“School is Boring”: Nicholas Negroponte on Education, the XO Laptop, and Life After Intel
One day in early November, the first batch of mass-produced XO laptops—the little green-and-white machines designed by the One Laptop Per Child Foundation (OLPC) to revolutionize education in the IT-starved developing world—rolled off an assembly line in Changshu, China.
Coming less than three years after the launch of the so-called “$100 laptop” effort by former MIT Media Lab director Nicholas Negroponte, the manufacturing milestone was cause for some back-slapping within OLPC, and might have been expected to quell a few of the organization’s outside critics.
But instead, the foundation has spent the last few months bogged down in bad publicity. It started with a Wall Street Journal article that concluded Negroponte’s project had been “derailed” by canceled orders, cost overruns, and competition with established hardware and software companies. Then came a round of extraordinarily bitter and public infighting between OLPC and Intel, the foundation’s largest monetary supporter and the company Negroponte had hoped to lean on for help promoting and distributing the XO around the world. A fragile rapprochement between the two organizations, negotiated last summer after Intel chairman Craig Barrett traded barbs in a 60 Minutes segment, fell apart completely on January 3 with Intel’s stormy departure from the OLPC board.
Intel and OLPC have given conflicting accounts of the final dispute: the giant chipmaker says Negroponte was trying to strong-arm the company into abandoning its low-cost Classmate laptop (an XO competitor), while Negroponte says Intel wouldn’t stop bad-mouthing the XO to education ministries in OLPC’s target countries.
Whatever the case, Negroponte is now working to shift the focus away from past controversies and onto the foundation’s future, especially its educational mission. While getting the newly minted XOs into the hands of children is obviously a key step, Negroponte talks even more about the laptop’s potential to upend the way kids learn in developing countries where schoolwork is a dull, regimented affair.
“It’s not about selling laptops,” Negroponte told Bob and me when we visited OLPC at its Cambridge, MA, headquarters one day last week. “It’s about leveraging the children themselves”—meaning, putting better tools for exploration and collaboration into their hands, and encouraging them to play with these tools in ways that will (in theory, at least) rewrite the old rules of the classroom.
“Most people think that kids drop out of school in the developing world to go to work and earn money for their family, or to work in the fields, or to take care of the siblings or something like that,” Negroponte says. “That happens—but the primary reason is that school is boring. It’s not relevant.” He believes the XO laptop is versatile enough to help change that.
And he could be right. On the day Bob and I visited, the foundation’s Kendall Square offices were noisily overflowing with engineers and educators participating in one of its regular learning workshops. Negroponte and the other OLPC managers we were scheduled to see—software president Walter Bender and chief learning architect David Cavallo, of whom more later—were being pulled in and out of meetings, and during one break between interviews, I was given an XO to play with. Once I figured out how to open it (you have to flip up the green rabbit-ear Wi-Fi antennas first), I was impressed to see how much care has gone into the device’s physical construction (it’s unexpectedly solid, for a $175 gadget) as well as its top-level user interface and the individual programs loaded into its memory (which is comprised of a 1-gigabyte, solid-state Flash chip—the XO has no hard drive).
Briefly put, I discovered that the Linux-based XO is loaded with enough open-source programming, communication, and content-creation and editing tools to make any bright young child into a budding journalist, musician, filmmaker, scientist, software engineer, or (as some governments may fear) revolutionary. Some critics—notably, The Economist, in a frosty January 4 review—have derided the XO for … Next Page »