Why a tablet, OLPC? Laptop is better for education

Its creators hope XO-3 will meld the iPad, Kindle and laptop into a kid-friendly package. But is this a realistic goal?

The news that the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project is close to launching a US$75 tablet for children is pretty remarkable. Non-profit founder Nicholas Negroponte said this week that OLPC hopes to have a working prototype of its XO-3 tablet computer by December 2010, and that it plans to debut the device at the January 2011 Consumer Electronics Show.

The sub-$100 price tag will be prove even more astounding if the XO-3 fulfills its creators' goals of melding the iPad, Kindle, and laptop into a durable, kid-friendly package.

But is this a realistic goal for such a low-cost device? Given the history of OLPC's much-ballyhooed $100 laptop, which never quite hit its aggressive price point and now costs nearly twice as much (you can donate one for $199 to a child in a developing nation), I have my doubts. And don't forget about the abandoned XO-2 touchscreen device, a project cancelled last year when OLPC realized the unit would cost too much to make, Forbes reports.

So what do we know about the XO-3? It's expected to be a 9-inch touchscreen tablet powered by a 1GHz processor, although the specs could change between now and CES. Made mostly (but not entirely) of plastic, it may also feature a reflective (non-backlit) display, such as those found on the Kindle and similar e-readers. A reflective screen, which uses less energy and is easier to read in direct sunlight, would benefit kids who do a lot of schoolwork outdoors. A backlit display, however, is easier to read indoors, particularly in rooms with little ambient light.

Laptops, Not Tablets

Even if OLPC delivers the XO-3 as promised, is a tablet computer really the best choice for school children? As the iPad has shown us, the tablet is a device for content consumption, not creation. It's a very good e-reader, video viewer, and Web browser, but it's far from ideal for writing lengthy documents like school reports.

By comparison, a conventional laptop has a physical keyboard, and its conventional clamshell design is better suited to a desk-oriented classroom setting. True, the laptop may not be particularly sexy or in fashion this season, but it'll likely offer a better educational payoff.

A tablet may be a better form factor for electronic textbooks, but the XO-3's barebones design--again, tailored for the needs of developing nations--may make the device an underpowered, ergonomically poor choice for e-textbooks (provided they're available).

What do you think? Laptops or tablets for the classroom?

Contact Jeff Bertolucci via Twitter (@jbertolucci) or at jbertolucci.blogspot.com.

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Jeff Bertolucci

PC World (US online)
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