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Are Tablets Key To Negroponte Realising His Dream?

The plan is radical, ambitious and inspiring. But its execution hasn't been perfect - so far.

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) education initiative, founded by American computer scientist Nicolas Negroponte, has been distributing cheap-to-make, child-friendly laptops to schools and communities in the developing world since 2005.

A commendable cause no doubt, but throwing technology at corners of the globe that share neither the same educational mindset, nor the practical framework to implement such a scheme, has drawn its share of criticism. OLPC has been accused of ignoring cultural nuances due to its Western-oriented approach to learning and philanthropy, and of wasting vast sums of money that could have been better used elsewhere.

By merely dumping laptops in troubled areas, a feeling emerged that ultimately, Negroponte was attempting to solve complex social problems with overly simplistic solutions.

Some first-hand observations of the experiment in action have substantiated these views. A 2011 report on OLPC in Peru captured a common sentiment throughout recipient nations - the lack of guidance children were receiving from their ill-equipped schools with untrained staff. The report notes, "There are some teachers who have never used a computer before and had great problems with basic functions like entering and leaving the programs".

The researcher adds, "I regard the development of an infrastructure that not only provides access to technology, but access to information and knowledge, as of crucial importance... There needs to be established social forms of using the technology, of support and help from within the context, developing local potentials". In light of such analysis, simply supplying laptops seems a largely cosmetic improvement to an education system. The learning potential of the laptops is no doubt limited by the absence of an understanding and platform for their use.

Yet scepticism had existed long before such reports were made, and to push negativity into the background and drive distribution, OLPC needed a convincing marketing plan from the off. But the well-documented 'Give 1 Get 1' sales campaigns of 2007 and 2008 brought only limited success.

Designed to involve the public more directly, the scheme saw customers receive an XO laptop themselves and send another to a child in a developing country for their $400 (£255) donation. However, a laptop boasting just a 500MHz processor, 256MB of RAM and 1GB of flash storage did little to compel adult buyers on the donating side, while there was no option to specify where the charitable laptop was dispatched to either.

As a result, cautiously positive sales figures from the first Give 1 Get 1 campaign crashed to an emphatically poor outcome in 2008, when just 12,500 laptops were sold - a 93 per cent decline from the opening programme.

The organisation has since abandoned advertising to customers to focus on fundraising efforts and a change in tack appears to have yielded better results. According to OLPC's official website, over two million laptops had been distributed worldwide as of 2011, with figures showing South America benefitting most significantly.

Now, with Negroponte striving to maintain the impetus brought by last year's announcement, a revamp of the project will see tablets replacing laptops as the tools to 'bridge the world's digital divide'. OLPC has become OTPC.

Keeping abreast with technological advancements, the tablet update seems a sensible and promising move that will suit the nature of the initiative. Above all, the device seems far more child-friendly than a laptop. The typically easy to master touch-screen interface of a tablet should mean children engage with the device faster, helping to stimulate the learning process to greater effect. Riyad's recent report on OTPC, testified to this, as he described how his four-year-old daughter intuitively got to grips with the workings of an iPad in very little time.

And though the aforementioned report on the project in Peru highlighted flaws in the OLPC operation, it still offered hope for the idea through a telling statement: "When the children are confident and encouraged in their curiosity, there is a lot of teaching and learning between themselves".

Thus, once the harmony between the child and technology is established, it appears there is a real chance for the device to educate. Encouragingly for Negroponte, statistical evidence supports the anecdotal, as a survey from Nielson Wire in Britain and the US found 77 per cent of parents believed that using tablets was beneficial for their children, while the same number thought the gadgets helped develop creativity.

The study of 2,000 tablet owners also illustrated a willingness in the young to embrace the products as learning tools, with 57 per cent of children found to be using educational applications - surprisingly just 20 per cent short of the number playing downloaded games.

Importantly, the OTPC product itself has promise, with new design innovations enhancing the crucial practicality of the device. The intended hallmarks of the original XO laptops: low-cost, durability and conservation of power have been upgraded, and are now supplemented by solar panels on the inside of the tablet's cover.

The nature of their distribution should also remove some complications. Whereas the OLPC campaign required schools to supply the laptops and then teach the children how to use them, it is hoped the new tablets can simply be left in boxes in the street - allowing the child to pick one up and start using the device immediately, without instruction or intervention.

Though the latest distribution campaign is in its infancy, the evidence reads well for Negroponte and his advocates. The laptop to tablet transformation could be the catalyst that the mission needs. The natural compatibly of children and handheld machines, the findings that show tablets really can stimulate learning, and the ease in which this technology can be delivered - are factors that complement one another and ultimately suggest that OTPC can be a success.

At no other time has Nicolas Negroponte's radical plan appeared more likely to triumph than now. There is still plenty of work to be done in nurturing the project, but a successful OTPC campaign could yet spark something of a revolution in education, and provide a platform to learn, create and discover for children who so desperately need it.