Since the 1960’s Seymour Papert, a MIT Media Lab professor, researched how computers could be used to help children develop mathematical thinking. He developed a theory called constructionism, which he extensively field-tested and validated among some of the poorest and most remote populations on earth.
Constructionism emphasizes what Papert calls, “learning learning” as the fundamental educational experience.
In his book, The Children’s Machine, Papert compares constructionism to the African proverb: “If a man is hungry, give him a fish, but it is better to give him a line and teach him to catch fish himself.”
“Constructionism is built on the assumption that children will do best by finding (“fishing”) for themselves the specific knowledge they need; organized or informal education can help most by making sure they are supported morally, psychologically, materially and intellectually in their efforts.”
For more than 40 years, Papert tried to take the power of computers to education worldwide. However, he was always restricted by the high cost of computers, which didn’t allow massive adoption in places where they are most needed.
The industry made more and more powerful computers, but always kept the price the same: too expensive for developing nations.
In 2005, Nicholas Negroponte founded One Laptop per Child (OLPC) to close this gap, and created the XO laptop--a low-cost, durable, energy-efficient laptop designed for the toughest conditions of remote areas, which is sold without profit. OLPC faces children around the world as its “mission” not its “market”.
Based on our previous experience with computers and learning in many countries, OLPC developed five core principles:
1. Child Ownership: kids need to be free to take the laptops home and use them whenever they wish. This way, kids will become fluent in the use of computers, a skill you can only develop through many years of intensive use.
2. Focus on Early Education: the XO is designed for the use of children ages 6 to 12, but nothing precludes its use earlier or later in life. Children don’t need to write or read in order to play with the XO and we know that playing is the basis of human learning.
3. Saturation: the project needs to deal with large numbers of laptops so whole schools and communities get them at the same time. So no one is left out.
4. Connection: The XO has been designed to provide the most engaging wireless network available. The laptops are connected to each other, even when they are off.
When schools get connected to the Internet, they will be able to take advantage of a whole world of information available on-line. In the meanwhile, content, books, and maps can be kept in a local server.
5. Free to grow and adapt: the XO includes Free and Open Source Software so each country can adapt its software to the needs of its own children.
With the XO laptop, children can take ownership and express themselves by writing stories, taking pictures, making movies, exploring scientific phenomena, inventing learning games, or solving mathematical problems.
They can access endless amounts of information, expertise and global collaboration to pursue learning in areas of personal interest.
Prior 1-laptop to 1-child experiences in other countries have demonstrated tremendous gains in learning: more time spent on schoolwork, development of technological fluency, and a stronger sense of inclusion among the students.
While the majority of prior experiences have been in wealthier countries, the experience in a rural community of Costa Rica in 2006 exemplifies the potential.
Not only did the children go far beyond the usual curriculum, but also learned to care for and repair their computers. The difference in how they treated and learned about their own laptops compared to the computers in the school lab was astonishing.
In 2009, President Paul Kagame announced plans for Rwanda to purchase 100,000 XO laptops, and with this commitment, Rwanda is now leading the charge in Africa for laptops in learning.
OLPC donated an additional 20,000 laptops to Rwanda and is working to create an international Centre for Laptops and Learning in Kigali.
In a nutshell that is OLPC, an organization that makes a small computer to serve a great cause, bringing learning opportunities to children all over the world with one laptop per child.
The writer is part of the One Laptop per Child core team that’s in Rwanda ensuring that OLPC instalments are successful.