'One Laptop' Falls Short Of Education Goals

One Laptop Per Child was an ambitious promise to children in the third world. The project has had trouble with its leadership, finances and competitors. Instead of the legacy of education for third-world children, the One Laptop Per Child program has spurred an industry in low-cost laptops for consumers.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Poor people in developing countries have been the focus of ambitious projects, like this one aimed at bridging the world's digital divide. A non-profit called One Laptop Per Child made a promise three years ago to provide $100 computers to millions of children. The group has achieved only a fraction of that goal. But as Cyrus Farivar reports, One Laptop Per Child has still made its mark on the global computer industry.

CYRUS FARIVAR: There's only one country where One Laptop Per Child has actually gotten one laptop per child. But it's really, really small. Last Friday, the tiny Pacific island nation of Niue announced that it had distributed laptops to all of the country's 500 primary and secondary school children.

OLPC had expected that by now millions of laptops would be in the hands of kids worldwide. Today there's actually only less than 400,000.

Mr. LEE FELSENSTEIN (Laptop Designer): It has not lived up to its original advertisement that it would be revolutionizing education in the developing world.

FARIVAR: That's Lee Felsenstein, who designed the very first laptop back in 1981. Felsenstein says that OLPC's real legacy has been to inspire cheaper laptops for buyers in the Western world.

Mr. FELSENSTEIN: OLPC was responsible for the development and marketing of subnotebook computers. There's various words for them. That family of computers would not be there if it were not for OLPC.

FARIVAR: There're a lot of for-profit companies that have taken OLPC'S idea of a small, cheap laptop and sold it directly to consumers around the world. Late last month, Intel announced a deal to sell half a million laptops based on its Classmate PC to Portugal. Another manufacturer, ASICS, has sold nearly as many of its seven-inch EPC laptops in one year as OLPC has in three years.

But Charles Kane, president of OLPC, says that he welcomes these newer machines.

MR. CHARLES KANE (One Laptop Per Child): We don't look at it as competition. We look at it as in some ways mission accomplished. We look at it as other companies matching our price point or getting close to our price point, therefore more children in the world will get computers, be it our computer or other computers.

FARIVAR: One of OLPC's biggest obstacles has been reaching that delicious price of $100. It's been able to build the machines at cost for $188. That's still very expensive for many poor countries. Take Nepal. Rabi Karmacharya is running a small OLPC pilot in Nepal. He says that his government is very skeptical of the entire concept, but he compares his efforts to what happened in Nepal over 50 years ago. That was when the country began a widespread literacy and education campaign.

Mr. RABI KARMACHARYA (OLPC, Nepal): There were a lot of nay-sayers. People say, oh, people are, you know, there are hungry people in Nepal. You're thinking of education. Nevertheless, the government said we'll go ahead with it. And they invested a lot of money. There has been examples of when we've taken this leap and we believe that this is the time for us to take the next leap.

FARIVAR: Even though OLPC is testing laptops in Nepal and even places like Birmingham, Alabama. There's still no definitive proof that use of laptops makes a measurable difference in the way kids learn. Even so, OLPC has plans for two new versions of its laptops between now and 2010.

For NPR's, I'm Cyrus Farivar.

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