Poor nations gain more choices in computing

There is debate on whether developing nations should invest in computers over classrooms and textbooks

Training teachers and students how to use computing devices is also a challenge.

OLPC has worked to empower kids by making its laptops as easy to use as possible, as well as offering training for teachers. The point over time is for the kids to find educational opportunities on the Internet and elsewhere using the laptops

"What we want is for children to keep a passion for learning," said Negroponte, in a speech earlier this year. To that end, OLPC has added a camera to its laptop as well as games, in addition to encyclopedias and other books for school.

Similar to Murenzi, he believes that getting the laptops into children's hands is the goal so they can start learn to use them, whether in class or playing games or on the Internet.

"I don't draw a sharp distinction between entertainment and education because when you're trying to capture a child's whole life, and not just the time when a student is in class with a teacher, it's seamless," said Negroponte.

Not everyone agrees with the philosophy, and some said the entertainment aspect of the Internet, including movies, music, games and even pornography, can be a distraction.

NComputing, for example, has built in ways for teachers to monitor what students are doing on the Internet through software that allows the teacher to see what every terminal is doing.

Other organizations working in developing countries argue that kids and teachers need more instruction and direction on where these new digital skills can take them, say by learning how to create spreadsheets so they can become a valuable part of the workforce.

Microsoft, which has been working with computing issues in developing nations for the past 10 years, said training is critical.

"Just giving people the computers, throwing them out there, it's not enough," said Orlando Ayala, senior vice president of Microsoft's Unlimited Potential Group, in a phone interview.

Clearly, there are many choices for governments in developing countries to make on what's best for students, not just in what kind of computers and which OS they should come with, but also the kind and level of training. The number of companies and organizations offering free or low-cost technology continues to expand, as do their reasons for helping.

And in the end, the developing world shouldn't be seen as a profit center, a brand name battle ground, or a Petri-dish for some ego-driven experiment on education. But instead as a place full of desperately poor kids seeking a brighter future.

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Dan Nystedt

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