One laptop for the price of five

I love the One Laptop per Child project (David Weinberger takes one for a spin here) and think the criticism of it motivated by PC nitwittery (‘you should solve every other problem the poor have before giving them a laptop’) or competitive greed (‘how dare you make an inexpensive machine with inexpensive software?’) is ridiculous, even offensive.

My only complaint about the laptop crusade is that they won’t sell them to us rich people. I think they should — at wildly inflated prices. Sell me a $100 laptop for $500 and thus I’ll buy laptops for four children somewhere in the world. That beats a PBS pledge gift.

And let my school district, which is rich, buy them for $300 each, giving each child here a machine to use in school — which they don’t have now — and thus subsidizing laptops for schools that could not afford them. The Robin Hood gambit. I’ll bet the investment my school makes now in classroom machines and laptop carts is equivalent. And there are fringe benefits: The school could save on textbooks by putting curriculum on the network. The students could all now work in collaborative tools — class wikis. The town gets the start of a mesh network. And the students get tools they should have. My son is lugging an 8-pound Dell around to class (we don’t want to bang up the more precious, working Mac) so he can take notes and the teachers love that he does; they’d like to see every student taking good notes and being connected. At CUNY, we got every student a Mac laptop and I can tell you it’s great working without technology barriers to learning.

This also changes the competitive landscape for the PC business. Machines will get cheaper and use more open software to do so, which will put them in more hands.

Most important, this changes the economics of scale for the laptop crusade, too. The more they can make, the cheaper they will be to make (they actually cost about $150 each now). Demand is a good thing.

To start, I’d take 100 of these great machines and sell them on eBay as a benefit. I have no doubt that early adopters would stampede to get their hands on the things and help spread the technology they adore to the world. The bidding starts at $1,000. How’s that for a markup?

  • http://deleted Mike G

    How about the criticism of it motivated by the idea that teaching kids to cut and paste is not nearly as useful as teaching them to read, write and think?

  • Northcoast

    “read, write and think” … we leave that to 3rd world countries now.

  • http://brooklynkitchen.net/brooklyn-kitchen-blog.html Brooklyn Kitchen

    “At CUNY, we got every student a Mac laptop and I can tell you it’s great working without technology barriers to learning.”

    Maybe I’m old fashioned, but the lack of a computer doesn’t seem to be a barrier to learning, at least it hasn’t been for thousands of years.

    Also, does anybody know anything about these $100 jobs? Do they work? Can they run useful software?

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    Mike,
    Jeesh. How about the idea that having a connection to the world of information might be helpful?

    Brooklyn,
    Well it is a barrier when it’s technology you’re teaching, which is what I do.

  • http://www.ericthansen.com Eric Hansen

    This could lead to bus-loads of computer geeks heading to the border to buy inexpensive laptops.

    Mike,
    Your polarization of cutting and pasting data, with reading, writing and thinking, implies that the act is fundamentally different from cutting and pasting physical objects. With so much electronic information in the world, instruction on how to access and manipulate data complements reading, writing and thinking.

    Brooklyn,
    I’ve grown up with a computer and am about to enter the job market after college. For thousands of years, we didn’t have an information economy dependent on computers. For thousands of years we weren’t inundated with screens in most of our daily lives. For thousands of years the lack of technology didn’t present a barrier to learning, but technology is another advance in the practice of education just like the previous ones.

    These “$100 jobs” work very well and can run any piece of software (freely available under open source agreements) that 99.99% of people would find useful.

  • http://deleted Mike G

    Jeff,

    Admittedly, I’m a Luddite parent of kids who go to a Waldorf school, where we still believe in sitting quietly and listening to stories. But I really believe– even though I make my living at a computer– that my young kids (2nd grade and preschool) are getting a lot more out of learning to knit (really!), out of playing on the beach in rain or snow, out of being driven to use their imagination and handle the physical world and interact with each other than they would get, or will get for some years, from a box that’s very good at spoonfeeding information and providing reward cues that make you think you’ve gotten a lot more out of it than you really have.

    There’s a substantial literature on this subject; check it out. The excitement of having a whizbang box in front of every child just might fade next to the excitement of helping every child discover the world they live in and the body of art in all forms that has been created.

  • http://deleted Mike G

    “Your polarization of cutting and pasting data, with reading, writing and thinking, implies that the act is fundamentally different from cutting and pasting physical objects”

    Exactly.

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  • http://www.p2p-blog.com Janko Roettgers

    I think there used to be a petition or pledge with the same idea. Sell the OLPC for 300 bucks in western countries and make the earnings pay for more laptops for kids who really need them. A few thousand people signed up, but I guess the whole thing went nowhere.

  • http://www.drcookie.blogspot.com JennyD

    Believe it or not, cutting and pasting is not the same as reading and writing. It’s true.

