U.S. students get low-cost laptops aimed at children in developing nations

A pioneering experiment is now under way in Birmingham, Ala., in the first foray of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative within the United States.

Created three years ago to bring technology to children in developing countries, the nonprofit OLPC has partnered with Birmingham–at the behest of Mayor Larry Langford and the Birmingham City Council–for the first large-scale educational deployment of low-cost XO laptops in this country.

The pilot program began earlier this year with 1,000 of the group’s $200 laptops for students in Glen Iris Elementary School’s first through fifth grades. After some bureaucratic squabbles, the school board went on to approve the city’s purchase of 14,000 more–funded by taxpayer dollars–with plans eventually to include all 15,000 students in the school system’s first through eighth grades.

But concerns remain. Some critics wonder whether a computer initially designed for children in poor, rural parts of the world–and primarily using its own non-Windows operating system–is the right learning tool for students who eventually will seek to join the general computing population in the U.S. Others worry that teachers will have trouble getting up to speed. Still others are concerned that it could be difficult to track progress and achievement on machines that promote a constructivist approach to learning, which could pose a problem in today’s educational climate of high-stakes testing and accountability.

As a result of these concerns, education leaders are keeping a close eye on Birmingham to see if this program will work–and whether it will be worth duplicating in school districts across the U.S.

"There’s enormous potential here," said Tracy Gray, managing director at the American Institutes for Research and head of its Center for Implementing Technology in Education. "There’s also enormous pressure."

Although the XO wasn’t designed for children in the U.S., it does feature several tools that can help kids learn. In February, for instance, OLPC announced a deal with ePals to put the company’s suite of safe, kid-friendly electronic communication tools on the machines. And though Birmingham’s models run on a version of the open-source Linux operating system, OLPC also now offers the option of a Windows model.

In resuming its "Give One, Get One" offer, in which people spend $400 to buy one of the nonprofit’s computers and donate a second one to a child in a developing country, the group also previewed the next-generation version of the device: a smaller, more energy-efficient model with two touch screens and a price closer to the long-term goal of $100.

The XO-2 will be about half the size of the first-generation device and will more closely resemble a book. Its keyboard will be replaced with a second touch-sensitive display surface, turning the device into an eBook with a left and right page if held vertically, a hinged laptop if held horizontally, or a continuous tablet surface if laid flat.

Regardless of how the experiment unfolds in Birmingham or a handful of other U.S. cities that have now purchased XO computers for their students, the low-cost laptop initiative already has made a huge impact on educational technology. It’s spawned a host of imitators, including Intel’s Classmate PC, and even a new category of device: the mini-notebook, exemplified by a device that HP unveiled in April. And with budgets now stretched to their limits, school leaders certainly will appreciate having more lower-cost options for bringing computing to every student.

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