David Kirkpatrick asks: “Nick Negroponte wants to give $100 laptops to poor kids around the globe. It’s a noble goal, but is it feasible?”
Negroponte’s team is seeking not only a technological breakthrough but also a teaching breakthrough. They believe that illiterate kids can, with a little instruction, learn to use computers on their own and then use the laptops to teach themselves to read. After that comes math, historyyou name it. Alan Kay, a Xerox Parc veteran, is working with MIT mathematician and educational theorist Seymour Papert to build software that “watches” each student and makes suggestions. Papert’s “constructionist learning” approach encourages children to reach conclusions through trial and error.
The impediments, needless to say, are numerous and daunting. “Most schools in the developing world don’t even have textbooks,” says Allen Hammond of the World Resources Institute. “How the heck are they going to pay for Internet access?” Even Hector Ruiz, CEO of AMD, which gave $2 million to OLPC, says success will require “developing larger ecosystems around … tech support, application development, training, and business models for the Internet service providers.” Those elements aren’t close to being in place, and Ruiz thinks the laptop’s price won’t drop to $100 for two to three years. Yet even skeptics are loath to pooh-pooh Negroponte’s activism: “If he can pull it off,” Hammond says, “my hat’s off to him.”