    And a laptop is just a tool. It depends on what you do with it.

    I know undergrads at my prestigious university who lug their skinny little macs to class, and open them up, and GASP surf the web rather than take notes. And guess what, they are not looking up source material about the lecture. They are looking at MySpace, and IMing each other, etc.

    We have class wikis and class web-based discussions, and believe students view these as assignments not some neato techno cool thing that makes learning fun! No one spontaneously bursts into posting on the class website about some amazing insight into some topic we’ve been talking about in class.

    Perhaps the rare student wants to do this, but having taught several classes using every internet, techno, bell and whistle the university can offer to facilitate “learning” I cannot say that technology makes the class better or worse in terms of intellectual content, or amount of learning. What makes a difference is whether the class comes prepared, whether they are focused in class on discussions, whether they ask questions, and whether the instructor is listening, working, thinking, demanding, and doing all that good old-fashioned pedagogical wizardry that helps people learn new things.

  • Stephen

    I agree. I want one too. This likely would spawn a few spinoffs like laptop for the elderly and laptop for the mentally handicapped, etc. Would this work for my grandmother or aunt, both of whom seem mystified by the complexity? There’s no easy way to remove or hide this complexity from them. 5 functions would be enough; browser, word processor, music player, email, im.

  • http://brooklynkitchen.net/brooklyn-kitchen-blog.html Brooklyn Kitchen

    Eric-

    It makes sense that technology know-how helps you enter the job market, but is the point of education to transition solely to transition you to the job market or is there something more that should be conveyed? If you think that college was merely a means to a paycheck, then your college utterly failed you.

    Do you need a screen to read and understand Moby Dick? Do you need a computer to help you understand history? What about art?

    The fact that Mr. Jarvis has claified his point helps me understand what he was trying to say, and I agree that you can’t teach technology without using a computer. But a blanket statement that says the lack of a computer hinders the learning process sounds rather foolish to me.

  • http://cellar.org/iotd.php Undertoad

    Surely if there was a market for a small but functional computer with a QWERTY keyboard, that could do email, messaging, web, and bluetooth, with a battery that would last weeks without recharging…

    …and then add a wireless phone, digital camera that can do still or video, and you’ve got the Treo 680… $399 unlocked for your carrier, or $199 tied to Cingular.

  • http://hyalineskies.com/ Eston

    I swear that Nicholas Negroponte has brought up this same point at a conference I’ve seen or article I’ve read somewhere. I’m not sure what the state of it is now, but it makes a decent amount of sense in subsidising the product.

    Also, would opening these up to the early adopters be all that bad? The open-source nature of the OLPC system would give developers a springboard for software that they and their cohorts would find useful, not to mention software that would be just about guaranteed to work on the machines given to the students in developing countries. It’s really a win-win situation.

    As for Brooklyn Kitchen: I’m a college student and the majority of the students that I know here perceive college as something exactly for that purpose: the education here is little more than what is necessary to gain something of monetary worth in the job market. Maybe the University has failed them; maybe they are apathetic toward the idea of education as a worldview-altering philosophy and care only about it as a mean to a materialistic end. I don’t think that way, but I could muster up probably well over 1,000 students that do.

    And Undertoad, I think you’re really missing the point. I can go support Palm and buy a Treo for $400 or spend $400 and give 3 machines to children that need them more than Palm needs an extra $300 of my money.

  • http://www.annebonney4kids.blogspot.com Brit

    A laptop can take the place of dozens of textbooks. A laptop can stay current. Textbooks go out of date fast.

  • Peter

    And you might be surprised to see the cost of textbooks these days. Even in elementary schools.

    I want laptops to be cheap so that schools won’t have to keep them under lock and key the way they have to now.

  • http://cellar.org/iotd.php Undertoad

    Yeah Eston, but you won’t do that. You won’t buy a crippled $100 laptop with a hand-crank for $400 just because $300 of it is going to charity. You’ll buy devices with 10% profit margins that improve your productivity.

  • http://www.olpcnews.com/ wayan

    I hate to ruin this party, but they’re not $100 laptops. They are thousand dollar laptops and OLPC projects it needs $150 Billion for start-up costs.

    That would be 3x the entire Federal Department of Education budget for 2007.

  • FuturePastNow

    Jeff, I agree completely. The OLPC project is a great idea; I don’t know if it can succeed, but it’s a great idea, and that’s more than the naysayers have.

    I’d pay $400 for one of these things.

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  • Ian Smith

    That sounds like great advice. I’d recommend that anyone looking for used student books to go to Liverpool Student Books. I’ve used them before as they are pretty cheap and charge no commission!

    Hope that helps!

  • http://julynation.com july

    Bon Jovi donated laptops to under privileged children. I forgot where I seen it