The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



Laptops ‘equalize’ education

Molly Madden | Wednesday, February 11, 2009

University of Notre Dame alumnus Charles Kane returned to campus last night to discuss his transition from working as a for-profit executive to pro-bono president and Chief Executive Officer of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC).

The Center for Social Concerns sponsored the talk in the Eck Center auditorium, which was titled “Technology and the Globalization of Education: The Story of One Laptop Per Child,” and was well attended.

“This project is the first time in history that we can educate on an equal level,” Kane said.

Kane said the project involves the manufacturing and distribution of laptops to children in poor regions from around the globe. The computers are made at-cost and are priced around $176. Nicholas Negroponte, a professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, started the project.

“Our mission is to provide the lowest cost computer to children because the computer is the greatest learning tool,” Kane said.

Before joining the project, Kane held senior-management positions at a number of companies such as Global BPO Services and RSA Security Inc., but said he knew something was missing.

“You get so caught up in the money game that you lose sight of what life is all about,” Kane said. “That’s why when I discovered what this project was about, it was a no-brainer of whether or not I would join.”

Kane said the first goal was to design a computer that was not only cost-efficient, but to also have a design that would be sustainable in diverse weather conditions.

“These computers are going to kids in Sub-Saharan Africa, the jungle and other harsh environments,” Kane said. “The design of the computer is rugged so that when the kids inevitably drop it in water, or sand blows up and around the laptop, the computer is not damaged.”

Kane also described the additional elements that were taken into consideration when designing the laptop.

“Our computers are the only ones in the world that has a screen that switches to black and white when taken outside,” Kane said. “We designed it this way since many of the kids that we are providing these for attend classes outdoors.”

The computer, which is also an e-Book, comes fully-loaded with 100 books, learning software, games, a built-in camera and, amazingly enough, access to the Internet.

“We go into villages that don’t even have electricity and we provide these children with Internet access through broadband,” Kane said.

Kane explained that generators are installed in the village and are then hooked up to a satellite that is also installed in the village. The satellite sends a signal to a satellite in space that then sends the signal back to the computer, providing the laptop with the Internet. This creates a network of sorts and allows the computers to communicate with one another.

“With this technology and these computers, even in the most remote part of Africa, a kid can be connected to the Internet,” Kane said. “It’s the great equalizer.”

The way that the children charge the laptops is almost as innovative as the project itself.

“The computers can either be charged with a crank that the children can connect to the computer, or with a salad spinner,” Kane said.

Cranking or spinning for about two minutes gets the child around 20 minutes of battery life.

Kane also emphasized what a difference the laptops have made on the education system as a whole in these countries.

“Peru has dedicated 55 percent of its entire education budget to buying these laptops,” he said. “One of the major results with the laptops is an increase in attendance. Attendance figures go up dramatically in the schools that have the computers.”

Kane said that the basic mission of OLPC is to provide access to an education to all kids around the world.

“One of the criticisms we’ve received is ‘Why a laptop?’,” he said. “‘Why not food, why not water?’ This laptop is a means to an education and education is the backbone of everything; education is the only way to break the vicious cycle.”