Have Laptop, Will Learn?

By Tom Peters | Last Thursday's New York Times contained an article (a no-cost subscription is required) that provides a progress report on the $100 laptop initiative, officially known as One Laptop per Child (OLPC). The project is based at MIT's Media Lab and was first announced in January 2005. Led by Nicholas Negroponte, the OLPC project proclaims its main outcome goal thus: “a unique harmony of form and function; a flexible, ultra low-cost, power-efficient, responsive, and durable machine with which nations of the emerging world can leapfrog decades of development—immediately transforming the content and quality of their children's learning.”

$100 Laptop Prototype, image by Design Continuum That last part about transforming learning has caused much of the rub. Many educators and public-policy theorists are wondering if OLPC is engaged in dangerous or frivolous activity by thinking that such basics to any formal educational system, such as teacher training and curriculum development, can be effectively sidestepped by putting laptops in the hands of the children you wish to have learn.

Other than general support for the humanitarian goal of providing better educational experiences for the children of the world's developing nations, why should librarians care about the $100 laptop initiative? Here are three reasons: Tang--an innovation resulting from space program
  1. Whenever anyone tries to achieve something never before achieved, or even just build a radically better mousetrap, unexpected breakthroughs and outcomes often occur. Just as the space program gave us Tang and space blankets, the $100 laptop program already has given us better, cheaper screens. As John Markoff mentions in his NYT article, Mary Lou Jepsen, a member of the OLPC team and a former chip designer, developed a modification to conventional laptop displays that cut the manufacturing cost by $40, reduced power consumption by 80 percent, and made the display clearly visible in direct sunlight. These new, more efficient displays could help the e-book business that, to date, has been primarily yet another instance of a great idea poorly executed.
  2. Whenever a manufacturer shows that a harmonious, flexible, and durable widget can be constructed at a cost far below the current market price for widgets, that tends to drive down the cost of all widgets from all manufacturers. Granted, the first batch of laptops have cost closer to $150 per unit, but, if the OLPC initiative proves successful, we may see prices for all types of computer equipment soften a bit.
  3. Last but not least, this whole debate about the best way to jump start learning and education among the children of the developing nations could impact libraries worldwide. Seymour Papert, an adviser to the OLPC project, had the idea attributed to him in the Times article that giving computers and access to information to students will help them learn how to learn better than educational bureaucracies, traditional teaching strategies, and testing. Dare I say that we may be witnessing the emergence of Learning 2.0?
The NY Times articles generated more than 180 reader comments within a few hours after it was posted. Commenter #8, sounding like a librarian, summed up the bold new idea in one sentence, “I believe access to information is education.”

Man with a Hoe, Millet It seems to me that libraries always have been more in the camp of self-directed learning. Although many libraries exist in some formal educational environment (e.g., school, college, and university libraries), they try to create an information-rich learning environment—with lots of structure supplied by librarians—that users can explore with their own learning styles and at their individual paces.

So, if this project is a huge success and actually causes some global reconceptualization of what learning is all about, it could have a positive impact on libraries. On the other hand, having Intel, Microsoft, and the worldwide education establishment poo-poohing your initiative is, as we used to say in Iowa, a tough row to hoe.
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