This is a prototype of a $100 laptop being developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of MIT's Media Lab, made a stop at the Vatican Nov. 16 to present his plan for the small, cheap, rugged, wireless laptop for school children in the developing world. (CNS/MIT Media Lab)
Founder of Wired magazine discusses laptop for Third World at VaticanBy Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Just hours before the official unveiling of a $100 laptop prototype in Tunisia that promises to "revolutionize how we educate the world's children," its promoter made a sales pitch to participants of a Vatican-sponsored conference on globalization and education.
Nicholas Negroponte, founder of Wired magazine and professor of media technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, made a quick stop at the Vatican Nov. 16 to present his new plan to develop a small, cheap, rugged, wireless laptop for schoolchildren in the developing world. The device will not even need electricity.
Users will be able to "crank (the handle) for about a minute to get 10 minutes (of computer time) in a worst-case scenario or you can use batteries," he said while a PowerPoint display behind him flashed an image of a bright green and yellow electronic notebook that MIT said is still under development.
Negroponte was one of a dozen experts invited by the pontifical academies of Sciences and Social Sciences to speak at its Nov. 16-17 seminar focusing on school education in an increasingly globalized world.
Negroponte, who is also chairman of MIT's Media Lab, which has launched the research initiative, said just as "every child should have a pencil, (laptops) have become our pencils" of today.
To fight what has been called "a digital divide" between rich and poor countries in the access to new information technologies, children in developing countries should not be denied the new educational tools that are out there, he said. Laptops in particular are "a window into the world and a tool with which to think," he wrote on an MIT Media Lab Web site.
With the backing of the U.N. Development Program, Negroponte and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan were set to unveil a prototype of the laptop later that day at a U.N.-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis, Tunisia.
The summit aimed to further plans to get the Internet to half the world's population by 2015.
"We need children to be more actively engaged in learning," Negroponte said at the Vatican seminar.
Education should not just be concerned with teaching facts; it should also include helping children learn how to discover the answers to their questions, he said.
"We're not interested in learning about something; we're interested in learning about learning," said the MIT professor.
He said it would be up to the teacher, the school and the governments to guide how the laptops would be used in class curricula. The goal is to get one laptop for every child who could then take it back and forth from home to school. The computer would become the student's personal property.
The laptop will not be available for retail sale to the general public. A large part of its low cost is that it will be sold in lots of 1 million units directly to governments, which would then distribute them to the schools and the students.
While some participants at the Vatican workshop praised the initiative, others expressed some ethical and practical concerns, such as how governments of poor countries would raise the money for what would cost, at a minimum, $100 million.
Negroponte said international loaning institutes like the World Bank are "fully prepared to finance" a project such as this interest-free.
"Kids in the United States and Italy," he added, "could help pay for a laptop for a kid in the Third World."
A conference participant from France asked what sort of impact a more computer-oriented classroom would have on social and personal relationships.
"What would happen to the prestige of the teacher, who will know less than the machine," asked physics professor emeritus Yves Quere of Ecole Polytechnique in Paris.
"Won't there be a loss of social interaction, less contact with nature, and kids already spend 3 hours a day in front of the television watching stupid stuff," he said, asking if their Internet use would be any better.
Negroponte said he did not know of any studies on the laptop's social impact, but he said there was the concern of a child's increased access to pornography, "not because the child would seek it out," but because it could pop up accidentally while a student was searching the Internet.
In response to concerns about who would offer help with technical glitches or repairs, Negroponte said people had a tendency to treat something with greater care if they owned it.
He said students in Cambodia who received free laptops took great care of them, "even taking them to bed at night." He said parents also were enamored with the new technology because for many poor families, a running laptop was "the brightest light source in the house."