Bridging the digital divide by making computers for kids as common as pencils


A global education system in which a fully portable personal computer is as common as a pencil or textbook to school children even in the poorest nations is the vision of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor, who next week will detail in Tokyo for the first time an accelerating international drive to mass manufacture a $100 laptop.

The brainchild of Prof. Nicholas Negroponte, the $100 laptop will be a full-color, full-screen portable computer that uses the cost-free Linux operating system. It will be rugged and powered by wind-up and other innovative sources of electricity for use in remote places. It will come enabled for wireless and cell phone Internet access, and "have USB ports galore" to accommodate potential additional peripheral devices such as a printer. Its current specifications are: 500 megahertz (processor speed), one gigabyte of memory, and an XVGA display.

Prof. Negroponte will address experts assembling in Tokyo Monday May 16 at an event entitled, "Toward the Realization of a Ubiquitous Network Society" (May 16-17, Keio Plaza Hotel;, co-sponsored by the Government of Japan (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications), United Nations University and the International Telecommunication Union.

Roughly 400 experts from government, international organizations, the private sector and civil societies will attend the Tokyo conference and technology exhibition, setting the stage for the 2nd phase of the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis, Tunisia, Nov. 16-18. The goals of the Summit include development of information and communication infrastructure that enables universal, sustainable, ubiquitous and affordable access by all, allowing people anywhere on Earth to access information and knowledge.

"Sadly, most educational systems that recognize the important need for computers meet that need with a roomful of desktops to which a child might go for a few hours per week," says Dr. Negroponte. "Computing should be like a pencil, you have your own (versus community pencils) and use it for all kinds of purposes, related to school, home, work and play.

"This model of computing calls for a lightweight, full-screen, full-color, fully-connected laptop. To achieve this, the MIT Media Lab has been developing a $100 laptop, with the idea that this can be provided on a very large scale worldwide. The ultimate goal is to have one laptop per child in the poorest and most remote regions of the world."

Developing cost-free software

For its part, United Nations University through its International Institute for Software Technology in Macau (UNU-IIST), is working on the "Open Computing Initiative," which aims to help developing countries create freely-available "open" software that works in particular on the cost-free Linux operating system.

UNU-IIST Director Mike Reed cites the critical importance, complementary to the $100 laptop initiative, of developing cost-free software adapted for local needs, pointing out projects in the past have given computers to impoverished schools "only to find they were unused because the schools could not pay for the software."

"The combination of a cheap laptop and free software would represent some of the most significant steps ever to bridge the digital divide," says Dr. Reed.

Through the UNU-IIST "Open Computing Initiative," headed by Scott McNeil, software programmers in the West link efforts with developing country counterparts who are new to open source software. Among other aims, the project will:

  • Assist in localisation of open source software so non-English language speakers will have the same access to computing as the West;
  • Create a fully internationalised font development tool that can be used by non-English language users to develop locally required fonts; and
  • Through the extension and localisation of royalty free, open source software, help empower local users to achieve technological self determination.

Related UNU system-wide efforts include research and policy recommendations on environmental issues associated with the Information Society (the growing volume of high-tech trash, for example); promoting knowledge sharing through online learning activities that seek to promote open content and courseware -- the Global Virtual University, for example, and the Water Virtual Learning Centre developed by UNU-INWEH.

Says UN Under Secretary-General Hans van Ginkel, Rector of UNU: "The realization of a universally networked planet could contribute to the sharing of knowledge needed to collectively solve problems of pressing global concern be they related to the environment, poverty, health or security.

"A ubiquitous network society should be consistent with long-term sustainability personal, societal and environmental. Such a society should also be consistent with life-long learning. It is an important challenge for all of us, but in particular for the educational sector."

Dr. Negroponte says that while desktops can be made more cheaply than laptops, the latter's mobility is important.

"Bringing the laptop home engages the family. In one Cambodian village where we have been working, there is no electricity. Thus the laptop is, among other things, the brightest light source in the home."

He says the $100 laptop will accomplish "almost everything" possible with an expensive computer. However, "what it will not do is store a massive amount of data."

The $100 machines will not be sold to individuals but instead be distributed through ministries of education with initial orders limited to a minimum 1 million units. The first units are scheduled to be ready for shipment by the end of next year or early 2007.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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