Call to Cause: One Laptop Per Child
by marc goodman
There are millions of children sleeping worldwide with their laptops close by. For the privileged youth of America, this may seem commonplace, but for children in impoverished parts of the world with no electricity or running water, it’s akin to a miracle. As the developed world progresses, those without technology get left behind. Enter Rodrigo Arboleda and the much-buzzed-about One Laptop per Child organization, which has distributed more than 2.5 million free, specially designed, rugged laptops to impoverished children in classrooms all over the globe. OLPC is now based in Miami and has expanded its focus to underprivileged children here in the US, beginning with students at Miami’s own Holmes Elementary School. This year, OLPC launched a $149 XO tablet that’s also a full-fledged Android device and is sold at Walmart and other big-name retailers. Arboleda, the organization’s CEO, phoned in from a stop along his near-continuous travels to talk about OLPC’s innovations.
Why is this program important?
The majority of children in the world are in the dark. Nobody is considering them. So the moment we provide them with a connected laptop, for the first time, someone has made them feel important. So there’s that concept of empowerment that’s so powerful psychologically, and at the same time provides the opportunity to give them a better future.
How did you select Miami’s Holmes Elementary School to start the domestic program?
The Knight Foundation, which provided funding for the laptops, chose Holmes. The project has been a complete success. Knight is very happy with the initial results of its evaluations and expanded it to seven schools in Charlotte, North Carolina [via a partnership with Project LIFT, a local education initiative]. North Carolina is larger because Knight was able to enlist private-sector partners such as Bank of America and Wells Fargo for funding. Speaking of evaluation: Traditional evaluation systems only measure math, science and technology, and reading comprehension. But we add cognitive abilities—the capacity for kids to develop innovation, imagination, creativity, the Steve Jobs and Bill Gates skills. The results at Holmes in cognitive abilities have been incredible.
Will there be further efforts in Miami?
We’re working with Knight to attract other entities in Miami. With the recession, the private sector is still recovering. But it should be our collective obligation to ensure charity begins at home. We should have 50 schools here in Miami. But again, it has to be private sector money.
Why did you decide to move to Miami?
In 2008, when we took over all the operations of the OLPC Foundation, over 85 percent of the 1 million laptops we had deployed were in Latin America, so Miami was the natural base.
How did you decide to bring the product to the US in the first place?
The pockets of ignorance, poverty, and violence in many US cities can benefit from the same approach, to bring to the bottom of the pyramid our quality access to information. The golden opportunity came when Walmart contacted us to fill a gap it had for children between 3 and 12. And since Walmart epitomized the lowest-cost approach to many goods and services, we thought that this could be an opportunity to go to the base of the pyramid in the US.
Your XO tablet was unavailable on Walmart’s site.
They sold out. They were not expecting this huge success. And Walmart is really good at making forecasts. [Tablets have since been restocked.]
What have you learned from your experience with OLPC abroad?
The magic formula is for the countries to implement it in the manner we have suggested. Giving away the computers and appearing in the newspapers is only the end of the beginning. You need to train the teachers for two to three weeks first, and the teachers and kids need to be made aware of all the opportunities of the machines. We also try to adapt to every country. For example, we went to Afghanistan, and we knew that 75 percent of the girls there are forbidden to go to school; when we distributed 6,000 laptops to the girls, they told us they’d kill the girls. So we installed the Koran in each computer, making them sacred instruments of learning. Not a single one has been lost. So it’s about being innovative and creative. We’re becoming more strict and outspoken when we go to a country. Our project is not a computer project; it’s about social equality and the transformation of educational systems into one of learning how to learn.
Do you have a strategy geographically?
We don’t decide where to go; we respond to where people want us to go. We give speeches all over the world, and then interested people approach us. I have 5 million miles with American Airlines. I’m giving my seventh TED talk in October in Miami.
What’s it like when you put these computers in the hands of a kid who has never used one?
I was in Vienna at a meeting of the World Bank a few years ago, and someone in the audience was critical of OLPC, and asked why a child needs to have a computer when there’s no electricity and running water in these villages. They asked, “And does it work?” I held up my computer and showed them photos of children receiving the laptops in Bombay, Afghanistan, girls who had never been able to go to school before, in Ramallah, Thailand, the Amazon, and the photos showed the glow in the eyes of these children. Eighty percent of the children sleep embracing the laptop when they first get it because it’s the most precious possession they have. Also, we’ve only lost one in 1,000 laptops, of the 2.8 million given out. In Medellin, Colombia, in one of its worst neighborhoods, Commun 13, there’s a school that had 25 desktops in the computer room. The first few weeks, they kept our 400 laptops in that room. One weekend, robbers stole all the desktops. When the school examined the CCTV video, the robbers were heard saying, “Take the desktops, but the green computers belong to the children.” This is the kind of anecdote we constantly hear.
photography courtesy of OLPC