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Mission: Give XO Computers To All The Kids!

*That’s what One Laptop Per Child promised. Seven years later, the ambitious program is just finding its way. But is it too late?

Nicaragua, first graders use the XO as a camera and drawing toy. | Photographs by Ron Haviv

Elisa Fernanda Castillo Cruz, age 6, is a first grader at the Escuela Enmanuel Mongalo in Diriamba, Nicaragua—and she loves her XO computer, better known as the One Laptop Per Child laptop. "I bring it home and I teach my mama and my papa and my little brothers," she says in Spanish. "I show them all the activities they don't know—painting, writing, reading, games." She opens her favorite game, in which addition and multiplication problems drift slowly down the small black-and-white screen.

"You have to answer before they fall," she says, laughing and hiding her face in her hands when the sad face appears to tell her she got a sum wrong. This kind of engagement was exactly the goal when Nicholas Negroponte, then the director of MIT's famous Media Lab, launched the One Laptop Per Child not-for-profit back in 2005. With its Yves Behar-designed, Linux-based laptop and a unique open-source programming environment targeted to simple learning, OLPC is the most high-profile example of what's been dubbed "design for the bottom of the pyramid," a movement to bring the discipline of design and creative thinking to problems of poverty and development. But Negroponte's grand vision was never matched by an attention to detail; for years, the project failed on many fronts, including production delays, inconsistent support, a lack of teacher training, and a shortage of developers willing to create software for the XO. As a 2010 article in Columbia's Journal of International Affairs concluded, "OLPC represents the latest in a long line of technologically utopian development schemes that have unsuccessfully attempted to solve complex social problems with overly simplistic solutions."

What critics ignore is that the organization has changed significantly since 2009, when Negroponte, now in an emeritus position at the Media Lab, ceded day-to-day operations of OLPC to his friend, Rodrigo Arboleda. "I'm not the kind of person who has staff meetings at 8 a.m., but Rodrigo does," Negroponte says. Arboleda is the Felix to Negroponte's Oscar. A native Colombian, Arboleda has moved the organization's operating division to his hometown of Miami to be more convenient to Latin America, where most of the computers are located. (The One Laptop Per Child Foundation, an engineering and research arm, remains headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts.) Arboleda is running OLPC more like a business; while Negroponte once declared a goal of making XOs available at $100 a pop, Arboleda sells the computers to governments and not-for-profits for nearly $200, a price that's calculated to include overhead.

Furthermore, Arboleda has invested heavily in teacher training, unlike Negroponte, who still believes in what he calls "the gods must be crazy" approach to educational intervention (after the 1980 movie in which a Coke bottle falls from the sky into an African village and wreaks havoc with the villagers' way of life). "Ever since the day we started, we've been getting pretty endless criticism," he explains, "usually around the idea that you can give a kid a laptop and walk away." But that's exactly what Negroponte believes will empower self-directed learning in the developing world. In fact, he's been experimenting with leaving laptops in remote Ethiopian villages and has spoken several times in public appearances about literally dropping them out of helicopters.

The old way of learning? Copy from the board. The new way? Descubrir en Wikipedia (search Wikipedia articles). | Photos by Ron Haviv

Today's OLPC seems to have left that view behind. "I think the observations about OLPC are kind of stuck in the 2007 view of OLPC," says chief financial officer Robert Hacker. "The fact is every new project we've done since 2010 has had significant teacher training." Arboleda's staff is also building local capacity to maintain and evaluate the programs. In Managua, for example, OLPC has a warehouse staffed with university students who repair the XOs and send them back out to classrooms. In the three years since Arboleda took over, OLPC has grown from 1 million computers in the field to nearly 2.5 million, in more than 40 countries from the South Pacific to Madagascar.

But a curious thing has happened as OLPC has gotten its act together: The rest of the world has caught up to—in fact, has zipped right past—Negroponte's original vision of lightweight, affordable, portable information and communications technology transforming the lives of billions of people. In the next few years, about 7 million laptops will be distributed to children by governments in Latin America alone. The Intel "World Ahead" program has distributed about 5 million Classmate PCs, both netbooks and tablets, in 70 countries, paired with software, connectivity, and support programs. In Mexico, Carlos Slim's personal foundation announced a donation of 250,000 XOs in 2007; recently the foundation has expanded its efforts, by offering computers from Dell and Lanix, a Mexican manufacturer. Negroponte dismisses these efforts: "When you're Intel or Microsoft, the constituency is not the kids—it's the minister of education and the principals."

From his Cambridge, Massachusetts, office, Nicholas Negroponte distributes laptops to kids in remote Ethiopian villages that have no reading material—"not even a label on a bottle of water!" | Photo by Joao Canziani

Meanwhile, it may turn out that laptops, or even tablets, will be a mere footnote in the technological education of the developing world. There are already 6 billion cell-phone subscriptions for the world's 7 billion people, and observers like Anne Nelson, who teaches a class on new media and development at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, believe that SMS is the real technology to watch. She points to programs such as the BBC's Bangla Janala, which teaches English through text messages.

So what, finally, will be the legacy of OLPC? Mike Best, editor of the leading scholarly journal in this field, Information Technologies and International Development, credits OLPC, and Negroponte, with starting the conversation about the need for low-cost, low-power computing. But, he says, "in the end, computers are the easy part. The hard thing is the humans." Putting technology into the hands of the citizens of the developing world will get easier and easier. Leveraging those tools for real change is another story.

A version of this article appeared in the November 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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