$100 laptop makes local debut

By Jamie Morton

Kiwi co-founder of worldwide school computer programme is about to help launch the cause in New Zealand

Professor Vercoe with the XO laptop he helped to develop. Photo / Alan Gibson
Professor Vercoe with the XO laptop he helped to develop. Photo / Alan Gibson

A cause credited for putting educational computers in the hands of millions of children across the world will come full-circle for one of its Kiwi-born founders today, when he launches the One Laptop Per Child programme here.

It's now hoped the programme will reach schools across the country and ultimately win government backing.

The scheme began eight years ago when Professor Barry Vercoe and colleagues at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed a computer dubbed the "$100 laptop".

Professor Vercoe, who remains a Professor Emeritus of Media Arts and Sciences of the famous Boston institute, had helped bring the specially-designed XO computers to some of the most remote places on Earth before he moved back to New Zealand.

"I've been involved in taking these things into lots of countries and I thought, why not home?" he said yesterday.

One school, Te Wharekura o Manaia in Coromandel, has so far taken up the technology, issuing 67 machines to its junior pupils.

The computers, developed by MIT's Media Lab, were designed to be tough enough for children to use and abuse but powerful enough for them to run a range of interactive educational activities.

All of their software was made free and open source to ensure schools were not faced with costly licensing programmes, with a mandatory standard of one machine for each child.

The systems promoted constructionist learning - encouraging children to build and create, rather than simply surfing the internet.

The programme was highlighted for its expensive failure in Peru, but Professor Vercoe put this down to a critical lack of pre-training for teachers - something that would be tackled in the New Zealand roll-out.

"We don't send laptops into a classroom until the teacher is fully qualified with 15 hours of professional development."

Donors were being sought to support a charitable trust to oversee the scheme and in some areas of the country, including Tauranga and Taranaki, organisations had already agreed to offer subsidies.

In 2008, 5000 machines were distributed free among Pacific Islands, reaching far-flung places in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, as well as every child in Niue.

Last year, the Australian federal Government invested $12 million in the programme, resulting in 50,000 machines for the country.

Professor Vercoe hoped New Zealand would follow its lead.

"Governments are always very risk averse, and they won't jump at anything like this until they're sure it's going to work," he said.

"In Australia, it took us two years before the Government got it. I'm not sure how long it will take here."

The Government currently funds schemes such as Computers in Homes, which supports families in low-income communities, and in July announced continued funding of $1.6 million.

Schools also received operational funding around information and communications technology, which could be spent on devices.

Associate Education Minister Nikki Kaye said she had also recently established a "21st century" learning reference group.

She has asked the group to look at access to devices in schools, with a report due back in the next few months.


XO-DUO laptops come with own repair kits

They're sturdy, efficient and demand a little more hands-on care than your average iPad.

So much so, that the One Education programme covering One Laptop Per Child's specially-built XO-DUO laptops come with repair kits which allow their child owners to fix their own machine.

The colourful laptops come with a touchscreen computer specially designed for children and a physical keyboard, along with wireless connectivity.

Other features include high-resolution video cam for creative activities, low-power components, open source software, educational apps designed by teachers and USB and HDMI functions.

About 75 have been provided in New Zealand so far, but in Australia 50,000 have been ordered after a $12 million federal investment.

The programme equips schools with everything they need to run and maintain the computers.

- NZ Herald

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