To some it could be a toy — white and green plastic with a colorful X on the cover. Kids can use it to make music, read stories and play games.
To others it’s a computer, a low-cost, low-power, Internet-ready device that networks with other similar machines being distributed around the world.
“It’s not a computer,” said Kellogg School third-grader Edward Grant. “It’s a learning platform.”
Whatever people think it is, it’s the brainchild of Nicholas Negroponte, founder and chairman of One Laptop Per Child, an ambitious nonprofit organization trying to connect children all over the world to education — and each other — in the hopes of teaching even the poorest kids on earth.
“There are about 1.2 billion children in the kindergarten to sixth-grade age in the world,” estimated Negroponte, who on Friday received UCSB’s Technology Management Program’s “Leader in Innovation” award at the Kellogg multipurpose room. “Of those, roughly half have no electricity at home or at school, and as many as 100,000 don’t go to school at all.”
About 75 percent of school-age girls in Afghanistan don’t go to school, said Negroponte. About 50 percent of kids in Nigeria and Pakistan don’t get any education at all, he said.
The idea of supplying these durable textbook-sized machines is an effort that goes back to the late 1960s, when Negroponte was at MIT, researching how kids learn. In the 1980s Negroponte was involved in sending Apple II machines to developing countries like Colombia and Pakistan.
“It was only about five years ago that we decided the time was right to build something from the bottom up that was for children, that had these core concepts of learning built right into the device,” Negroponte said.
The interface, an open-source system called “Sugar,” can be downright foreign, as some adults admitted Friday. But for the kids in the room it was fairly intuitive.
Kellogg’s third-graders are going to be getting a lot more time on the machines, thanks to a partnership between the school, One Laptop Per Child and the John Osogo Secondary School in western Kenya. Leading the charge are UCSB students from various departments like Education, Computer Engineering, Psychology, Global and International Studies and ECE.
While the partnership is still in the early stages, said UCSB computer engineering student Joshua Chamberlain, eventually the goal is to set up a group that will be more focused on funding the program and training its partners.
“Eventually we want to train people to go abroad and educate teachers to teach more effectively with this,” he said.
According to Kellogg principal Nancy Knight, the aim for her school is to get 190 laptops — 10 for each class at the school. Kellogg was chosen by UCSB because of a combination of supportive parents in the community and Kellogg third-grade teacher D.J. Perry, whom Knight credits for his leadership in classroom technology.
Just a few years ago, the venture had its share of criticism, said Negroponte, chief among which was plain doubt that the attempt to give a laptop to as many children as possible would work. Now, he said, there’s a market for the laptops, both outside the United States as well as in the country.
“By this time next year, this form of laptop, which is being called a ‘netbook,’ will represent 50 percent (of the world laptop) market,” he said.
More than a half-million of the devices have already been distributed, with a couple hundred thousand more in the works.
Still, the slowing economy — here and abroad — might be another hurdle for One Laptop Per Child to clear, he said. But Negroponte’s optimistic that the world will continue to catch on.
“When we’re distributing something like this, we’re distributing hope,” he said.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org