Negroponte On OLPC Future: Air Drops And Hands-Off Education

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OLPC’s Nicholas Negroponte, speaking at the Open Mobile summit today, detailed a new plan for distributing the OLPC project’s next device, the XO-3 tablet computer: they’re going to airdrop it on remote villages and then come back a year later to see how it worked.

Now, that may sound like crazy talk to you, but the famously ambitious Negroponte thinks that it will work as they expect. Precedent exists for this kind of thing, and not just in The Gods Must Be Crazy. He cited a study showing promising results from hands-off methods of education, essentially giving tools to kids and letting them work out the rest. Never underestimate the intellect of curious kids with a lot of free time.

The tablets (the latest design concept for which is pictured above) will come pre-loaded with 100 books, presumably localized into the region’s language, and are aimed at teaching kids basic computer literacy and advancing their reading skills. The devices would be able to connect to the internet wirelessly, though on what protocol or through which providers, it isn’t clear.

While the project has had mixed success by the standards of its original goals, where it has been implemented it has shown a serious impact. Hundreds of thousands of kids in Peru are using them now, apparently to teach their parents to read. And the devices have proven durable and long-lasting, with few breaking in the field.

But getting them to the people in the first place has proven a challenge. So Negroponte is suggesting this alternative approach: “We will literally take tablets and drop them out of helicopters.” The tablets are apparently easy enough to use that they expect kids will pick it up with no instruction at all, though he elaborated on the plan, saying they would return a year later to check in. The worst case scenario is pictured thusly: “maybe an older brother will get a hold of it, use it for pornography – that’s life.”

The tablet is planned for late 2012; it will be based on a reference Marvell design, will include a solar panel for charging, and the screen will be a new Pixel Qi type. It will be roughly 10″ in diagonal and around a 4:3 aspect ratio.