It's an education project, not a laptop project. That's the catchphrase pasted all over the website, and is the one-liner that they use to explain the mission to people who wonder, "why are we trying to provide laptops to a bunch of people who don't even have enough fresh water or food for their village?"
However, nobody is claiming that education is a bad thing. The OLPC organization believes, and has convinced me, that these laptops are going to allow for paradigm shifts in education the likes of which we've never seen, and that these changes have the potential to be massively beneficial to students worldwide.
Why do I believe this? Crazy? Maybe. But let me try to impart some of the vision that I've grown to share. It's Creative Writing Time...
Let's visit a rural village in northern Thailand. You are walking down a dirt road in the Thai wilderness in summer; grasses are brown. Palm trees, exotic frangipani, and miscellaneous brush adorn the valley. The sky is deep blue and the weather is hot but not too humid.
Entering the village center, earth and timber constructions squat in a clearing, straw roofs draped with care, doors beckoning in the breeze. Young children and adults peek carefully at you through open doors and windows, and you smile as you trudge through the dust, your digital SLR camera jarring against your chest, a reminder of how different your world is. The schoolhouse, a one-room building, sits prominently at the end of the road.
You prepare to pad delicately into the class in session, but as you crack the door you hear music and laughter. Children are sitting in a circle, green-and-white laptops in front of each. The teacher is tapping out a quick beat on a traditional sort of drum held between his legs. The children are playing music on the laptops by pressing keys, and each seems to have a different instrument. The m&eacut;lange is uncoordinated and tinny from small speakers but still sounds surprisingly good. The children giggling and laughing, the teacher tries to conduct while playing the drums, but he misses beat and the notes dissolve into chaos.
OK, it's time for science, the teacher informs everyone. He looks at the door and sees you, waves, invites you along. The children close their laptops with distinctive clicks and gather them up. They tie their shoes and line up behind the teacher, heading out into the fields for a biology lesson.
The objective this week is to catalog living things on the hillside. Yesterday, the students guessed that there were between 30 and 40 different kinds of plants and animals in the area; today they are going in the field to photograph as many different species as they can, and for the rest of the week, they will sort and categorize the photographs. Each student has a camera built into the laptop, but they all work in pairs. Barely staying in the line bursting at the seams with excitement, they follow the teacher as he explains the week's schedule to you, walking down the road, then left along a path that leads up the hill, into a forest and then a clearing. The teacher instructs the students to stay in sight, but lets them wander as they may.
You follow a pair of students, who rush towards a type of tree that produces a very large leaf, eager to be the first to photograph it. One student lays her laptop down and picks a leaf, then holds it out for the other to photograph. They take several photos of the held leaf, then turn towards the tree that produced it. Before putting it down, the girl holding the leaf realizes that it can be used as a background for other photos of smaller objects, so she carries it around with her. Many laptops are lying in dirt, carried carelessly, and you wince when one girl drops hers from waist height because she sees a tiny flower that nobody else has seen yet, and bends down to examine it.
Why did you wince, you wonder. You instinctively hate to see kids treating this wonderful technology like a textbook or backpack -- you can't help but map it to "laptop" which connotes expensive and fragile. But that's wrong: the laptop is a simple tool for learning, meant to be taken with you everywhere and used exactly how the kids treat it: as a textbook, and a backpack, and a notebook, pen and paper, all those things that kids carry around, and more besides. It's not some foreign technology to be revered.
Later, the kids will share their photos on the ad-hoc mesh network. They'll use the blackboard to put the different plants in a category, and the collaborative Write activity to construct a picture catalog of today's activities. They'll select the best photo or two of each species from the ones the student has taken. Eventually they can print the catalog, or even publish it on the Internet, and compare it with the catalogs that next year's students will create. Would any of this have been possible without the laptops? Potentially: with notebooks, students could take prints, or draw likenesses of different species, and then copy the drawings or paste them into a paper catalog. But being able to take a photo just like that allows them to focus on the differences and similarities of the species rather than the effort of taking samples, and allows more time and more accuracy in the comparison of species. And the collaboration features are a very nice bonus.
Maybe this little narrative has given you a few images of what I am envisioning with these little green plastic devices. The biggest difference I can envision is making learning more fun and more interactive. And that is a recipe for lessons that tend to stick around.
This story is basically fictional, but it is based on the images and photos from Ban Samkha, a Thai village in which there was a recent OLPC trial.