MIT’s ‘$100 laptops’ to go to Pacific islands

A local not-for-profit, to be called OLPC Oceania, is planned but is yet to be formally constituted

A small group of internet activists from New Zealand, Australia the Solomon Islands and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) plan to take the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative to the Pacific islands.

The OLPC scheme is the brainchild of a US non-profit organisation created by MIT Media Lab staff. It hopes to produce a basic laptop, which it calls the XO-1, equipped with a wi-fi connection, for US$100 (NZ$130).

The initiative has the support of major companies such as Google, Red Hat (whose Fedora Core Linux constitutes the machine’s operating system) and Nortel. Intel has also recently come on board.

A local not-for-profit, to be called OLPC Oceania, is planned but is yet to be formally constituted, says Ian Thomson, the New Zealand member of the initiative, best known for his work with the 2020 Communications Trust.

OLPC Oceania plans two programmes: first, a pilot deployment of 20 machines, to be given to Solomon Islands children to supplement their regular education. The initiative would then be widened-out to other parts of the Solomons, once the pilot had proved itself, says Thomson.

A second more ambitious project aims to deploy 100,000 of the laptops throughout a number of the Pacific islands. However, this would be done gradually, by equipping one village at a time. Here the aim would be to cater to the needs of children who can’t get to a school.

OLPC Oceania is aware that the educational material provided with the machines needs to be culturally appropriate and plans to liaise with local authorities, as well as with organisations which provide financial aid to the regions.

Twenty to 50 PCs would be provided per village under OLPC Oceania’s plan. These would be linked to a village server, which would be linked, via a “thin” satellite or wireless link, to an internet access point, says Thomson. Most of the content would be kept on the server, to minimise the need for longer-distance communication.

Thomson is in the Solomons this week, combining work on the project with attending the annual conference of the Pacific Internet Society. The Solomon Islands project is being sponsored by the European Union. Educational software on the OLPC machines will be “learner-centric”, or in “constructionalist learning” mode, says Thomson.

“It’s learning by doing.” For example, there is a package that teaches children the principles of music by providing them with the facilities to create their own music. In addition to being used for education, the laptops could also be used to allow access to community information — for example, information about health and disease.

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