The OLPC laptop, the machine which promised to bring cheap educational computing to Third World countries, is set to come in almost twice the $100 guide price. According to most recent estimates the Children’s Machine XO will be available at $188. Whilst some have expressed disappointment at this, I see no real reason to worry. Yes, initially it may be more expensive – but when these are being produced in huge quantities the component price should plummet. Also, the US dollar, the currency in which most of the components are being bought, is at almost a record low.The really important thing about the OLPC project is the pedagogy and the thinking behind it. A visit to laptop.org demonstrates how innovative this actually is.
Schools feel obliged to play a catch-up game to cutting-edge use of technology by industry. This is something that will lead ultimately to frustration, money being wasted on unused (or underused) equipment, and disillusionment. Instead what should be happening – and hopefully will happen with the widespread adoption of machines such as the XO – is that laptop built from the ground up to be in line with sound pedagogical principles will be used instead.
I’m all for the XO to be used in Third World countries, where the antennas of the laptop create a ‘mesh network’ sharing the nearest Internet connection. However, on a practical level, I’m very much looking forward to the pedagogic possibilities of transforming my own classroom. The XO is ‘about the size of a textbook and lighter than a lunchbox’ and can has a hinge meaning it can be used as a standard laptop, or flipped back on itself like an ebook. Within the classroom this would mean the end of textbooks and the dawn of wikibooks, something I’ve discussed over at teaching.mrbelshaw.co.uk on a number of occasions.*
It would also mean students developing digital literacy skills – the subject of my Ed.D. thesis. There are a number of competitors to the XO, including the ASUS Eee laptop. Like the XO, the Eee runs Linux, has Flash-based storage, and is cheap ($199). Some are betting on existing laptop manufacturers to beat the OLPC team at their own game. I’m not so sure. Whilst the Eee and similar devices may be cheap, they haven’t been built from the ground-up with children in mind: they are not so robust, the corners to the device aren’t so rounded, the battery doesn’t last so long, there’s is no reversible hinge, and the interface is slightly more technical.** What is good, however, is that the educational part of the Linux community is likely to grow stronger and more focused, and laptops within education are likely to become as commonplace as textbooks.
** If you’re interested in some of the innovative features of the XO – for example how it can boast a 13-hour battery life – you might want to check out this BBC page, amongst others.