Does the $100 Laptop Have a Future in the US?

In the coming weeks, the US$100 laptop developed by the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) foundation will go into wide-scale production. From there, the laptops will be sent by the thousands to emerging economies in Africa, South Asia and South America.

Meanwhile, in the United States, PC makers, private foundations, government agencies and others strive to provide suitable technology to all students who need it.

Whereas contemporary discussions about the digital divide often focus on the gap between developed and developing nations, increasingly affordable options for computing and Internet connectivity could truly help place technology within reach of everyone on the planet.

The Need is Here

The OLPC made headlines recently by saying that its long-term plans could include selling a slightly higher priced version in the U.S., as well as in other developed markets.

The OLPC’s plans for tapping domestic schools and the overall low-cost technology push will likely have at least an indirect impact on the educational technology market.

Another issue within the educational environment: Many students are learning about technology outside the classroom and finding that many schools are offering a far more “confined” environment, according to Gartner analyst Bill Rust.

“To be attractive and valuable to students who are already technology literate because of the new environment that they are growing up in, institutions must take advantage of capabilities offered byinformation technology,” he said. “It goes beyond just having computers available to students.”

Solutions Aplenty

The nonprofit Teachers Without Borders (TWB) plans to make free software available to boost collaboration among teachers around the world.

Microsoft and other high-tech companies have donated tens of millions of dollars worth of technology to schools and libraries around the world.

Intel has said it could roll out a $400 laptop soon for the educational market, likely targeting teachers.

The realities of the marketplace will make it unlikely that a PC built for the third world will appeal to mainstream U.S.-based consumers. In addition, policy makers are unlikely to support a scheme that involves providing less capable technology to less affluent school districts.

Nonetheless, more options for teachers and students should be available. The push to build ultra low-cost computers will likely only speed up that process, with at least some minor disruption for established vendors along the way.

PC-Maker Fear Factor

If the OLPC and other such efforts can effectively produce low-priced machines, the overall educational computing market will see an overhaul, said Brooke Partridge, CEO of Vital Wave Consulting. Some PC makers will worry about low-cost devices cannibalizing their established markets, she added, saying what works in emerging economies won’t always work in mature marketplaces.

“Developed-world manufacturers should not perceive this as a threat,” she said. “This shift presents opportunities for traditional PC manufacturers.”

Though the prototype of the OLPC latpop is an eye-catching and unique design, some analysts believe that American consumers aren’t likely to gravitate toward a virtually no-frills machine, which leaves plenty of room for vendors to build more commercial options.

Open Source and Other Innovaitons

The Minneapolis Public Schools District is in the process of upgrading some 15,000 student computers. The approval for funding the upgrade has sparked a local debate over the best path to take with the technology funding, Brock Dubbels, a member of the district’s Technology Advisement Committee, told the E-Commerce Times.

School districts must consider embracing open source operating systems over proprietary systems, either Mac-based — which has many passionate supporters in the school district — or Windows-based PCs, Dubbels argued.

Schools, however, can’t ignore current-day concerns such as reliability and security. Ultra low-cost notebook machines could provide the impetus for the entire industry to reexamine the way they provide technology for the education market, he said.

“I believe that these laptops may provide a change,” Dubbels continued. “The big issue will be one of positive feedback. Will these new machines become affordable and ubiquitous? In the end, when we look at systems, we need to match with openness to change and the turnover in our workforce.”

Tablet PCs in Schools

New devices are making inroads in the educational market. The tablet PC, for instance, is finding traction on many college campuses, where the ability handwrite notes makes it more versatile than the keyboard-only notebook.

At Tennessee Tech, an experiment is under way to use the PlayStation Portable, with its wireless functionality, to enable students who can’t get to a classroom to see live broadcasts of what they would otherwise be missing.

Other colleges have begun to use iPods in much the same way, enabling students to download podcasts of lectures.

“What students need is learning environments created by people as savvy as they are about technology,” said Gartner’s Rust.

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