Building a future with technology

Technology companies love to talk about how their products can help our children learn, but talk is cheap and solid results are few and far between. But last week Intel invited me to the Bett show to hear about an incredibly ambitious project that the chip giant is undertaking with the Lebanese government.

I met with Hussam Kayyal – Advisor to the Minister, Lebanese Ministry of Telecommunications – who explained the details behind the Open Your Tomorrow initiative. At its most basic level, the Lebanese government has committed to putting a tablet computer into the hands of every child in the country!

Kayyal informed me that the Open Your Tomorrow initiative is being spearheaded by the Lebanese Ministry of Telecommunications, and the Ministry of Education, and that the government is also working very closely with the two largest telecoms companies in the country. The more Kayyal revealed to me, the more it became apparent that a huge amount of thought and planning had gone into this project.

Along with Triple C, a local technology solutions provider, the Lebanese government scoped out the kind of solution its children needed. The decision to go with a tablet device stemmed from a number of factors – tablets are smaller, lighter and more affordable than equivalent laptops, and represent the natural technological transition from traditional textbooks.

Once the tablet form factor was decided upon, the minimum specifications had to be worked out. Connectivity was a major consideration, so the ideal device had to support both Wi-Fi and 3G. The Ministry of Telecommunications then negotiated with the mobile operators to ensure that affordable, reliable 3G would be available, thus allowing each child to be constantly online via their tablet.

The plan is to equip every child from the age of six to 18 with one of these tablets – there will be multiple software builds depending on the age of the child, while the programs and reference literature will evolve over time as the child grows. Via the 3G or Wi-Fi connection the government will be able to keep each tablet up to date, while also ensuring that each device is secure and protected.

The devices can also be tracked remotely, so if a tablet is lost or stolen, the authorities will be able to find and recover the unit, then return it to the child. Kayyal told me that this ability to track devices was key to getting the project off the ground, whereby the Ministry could ensure that each tablet was being used by the child it was assigned to.

With the hardware specs finalised the government put the project out to tender and received bids from pretty much every hardware manufacturer – Samsung, Apple, Dell, Huawei, ZTE and Acer all put forward bids, but the Ministry chose to partner with Intel.

Despite the fact that Intel does not make tablet devices for retail sale, it does create reference designs, and its Classmate PC range has been successfully implemented into developing regions around the world. Intel also fabricates its own silicon, which is a major advantage for a project of this magnitude.

As well as manufacturing tablets for the children of Lebanon, Intel has agreed to supply 1,500 tablets to the Ministry of Education to be given to teachers. Along with the hardware Intel will also be providing training for those teachers, allowing them to use the tablets to best effect within the classroom.

The Lebanese government has also negotiated with the banks to ensure that parents are able to spread the cost of their children’s tablets without fear of excessive interest payments. In fact each tablet will cost approximately $19 per month over two years, which includes all the 3G data costs. Considering that an average 3G plan in Lebanon costs around $36 per month, it’s clear that the telecoms companies are doing their part.

It’s not just children that will benefit from this project though, since all the tablets will be assembled in Lebanon, helping to boost the economy. Bernard Rizk, President & CEO or Triple C, the company undertaking the assembly said “I strongly believe that technology offers an amazing opportunity in leveling the playing field for our children.”

Of course Rizk is right, technology can have an incredibly positive impact on education, as long as it’s implemented properly. And so far it looks as though Lebanon’s Open Your Tomorrow initiative isn’t just ambitious, it’s also one of the most carefully considered and planned programmes I’ve seen.

Hussam Kayyal told me that he’s hoping that 50 per cent of students will receive their tablets within the first year of the rollout, which would be an incredible achievement. With production and distribution set to start within the next couple of months, I’ll be reporting on how the initiative progresses again soon.