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MIT's $100 Laptop

Will this machine change the way children are educated?

This fall, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory unveiled a prototype of its $100 laptop. The new machine reinvents the omnipresent laptop, not only slashing the price tag but also redesigning it for student use. The target market includes children in third-world countries and the U.S.

"The only way to create a less violent, more sustainable world is to find a way to educate the billions of children in developing countries. We can raise the level of education by mobilizing the most powerful technology in the world," says Seymour Papert, professor emeritus of the MIT Media Lab.

Most schools in developing countries are minimal and lack libraries, museums and laboratories. These countries don't produce enough engineers, business people or physicians to lead them to full participation in the 21st century, says Papert.

A laptop can bridge the tremendous learning gaps in third-world countries, providing children in remote villages with access to knowledge. "It's almost impossible to teach math and science in a deep way without labs or professional development," continues Papert. The laptop can create virtual labs for richer, more meaningful learning experiences, and it can expand the pool of qualified teachers by enhancing the education of future professionals.

Who's Buying

Papert says half of the world's countries--as well as the institute's home state of Massachusetts--have expressed some interest in the laptop. Brazil may be among the first takers. Its president has proposed outfitting students with laptops and establishing an assembly plant in the country. Under the current proposal, the plant would produce two million laptops. One million would be designated for Brazilian students and one million would be exported to other countries, enabling Brazil to establish itself in the global technology marketplace. The Brazilian Congress must approve the plan before production starts. Passage seems likely as Brazilian opposition parties support the measure. China, Egypt, South Africa and Thailand also have expressed serious interest in the laptop.

Applications are not limited to developing nations. "The use of educational technology in the U.S. has been diluted," contends Papert. "It's a natural medium for knowledge acquisition, but access is limited to just a few computers per classroom."

Cost is one barrier to more widespread laptop adoption, even here in the states. "At a certain price point, laptop implementation becomes a no-brainer," says Papert. That's because savings such as eliminating textbooks outweigh the laptop's cost. Papert says Maine officials place that break-even point at $70 per year per child.

The $100 price tag sold Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. This fall, Romney introduced legislation to purchase the laptops for 500,000 middle and high school students. If the legislature approves his proposal, all state students in grades six through eight would receive laptops in fiscal year 2007. Students entering grades six, 10 and 11 would receive laptops the following year, and full secondary implementation would be complete by fiscal year 2009.

The Massachusetts plan would allow students to use the laptop anytime, anywhere and keep the computer after high school graduation. "One laptop per child will empower and engage children by making education and living seamless," says Nicholas Negroponte, MIT Media Lab chairman.

While laptops can be a powerful educational tool, a sound plan goes beyond getting the best deal on price, says Betty Manchester, director of special projects for Maine Department of Education. Districts need a plan to pay for non-hardware components including wireless networks, software, communication and collaboration, professional development and maintenance. The Massachusetts proposal would allocate funding for non-hardware costs; the $27 million budgeted for the first year includes $2 million for such items.

The Anatomy of a $100 Laptop

The kid-friendly MIT laptop is constructed of weatherproof rubber and can be powered either by an AC adaptor or wind-up crank. Despite the bargain basement price, Media Lab researchers claim the scaled down machine can perform all educational computing functions. It incorporates a wireless Internet connection and machines form a peer-to-peer mesh network, enabling multiple systems to share a single Internet connection.

MIT researchers employed a combination of technical innovation and old-fashioned thrift to trim the price and total cost of ownership. A dual-mode monitor like those used in inexpensive DVD players lowers the cost of a display from $150 to $35. The display can operate in a black-and-white electronic book mode for minimal power consumption. The laptop uses open-source software, which is often free and consumes less hardware power to provide maximum utility with less expensive hardware. The project also eliminates sales and marketing costs, which amount to half of a conventional laptop's price tag. Finally, the price point hinges on economies of scale. Laptops will be distributed through One Laptop per Child, a non-profit organization established by Media Lab researchers. Buyers must commit to and pay for one million laptops prior to manufacturing.

Beyond the $100 Laptop

The new laptop is sure to shake up the computer industry. "This system is designed to break the spell that labels laptops as expensive, fragile and quickly obsolete," says Papert. Papert expects the computer industry to follow MIT's lead and build less expensive laptops. The Media Lab welcomes competition and has pledged to share its advances with others.

Negroponte expects to begin mass production to be followed by large-scale distribution in late 2006 or early 2007.

"In two years, most people will be buying laptops for less than $200," predicts Papert. Negroponte aims for even lower prices and predicts that the price eventually will plummet below $100. Papert eyes another aspect of laptop economics. "In a few years we will be able to make an unbreakable machine," he concludes. DA