Thursday, November 30, 2006

$150, Third-World Laptop...Will it Change the World?

Today's NY Times article titled, "For $150, Third-World Laptop Stirs a Big Debate" brings to light some extremely interesting discussion. Namely, what are the essentials for educational and economic development in third world countries? Nicholas Negroponte, an MIT computer researcher, began the $100 laptop program which aims at creating laptops for the third world for under $100. Currently there at $150 but projected to be under $100 by 2008. This might sound easy to some since Dell doesn't seem to be to far off the mark with their own $500 laptop, however, there are different conditions to overcome for use of a laptop in the third world. For example:
  • "Each machine will come with a simple mechanism for recharging itself when a standard power outlet is not available."
  • A foot pedal and hand pulled device can be used to generate electricity.
  • The computers lack a hard drive but use solid state memory instead, and the processors turn off automatically when not in use.
  • The software is based on the free Linux Operating system, a rival of Windows. It will also used a stripped down web browser, some simple learning programs, and Google's gmail for email.
  • A video camera lens is included on the machine for video conferencing and digital pictures.
  • To include wireless network capability, they use a range of methods depending on local conditions. "In some countries, like Libya, satellite downlinks will be used. In others, like Nigeria, the existing cellular data network will provide connections, and in some places specially designed long-range Wi-Fi antennas will extend the wireless Internet to rural areas.
I am particularly excited about the fact that these computers will be able to access the internet. It says in the NY Times article, "When students take their computers home after school, each machine will stay connected wirelessly to its neighbors in a self-assembling “mesh” at ranges up to a third of a mile. In the process each computer can potentially become an Internet repeater, allowing the Internet to flow out into communities that have not previously had access to it." In my opinion, therein lies the keys to educational and economic development. If these computers could not tap into the Internet, I would have said this was a wasted project and that the money could have been better spent elsewhere. But the fact that they can connect to the ultimate worldwide collaborative resource center that is the Internet, brings forth infinite potential for learning, transformation, and economic change. In addition to the current set up of the computer, I would recommend that, if possible, the computers given to teachers come equipped with Moodle, an open source learning management system as well as Open Office, an open source Office suite (similar to MS Office, but free). In addition the web-browsers should come equipped with pre-installed bookmarks to some of the greatest educational websites available. I'd be willing to contribute a list of sites I've found over the years to the project. Maybe a wiki could be established to collect these sites. In fact, this gives me an idea for a project. I'll blog about that later.

I've posted in a previous blog article that Africa is becoming the largest consumer of cell phones in the world. This is awesome to hear because it represents the wireless network that is being built and that computers can tap into. I don't know what the connection speed will be like for these computers and networks, however, making them wireless accessible is a step in the right direction. My university, Bowling Green State University, is passionate about bringing education to the third world via distance technologies and hopefully it won't be long before students at BGSU share a classroom with not only visiting international students, but with people actually living in all parts of the world. What a rich learning environment that would be for everyone.

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