Friday, March 21, 2008

OLPC - will it work?

The following is from an e-conversation between me and another Founder of The Naples Institute ( The colleague in question does not think my passion for the $200 laptop (the XO for the children of Immokalee is a good use of my efforts. I disagree. Below is my reply to his concerns.

Background: I hope this changes, but at present the makers of the XO, OLPC, will only allow one group to buy XOs for the children of America. The lucky nonprofit is the Waveplace Foundation ( I agreed to join the board of Waveplace only if we could bring XOs to the children of Immokalee.

Dear Founder,

Another Founder of The Napples Institute is dead-set against the XO as well (especially for the Third World). His pet cause is to bring basics such as wells and can openers to the poor of Nicaragua, for instance, so that they don't have to disfigure themselves using axes to open cans donated by Dole. He says the truly poor need food, clean water, inoculation, and protection from mosquitoes, not comparatively prohibitively expensive computers.

This is my take: I want him to keep on with his can openers and wells, because he's right, those folks need that. That is giving them a fish, and they're starving today, so they need a fish right away. But they also need to be taught how to fish. That's where the laptops come in.

One day every poor child in the world will have some version of the laptop that we're bringing to Immokalee - be it the "XO" made by One Laptop Per Child (, an offshoot of the MIT Media Lab), or something made by a competitor. That's over 2 billion kids, so yes, it will take quite some doing. But it is happening already. It's only a matter of time, because the will is there in spades. There are currently a few hundred thousand XOs out there, almost all in the Third World. The problem is of manufacturing output, not funding, at least at this point: there is a months-long wait list. So this is going to happen whether we like it or not.

I'm focused on Immokalee in particular, and South Florida in general, because someone has to be and no one else was before I started it. We can't have kids that poor right in our midst like that - we simply cannot tolerate it, not if we want to call ourselves civilized.

I'll let someone else argue for the poor in the Caribbean and elsewhere. Our pilots in St. John and Haiti are going well, but let me focus on Immokalee. You bring up an outstanding point: the kids we're trying to help out there are a world away from my daughters here "West of (Route) 41." Our girls, like the affluent kids your wife works with, are growing up in an environment where learning, reading, challenging discussion, and - most importantly by far - expectations all lead them to a life of intellectual pursuit and achievement. Jane and I joke that if our two budding geniuses don't grow up to be professors at MIT (ironically), it's all our fault - they're headed there now, and only very bad parenting can budge them off that course.

The vast majority of kids in Immokalee have no such benefits of environment. Their parents are likely illegal immigrants, and worse, they are likely either illiterate in their first language or under-educated - I know this because we have been teaching just this type of person English and literacy for years at Coine Language School. In many cases, they don't value education; they may not even have a single book or even magazine in their home. At present, half of the kids in that town drop out of high school before they graduate; the other half don't exactly "make it," either. The expectation for any of the kids out there is so low that adults think it's praiseworthy if they merely stay out of a gang, don't get pregnant, and go into a trade - any trade, including landscaping.

These computers, coupled with the courseware and teacher-training that we will provide along with them, will work to nullify all of that negative influence in this one generation. That is what is so exciting to me. For one thing, the lessons are interactive and thrilling. Have you ever seen a 4th grader, even a nice middle-class one, sit still for 90 minutes? I've been a teacher for a dozen years now, and two weeks ago was my first time. I saw 25 migrant children sit still for that long while the Waveplace founder, Tim Falconer, led them through a fun - very fun - lesson where they learned artistic design on the computer, basic code-writing, and high school geometry. This is not exaggeration. I was right there.

You know me a bit by now: I wouldn't bother with this project were it not going to absolutely, fundamentally disrupt the status quo - in this case my favorite ax to grind, education. It is. We are destroying and rebuilding simultaneously. I thought this would happen when I first learned about the XO 4 years ago; in the past few months, with our pilots in the Islands, I heard about its actually coming to pass; in the past two weeks, I have seen it in action.

Within a very short time, beginning June first, there will be no reason left for the poorest children in America to be less well-educated than the wealthiest. Of course there will be problems and disappointments - maybe even scandal; no, certainly even scandal. But we'll trudge on regardless.

110 years ago, in 1898, children were working in mines for pennies a day. 60 years ago, in 1948, black children in one third of our nation were not allowed to use the same restrooms and water fountains or go to the same schools as whites. Today, in 2008, there are poor children across our country who have no reasonable hope of attending college if they so choose.

What will we say in 2048? In 2098? I'm incredibly optimistic.