When Professor Nicholas Negroponte first embarked on his One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, he was met with scepticism and in some cases, outright doubt. Michael Dell, founder and CEO of the world's number two computer maker named after himself, said the idea of a US$100 laptop computer was impossible, while Bill Gates, Microsoft's founder and chairman told him to get a real computer.

Fast forward four years later. What started out as little more than a concept, has now developed into fully functioning computers, gainfully placed in the hands of nearly one million children in 31 developing countries, including Afghanistan, Haiti, Rwanda, Lebanon and Mongolia. Reflecting the diversity of its users, the XO laptop, as this OLPC-designed device is called, is available in 19 languages. Its success was said to have inspired the popularity of the netbook, which has risen from a novelty 18 months ago to garnering 30% market share of the global laptop market today.

But the intention of the Neogroponte, co-founder and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Media Laboratory, was not to promote technological advancement for commercial gain. Rather, his aim is to explore how technology can improve children's education in developing countries and make their future better, and brighter.

Negroponte was speaking at a recent talk organised by Singapore Management University's (SMU) School of Information Systems. At the event, Negroponte presented a sobering example of the extent of children's education in the developing world: in Afghanistan, for example, 25% of teachers are illiterate while another 25% are only one grade ahead of their students. 50% of all school-age children are not in school at all while only 25% of the girls receive some formal education.

Not a statistic

If somebody tells me that we have to train teachers and build schools, I would say to myself it's going to be 20 or 30 years before we can start to change that picture. I asked myself, 'Is there something we can do that is different and where we can leverage on the child himself?' said Negroponte. He believes that just as walking and talking comes naturally to a child through his interaction with his environment, so can learning take place, if the tool for doing so is integrated into a child's everyday environment.

Negroponte said that most people think of technology's role in learning in terms of the need to enhance the teaching process and train the teacher who is conducting the process. He finds that line of thought as not bad, but not particularly relevant. Why so? This is because most of the children in the developing world spend only 14 hours per week in a formal classroom. The other hours, if not transformed into learning experiences, becomes wasted.

Thus, if we want to eliminate poverty and change education in the world, we have to look at something that is integrated into a child's life. What OLPC tries to do is not to fulfil some mathematical statistic, like having two children to a computer, but to help children learn about learning and the passion of learning itself, said Negroponte.

Creating educational opportunities

Indeed, OLPC's mission statement is to create educational opportunities for the world's poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning, he said.

According to Negroponte, children do not need to be taught how to use a laptop; they naturally know how to. He related how he and Media Lab's co-founder, Seymour Papert, in 1982, distributed Apple II microcomputers to school children in a suburb of Dakar, Senegal. One girl, who could speak neither English nor French, started typing on the computer's keyboard within moments of receiving it. Not only do children take to the technology naturally, it also motivates them to remain in school as they are involved in their own learning. Sharing another example, Negroponte recalled how he had provided 20 children in a small, remote Cambodian village with connected laptops for their individual use at school, at home, and in the community. Eight years later today, these students are still in school and have not dropped out.

People believe that children in the developing world drop out of school because their parents need them to work in the fields or that the little girls need to take care of their younger siblings. That isn't really true. The real reason they drop out is is that they find school boring - it isn't fun and relevant, he said.

Negroponte said that as he saw a picture of the Cambodian children poring over their laptops, he wondered how it could be made possible for every child. The challenge was to keep the production cost of the laptop low. The vision of OLPC made it such that if there were 10 extra children, it would need 10 more laptops. The tool was not as elastic as, say, a telecommunications tool, which could serve an increasing number of beneficiaries without incurring additional costs. At that time, the average cost of a laptop was US$1,000. He thus had to rethink the components that went into the device.

There are two approaches to making inexpensive devices. The first way is to use cheap components, cheap labour and really cheap design to make a cheap laptop. But the word 'cheap' in that sense means inexpensive and not very good, he said.

The second way to make an inexpensive laptop is to use very large-scale, very advanced technology and give it a cool design while you're at it. It also has to be a games machine, be able to work in sunlight and without, and be bounced around. It also needs to be Wi-fi enabled and be able to have a network with each other, he added. For each laptop, there were also 100 books pre-loaded, so that it becomes a library of resources to the area where it is delivered to.

Meanwhile, just like the overall technology industry that never stands still, OLPC is already in the midst of developing the next generation XO-2 laptop. According to Negroponte, the new device will look more like a handbook that could be used as a book reader as well as a surface for drawing, writing and games. Other technological initiatives include the development of a no-cost connectivity programme, a million digital books and passing on the development of the laptop's Sugar operating system to the community.

Non-profit's advantages

While many major corporations have launched a comprehensive suite of corporate social responsibility activities, there is some inevitable doubt over how pure the motives of these bottom-line oriented companies are. In contrast, OLPC, as a non-profit organisation, has three significant advantages, said Negroponte.

First, it made its mission very clear and Negroponte said he can look someone in the eye and say that it was about education. Also, OLPC was able to form partnerships with organisations like the United Nations, which would not have been possible if it was bottomline driven. Last, but not least, it could attract talent such as open-source software developer, Jim Gettys, to work on the project with minimal or no pay.

Tracing the milestones of OLPC, Negroponte shared that the project started off with a target of six countries - Argentina, Nigeria, Thailand, Libya, Pakistan and Brazil. These were selected mainly because of their large land mass and sparsely populated multilingual regions. In each case, he went to the country's head of state and asked for a commitment of a least one million laptops per country. This would give OLPC an order of six million XO laptops, thus giving economies of scale to their production. At the peak of the XO laptop engineering effort, there were 3,000 people working on it, said Negroponte. In Taiwan alone there were 700 to 800 people. And all these were people with full-time jobs.

However, in the following two years, for one reason or another, none of the six countries fulfilled their promise to each take up the one million laptops. Hence in 2007, OLPC changed its strategy, rather than hawking the laptops to whom it sees as ideal users, it went instead to countries that wanted the laptops.

Under the revised strategy, two South American countries, Uruguay and Peru, along with their governments, ended up becoming two of the most vocal advocates, said Negroponte.

Today, every child in Uruguay has a laptop, where each child is given an Internet account to hook up to the government-owned telecommunications network. In Peru there are 350,000 laptops used, mainly to encourage reading. All laptops in Peru are distributed in the remote areas outside its capital city, Lima. Half of the children who own the laptops teach their parents to read and write and they often have group learning and sharing with their peers.

That to me is what OLPC is all about. That's why I can stand up and say it's an education project; if these kids are teaching their parents how to read and write, that is very big change, said Negroponte.