One Laptop Per Child could make Computer Science more relevant

December 29th, 2007

Tomorrow’s (!) Washington Post has a good article, In Peru, a Pint-Size Ticket to Learning on how the project is working out in Arahuay, Peru.

“Doubts about whether poor, rural children really can benefit from quirky little computers evaporate as quickly as the morning dew in this hilltop Andean village, where 50 primary school children got machines from the One Laptop Per Child project six months ago.
A boy writes on his laptop in Arahuay, an Andean hilltop village in Peru, Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2007. Doubts about the One Laptop Per Child project evaporate about as quickly as the morning dew in this Andean hilltop village where 50 primary school students have spent six months with the little green machines.(AP Photo/Martin Mejia)
These offspring of peasant families whose monthly earnings rarely exceed the cost of one of the $188 laptops — people who can ill afford pencil and paper much less books — can’t get enough of their XO devices.

At breakfast, they’re already powering up the combination library/videocamera/audio recorder/musicmaker/drawing kits. At night, they’re dozing off in front of them — if they’ve managed to keep older siblings from waylaying the coveted machines.” (src)

Computer Science departments in North America and Europe are struggling to increase their enrollments after the decline that started when the dotcom bubble deflated. Most are following a strategy to find ways to engage students by showing them that the field is both interesting and socially relevant. I think that the OLPC project and others like it can help do this. It will be motivating for many of our students to target software to this device and produce something for the good of humanity. For example, we can get some of the many students interested in game development to try to port/write educational games to the XO. The XO laptop is custom hardware running a stripped-down Red Hat Linux with a custom user interface and has XO emulators available. Since not much is standard, there will probably be a big need for writing device drivers and porting lots of common open-source packages. Developing software for the XO could be a good project as part of many core computer science, computer engineering and information systems courses.

We have one of these in the department now and I hope that we can get more.