A Learning Tool a Child Can Love

Technologist and Futurist
How One Laptop per Child got started, and how its rainproof, sunproof machines with “cute little ears” were designed to appeal to kids across the globe.
  • Transcript


Question: How did One Laptop Per Child get started?

Nicholas Negroponte: Well, One Laptop Per Child is based on the theories of constructionism and those were founded originally by Jean Piaget in Geneva and more contemporaneously with us, at least, by a man named Seymour Papert who was also at MIT. Seymour made an observation in 1968 that was very simple, but very profound, and that is, if a child writes a computer program, that child is engaged in the closest approximation we can come to thinking about thinking. And what is sort of even more important, is that when you write a computer program, it never works the first time, so you have to go through a stage called debugging. The process of debugging, going an correcting the program and then looking at the behavior, and then correcting it again, and finally iteratively getting it to a working program, is in fact, very close to learning about learning. And what Seymour observed back in the late '60's, and early '70's, was that we didn't really teach thinking, we taught subjects and that we went through school learning particular bodies of knowledge, but we never learned learning itself. And that was the real influence for One Laptop Per Child because, in the '70's, we started to work with computers with children in New York and other places and very poor districts. This wasn't just in fancy private schools.

Then in the early '80's, we were doing this in Africa and Asia and South America in very remote, rural parts of the world. That was the beginning and it all started with constructionism. It started with learning learning and children being active agents in their own education.

Question: How did you design a laptop specially tailored to children’s needs?

Nicholas Negroponte: Well, the laptop is designed to be child-centric in a number of very important ways. First of all, there are some simple properties because when we say child, we mean six to 12 years old. We really mean primary education. And as soon as you have that age group, you have to make it pretty indestructible, you've got to be able to drop it from six or seven feet; it's going to be stepped on, it's going to be carried in the rain, and so, it gets subjected to treatment that's more like military equipment than it is office equipment. So, that's one aspect of it, which is a bit mundane, but is certainly true.

Another aspect is, you want it to work in the sunlight. When kids are outdoors, you want them to be able to read books on it, you want them -- it doesn't mean they have to be in the baking sun, but your laptop and my laptop really don't work outdoors because the screen technology just is not reflective screen, it is transmitted and it gets washed out very easily, so we had to do some again very pragmatic things; make the display, what we call a dual mode that it works both reflective and transmissive.

And then there are other aspects of it that have more to do with the emphasis on collaboration, so these laptops talked to the neighboring laptops. And so there are these cute little ears on them that are the antennas for WiFi, but they are also antennas that if you had a room full, or a neighborhood full of let's say 50 laptops, each one could talk to the other and they can actually relay messages. So, you could sort of daisy-chain to connect all of these laptops together. And the interface shows what other kids are using it, a little bit like a cell phone, or some of the so-called, social media that we have today, where you're buddy lists and things like that, are embedded in our laptops. So, it's not a diminutive office machine, it is really a children's machine, and it was designed as one from the very beginning.

Question: Do you worry about the laptops growing rapidly obsolete?

Nicholas Negroponte: Well, in the world of computers and just devices in general, the lifespan, or the shelf life, is relatively short just because technology moves so fast and the costs drop so quickly and the power, whether it's computing power or memory rises very, very quickly. On the other hand, the shelf life isn't quite as short as advertisers and companies would want you to believe. There's a lot of life in these machines that is beyond what is advertised. So, we designed them for a five-year lifespan. And that five years drives us to do things, which again, normal manufactures don't do, namely you can charge and discharge our battery about five to 10 times more often than you can a normal battery because we expect them to be used a lot longer.

The evidence that this could be true can be seen in automobiles. You go to developing countries today and you'll find automobiles that you haven't seen since you're childhood and that's because they really are valuable, they're taken care of, they're repaired, and when something breaks, they just don't buy a new one, they actually fix it. And if the product is no longer on the market, they make it. And we think these laptops will be treated that way as well because the ones that we have out at the moment, the kids really take care of them. They love them dearly and they sleep with them in almost every case. We have about 1.5 million of them in the field today in 31 countries, and I would guess that 50% of the kids that have them, sleep with their laptops and little boys get their sisters to make bags, and there's a whole ownership and a sort of a feeling towards these machines, which, yes, in five years they should get another one, and it will be more advanced then, but one doesn't wait.

Recorded on December 4, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen