Today I had the privilege of meeting Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder & former Director of the MIT Media Lab. Dr. Negroponte gave a press conference at the Thompson Center in Chicago, at which he launched the 2-week Give One Get One fundraising campaign for his ambitious One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative, which seeks to address global poverty through education by providing a laptop computer to children in undeveloped countries. Illinois Lt. Governor Pat Quinn introduced Dr. Negroponte at the press conference. Quinn is a supporter of 1:1 computing, having sponsored the Illinois Connect technology immersion pilot project bringing laptop computing to 7 Illinois public school districts, following the lead of high-profile public school laptop programs in Maine & Michigan.

Based on OLPC pilot projects, Dr. Negroponte believes that laptops can be an educationally and socially transformative tool with the long-term potential to lift these children out of poverty by engaging them in learning through the interactivity of personal computing and providing access to the enormous store of human knowledge now available freely on the Internet.

I have been following OLPC since Dr. Negroponte publicly announced the project. I have been interested for a variety of reasons, including OLPC’s humanitarian vision, my general curiosity about technology, as well as my own selfish interests, since I have run laptop programs in education at both the high school and elementary levels for the past 6 years.

My experience running these programs has taught me two things. First, the benefit of the technology for education is maximized in a 1:1 environment where each child has access to his or her own computer. Shared resources (computer labs, laptop carts, or a few workstations in a classroom) can be made to work, but the technology does not become a natural part of learning. Computers remain cleaved from the core content of the classroom. When resources are shared, barriers to use are erected and the technology is seen by teachers as an add-on, as separate from the subject content they care about imparting, and therefore used less than optimally or in superfluous ways. Except for the truly dedicated early-adopters who will go out of their way to incorporate technology appropriately into instruction, most teachers will use technology only minimally, not taking advantage of the technology-rich environment in which in most of the U.S. find ourselves. Not only is this a missed opportunity for the student and teacher in finding more effective and efficient means of learning, as well as a waste of resources, it also creates a disconnect for students, who typically use the technology fluidly outside of school for recreation (gaming), social contact (social networking sites, IM, text messaging, cell phones), but are limited to carefully prescribed uses of technology for formal learning (largely word processing & classroom presentations). While certainly not guaranteed in a 1:1 computing environment, I believe that the promise of technology as a tool to enable learning is much more likely to be fulfilled when computing is ubiquitous, ever-present, & accessible without artificial barriers. This, of course, is the premise of OLPC, one they are attempting to prove on a global scale.

Having run a 1:1 laptop program, I also know that the arrangement is also not without its downsides. The distraction factor alone of having such a rich, engaging device at hand can be overwhelming for a child. (Of course, it can for an adult as well, a lesson learned from many laptop-enabled meetings. Those are topics for another day, however.) In my opinion, the more significant downside to 1:1 programs is the unsuitability of current devices to the task. That’s the second lesson I’ve drawn from my experience running laptop programs. Currently available laptops, designed for the corporate or consumer markets, are ill-suited for use by children. They are too fragile, too bulky, and too expensive, with too little battery life. There are exceptions, of course, but most attempts to address these problems have succeeded only in fixing one at the expense of exacerbating the others. A subnotebook computer might be light, but it becomes more expensive & more fragile. It may be ruggedized, but then it becomes bulkier & more expensive. Or it may be cheap, but then it’s bulky and still breakable. Anyone who has supported school laptop programs knows how often one is replacing keys on keyboards that have “mysteriously” popped off or sending in for repair laptops that have suffered breakage due careless drops or compression in overstuffed backpacks, or replacing batteries that have been discharged one too many times, or just fixing the myriad of niggling errors that modern complex operating systems (read: Windows) pop up daily. The churn of equipment and drain on staff time is wasteful, expensive, and distracts from the learning process. And given these realities, I do understand why most teachers have not yet embraced the promise of “anytime, anywhere” laptop learning.

But I believe that OLPC is changing all that. The technical wizards who designed the OLPC XO laptop have addressed all of those core concerns head-on, and by initial accounts, very successfully. The XO is light at just a bit over 3 pounds, and child-sized, with thoughtful ergonomics like a built-in handle and a convertible mode for e-book reading. It’s been designed to be spill-proof, dust-proof, & drop-proof. (Plus the keyboard is a single sheet, so missing keys are a thing of the past.) It’s got excellent power profile & can be charged with a hand-crank (now separate) or traditional AC adapter. And, of course, it’s cheap. While it’s no longer the $100 laptop (though Dr. Negroponte insists that production improvements will allow it to attain that price point as production scales), it’s still almost an order of magnitude cheaper than many corporate-class laptops.

