There’s been a ton of interest in the OLPC laptop ever since the Vanuatu IT User Society (VITUS) obtained a prototype to demonstrate to people here in Vanuatu. A few readers will have already attended one of the VITUS demonstrations. In the interests of raising awareness about this new approach to learning technology, here are a few common questions and answers about the laptop, the project, and OLPC-related activities in Vanuatu.
Some of these questions and answers are taken from the OLPC Frequently Asked Questions page, located on the web at laptop.org.

Q: What is this OLPC thing, anyway?
A: It’s a project, originally developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to create a robust, low-cost, low-power computer for children throughout the world. See laptop.org for details.

Q: A laptop? I can’t afford a laptop for myself, let alone my children.
A: The aim of the OLPC project is to bring the price down to USD 100 per laptop. Right now, the price per unit is about USD 179.

Q: Why would children in Vanuatu need laptops?
A: Laptops are both a window and a tool: a window into the world and a tool with which to think. They are a wonderful way for all children to ‘learn how to learn’ through independent interaction and exploration.

Q: Why not a desktop computer, or – even better – a recycled desktop machine?
A: Desktops are cheaper, but mobility is important, especially with regard to taking the computer home at night. Kids in the developing world need the newest technology, especially really rugged hardware and innovative software. Recent work with schools in Maine has shown the huge value of using a laptop across all of one’s studies, as well as for play. Bringing the laptop home engages the family. In one Cambodian village where we have been working, there is no electricity, thus the laptop is, among other things, the brightest light source in the home.

Finally, regarding recycled machines: if we estimate 100 million available used desktops, and each one requires only one hour of human attention to refurbish, reload, and handle, that is forty-five thousand work years. Thus, while we definitely encourage the recycling of used computers, it is not the solution for One Laptop per Child.

Q: Why is it important for each child to have a computer? What’s wrong with community-access centers?
A: One does not think of community pencils – kids have their own. They are tools to think with, sufficiently inexpensive to be used for work and play, drawing, writing, and mathematics. A computer can be the same, but far more powerful. Furthermore, there are many reasons it is important for a child to own something – like a football, doll, or book – not the least of which being that these belongings will be well-maintained through love and care.

Q: What about connectivity? Telecommunications services are expensive here!
A: When these machines pop out of the box, they will automatically make a wireless mesh network of their own and communicate with each other through that. People are also exploring ways to connect them to the backbone of the Internet at very low cost.

Q: What can a $1000 laptop do that the $100 version can’t?
A: Not much. The plan is for the $100 Laptop to do almost everything. What it will not do is store a massive amount of data.

Q: But I can’t use this laptop in my village, because we don’t have reliable power.
A: Sure you can. The laptop comes with a method of inexpensive self-contained rechargeable power that lasts a good long time. You can plug it into the wall, but you could also charge it using solar or wind power or simply by working a hand crank. OLPC are aiming for a minimum of a 10:1 ratio between time put into reading the eBook and time human-powering. In other words, one minute of cranking gives you at least ten minutes of reading.

Q: Computers for children? They won’t last a month! They’ll be full of viruses, broken down and left in the dirt in no time flat.

A: There is some risk that the laptops will be treated roughly, but in our experience, the construction of the computer is up to the punishment that a child can give. It’s got no moving parts, so you can drop it repeatedly without breaking anything. It’s waterproof; you can literally pour water all over it while it’s open and running and nothing will happen. The software it uses is already running on millions of machines world-wide, and only a tiny percentage of those machines get infected with viruses, trojans, spyware and other nasty things.

Also, let’s give a little credit to our children. They do take care of the things they value most. Given the reaction we’ve seen from most children who use one of these machines, they will be valued very highly.

Q: Okay, so they’re stronger than normal computers, but they’ll still break down. Who is going to fix them?
A: That’s a really good question. There are several more crucial questions that need to be answered as well, such as: Who will pay for them? Who will get them? How many can we afford? How will we actually use them once we get them? How often will we have to replace and/or repair them? The list goes on….

Q: That’s a lot of unanswered questions!
A: Absolutely. That’s why, if we’re really interested in using these laptops, we need to take a careful look at exactly how we’d go about living with them. It’s early days yet, but not too soon to start thinking about all of these issues.

Q: Is there any plan to use these laptops in the Pacific?
A: An OLPC ad-hoc working group has been established in the region represented by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), Solomon Islands Ministry of Education through their EU-funded Distance Learning Centres Project (DLCP), United Nations Association of Australia NSW Branch (UNAA NSW) , Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS) and the New Zealand-based NGO 2020 Communications Trust (2020). This group has been developing a regional plan linked to the Pacific Islands Forum’s Digital and Youth Strategies, with SPC taking a lead role. Other groups working on OLPC in the region are also being invited to participate.

Q: How about here in Vanuatu?
A: VITUS is currently doing the rounds to see if there’s sufficient interest to begin looking seriously at the OLPC laptop. If you or your organisation are interested in knowing more about the OLPC laptop, please contact committee@vitus.org.vu.