STEVE INSKEEP, host:
On Mondays we talk about technology. And today we'll discuss super-cheap laptops for school kids. Last week, NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reported on the delivery of 100 new laptops to children in South Africa.
(Soundbite of archived recording)
Unidentified Woman: I'm getting a laptop and I'm very happy and excited about it. It's a really great opportunity for us.
INSKEEP: The computers came from the One Laptop Per Child project. That's a Boston non-profit trying to get laptops into the hands of millions of kids in developing countries. But now that they've got computers in South Africa, the same company has taken another leap. It has signed a deal to provide computers to kids in Birmingham, Alabama.
Here to talk about this is MORNING EDITION's technology guru Mario Armstrong.
Welcome back to the program.
MARIO ARMSTRONG: Thanks for having me, Steve.
INSKEEP: Why would it be necessary to distribute these super-cheap laptops in the United States?
ARMSTRONG: Well, I don't know if it's necessary, but it's certainly something that's grabbing some interest. And they're developed with education first. And that's what's different about this laptop, compared to other organizations that develop laptops. So that's what's gaining the interest of, say, the mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, Mayor Langford. He's really seeing this as an opportunity not to create users of technology, but maybe to create creators of technology.
INSKEEP: Now, you brought in here one of these laptops. It's plastic on the outside, kind of white, bumpy plastic.
ARMSTRONG: Yeah, white, green, kid-friendly colors, has these little rabbit ears on the end here that you see.
INSKEEP: Very small. It's maybe a little bigger than a book.
ARMSTRONG: A little bit bigger than a book. Very sturdy, plastic design.
INSKEEP: How do I turn it on?
ARMSTRONG: Power button's right there in the corner.
INSKEEP: OK. It's already educational for me. I've learned that much. I'm just waiting?
ARMSTRONG: You're just waiting.
ARMSTRONG: This is one of those challenges with this particular device.
ARMSTRONG: The speed...
ARMSTRONG: ...or in some cases the lack thereof.
INSKEEP: Let me just ask while we're waiting on that to fire up, how much of a need there really is in the United States. The idea of this thing abroad, of course, is that there are whole swaths of the world that are not connected that have an opportunity to be for the first time. Are there large swatches of the U.S. population where large numbers of kids really have no access to a computer at school or at home or anyplace else?
ARMSTRONG: Yes. The answer is absolutely. I do a lot of consulting with schools across the country, but also just educating kids. And you find still large pockets across the country, because of cost; they just can't afford the technology. Then you can't afford the service to pay for, say, wireless Internet access and all of these things. So people are really still struggling. I mean, the digital divide is still very much alive and well.
And it's really not just about consumption. I think a lot of people get caught up in, well, if we buy more computers more people we cross the digital divide. It's really not about becoming a robot to a computer more than it is understanding how technology can be used to solve problems. So can we use computers to create innovative thinkers, I think, is much different.
INSKEEP: So, OK, so we've got an application that's up and running. We do we got here?
ARMSTRONG: It's a music application. And what's interesting about this laptop, Steve, here's where the educational change is important. If you were a student and I were a student in the same classroom with individual XO laptops, we could both work together on a project. So now you have collaboration on a computer with each other. That's never happened in the classroom before.
INSKEEP: XO laptop, that's what this is called?
ARMSTRONG: That's what this is called, the XO laptop. So I'm just going to play a little bit of some music here. I'm going to pull up my drum kit.
INSKEEP: So we're going to actually be able to like synthesize some music on this thing?
(Soundbite of music)
ARMSTRONG: So now we have a rhythm...
ARMSTRONG: ...or a tempo. And I can change that tempo, and then I could add other instruments into it. I could add my own voice into it. I could add piano noise into it. All of these different layers that I could - and I could also record what I'm creating. And like I say, we can collaborate and share. And this is just a music application. But think about it if you were creating a word document...
ARMSTRONG: ...or a game or some other educational applications.
INSKEEP: Well, we're going to build a song here to go out on, but before we do that, let me just ask, so is this effort to get super-cheap computers in Alabama something that other states and cities are going to replicate across the country?
ARMSTRONG: That remains to be seen. I mean, this is the first city in the U.S. to do this. It has passed their city council. They have set aside $3 million. The school board will be voting on whether or not this will move forward. They're optimistic. But if this passes, I think a lot of cities will be watching closely to see if this is something they should do.
INSKEEP: Mario, thanks very much.
ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: Mario Armstrong is MORNING EDITION's regular technology commentator and also hosts the radio show "The Digital Spin" on Baltimore's Public Radio Station's WEAA and WYPR.
Let's create some music. Let's take that drum thing - the same one you had - and just add some more instruments to it.