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OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) is the name of an organization formed about six or so years ago by a group of scientists from Havard, headed by Nicholas Negroponte. It was focused on the development of a laptop computer that was to cost $100 a piece. The idea was to develop a computer that was cheap and durable enough for children in developing, stagnating, or even regressing, countries. The project took off with the first version, XO-1, costing $188, and using 5 Watts of power. The latest version of the computer is the XO-1.75 costing approximately $150 using about 2 Watts of power (very low), and with a better, faster processor to boot. This means that the computers can have a much longer usage time per charge, assuming the same batteries are used. It also means that smaller charging systems are now required to recharge the systems. The lower charging requirements make these systems easily recharged by renewable energy eg. solar systems. Drops in solar system pricing also are a good incentive for using renewable, green technology.
With the confluence of all these improvements in technology, it means that this is a golden opportunity for developing nations to improve their childhood education systems with the introduction of technology. While the introduction of technology of itself is not a panacea for the advancement of education, it is certainly a needed and necessary requirement in the present environment.
I see this project as one that can be used to introduce a certain set of society that, in a sub-Saharan Africa setting, are usually under represented, to this technology. That set of society is women, of all ages. They are under-represented as users and facilitators of technology. When children start education they are usually given the same opportunities but with time, girls are quietly sidelined, for various reasons. By the end of K-12 education, the girls are disproportionately under represented as high school graduates. Going into an internet cafe will undoubtedly show the lack of female representation. There are even fewer women as computer instructors and technicians. If the statistics are correct, then it means more than half the population is been sidelined.
If we are to look at the graduation rates in colleges in developed countries there are many disciplines that are starting to show higher graduation rates of women, than men. One discipline that comes to mind is medical doctors. In the USA more than half of graduating doctors, presently, are females, especially in the top schools. The anticipated shortage of medical doctors in the US would arrive much sooner, if not for the encouragement of females in the profession. If women are graduating at higher rates than men in such a field, in developed countries, the question remains as to why these same women are not encouraged in developing countries. Developing countries, more so sub-Saharan countries, have to view that other half of the population as a very viable asset.
I do believe that as we are seeing a rising number of women in the medical profession, for example, we can also see our sub-Saharan women been given an opportunity to develop and grow in any given profession that they chose to. That little girl that can somehow be mentally empowered, to see that she can reach her goals, will be a serious contributor to society in the future. Giving the little children the opportunity to see what their counterparts in other parts of the world are capable of achieving, via the internet, should be enough of an incentive to making real progress.
The use of these computers can also open up an avenue of computer programing to more people. The software used in these computers is of the open source variety. Open source software is premised on community use and sharing of the development of the software. This means that programmers can much more easily create customized software for their local communities, with the help of open source community members, and giving back the improvements to the software community. This way the number of software programmers increases rapidly, and cost effectively. Experience gained doing community projects can lead to local communities getting contracts for writing software applications for local and non-local (international) solutions. The possibilities are endless.
Computers have become so pervasive in society that not trying to include it in national school curricula could be the biggest errors a country can make. That being said the introduction of technology into schools is not an overnight development. The introduction of technology in schools follows the same path as the introduction of anything new in a system. This includes first identifying, and then training, the first set of instructors who will go on to train their peers, teachers, and eventually the students. This exercise will be worthwhile only if enough time had been taken to properly design the manner in which the computers will supplement human interaction and instruction.
In conclusion, we see that participating in the OLPC project, even in a pilot project, will surely be of great significance to the education system, present and future. The question becomes: As a nation, are we up to the challenge of duplicating what has been done in Kasiisi, Uganda?
By: Sewanu Kponou
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