Arahuay (Peru): Doubts about whether poor, rural children really can benefit from quirky little computers evaporate as quickly as the morning dew in this hilltop Andean village, where 50 primary school children got machines from the One Laptop Per Child project six months ago.
These offspring of peasant families whose monthly earnings rarely exceed the cost of one of the $188 (Rs7,426) laptops—people who can ill afford pencil and paper much less books—can’t get enough of their “XO” laptops.
At breakfast, they’re already powering up the combination library/videocam/audio recorder/music maker/drawing kits. At night, they’re dozing off in front of them—if they’ve managed to keep older siblings from waylaying the coveted machines.
Elementary: A file photo of a student typing on his laptop in Arahuay, Peru. Children here prove that one can revolutionize education by giving a simple but feature-packed laptop to the worlds’ poorest children.
“It’s really the kind of conditions that we designed for,” Walter Bender, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) spinoff programme One Laptop Per Child, said of this agrarian backwater up a precarious dirt road.
Founded in 2005 by former MIT Media Lab director Nicholas Negroponte, One Laptop has retreated from early boasts that developing world governments would snap up millions of the pint-sized laptops at $100 each.
In a backhanded tribute, One Laptop now faces homegrown competitors everywhere from Brazil to India—and a full-court press from Intel Corp.’s more power-hungry Classmate. But no competitor approaches the XO in innovation. It is hard drive-free, runs on the Linux operating system and stretches wireless networks with “mesh” technology that lets each computer in a village relay data to the others.
Mass production began last month and Negroponte says he expects at least 1.5 million machines to be sold by next November. Even that would be far less than Negroponte originally envisioned. The higher-than-initially-advertised price and a lack of the Windows operating system, still being tested for the XO, have dissuaded many potential government buyers.
Peru made the single biggest order to date—more than 272,000 machines—in its quest to turn around a primary education system that the World Economic Forum (WEF) recently ranked last among 131 countries surveyed. Uruguay was the No. 2 buyer of the laptops, inking a contract for 100,000. Negroponte said 150,000 more laptops will get shipped to countries including Rwanda, Mongolia, Haiti, and Afghanistan in early 2008 through “Give One, Get One”, a US-based promotion ending 31 December in which one can buy a pair of laptops for $399 and donate one or both.
The children of Arahuay prove One Laptop’s transformative conceit: that one can revolutionize education and democratize the Internet by giving a simple, durable, power-stingy but feature-packed laptop to the worlds’ poorest kids.
“What they (the children) work with most is the (built-in) camera. They love to record,” says Maria Antonieta Mendoza, an education ministry psychologist studying the Arahuay pilot project to devise strategies for the big rollout when the new school year begins in March.
Before the laptops, the only cameras the children at Santiago Apostol school saw in this hamlet of 800 people, were carried by tourists coming for festivals or the local Inca ruins.
Arahuay’s lone industry is agriculture. Surrounding fields yield avocados, mangoes, potatoes, corn, alfalfa and an Andean fruit called cherimoya.
Many adults share only weekends with their children, spending the work week in fields many hours’ walk from town and relying on charities to help keep their families nourished. When they finish school, young people tend to abandon the village.
Peru’s head of educational technology, Oscar Becerra, is betting the One Laptop programme can reverse this rural exodus to the squalor of Lima’s shantytowns four hours away.
It’s the best answer yet to “a global crisis of education” in which curricula have no relevance, he said. “If we make education pertinent, something the student enjoys, then it won’t matter if the classroom’s walls are straw or the students are sitting on fruit boxes.”
Indeed, Arahuay’s elementary school population rose by 10 when families learned the laptop pilot was coming, said Guillermo Lazo, the school’s director.