the educational technology journal

Vol 16|No 4|April|2007
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What's wrong
with a Cheap Computer?

By Jamie McKenzie
About author

The One Laptop
per Child Project


When you read about the $100 laptop being developed at MIT for third world students, it sounds attractive. It does just about everything students need - word processing, Internet browsing, spreadsheets, etc.

So why limit access to poor kids?

It's one of those impertinent questions that deserves attention, but you don't see or hear it being asked.

Why does the emperor have no clothes?

For too long now schools have been chained to an expensive hardware and software habit that has sucked up budgets in ways that have made investments in professional development and program development nearly impossible.

Microsoft and its partners have lured schools into unhealthy dependencies that include rapid obsolescence and overpriced software licensing.

Software development keeps proceeding in ways that place new demands on computers without adding much real value that schools need. We get version 21.1, 22.2, 23.4, etc. and wonder why they bothered. Few of the new features matter much to schools and to many businesses. But all of a sudden our computers seem to be slowing down and whine that it is time for replacement.

And so it goes, the premature replacement treadmill. Once we buy into the notion that networked computers are essential, we find ourselves struggling just to keep afloat.

Ignoring the True Cost of Ownership

The odd thing is the large percentage of school computers that sit idle because there has been insufficient investment in professional development, program development and the other budget items like tech support that are necessary to achieve broad-based "take up" of the program.

Because schools are caught on the replacement treadmill, proper funding of a technology program is a pipe dream, yet without that funding, schools are unlikely to see appropriate use.

In March of 2003, FNO listed the elements required to support a vibrant program with smart use of new technologies. http://fno.org/mar03/truecost.html.

1. Learning Resources not Included with the Boxes
2. Organizational Impacts & Management
3. Network Management & Development
4. Network Resources
5. Research & Development
6. Spirit and Support Building

Breaking Bad Habits

It seems peculiar that the inexpensive laptop is aimed only at developing nations. Perhaps there is something to be said for open source software, inexpensive computers and independence whether the school be affluent or poor.

At the same time, some question the practicality of Negroponte's little computer, as Cyrus Farivar wrote "Waiting for That $100 Laptop? Don't hold your breath." in Slate November 29, 2005.

The $100 laptop is a huckster's gambit—poorly thought out, overly ambitious, and too sexy to be true.

Not surprisingly, Bill Gates has been quick to criticize the plan as reported in March of 2006 in the Techtree News "Bill Gates Rubbishes $100 Laptop."

At the Government Leaders Forum held in Washington, Gates asserted that the last thing one would expect from a shared-use computer is the lack of a disk and the presence of just a tiny little screen.

He expressed the view that hardware is only a small part of the cost of providing computing capabilities, and that the big costs typically come from network connectivity, applications and support.

But Google, which has been pioneering the availability of free Web-based software in a manner that might prove threatening to Microsoft is a major financial supporter of The One Laptop per Child Project.

We may be on the brink of something very big here, a seismic shift, as Google is also investing in satellite delivered Wi-fi that could radically change access according to an article by Loren Baker in the Search Engine Journal, "MIT’s One Laptop per Child Movement Sponsored By Google"
September 30th, 2005

With rumors of the GoogleNet and Google Wi-fi in the works and their latest partnership with NASA, I highly expect Google to announce some sort of global wi-fi or satellite based Internet connection for the world’s poor to be announced once this One Laptop per Child program becomes a reality, which it hopefully will. Funded, by Google AdWords.

Also writing a few months later in the Search Engine Journal, Greg Sterling's article "$100 Laptop + Writely + GDrive = Google’s Future?" March 16th, 2006 explores the potential of Google to support a low priced laptop with its Web based applications and storage.

But from one point of view it’s certainly a compelling roadmap. Google thus would be the network and host most of the necessary software. Google and its allies would thus replace Microsoft as the primary computing platform — swapping the Internet for client-side applications.

A Glimpse of the Future?

Take a tour of Google Docs & Spreadsheets

The link above takes you to a tour of the apps available on Google.

One hitch, of course, is the need for an Internet connection to access both apps and files. That's where GoogleNet and Google Wi-fi might enter the scene.