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Children work on laptops at a youth centre in Kliptown, an area of Soweto, South Africa. (Erin Conway-Smith/Erin Conway-Smith for The Globe and Mail)
Children work on laptops at a youth centre in Kliptown, an area of Soweto, South Africa. (Erin Conway-Smith/Erin Conway-Smith for The Globe and Mail)

Geoffrey York

Soweto student computer program founders on power shortage Add to ...

In a dusty corner of a Soweto youth centre, a stack of laptop computers is sitting idle. For the dozens of kids playing soccer outside, the laptop revolution is, temporarily, stalled.

The computers were supposed to set the children free. Instead, on this day, they are gathering dust in a back room. A shortage of gas for the generator, a common occurrence in Soweto, has left the youth centre without any power or Internet connections. So the laptops are piled up on the floor to conserve their fading battery power.

It's an example of the daily realities that frustrate the dreams of an idealistic band of volunteers who have vowed to distribute laptops to millions of needy children in some of the world's poorest countries.

The project, known as One Laptop Per Child, is one of the most ambitious aid projects in the world. Yet its collisions with mundane obstacles are prompting many critics to predict failure. Some say it has proven too grandiose and utopian. "The dream is over," one blogger scoffed recently.

The concept was simple and alluring. Provide a rugged $100 laptop to millions of children in developing countries who could never otherwise learn about computers. Revolutionize the education system by giving impoverished kids a free ride on the information superhighway. Make them computer literate and give them a boost into a high-tech labour market that would otherwise exclude them.

The dream was unveiled in 2005 by Nicholas Negroponte, the famed futurist and computer scientist who co-founded the MIT Media Lab. He predicted that up to 150 million of the low-cost laptops could be shipped annually to developing countries by the end of 2007. His vision was so entrancing that he quickly attracted $20-million in start-up investment, along with a host of sponsorships and partnerships from leading high-tech companies. Google and Nortel were among the early backers of the project.

When the first child-friendly XO laptops rolled off the factory line, many were impressed by the design. The cute green-and-white laptops were durable, rugged, and resistant to dirt and moisture. To save on power and avoid breakage, the laptops contained no motor-driven moving parts.

But problems cropped up almost immediately. Early ideas such as a human power source and a child-friendly operating system had to be abandoned. The laptop could not be produced for the target price of $100, and the cost was closer to $200 in the end, making them less attractive to the developing-world governments that were supposed to buy them and give them away to their students. Commercial rivals leaped in, including Intel, which created a $250 laptop, the Classmate, that some countries preferred.

Mr. Negroponte tapped into the early wave of excitement with a "Give one, get one" promotion, allowing enthusiasts to pay $399 for two laptops, one to keep and one to be given away to a developing country. The first year of the promotion was successful, but the second was a failure. By early 2009, only a few hundred thousand laptops had been given away to needy children. Corporate sponsors were fleeing, and Mr. Negroponte's non-profit organization was obliged to lay off half of its staff.

In many poor countries, a key problem is a lack of electricity and Internet connections. In some schools, the laptops were briefly played with, then stacked away in storerooms.

In Malawi, a volunteer teacher discovered a box of 15 brand-new XO laptops buried in a box in a supply room, never used. The $2,300 cost of the laptops could have paid the tuition for 23 students for a year, the teacher said.

In Ethiopia, some teachers banned the laptops from their classrooms because they were seen as toys that could distract the children from their studies. One official in the Ethiopian government, blogging anonymously, said the laptop project is a "vanity project" that would consume a "disastrous" proportion of the government's budget.

Critics complain that the laptop project has failed to commission any studies of whether the computers are actually helping children. Studies of other computers in schools in Colombia and Romania suggest that the computers had no impact on student performance - or even had a negative impact.

"Despite the instinctive appeal of distributing laptops to schoolchildren, there is precious little evidence that making computers available to children improves educational outcomes," wrote Timothy Ogden, editor of Philanthropy in Action, a web journal for donors.

He argues that schoolchildren in developing countries would benefit more from cheap, simple programs such as mass de-worming, which would boost school attendance, even though this would be "nowhere near as sexy" as the stylish laptops.

Mr. Negroponte concedes that the laptop project has been "harder than I expected." He blames other computer companies for undermining the project. But despite that, a million laptops have now been deployed in 31 countries around the world, and another million are on their way, he says. Three countries - Rwanda, Peru and Uruguay - have made large-scale commitments to the laptops. "The dream is not over," he wrote in response to the blogger criticism.

At the Kliptown Youth Program in Soweto, donors have provided 250 laptops for the children. On a day when the generator is not working and the batteries are fading, the staff agree to let the children show off their laptops for a few minutes. Most of them quickly turn on the video cameras in the laptops.

"I feel happy about them," said 15-year-old David Mangaliso, who had never used a computer until the laptops came along.

"They look nice. You can do maths on them, you can write or play games. And they have a camera, so we can see our faces on them."

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

 

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