosquito netting, health and education,” he insists. “It's not a zero-sum game. When kids are educated, good things happen. A generation of children who learn to think critically, analytically and rationally will change the status quo.”

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