Nicholas Negroponte is the co-founder (with Jerome B. Wiesner) of the MIT Media Lab (1985), which he directed for its first 20 years. A graduate of MIT, Negroponte was a pioneer in the field of computer-aided design and has been a member of the MIT faculty since 1966. He gave the first TED talk in 1984, as well as 13 since. He is author of the 1995 best seller, Being Digital, which has been translated into more than 40 languages. In 2005 he founded the non-profit One Laptop per Child, which deployed $1 billion of laptops for primary education in the developing world. In the private sector, Negroponte served on the board of directors of Motorola (for 15 years) and was general partner in a venture capital firm specializing in digital technologies for information and entertainment. He has personally provided start-up funds for more than 40 companies, including Zagats and Wired magazine.
Question: What evidence is there that One Laptop Per Child is working?
Nicholas Negroponte: Well perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence that I have found that this program is working, is that everywhere we go, truancy drops to zero and we go into some places where it's as high as 30% of the kids, and suddenly it's zero. And we have been doing experiments, before the actual laptop existed, for eight or nine years. And by that, I mean, kids with laptops in remote parts of the world, as best we can tell, all of those kids are in school still today, eight years, nine years later. And that's important because there is a belief that children drop out of school because they're needed by their families to work, or the little girls are needed to take care of younger siblings. It turns out that's not really true. Kids drop out of school mostly because school is boring and not particularly relevant, so, just the statistics on truancy and how long kids stay in school, to me, is very, very good evidence.
Then we have other things happening that are again, somewhat surprising. For example, in Peru, as many at 50% of the kids because they are in remote rural villages in the case of Peru are teaching their parents how to read and write. That is such a game changer in the sense, the role of the child is very different. It's not looking as a child as a recipient for whom you have some curriculum that you've figured out what they should learn and they digest it and then you test them to see if they've digested it, this is really actually children being the agents of change, and the self-esteem that children get from this, the joy that the parents get from it, the whole sort of village changes. Life changes in a very fundamental way. And so, we see that kind of think happening, time and time again. There are now so many machines out there in so many different places, there are 30 anecdotes a day.
But they all come back to basically showing one thing and that is the passion that children have for learning. And when we go to school, very often, we don't see that passion because the way school is run, the disciplinary nature of it and the rote learning are so, sort of, offensive actually, that children sort of lose that passion more often than not. And so, one of the things that I think this laptop will do is be the death of rote learning because rote learning is a killer for most of us and for some people, it really excludes them.
Question: How can teachers and students make the most out of a new laptop?
Nicholas Negroponte: Well, let me do it from both perspectives. In the case of a teacher, what we have to do; now "we," whether it's One Laptop Per Child as an organization, or the in-country parent of the project, is give the teacher enough preparation to have self-confidence enough to let the child show them how to use it.
In the case of the child, you don't have to do very much for a child to get started. A lot of people told me at the beginning of this project that, you know, you can't just give a kid a laptop and walk away. Well, you know, you sort of can, actually. You really can, it's quite amazing. You can hand a closed box to a child that's never seen a computer, or doesn't use an automobile, or doesn't have electricity at home or at school, and they'll open that box and they’ll have that laptop working pretty quickly.
Now, obviously some guided experience is going to benefit everybody and you prefer that, but what we see is the teachers are very often very apprehensive and then very quickly realize that this is the best teaching that they've ever done in their life. And so, I can give you -- let me give you one anecdote. In Uruguay, the President of the country announced that this would be his legacy, "One laptop per child." That he would do every single child within two years and as an aside, they completed that a couple of months ago. So, every child in Uruguay has a little green laptop.
When he made that announcement, a teacher, who had been teaching for 30 years, went to the Social Security office and asked for early retirement. "I'm not going to be able to teach in this new environment, so I'd like early retirement." They told her to come back in six weeks. And during the intervening period, the laptops arrived in her classroom. Everybody was unpacking them, the kids are using -- within two days; she went back to the Social Security office and asked for late retirement. It just took her two days.
We get five comments we get from most every teacher that's involved. The first comment is that discipline problems go down in the classroom. The second comment is they've never loved teaching so much. The third comment is that they've never had parents so deeply involved with school, which is really very, very interesting. The next comment is that is almost universal is not just that truancy drops to zero, but that the energy level in the classroom is just undeniably different. And the last comment, which is perhaps the only negative one from their point of view, is that they just get swamped by emails from the kids. And since these laptops can exchange information, whether or not there's a cell phone grid or some other telecommunications, the teacher's suddenly gets lots of questions. Very often kids don't ask questions in class because they don't want to be seen asking a question, in either sense. Either they are embarrassed to ask it, or they don't want their colleagues to think that they're sort of goodie goodies. But at the privacy of your keyboard, you can ask a question and suddenly the role of the teacher changes and becomes much more active on an individual basis than it had been before.
Recorded on December 4, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen