Meet the One Laptop Per Child Founder
Technology made it possible for telephones to operate without cables. Technology enabled the humble television to access the internet by plugging it into an Ethernet port. Who would have thought that modernization would lead to this unexpected switch? Only Nicholas Negroponte!
Nicholas is the only philanthropist of his kind to think that the best way to get kids interested in learning is to expose them to technology. He believes that children are one of the best assets of a country. If kids were getting prime education and proper grooming, then their generation would turn out to be better leaders and citizens.
Since he is into education, being a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Nicholas is aware of the plight of other countries having millions of kids who do not go to school. Lack of education means lack of understanding. Unless citizens begin to understand, then they cannot be any more productive to their own countries.
Nicholas zeroed in on education to address some of the major problems developing countries are facing. He cannot live with the fact that, in this era of high-brow inventions, some kids do not have access to books. Worse, some of them cannot even read. Nicholas knew that has to change. We cannot just produce for those who have the means to purchase.
In order to entice kids to learn, he founded the One Laptop Per Child organization. The easiest way to distribute laptops is to fund it by buying ready-made machines for the kids to use. He would only need money to do that. However, Nicholas, a scientist and an architect, had a particular laptop in mind that would optimize digital learning for kids. Instead of having one designed for the project, he did it himself. With the help of the people who shared his vision, they developed a laptop made specifically to aid learning and provide children access to as many books as their gadget allows.
It did not end there. They wanted the government’s participation, so they targeted public schools in developing countries. Knowing how vital the teacher’s role is in education, Nicholas braced himself for the negative reception his project would get from traditional teachers. He had been questioned by different sectors who think of his approach as a catalyst to allowing technological supremacy over human beings.
His $180 laptops also became a dark horse in the market, earning the ire of gigantic manufacturing companies. Nicholas had to deal with these criticisms, including funding, which he mostly took out of his own pocket.
Nicholas’ EmTech Preview about One Tablet Per Child
Through it all, Nicholas never gave up. As of now, the “One Laptop Per Child” has evolved into “One Tablet Per Child.” The upgrade could only mean that their project is yielding more success. He talked about his project during the 2012 EmTech Review, which entrepreneurs and leaders attend in order to keep abreast of technological development. You may read the preview here. His recent project is advocating learning without intervention from a physical teacher. That might sound kind of impossible now. But isn’t Nicholas an expert when it comes to possibilities?
Nicholas Negroponte’s Family Profile and Early Biography
Nicholas Negroponte is an American, as far as his nationality is concerned. The Negropontes, though, are natives of Greece. Nicholas is one of the four sons of Dimitri John Negroponte and Catherine Coumantaros. Catherine gave birth to their second son on 1 December 1943. Nicholas is from a family of successful people.
Dimitri is a shipping magnate and his older brother, John, is now serving in the government as the United States Deputy Secretary of State. Nicholas’ two younger brothers are equally successful in their own careers. Michel Negroponte, the third in their brood of four, is a highly acclaimed filmmaker; while George Negroponte, the youngest, is an esteemed artist.
Nicholas grew up in a rich family where everything he needed was provided for. Their affluence enabled Nicholas to go to the best schools. He was a student at Buckley School in New York City. After completing his studies there, he went to a boarding school in Switzerland: the Institut Le Rosey. He then came back to his home country and studied in Choate Rosemary Hall, a prestigious and private school in Wallingford, Connecticut.
Nicholas’ Quotes on being an Architect of Computers
In 1961, Nicholas graduated from secondary school and went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Nicholas completed his graduate and undergraduate Architecture course at MIT. By the time he turned 23 years old, Nicholas already earned a Master’s Degree in Architecture.
As an architect, he did not really feel like pursuing a career in arts and design. He thought about trying out a profession that involved computing. It eventually led him to computer-aided design. There, he was able to fuse his architectural background and interest in computers. He soon discovered that he could do more than draft designs using computers; he can use it to create programs. He told the Silicon Valley Radio in an interview:
“I was always interested in technology. And so I went through grammar school and high school always doing two things—being good at math and being good at art—and I decided that what I would do is take those two and put them together and go to architecture school, because that seemed to be the real mix. Which I did—I went to architecture school and actually got two professional degrees in the field. But it turned out that wasn't really it; the real mix turned out to be computing.
I did my second professional degree in computer-aided design or what was then called computer-aided design. And computer-aided design led to computer graphics, which led to human-computer interface, which led to building sort of memory-based video systems, etcetera, etcetera. And by 1973, '74, we were building more out of integrated circuits than we even do today in the laboratory. And it was a real sort of computer shop.”
Convergence of Man and Technology = MIT Media Lab
Nicholas became a professor. Right after completing his Master’s, he joined his alma mater by becoming a faculty member at MIT. He also accepted teaching loads from other well-known universities, such as Yale University, Michigan University, and University of California in Berkeley.
After a year of teaching at MIT, Nicholas started its first laboratory which mainly focused on human–computer interaction. The think tank was then called Architecture Machine Group. As founder of MIT’s Architecture Machine Group, Nicholas witnessed the rapid proliferation of technology in the daily lives of even the most ordinary people.
Out of that change came the idea of MIT’s Media Lab which he co-founded with a fellow educator, Jerome Bert Wiesner, in 1985. The Media Lab spun from his idea of converging computers and humans by creating the technology needed for the two to coexist and co-create.
It was an ambitious endeavor. Remember, it’s the 80s and people are yet to hear about the Internet. Although the Media Lab was not launched until 1985, Nicholas and Jerome conceived the idea around the early 1980s. Twenty–eight years since its creation, the MIT Media Lab has grown into a mammoth of a laboratory, developing avant-garde technology.
The MIT Media Lab now houses the most brilliant scientists in the whole of the United States of America. It was then evident how Nicholas saw the power of technology. He was thrilled to find out how much can be done with the help of computers. His passion for inventing was piqued and with the lab providing him a posh playground, he invented the most radical of programs in the early stage of cyberspace.
The Negroponte Switch
Nicholas is one of the first people who appreciated technology for what it could do in the future. He realized that as he developed programs, he was continuously learning. This is a realization of a learned person himself. As an architect, he did not have educational background on computer programs. What he had was a keen interest and a very creative imagination.
When Nicholas started successfully creating programs with the help of “intelligent agents,” he knew that anyone can be capable of doing what he did. The human mind cannot be contained and restricted. He knew that with proper equipment and the right attitude, people can leverage the endless knowledge they could obtain with the help of technology.
The Negroponte Switch is a coined term for his prediction about telephones becoming wireless and the TV becoming wired. Taking it from him, the Negroponte Switch simply means: “Most of the information that you got through the ground, through wires and physically, would in fact come through the air, and most of the things we got through the air, like television, would come through the ground."
That was the 1980s and people’s knowledge about airwaves was rather limited. When it started happening in the early 90s as cellular phones became a hit, the Negroponte Switch was seen at work.
Wired Magazine Angel Investor and Being Digital Author
In 1992, with Nicholas already a respected MIT professor, he invested in Wired Magazine. He knew that he needed to let the whole world know about his thoughts on the birth of this new science. The best way to do that is through writing. He was actually the first person to give the now famous American magazine and online periodical its funding. From the time Wired Magazine published its first edition in 1993, Nicholas had been a regular contributor until 1998. So closely followed was his column that it gave birth to his 1995 book, “Being Digital.”
“Being Digital” became a bestseller. It contained his radical ideas about the looming technological age. Taking it from the perspective of someone as technologically involved as Nicholas, the new generation cannot help but hear him out. In the book, Nicholas explored the many possibilities of a life that is laden with technological advancements. It contained his analysis concerning the advantages and disadvantages of technology—a topic so ubiquitously tackled.
He also looked into the future and predicted what changes would take place following modernization. With most of them now already happening, it did not take long before Nicholas was hailed a technology prophet.
Leaving the Media Lab to Focus on OLPC
Nicholas remained to be MIT Media Lab’s director until 2000. Walter Bender replaced him as the new Executive Director and Nicholas then served as the Laboratory Chairman. Six years later, Frank Moss was appointed as the new Director. By then, Nicholas was so into the One Laptop Per Child Project that it was impossible for him to stay active in the MIT Media Lab. He decided to leave the Media Lab altogether and relinquish his seat to the new people in the organization. This allowed him to devote more time to helping out–of–school kids from different parts of the world.
The One Laptop Per Child stemmed out of Nicholas’ belief that children can “learn learning” with the aid of computers. In Theodora Vardouli’s blog, she wrote about what led Nicholas to start the One Laptop Per Child project:
“Negroponte’s technological humanism, his deep belief that machines make us more human and his lifelong devotion in the development of visual and technological literacy made him very receptive to ideas which were stemming from political and social movements around Europe and advocated for collective ownership of information and information processing and the participation of users in decision making processes.”
How exactly can machines make us more human? That was the question Nicholas had to answer when he introduced the One Laptop Per Child in 2005. To think that he had to explain why he wanted to help was ridiculous enough. Nicholas believes that if children learned how to get a computer program running, then they would have had discovered their ability to create. And to create is a very basic human trait.
It all goes back to the 1968 observation of Seymour Papert, also a professor at MIT. Seymour believes that “if a child writes a computer program, that child is engaged in the closest approximation we can come to thinking about thinking.” Nicholas totally agrees with him, thinking that creating a program would lead to the child’s being able to tap all of his/her intellectual resources and then engage in creative thinking in order to run the program in the way it should function. The idea was to provide the kids that opportunity by giving away laptops.
Most people might think that Nicholas’ approach was an easy way out. On the contrary, the process of getting the laptop produced, distributing them to the kids, and making sure it achieves its goal were anything but easy. Despite hearing all sorts of criticisms, Nicholas still pushed forward.
The Making of XO Laptops
Fortunately, the MIT Lab had the technology to create what would pass Nicholas’ laptop standards. The current market only manufactures laptops that are commercially created to cater to the needs of whoever can afford to buy them. If they are to give away laptops, then they should give away quality ones that won’t cost that much.
It all went down to creating their own version of a children’s laptop. Interestingly, they were able to create a machine that exceeded commercial ones in terms of quality, durability, and most of all, price.
So what do children get for a $180–worth laptop? First in Nicholas’ list is durability. He explained that during a TED interview saying, “you have to make it pretty indestructible, you've got to be able to drop it from six or seven feet; it's going to be stepped on, it's going to be carried in the rain, and so, it gets subjected to treatment that's more like military equipment than it is office equipment.”
Screen is another thing that Nicholas considered when designing the laptop. As children are outdoor beings, they had to fashion a monitor that is “dual mode that works both reflective and transmissive.” Nicholas wanted the children to make the laptops part of their play. They should be able to carry it around with them and read whenever and wherever they feel like it.
Since they are advocating laptops to be used as part of learning in the classroom, they designed it to allow collaboration. XO, as what they decided to call the laptops, had a built–in antenna that connects to a Wi–Fi enabling the students to share information with other kids with the same kind of laptop. It’s like debunking the common belief that laptops detach children from the world as they get absorbed playing and getting lost in their own virtual space.
You Can Reach Him by Email
Overall, the laptops of One Laptop Per Child is far from cheap. It is a product of hard work. For a machine to function like a heavy-duty laptop, much time should be devoted in the lab. That isn’t bad news for Nicholas who enjoys lab work. He is known to be someone who is always available. The easiest way to reach him is through email. Never ever say that he is not around. When he is not around the lab, he is just “remote.”
One Laptop Per Child Helps Students and Teachers in Third World Countries
The green laptops have that sleek and cute look in them that make them distinctively appealing to children. Nicholas’ expertise in designing is explicitly seen in his children’s machines. Seeing how the kids take care of their laptops melts his heart. Some kids even sleep with their gadget.
But who are these lucky kids made recipients of the One Laptop Per Child project? They are kids aged 8 to 12 years old from—as mentioned before—developing countries. The One Laptop Per Child campaign has reached many parts of the world from the continent of Africa to Asia. The green laptops have brought smiles to the children of Ethiopia, Thailand, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Argentina to name a few.
When choosing their recipients, Nicholas likened it to “dating.” They get to know the heads of state and get their commitment to faithfully provide every child in primary school an XO laptop. It’s not an easy undertaking because they are not working like typical NGOs. They had to coordinate with the leaders, the education sector, the teachers, and the parents. Nicholas wanted it to be like an “inoculation,” that all kids in a certain area get their own laptop and not just some.
In the case of Uruguay, the President committed that he would provide every child an XO laptop before his term ended. It was a very successful collaboration because the President saw the need of having children take part in the world of cyberspace. Of what the country has achieved, Nicholas was the proudest.
Did it sit well with the teachers? Yes, they were at first apprehensive to include computers in the classroom as another tool to aid them in teaching. There was this teacher who thought she could not teach anymore after the schools in Uruguay implemented the inclusion of the XO laptop in classroom sessions. That teacher is a veteran. For the last 30 years of her life, she had been teaching kids the traditional way. In Uruguay, traditional is essentially using chalk and blackboard.
This teacher, according to Nicholas, wanted early retirement. She could not imagine having to teach children who will be provided access to things she is supposed to be teaching them. Uruguay’s Social Security Office told her to give it six weeks, after that period of time and she does not change her mind about retiring early, they will happily accommodate her request.
Two days after the laptops arrived, the teacher went back to the Social Security Office asking them for a late retirement. If in two days, that veteran teacher was convinced XO laptops do not hinder learning in the classroom, then Nicholas’ campaign is indeed working. Nicholas then started asking teachers for comments regarding their feelings toward the inclusion of XO computers in the children’s learning environment.
Comments about the One Laptop Per Child Project
They condensed the responses into five main points. One of them is that children behave better since they received their laptops. Teachers did not have to yell all the time to reprimand pupils who misbehave since everybody is preoccupied and absorbed in their lessons now done with the aid of the computers.
Another comment is something they did not expect to hear: Teachers loved teaching more. It’s pretty much a consequence of the first one. With the children behaving well in class, teachers find their job less toxic.
Truancy also dropped drastically. Before, teachers were bothered by their students’ frequent absences. Nicholas felt that truancy is not due to the students having to do something else other than go to school, like working or baby-sitting. For him, absences are largely due to school’s being boring.
We hear about poor people succeeding to complete their studies despite their poverty. These are kids who had dreams and are bent on achieving them. They do everything just to be able to attend school. In other countries where education is not as hard to come by as in developing nations, kids still find it difficult to attend or finish school plainly because they don’t find it worthwhile.
One important thing that teachers also noticed is that parents became more involved with their children’s studies. What is even more impressive is that in some countries where illiteracy is a major concern and parents do not know how to read, children became their parents’ teachers. When the children received their laptops and brought it home, their parents got intrigued. Parents started asking their kids questions about their new gadget. The kids answer their questions and even teach their parents how to use them. It’s not only the children who are benefitting from the project but the parents as well.
The last substantial comment Nicholas received is that children got bolder. Teachers got flooded by emails from their students asking them questions. It added a different dimension to classroom interactivity. Some students who did not ask questions because of confidence issues did so after receiving their gadgets. It dispelled their feeling of embarrassment since they don’t need to stand up in front of the classroom and ask.
The One Tablet Per Child
With all that feedback, Nicholas became even more dedicated to his project. Since Android tablets are now the in thing among young people, Nicholas started the One Tablet Per Child in 2012. Prior to launching it in Thailand, his team did a pilot test in Ethiopia. They distributed 45 tablets to kids in two separate villages. They chose the village where there is absolutely zero literacy.
Nicholas wanted to know if it’s possible to educate children using the gadgets. Those kids did not receive any instruction; they were just given a box with the tablet inside. It took less than three minutes for them to find where the power button is. Again, those kids cannot write, they cannot read. They have neither gone to school nor seen a book—and suddenly they were given a tablet. We expect them to find the tablets pretty useless and throw them away. That did not happen.
They all kept their tablets and those kids, after five days, were using an average of 47 applications. Not only that, in a little more than a week they were singing ABC. Five months passed and they were able to customize their tablets. That would not be so impressive if the tablets were not locked as they happened to be. Nicholas and his team locked it so they would know if the children would be able to find a way to hack the system. And they did in two months’ time.
To those who think Nicholas’ approach is heretic, then they have to come up with a reason to say that indeed he cannot just give laptops and walk away. Until all kids get access to the right education, Nicholas’s tablets will keep coming.
Nicholas Finds Time to Relax
No matter how busy this man is, believe it or not, he still finds time to share “boring moments” with his wife Deborah Porter. The soft-spoken professor told Silicon Valley Radio: “At this point, I spend a fair amount of my time just trying to get away and be alone with my wife. Being away has kind of almost become such a luxury that we joke between ourselves that we look for boring. Let's see where we can find boring. Where is boring in the middle of August? And you might have to go to someplace in France to find boring in the middle of August, where nobody else is because they've all gone to the coast or something.”
Just like any normal person, Nicholas finds time to do other things aside from developing computer programs. He cooks and collects wines at times when he does not feel like going online.
People often mistake his zeal to succeed for arrogance. To that, he replies:
“Maybe part of being arrogant is not caring. Arrogance is something that comes from youth. I'm certainly a lot less arrogant now than I was when I was younger… And I think that when you get to my age, you have to realize that arrogance doesn't pay off. It doesn't have really a value. You've got to really encourage other people to help people sort of achieve what they're going to do, and very often that's not done through arrogance.”
If “arrogant” is helping people succeed, then we might as well be.
Organisations and Campaigns Supported
- intelligent agents
- electronic newspapers
- Wired Magazine
- Ambient Devices
- Wall Street Journal
- Dow Jones & Company
- News Corporation
- MIT Media Laboratory
- MIT Faculty
- Architecture Machine Group
- One Laptop Per Child
- One Tablet Per Child
- Virtual Vineyards
- 1967: Founded Architecture Machine Group at MIT
- 1985: Co-created the MIT Media Lab
- 1992: Invested in Wired Magazine
- 1995: Released Being Digital book
- 2005: Broadcasted The Children's Machine
- 2006: Founded One Laptop Per Child (OLPC)