The $100 Laptop: Manna-vaporware

Update: Esta entrada está en Español en el blog de Caro Botero. Gracias!

I find the MIT’s $100 Laptop project disturbing. For me there are too many open questions. I also found out that I am not only with my thoughts. Several other people are also rather critical with Mr Negroponte’s latest brainchild.

Already last February John Thackara of Doors of Perception called the MIT’s $100 Laptop “manna-ware” and Jamais Cascio of Worldchanging asked why the device should be a laptop? In the discussion following Jamais post people pointed out that if you would dare to ask from the people they would most likely rank radio, phone and TV much higher as a communication device than an Internet-PC.

So, I guess we all already see that the MIT’s $100 Laptop is just a vapoware and MIT’s latest attempt to get a bite from the developing world’s long tail. Still I am worried that many Governments are seriously considering if MIT’s Laptop could be the thing that will bring their children to information society.

As the tool is primary marketed for school – basically for the Ministries of Education – I would like to know a little more about expected educational results and pedagogical ideas behind the MIT’s laptop project. In educational politics one should always ask who is educating whom, why, where and how? It really bothers me that MIT is preaching about having every child a laptop in 2015, would just like that represent development and welfare. Also the explicit pedagogical vision on how the $100 Laptop will be used in schools is very weak.

I would like the MIT people to be a little more transparent and open when it comes to their motives, vision and aims with the $100 Laptop. Here are some questions (didn’t find answers to these from their FAQ):

  • Why the only use case the MIT people talk about is delivering school books with the $100 Laptop? Is it because they have notice that it is the best sale argument for the Governments that mainly see learning over budget lines where use for textbooks is a large cost? Or is it really only way of using ICT in school that the MIT people came up? With the current vision the $100 Laptop is just an e-book, a very expensive e-book. The $20 / year / pupil used today for text books for instance in Brazil is more than 5 times better investment than $ 100 for a laptop that will be stolen or broken in less than a year. An example: Almost every night I read for my daughter a textbook my grandmother got when she was in primary school in 1920’s.
  • Have the MIT designers ever heard about contextual design? You must be a fool if you seriously claim that your results from pilots made in schools in Maine, United States, where every child is given an Apple iBook, are anyhow transferable to Brazil, Sub-Saharan Africa or China. Even your own results from testing Laptops in Cambodian village show that there is hardly any use for your technology. You report: “there is no electricity, thus the laptop is, among other things, the brightest light source in the home.” I think you need several cultural anthropologists and designers in your team.
  • Why didn’t MIT decide to contribute to the Indian Simputer project that has been around already for five year? From the Simputer project there is already a Linux based product in the markets. The price could easily be close to $100 if some Government would order a few million of them. To make this happen they need your marketing skills and contacts Mr Negroponte. I assume that MIT researchers are aware of the Simputer project, as they use to have a branch laboratory – Media Lab Asia – in India for some years.

Now you may ask what is my motivation to criticize the MIT’s project? I have two reasons which are linked together: (1) I am managing R&D project where we design and develop use of mobile phones in teaching and learning in developing countries. I seriously think that investment to mobile services in countries where networks are already everywhere and devices are getting to every third hand (we have two hands) in a few years, makes more sense than investments to laptops. (2) I am worried that MIT’s hype will simply kill all great projects in the field, as everybody will wait for MIT’s vapoware to be launched.

Some definitions of terms from the Dictionary.com:

* manna

* vaporware

* brochureware

7 thoughts on “The $100 Laptop: Manna-vaporware

  1. I won't speculate on MIT:s motives, but I think you are being overly critical. If this Laptop is indeed supposed to replace textbooks in schools, I agree with you, that would be beyond stupid! But if a few laptops like these, with the power supply question taken care of, could be distributed in third world schools, it would be a very convenient platform for communication. With the exception of TV, it could partly replace phones and radios. With all the added value of computing and communication over the internet on top of that.

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  2. What most people in the western world do not understand is the cost of communication through the Internet in the third world. For example, Linux is wonderful tool for the third world but often inaccessible because most distributions are built around the requirement for network access for updates etc.ISDN line in Uganda costs 3000$ / month because of monopoly issues, which are typical in African countries. That's too much for a single user. If we compare the price to average income in third world countries, the price is almost impossible for a single person to pay. In comparison to our salaries, ISDN line would cost around 6-8 months of salary.Mobile phones and access is cheaper and will probably be more common.If western countries, if we want to help, we should help these countries to build a healthy competetive environment for network access and also build the physical networks as well, before we think about providing cheap computers.

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  3. We mustn't forget that computers can be pretty useful even without or with only sporadic network access. Like through a mobile phone… 🙂

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  4. I really don't feel the product is a vaporware. Finding other problems that need to be taken care of also don't really diminish the value or goals of this project: it's great to know there will be affordable computers, when there evetually will be wider Internet access and this can also work as an incentive to develope that infrastructure. Mobile phones are nice, but they are not laptops – unless you want to replace the $100 laptop with $500 (or something) PDA/phone device.To come think of it I vaguely remember there's a affordaple gadget like this produced by the Indian governement, to be shared within a village community. Does anyone know how that's developing?

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  5. While I think creating affordable laptops for kids in developing nations is a great idea, I can only hope there is more in the works than just brightly colored hardware. So assume every child in the world gets a laptop? What happens then? If this $100 laptop effort isn't followed by an equally strong effort to help these kids use them productively then we have learned nothing from our mistakes in implementing technology into U.S. public schools over the last ten years. Back then putting computers in every school was seen as the "silver bullet" that would somehow help make all the kids smarter. The only problem was that few people knew how to use them to improve learning, so the machines often ended up collecting dust in the back of the classroom. Hopefully we have learned something about the need for teacher training and support. The bottom line: Don't expect much if all you do is throw hardware at kids.

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  6. Hi Luppe, Teemu, Jere and Tom, I do not have anything against affordable computers. I also think that in general all personal computers should be laptops, or should I say devices that are easy to carry with you. However, in addition to the personal computers we need also shared devices in schools, villages, community centers etc. A good initiative to this direction is the Indian Hole-in-the-Wall (http://www.hole-in-the-wall.com/…) initiative. I am sure that the technical challenges related to the MIT’s Laptop will be solved. This is great. Still I am not sure if the investment on MIT’s Laptops is a good investment for any Ministry of Education. At least the $ 100 investment per computer / pupil should be done only with another $ 100 investment per laptop / pupil on teacher training.Jere: The India project you are asking about is Simputer, the one I am writing about in my post.

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  7. I feel too, feel that the pedagogical vision on how the US$100 laptop will be used in schools especially in Africa is very weak. I have no doubt that eventually a US$100 laptop will be developed, but how it would be distributed and used effectively is the real doubt. The core principal of one laptop per child to me especially in an African concept may not be the right way. I believe that the best distibution method would be empowering the teachers in Africa to create learning objects relevant to the African child. Read more of my thoughts at http://google4africa.blogspot.com/2005/12/attack-of-little-green-machine.html

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