Access to InfoTech as education strategy: The case of the sub-$100 laptop

  • Written by  Alexandria Camille M. Castillo
  • Published in News
The XO laptop The XO laptop

It is a bit hard now to imagine students from well-to-do families without a personal computing device specially that netbooks, laptops and tablets have become increasingly affordable.

In today’s information-powered digital age, more and more organizations have realized the significance of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in helping students learn more through educational multimedia.

UPLB professor Dr. Rufino S. Mananghaya, a pioneer of e-learning in the Philippines, recently shared his reflections on the potentials of ICT in education during the First Philippine Conference on ICT for Development (ICT4phD) held last September 21-22 at the Philippine Social Science Council Building, Diliman, Quezon City.

Mananghaya’s talk on “Celebrating the Arrival of the Sub-$100 Computer and Assessing its Potential Impact to Lifestyle, Business and Governance,” focused on insights on the sub-$100 laptop industry and the US-initiated One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project.

Challenges and lessons learned

The concept of the one laptop per child was an offshoot of the 2005 World Summit on Information Society where social activists argued that the “Internet is a global public good.” It was recommended during the summit that access to the internet is in the public’s interest and would espouse equality across societies.

Thus, the OLPC project started in 2005 with Nicholas Negroponte at the helm and the backing of the OLPC Association and OLPC Foundation. Several organizations and corporations came and funded the project, including Advanced Micro Devices, Brightstar, Chi Lin, eBay, Google, Marvell, News Corporation, Nortel, Quanta, Red Hat and SES Astra.

It is the OLPC’s mission to support the developing countries’ education system through the use of technology and these sub-$100 computers, particularly the OLPC-XO Laptop. The said device is a cheap subnotebook computer that the OLPC aims to be distributed to children in developing countries so that they will have more access to information.

However, things were shaky for the OLPC during its first year of operation. “The project was self-destructing in 2005 and it unfortunately failed in its objective to produce and distribute 100 million laptops,” Mananghaya said.

A business administration and economics expert and a Linux enthusiast, Dr. Mananghaya dug on the OLPC’s supply and demand problems and shared it as a lesson in developing ICTs for education.

According to Mananghaya, there were two major problems on the supply side. “Developing sub-$100 computers from scratch is full of risks and stretches the lead time,” he said, while also noting that “existing solutions developed by the programming community and hardware industry were untapped.”

Demand-wise, Mananghaya said, “it was hard to sell the education through laptop concept because legislators in developing countries remained unconvinced of the strategy since it would still cost a lot of money.” “They would not want to compromise their already tight government budgets,” he added.

Although the OLPC project had a rocky infancy, Mananghaya was happy to report that the OLPC movement had its first taste of success in 2011 when the first Android 4.0-powered tablet, called the Novo7 and priced at $89, came out into the market. “This sub-$100 device can play sound and videos, input screen control such as typing, and can read and save data from a storage media,” Mananghaya described.

Starting with the OLPC’s AMD Geode CPU prototype in 2005, the movement has now finally created devices that are “durable, functional, energy-efficient, responsive and fun.” Dr. Mananghaya believes that the introduction of the tablet is a vital turning point in the development of the sub-$100 laptop hardware.

As of date, the OLPC has already given over two million laptops to children and teachers across 42 countries.

The making of a sub-$100 laptop

On how to make a marketable sub-$100 laptop, Mananghaya intimated that it will be good to “start with what the industry and community already have,” which are the processors and the operating systems. Developers, according to Mananghaya, should save resources by “not producing what users can already buy or create on their own,” citing that there are already a lot of cheap hardware and free software in the market.

“A successful sub-$100 laptop will have support for 3-D games,” Mananghaya stressed. “It is important to recognize the reality that children use computers 80% for fun and 20% for learning,” he added.

Looking for sub-$100 devices?

On how to spot a high-quality sub-$100 laptop, Managhaya recommended looking for devices with the Cortex A8 chip. “If you see in the box that [Cortex A8] or allwinnerA10 is used, you are safe,” he said. He also added that “there should be a full-sized USB jack to plug in an external mouse or keyboard.”

“Go to cyberzones, they have less than 7K tablets there,” Mananghaya joked when asked whether these sub-$100 laptops already exist in the Philippines.

eKindling Inc., a Philippine-based and SEC-registered organization, is closely collaborating with the OLPC to bring the XO laptops into the country. In 2010, they have deployed 100 XO laptops to classrooms to Lubang Island, a remote municipality in Occidental Mindoro.