2.1 The first LCCDs: computers and laptops in education

To many researchers, academics, development specialists and government officials, a low-cost computing device is a specific concept, grounded in a philosophical context. The idea behind low-cost computing devices developed from then-MIT Lab researcher Nicholas Negroponte, who articulated a vision of an inexpensive laptop for every child in the world.

A prototype of such a computer was shown at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2005. 6 Describing the benefit of LCCDs, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan said: "Children will be able to learn by doing, not just through instruction - they will be able to open up new fronts for their education, particularly peer-to-peer learning." He added that the idea was inspiring, with real potential for students’ social and economic growth in developing countries. 7

Initially, low-cost computing devices were considered to be laptops with rugged construction and low power consumption that were specifically designed for students in developing countries. However, several computer manufacturers now market laptops with similar features to the general public. The common features of LCCDs, regardless of the brand or specific functionality, are a relatively low price (less than USD 300 for the device), a laptop form factor, and a small size (e.g., screen size less than 10 inches).

The cost of computers has influenced national strategies for introducing information technology in schools. The typical way to reduce expenses has been to install a “computer lab” -- a shared location in the school where a few computers can serve multiple students. In many countries, the strategy has been to increase the number of such labs, introducing them into schools that previously had no computers. For instance, in 2003 Indonesia adopted its “One School One Lab” programme aimed at expanding the availability of computer labs in its educational institutions. 8

Another strategy has been to reduce the ratio of students to computers. Take Chile, for example, where the number of students per computer dropped from 70 in the year 2000 to 26 in 2007, with the government aiming for 10 students per computer by 2010. 9 Lower-cost computers make it more affordable for countries to distribute them widely in schools.

One important distinction is the difference between “one lab per school” and “one computer per student.” Policies for introducing computers in schools have traditionally revolved around labs, with a number of students sharing one computer. The low-cost computer device movement is oriented towards each student having his or her own laptop:

“The mission of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) movement is to ensure that all school-aged children in the developing world are able to engage effectively with their own personal laptop…” 10

“The ultimate goal is to reach the point where there is one laptop for each student…” 11

The one-to-one concept gives pupils more time on the computer than in a shared, lab-type environment. A calculation carried out for the Nepalese government found that a computer lab user only spends 1 per cent of the time on a computer that a student with an LCCD spends. 12 The Solomon Islands initially explored providing each school with a computer lab, but with LCCDs, “…an even better outcome was ensured, as every child and teacher would have a laptop.” 13

Another model for reducing the cost of computers in schools is the “thin-client” approach, in which a simple computer (the “client”) is connected to a server that carries out most of the processing. This is similar to the environment that existed in the pre-personal computer era, when terminals were connected to host computers. This model is attractive from a cost perspective, since thin clients are cheaper than conventional computers. It is also attractive for a school environment where a teacher has more control over the computer learning environment. This solution has been used in rural schools in Brazil, where the cost per workstation is around USD 50. 14

While one-to-one computing is attractive, it is an expensive proposition. The cost of outfitting perhaps more than a billion developing-country students with their own laptops would be more than USD 100 billion (assuming a USD 100 cost for the laptop), not including all of the other associated costs, such as transport, distribution, maintenance and training. The advantages and disadvantages of different approaches—one-to-one computing or computer labs—are shown in the table below. Given the high cost of providing each student with their own laptop, this is not a feasible short-term approach for many developing countries; a more practical strategy may be a mix of approaches.

Table 2-1: Pros and cons of computer labs and one-to-one computing

Model

Pros

Cons

One computer per student (laptops/smartphones/tablets)

  • Portability: Can be taken home and shared with family
  • Creates sense of ownership with less theft and damage
  • Some designed for developing country rural environment (e.g., handle extreme temperatures, low battery use, etc.)
  • Some designed for children (e.g., rugged, ergonomic)
  • Some include educational software and ecosystem of support
  • More democratic in that all children receive computers
  • Rapid adoption of smartphones outside the school setting can be leveraged for educational use
  • Relatively expensive
  • Can be disruptive
  • Applications optimized for smartphones/tablets still limited

Computer labs (recycled computers, thin clients)

  • Less disruptive than one-one model
  • Computer lab more economical than one-to-one
  • More practical for shared settings such as computer labs or community centres.
  • Generally more powerful than laptops Generally more powerful than laptops
  • Higher maintenance and support, due to non-standard computers
  • Students spend less time with computer
  • Labs may not be equitably distributed throughout school system or computers can be dominated by certain students

One way to offset such costs is to utilize used computers, which can also be considered low-cost computing devices. Although there are costs involved with recycling, the computer itself is generally donated for free. Furthermore, some experts argue that recycled computers can be cheaper than low-cost laptops when all of the costs are factored in, including waste and social benefit to the country. A study on the sustainability of computers for schools in Colombia suggests that used computers that are refurbished in the beneficiary country have the highest “utility,” which factors in benefits to the local economy, job creation, and the environment. 15

In addition, as the prices of computing devices continue to fall, laptops that were not purpose-designed for educational use continue to be viable options for schools and students. Specifically, low-cost netbooks and laptops, which can cost less than USD 300, are widely available and can be deployed in educational settings, even if they may be more expensive than the education-specific products.

