Cheap Kids' Laptop: 'Ultimate Learning Tool'

If the One Laptop Project keeps its promises, the small green US$100 laptop could very well revolutionize teaching in developing nations. Computerworld Denmark asked Jan Soelberg, an expert from the school of education at the University of Aarhus, to try the computer.

The hyped One Laptop per Child project at MIT could potentially be a revolutionary tool for education in developing nations, said Soelberg after he tested the PC at Computerworld's office.

"It's one of the potentially most interesting contributions in the effort to equalize some of the differences we face in the world today," said Soelberg.

He became aware of the project six months ago. If the PC and project can live up to their promises, the computer could become the ultimate learning tool, said Soelberg. None of the functions that are in modern computers are missing, he said.

"It can work as a book and create sound files and play them. It seems like there is nothing that it can't do," Soelberg said.

The PC could become an important contribution in democratizing other parts of the world because of its ability to open a new world of books and Internet to kids in the developing nations, he said. They will get a chance to see the world in a new way that allows them access to information that they probably never could have gotten elsewhere, Soelberg said.

After testing the green-white computer for a while, Soelberg began to worry if the machine is stable enough. Several times during the 30-minute test the computer crashed or froze while opening a program. Possible explanations include the fact that the model was an early version and that one has to be more patient with the slower processor and smaller amount of RAM.

"It is a little slow. If you want to keep the children interested you will have to have a stable system that won't cause frustration after a while," Soelberg said.

Other efforts are also trying to help developing countries by adding IT to education. According to Soelberg, a project in Nigeria is testing radio transmitted teaching received on a two-way, heavy duty handset that allows the children to respond to the teacher.

"The radio is not only used for teaching purposes but also for general information and entertainment," Soelberg said.

According to Soelberg, the project is interesting because a lot of projects normally tend to be very IT-fascinated and therefore are also very complicated. This means that a lot of things can go wrong.

"With radio communication we're at a technological level where everyone can participate. We also know that it is very stable system," Soelberg said.

Despite the much larger potential of the PC, Soelberg has his doubts about whether it will become a natural part of everyday teaching. He hopes the computers will find their way to the classrooms. As for now, according to Soelberg, no governments have signed any contracts for the project.

"There has to be steps taken at a national level in order to get anywhere with this. At this point OLPC are only negotiating with governments," Soelberg said.

Worldwide a number of children are testing the computers. If the nations choose to participate the project could turn out to be an important tool in teaching, Soelberg said. Partly because of large distribution and partly because of the chance to talk to others about how to avoid technical problems, he said.

"The training of the teachers is crucial. The PC is only a tool and when used in the learning process the teacher becomes a key person. At first the children would have to have someone to turn to if the computer doesn't work. When the initial learning has been provided the learning has to be engineered to fit this new tool. It will be extremely important what use you will make of this", Soelberg said.

In this phase, the teacher's role is to keep the children focused on doing specific tasks like reading a particular book, composing a certain piece of music or taking pictures of specific objects. That way the PC becomes valuable for the educational process and supports the teaching.

"When it is done like that the educator achieves some things that couldn't be done without the computers," Soelberg said.

At the same time commercial interests are an indirect threat to the project. The problem could be that the computer will become trophies after they have been bought and traded online. According to Soelberg, the idea is that the kids should have ownership of the computer. And you could fear that some computers will disappear.

Besides the fact that some children may drop and break the machines or simply forget them the huge interest in the computer could create a commercial market.

"The market is there. And if they can get $500 for a computer worth $100 that they've gotten for free, it's obvious that some will be tempted to sell," Soelberg said.

This issue is not new. OLPC has plans that will link the computer to one person by demanding that the user to login with personal information. But Soelberg does not recall seeing a solution that effectively solves the problem.

"If the teaching is based on this tool it requires that everyone has access to it. If half the class all of the sudden does not show up -- the lessons have to be revised," Soelberg said.

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