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Rwanda's schoolyard tech

Central African country carves out a digital future, one laptop at a time.

Five years later, though the project is active in more than 30 countries (including Uruguay, which last year became the world’s first to provide laptops to all of its primary school students), the cost of an XO is closer to $200 and global orders are nowhere approaching Negroponte’s forecast. Critics have assailed everything from the XO’s quality to the wisdom of governments investing in gadgetry when children have far more pressing needs. A recent UNICEF report, for instance, notes that 51 percent of Rwandan children under 5 — OLPC beneficiaries of the future — are moderately or severely stunted from inadequate nutrition.

Yet according to Sam Dusengiyumva, OLPC regional director, this is just why laptops are needed. “How do we address Rwanda’s hunger situation?” he asks. “Make children productive and give them a future.”

“It’s the difference between giving someone a fish and teaching him how to fish,” Nkubito added, paraphrasing Confucius. “Rather than taking care of people, we believe in giving them the tools to take care of themselves.”

Rwanda’s tool of choice, said Nkubito, is particularly appropriate in a country that lost many of its qualified teachers in the 1994 genocide, and where many educators are struggling with last year’s switch in the language of instruction to English from French. OLPC, which advocates a shunning of rote in favor of student-driven learning, is an approach, he said, that will facilitate student progress even when teachers are under qualified.

“With digital content,” he said, “you can replace this knowledge from outside. That’s the beauty of the internet.”

That said, as Nkubito admitted, the laptop project will only work as far as teachers see the devices as tools and not as foreign objects. It’s a fact not lost on Melissa Henriquez, who conducts OLPC trainings for both students and teachers.

“You work with kids one day and the next time they do wonderful things,” she said. “With the teachers, it takes more time.”

Yet Isidore Bimenyimana, a math teacher attending Henriquez’s training, remains upbeat. “This thing is too small for elder people,” he noted, fumbling with his hands on the child-sized XO keyboard. “But I like this technology. It’s as easy as drinking milk in the morning.”