Of course, there’s no free lunch. As has been well-documented in the blogosphere, XO performance much less than that of the typical corporate laptop (or even the cheapest discount outlet consumer computer). Though high resolution (at least in its monochrome mode), the screen size is small (7.5″) by U.S. standards and the processor, memory, & storage specifications are minimal. Further, the unit is not expandable, except for the 3 USB ports. While the difference in performance is perhaps not the same order of magnitude loss that its dramatically lower price might imply, the XO is clearly not a straight laptop replacement. Of course, OLPC never intended it to be one. For their target, the design trade-offs make perfect sense. Running Sugar, OLPC’s custom, Linux-underpinned operating environment, performance is perfectly adequate. For the XO’s target users, most of whom have probably never used a computer, Sugar will provide tremendous functionality.

However, most of us in the developed world who are eyeing the XO hardware with envy because of its superior, child-centered design are entrenched in Windows and/or Mac OS conventions and software. While I did not have enough time with the XO today to form a solid opinion of Sugar, I suspect that most users of established operating systems would probably find it limiting, or at least a barrier to adoption because of its departure from established user interfaces and applications. While some U.S. schools (like Illinois own Forest Park School district, which has committed to providing the XO to all of its fifth grade students) are, regardless of differences Sugar presents, willing to make the leap and take advantage of the brief window of XO availability in the U.S. afforded by Give One, Get One, I don’t know that this number will be great, especially given the tight 2-week timeframe for jumping on the bandwagon.

However, it seems to me that given its child-centric design, the XO platform has a great deal going for it and it presents a tremendous opportunity even for schools already committed to Windows. While Dr. Negroponte says that the computer could technically run Windows, I suspect that performance would be unacceptable for most users and that most of the limited local storage would be consumed by the operating system alone, severely limiting local application installs and user data storage. However, the XO’s integrated WiFi and minimal local computing power would seem to make it a nearly ideal “thin client” device. A school with a robust wireless network and capable server infrastructure could run Windows Terminal Services on central network servers and deliver a complete application environment with enormous data storage capacity with minimal network bandwidth requirements if one could install a Remote Desktop Protocol client on the XO. While this approach fails to leverage the research & effort OLPC software engineers have put into the Sugar user interface, it dramatically lowers the barriers to adoption of the XO hardware in developed countries by potentially allowing schools to deliver very nearly the same computing experience that students and teachers are already accustomed to receiving, but on the low-cost, lightweight, child-friendly XO hardware. (The cost and performance could be increased by the adventuresome by delivering a virtualized Linux desktop environment instead of a Windows environment by running NoMachine’s NXServer instead of Windows Terminal Services, as the startup Academic Computing Environment [ACE] project is promising to do.)

One can imagine the school’s virtualized desktop environment extending to the student’s home if the school permitted secure Terminal Services connections through its Internet firewall and the child’s family had its own a wireless Internet connection in which the XO could participate. The student would then have a seamless computing environment accessible at home and at school (and at the local WiFi-enabled public library or coffeshop or T-Mobile hotspot). In this scenario, the XO is most useful when connected to the Internet, but provisions for off-line use for limited purposes may be possible if OpenOffice and or other compatible applications could be installed locally on the internal flash drive or even a student-provided USB flash expansion drive.

As I said at the outset, I have been following OLPC for my own selfish reasons because I have seen the promise of 1:1-enabled learning but been stymied by the very same technology it is currently delivered on. At first touch, the XO appears to solve many of those problems, so I’m keenly interested in finding a way to integrate it into our school’s existing environment. If using the XO as terminal services client is feasible, I would love to pursue it and I think others in developed countries may as well. Beyond this selfish interest, however, I believe that more widespread adoption of the XO could be beneficial for the OLPC program. While not core to its mission of helping the poorest children of the world, the use of the XO in the schools of developed countries could still benefit OLPC, either by funding its core operation through an extension of the Give One, Get One program (even at $399, the XO is still cheaper than nearly any laptop computers schools would purchase), or by providing a supplemental market, which, if managed tightly, may steady the demand needed by the XO’s manufacturers to maintain the price-point needed to make the unit affordable in lesser developed countries.

Certainly, there are other devices currently shipping (the XO-inspired ASUS Eee PC comes to mind) or on the horizon (such as Intel’s ClassMate PC and Via’s PC-1 reference designs) that may fill the same niche as the XO for the U.S. market could and may be easier to integrate with existing computing environment, either through native operating system or superior suitability as a terminal services client. However, none of these options offer the XO’s compelling hardware design, nor the global humanitarian benefit of adopting the XO, nor the possibilities for cultural enrichment and global understanding through student-to-student pairings of the children on either side of the Give One, Get One giving equation that Dr. Negroponte indicated the program would attempt. It’s certainly difficult to put a price tag on these latter benefits.

It is, however, easy to see that it’s an exciting time to be involved in education & technology…