Can Cheap Laptops Create a Brighter Future?

Anh Nguyen
8 June 2012

Technology shapes the world we live in. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford to purchase the technology that so many of us take for granted. One Laptop per Child (OLPC), a non-profit organization, is trying to change this. By providing them with affordable laptop computers, OLPC hopes to give children in developing countries a better opportunity to see, understand, and experience the world.

Developed by the MIT Media Laboratory, the OLPC project has produced an inexpensive laptop, called the XO. The goal is to provide children in developing countries access to an educational tool they would normally not be able to afford, and to get these children excited about learning and sharing information with others. The OLPC project believes that education is an important factor in solving the problems faced by the countries where these children live.

By using inexpensive components, the XO can be produced in bulk and distributed in quantities sufficient to supply entire schools. It runs free and open source software, so it can be easily updated. The laptops are designed to withstand harsh and varying weather conditions and to be connected to a nearby wireless access point at all times. The screen is readable in direct sunlight, and the batteries are made of non-toxic materials. The batteries are charged using an AC power source, and the computer itself uses less power than regular laptops. Previously, a $200 laptop with these specifications had been unheard of.

Other laptop manufacturers took note of this accomplishment and started to build their own low-cost “netbooks.” Thus, OLPC inadvertently inspired competition and sparked the inception of a new product category, where size and cost were usually of greater concern than durability.

So far, the program has not achieved any specific educational goals. In fact, the XO was criticized in Ethiopia for being a distraction in the classroom. With computers being such a novelty, it was difficult to integrate them with existing teaching methods. Schools in Latin American countries saw a general improvement in learning abilities, but scores on reading and math tests did not show any change. One major flaw of the program is the lack of any teacher training. Computers cannot teach the children themselves; there needs to be a program in place to support teachers and track educational goals.

A tablet version of the XO, the XO-3, is currently being developed and is due to be released later this year. It is expected to cost about $100. Hopefully OLPC will be able to work with teachers and software companies to develop programs that better integrate with established curricula, so that these computers can make teaching more effective and exciting without being a distraction in the classroom.

You can get involved with OLPC by volunteering, making a donation, or applying for an internship. Visit for details.

Learn More

OLPC: The History Of One Laptop Per Child (TechRadar)

Region’s One Laptop per Child Plan Has a Future (The Miami Herald)

Anh Nguyen

For the past five years, I have been a lab technician/research assistant in several labs at UBC. I was lucky to have a hybrid job - half the time I'd be collecting samples and doing bench work; the other half I'd be doing bioinformatics.  What's that, you say?  In short, I look at DNA sequence data and try to find reoccurring patterns in order to answer questions like, "How often does this gene occur in our samples?", or, "Is this gene present in all or some of the species we're looking at?". Now I'm looking for something new to do with my bachelor's degree in combined computer science and biology... who knows what that will be? In the meantime, I'm working on my writing skills through volunteering with CurioCity, since writing has always been fun for me. And writing for a younger audience and making science sound cool... well, that's much easier said than done!

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