Meeting basic needs will encourage $100 laptop success

In January of 2005 Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT media lab announced the $100 laptop initiative. This laptop is being released to the children of third world countries in an effort to provide them access to education they would not otherwise receive. The fourth quarter 2006 release of the $100 laptop comes at the right time. There are many global initiatives currently underway that the laptop supports. In particular, two from the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG);

Goal 2. Achieve universal primary education
Goal 3. Promote gender equality and empower women

The targets for both of these goals are focused upon education. Goal two is self explanatory; where the tasks of goal three include eliminating the gender disparity in primary and secondary education. All eight of the MDG are to be met by 2015. The introduction of the $100 laptop with its planned five year rollout could assist in meeting these goals. A coordinated combination (Dunford, 2002) of services will be required for the MDG to be met and for the $100 laptop to be a success. To achieve these goals is a global undertaking, one that is gathering much support as evidenced by the increased media exposure toward the issue of poverty elimination.

Bringing education to the third world is one of the key elements in bringing an end to poverty. Poverty is a complicated issue and we must be critical of applying educational technology in impoverished countries. There is no doubt that poverty shames and diminishes us all (Lewis, 2005). The main question being, could educational technology help people out of the cycle of poverty? Before applying technology to education to alleviate the impact of poverty, it is important to know that education (without technology) can assist with this global problem. Given the complexity of poverty (Appleton, 2001; Cockburn, 2001; Christiaensen, 2003) and the plethora of factors which perpetuate poverty you cannot simply say, “If those who live in poverty were more educated they would no longer live in poverty”. Research has shown that basic necessities of life need to be met before education can be considered. This is twofold; does the family have the resources (Appleton, 2001) and assets to allow the child to leave the home for schooling, and do the children have the health, wellbeing and access to the learning. One of the biggest issues for child education is the families need for the child as labor (Cockburn, 2001). If they can be freed from labor and the family has the assets; the child can pursue education.

The critics of the $100 laptop initiative have two primary concerns;

1. People need to eat and be healthy before they can consider education.
2. For the laptop to be successful it requires relevant curriculum.

People are concerned that if the population receiving the laptops can not feed themselves and are unhealthy what good is the laptop going to be. This is a valid concern, as basic needs have to be met before a family can consider education. Fortunately there exists a proven solution. Since 1973, starting in Bangladesh, a program called micro-finance has been available. The success of this approach has been very strong and now there exists thousands of “banks for the poor”. These banks serve over 30 million families working themselves out of poverty and into lives where they are self-sufficient and able to consider education for their children. The most common response from families who have worked their way out of poverty with the assistance of micro-finance is their greatest joy is to educate their children. It would be a benefit to the $100 laptop initiative to include micro-finance, or some similar program, as a prerequisite to a family targeted to receive the $100 laptop. Fortunately, all the countries targeted as pilots already have proven micro-finance programs.

The next concern is regarding the educational curriculum. The response to this is threefold. First, the laptop is based upon an Open Source Linux operating system and therefore has a huge base of freely available software. The Open Source nature of the operating system allows the laptop software to be altered and added too without impacting any existing copyrights. This openness should be a benefit for all countries who embrace the $100 laptop. Not only will they have complete control over what is made available and what can be customized, they can also utilize and build upon all the open source software that other participating countries develop. Open source means that every piece of software and curriculum developed and released back into the open source libraries becomes freely available to every user of the $100 laptop. Wheeler (2004) further develops this idea of Open Source collaborative efforts know as “Community Source” where groups with similar needs come together to share the development costs of the software and curriculum they require.

Second, the group developing the laptop is well versed in learning theory and is targeting the laptop curriculum to be developed using constructivist methods (Bender, 2006). It was also recently announced that Seymour Papert, the father of Logo (and a strong advocate for constructivist learning), along with being faculty at MIT media labs and on the $100 laptop advisory committee will be writing a regular column regarding the development of curriculum for the laptop. You could consider building open source software a completely constructivist activity, for you construct the educational software based upon what is already available and build toward what your curriculum requirements are identified to be.

Third, critical pedagogical approaches combined with cohort programs (Gow, 2001) could create communities of local teachers who have the skills and knowledge to develop the localized curriculum and encourage the laptops success. Critical Pedagogy, Constructivism and Technology are all closely tied (Travers, 2002) and will provide the theoretical foundation to build curriculum based upon local knowledge, language and culture. Using a critical pedagogical approach will empower the students and the communities to challenge themselves and the governing powers to construct learning environments that best suit their needs. (McLaren, 1998). This alignment creates an environment where students will be empowered to leverage the technology in the hopes for social change and a better life.

The $100 laptop initiative is the accumulation of many years of effort from Nicholas Negroponte and the MIT media lab. In the last year it has attracted a lot of media attention and has captured the financial backing from many sources. Six countries have committed to being the pilot countries. Fitting within the Millennium Development Goals, choosing the recipient families wisely and having a solid open source strategy combined with empowering educational strategies will greatly increase the likelihood of the laptops success.


Appleton, S. (2001). Education, Incomes and Poverty in Uganda in the 1990s. CREDIT Research Paper No. 01/22, University of Nottingham.

Cockburn, John. (2000). Child labour versus education: Poverty constraints or income opportunities?, Paper presented at a Conference on Opportunities in Africa: Micro-evidence on firms and households, April.

Christiansen, L., Demery L., and Paternostro, S. (2003). Macro and Micro Perspectives of Growth and Poverty in Africa. World Bank Economic Review, 17, 317-47.

Dunford, C. (2002). Microfinance as a vehicle for educating the poor. Retrieved on April 4, 2006 from

Gow. K.M. (2001). How access to microfinance and education through technology can alleviate poverty in third world coutnreis. International Journal of Economic Development, 3(1), pp.1-20.

Lewis, S. (2005). Race Against Time. House of Anansi Press. Toronto, Canada.

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