What’s a news story without controversy? Boring.

So 60 Minutes needed a controversy, a hook, for its story on the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project. That project, now two years along, aims to develop a cheap laptop with accompanying software to put in the hands of every child on the planet.

To make the story more than a feel-good piece about an idealistic dream, 60 Minutes trumpets a sound bite from Nicholas Negroponte, who founded and still leads OLPC and is Chairman Emeritus of the MIT Media Laboratory. Professor Negroponte asserts that OLPC is caught beween Intel, which produces a rival product (the Classmate), and AMD, which supplies the CPU chip powering the OLPC laptop.

Professor Negroponte claims base profit as the motivation behind Intel’s predatory pricing, in an effort to drive OLPC out-of-business, while claiming a halo for his project’s non-profit status.

Craig Barrett, chairman of Intel, says that the world is big enough for both OLPC and the Classmate.

The best I can tell, the current cost for the OLPC laptop is under $200, while the Classmate retails at just under $400. However, the OLPC is still a prototype — it needs confirmed orders to go into production. Professor Negroponte claims that Intel is drawing away potentional customers — governments — and preventing OLPC from securing the guaranteed orders that would allow it to go into production.

The 60 Minutes story can be viewed at OLPC News, which is independent of the OLPC project and run by Wayan Vota. Mr. Vota, the proprietor of OLPC News, was himself interviewed for the story and expressed reservations about Prof. Negroponte’s belief that children can learn how to use computers without a teacher.

The OLPC wiki fronts another quote from Professor Negroponte:

It’s an education project, not a laptop project.

— Nicholas Negroponte

This is the wiki for the One Laptop per Child association. The mission of this non-profit association is to develop a low-cost laptop—the “$100 Laptop”—a technology that could revolutionize how we educate the world’s children. Our goal is to provide children around the world with new opportunities to explore, experiment, and express themselves.

Why do children in developing nations need laptops? Laptops are both a window and a tool: a window into the world and a tool with which to think. They are a wonderful way for all children to learn learning through independent interaction and exploration.

OLPC espouses five core principles: (1) child ownership; (2) low ages; (3) saturation; (4) connection; and (5) free and open source.

I am skeptical about laptops per se transforming the education of children worldwide, and fall firmly in the camp that children need teachers to reach their full potential. I also firmly believe in local control of content. The existing worldwide infrastructure requires bulking up beyond the development of a cheap laptop and its innovative software.

[cehwiedel also writes at cehwiedel.com.]

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