These tools will land in the hands of first through sixth graders who in many cases never even had books–at home or elsewhere–and whose teachers themselves had little education. They will not come cheap; Peru is spending about $80 million on the laptops–nearly a third of the education budget normally available for capital expenditures–plus about $2 million for teacher training. Becerra characterized the sum as a special appropriation meant to bring schools up to date. “To distribute all these books would cost five times the cost of the machines,” he estimates. “We are reaching the poorest schools in Peru for the first time in history.” The hope is that more children will make lives for themselves beyond subsistence farming or menial labor.
Peru’s move comes at a critical time for OLPC, because the nonprofit has failed to achieve the manufacturing scale and low prices it initially sought (see “Philanthropy’s New Prototype,” November/December 2006). One Laptop per Child was unveiled in early 2005 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, by Nicholas Negroponte, the cofounder and chairman emeritus of MIT’s Media Lab. “We will not launch this without five to ten million units in the first run,” Negroponte said at the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference in February 2006. He set goals of building seven million to ten million machines in 2007 and 100 million to 200 million in 2008, listing seven major countries as potential early customers: China, India, Thailand, Egypt, Nigeria, Brazil, and Argentina. “If it comes out at $138, so what?” he said at TED, predicting that mass production would drive the price down. “If it comes out six months late, so what? That’s a pretty soft landing.”
OLPC’s actual landing was far bumpier. Yes, the production computer, called the XO, is cheaper, sturdier, and less power hungry than any laptop previously made: it uses just two to five watts, peaking at nine watts, about a 10th the power consumption of a typical laptop. Its battery is long lasting, cheap to replace, and relatively easy on the environment. But the laptops wound up costing not $100, or $138, but $188 each. Large countries have been slow to buy; the harshest reaction came in 2006 from the Indian education secretary, Sudeep Banerjee, who dismissed the program as “pedagogically suspect” and declared, “We need classrooms and teachers more urgently than fancy tools.” Competitors arose; Intel’s Classmate PC, while not as rugged, did tempt some potential customers. A partnership between OLPC and Intel, forged in 2007 to find collaborations between their existing educational and technological efforts, ended bitterly six months later. The first OLPC customers have turned out to be Peru and Uruguay, with smaller initiatives in Mongolia and–in a surprise nobody imagined–Birmingham, AL. (And rather than being paid for by governments, some of these efforts were funded by donations made through OLPC’s Give One, Get One program.) Altogether, the first group of customers has ordered only about 500,000 machines, a figure that includes some, but not all, of Peru’s planned acquisition.
If Peru’s effort succeeds, however, it will become a model for other nations. Peru launched its teacher education program in late winter, and curricula are being designed that can be delivered to the laptops and updated over the Internet. By providing low-cost access to books, lessons, games, and activities, the machines are meant to help realize a so-called constructionist model of education, in which kids learn largely by exploring, discovering, and collaborating. “It is so important, because [Peru] is doing everything right,” Negroponte told me in his small office near the MIT campus, with a view of the Boston skyline. “They are doing remote schools, they are doing it with constructionism, they are doing it at scale. The only thing they have going against them, if you will, is that they are first, and we will be debugging things as we go. But it is absolutely critical to the future of OLPC.” When I visited Peru in mid-March, distribution of the laptops had not yet begun. But a clue to how the effort might fare can be found in a Peruvian mountain farming village where, last year, prototypes were handed out to kids in a trial run.