Leading examples of LCCDs include:

  • xo-1 – A laptop developed by One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), the xo-1 is specifically designed for primary school students in developing nations, and it has a range of features appropriate to that environment. The xo-1 design has factored in technological issues such as local language support, as well as environmental conditions such as high heat and humidity. 16 It has no movable parts (e.g., no hard disk or fan), and it features special antennas to support mesh networking. OLPC has continued to improve the xo-1’s design and specifications since its initial introduction.

The xo-1 is backed by a large ecosystem of system designers, education experts and development specialists. The educational theories are tied into the operating system and software included with the xo-1 and the way it should be used. Dozens of nations are piloting or carrying out large-scale xo-1 implementations. Some of the most significant are Uruguay, where the government has provided xo-1 laptops to all public school primary students, and Rwanda, which, in addition to distributing xo-1 s to schools, is also emerging as a research and training center for the xo-1.

  • Classmate – A laptop developed by semiconductor manufacturer Intel as a “mobile personal learning device for primary students in emerging markets.” 17 Originally introduced in 2006, the Classmate is built around an Intel processor and has a rugged, “kid-friendly” design. Features include hardware-based theft protection, Wi-Fi and a battery life of between 3.5 to 5 hours. 18 The Classmate runs Windows or Linux and is available in clamshell or convertible designs. Intel has licensed the technology to various manufacturers.

According to press reports, more than 7 million Classmate Convertibles (which can be used as a laptop or a touch-optimized tablet) have been deployed across 70 countries. One of the largest deployments of the Classmate is in Portugal, which has contracted for around half a million of these laptops. 19 The Classmate is used for the country’s Magalhães initiative (“Magellan” in English, named after the Portuguese navigator). 20 Local company JP Sá Couto manufactures the computers. Portugal is leveraging the program to spread Magellan Classmates to developing countries. In September 2008, it signed a deal with the Venezuelan government to supply 1 million Portuguese-manufactured Classmates. 21 The country’s incumbent telecommunications operator, Portugal Telecom, has targeted the Magellan for overseas social responsibility programs, with plans to distribute the laptop in Lusophone Africa 22 and Namibia. 23

  • Netbooks -- Encouraged by the LCCD movement for students, computer makers have been downsizing laptops to also tap into the market (e.g., netbooks). A noteworthy example in terms of price and entry into the educational market is the Asus Eee. 24 Asustek, a Taiwanese computer manufacturer, has developed rugged portable computers for use in space, off-car road races, Mount Everest and the North and South Poles. 25 It introduced the Eee PC notebook in October 2007. The Eee, like the xo-1 and Classmate, is a portable laptop that uses flash storage, and the entry-level models are price competitive. But the Eee was not strictly designed for the educational environment as were some other devices. As with other commercial computers, it comes in a much wider range of configurations and models than the Classmate or xo-1. Since 2007, Asus has expanded the Eee line, but still offers Eee PC laptops that sell for less than $300.

One of the largest Eee educational deployments is in Russia, where it is being used in schools following an order for approximately USD 200 million from the Free Deed Foundation, a philanthropic organization. Some 1 million Eee PC 700 models were to be delivered between 2007 and 2012. 26 The Eee has also been deployed in various school projects in the United States. 27 It also emerged as the preferred LCCD in testing done at three African universities (it should be noted, however, that some LCCDs such as the OLPC xo-1 or Intel Classmate are not designed for university students). 28

  • Mobilis -- Another LCCD that has been the focus of some attention is the Mobilis, manufactured by the Indian company Encore. 29 The Mobilis was selected in a tender for school laptops in Brazil. 30 Yet another is the Israeli-designed ITP-C, which is being used in school projects in Argentina and Chile. 31 However, while these devices were part of early LCCD pilot projects, there has been no further known development of the devices or any additional deployments.

Figure 2-1: Low-Cost Laptops Used in Schools

Manufacturer and Model

OLPC xo-1 32

Intel Classmate 33

Asus Eee

Representative Image

Representative Deployments for Education

Afghanistan, Bhutan, Brazil, Cambodia, Colombia, Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Iraq, Lebanon, Mali, Mexico, Mongolia, Mozambique, Nepal, Nigeria, Niue, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Rwanda, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Thailand, Uruguay

Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Uganda, Vietnam

Russia

Note: The list of countries where the devices are used in schools excludes developed nations.

6 The unveiling occurred during the “Phase II” conference and trade show, held in Tunis, 16-18 November 2005.

9 Ministerio de Educación de Chile. 15 Años Integrando TIC a la Educación Chilena. Mayo 2008.

18 The theft protection links the Classmate to a school server. If the Classmate loses connection to the server for a certain period of time, it is rendered unusable and can only be reactivated if returned to the school. See: http://blogs.intel.com/technology/2009/08/classmate_pc_as_a_one-to-one_l.php

24 For a comparison of different commercially available low-cost laptops see: http://blog.laptopmag.com/low-cost-laptop-cheat-sheet

32 The xo-1 (previously known as the XO) was the first-generation OLPC laptop. It has subsequently been produced in upgraded forms, known as xo-1.5 and xo-1.75. Unless otherwise noted, all references in this module are to the first-generation xo-1.

33 Convertible model pictured

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