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Digital inclusion

Revolution in the classroom

Government defines by April which will be the model of laptop intended for pupils at public schools

eduardo cesarThe federal government is going to decide by April whether it will buy 1 million portable computers from the Taiwanese company Quantas, one of the largest producers in the world of notebooks, at the total cost of about R$325 million. They are not conventional laptops, but models conceived by the nongovernmental organization One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), created by researcher Nicholas Negroponte, cofounder of Media Lab, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The entity conceived these machines as a revolutionary learning tool tailor-made for initiating public school children from poor countries in the digital world. In a marketing strategy to attract partners – companies like AMD, Brightstar, Google, Marvell, News Corp. e Nortel invested, each one of them, US$2 million in the program – Negroponte baptized the prototypes as US$100 laptops. The cost is certainly still higher than expected – it is around US$150 for each computer –, but Negroponte believes that the level may be reached in 2008. The entity ordered a first batch of 5 million laptops from Quantas, to be delivered this year. The allotment intended for Brazil, according to conversations with the federal government, should be 1 million machines. The other 4 million are intended for other countries that sympathize with the program, like Argentina, Libya, Nigeria and Thailand.

On November 24, Negroponte was in Brazil and handed over a prototype of the laptop personally to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. “We didn’t sign any contract, but, from my point of view, there is no possibility of Brazil staying out of this initiative”, stated Negroponte to the G1 news portal. “By our plans, the country should receive about 1 million machines in 12 months, following the arrival of the first laptops.” In the next few months, technicians from the Ministry of Education are going to dedicate themselves to the task of testing the computers in public schools selected to evaluate the possibilities for pedagogical use of the technology. About 1.8 thousand laptops should arrive in Brazil shortly. “They will be distributed to schools from various cities that express the variety of the country’s educational reality”, says Cezar Alvarez, a special advisor to the Presidency of the Republic responsible for the project. In an ideal situation, each student will win his or her laptop, which will be connected to a low-cost broadband network and may be used at home or at school, as a sort of digital notebook capable of assisting the learning process.

To get an idea of the impact of this strategy, today only 4% of the Brazilians from class D and 10% from class C have access to the Internet, against 70% in class A and 35% in class B, according to figures from the National Telecommunications Agency (Anatel). The possibilities in the field of education are immense. “They range from the contents of digital libraries from the whole world to the possibility of performing group activities by means of the computer. And that is without mentioning the chance of taking the computer home and including the families in the process”, Negroponte said. The emergence of pedagogical software tailor-made for this new platform is foreseeable.

In practice, there are a series of questions that have to be tested. “We do not yet know, for example, whether it will indeed be possible to take the laptops home here in Brazil. Some technological issues have to be solved, and it has to be evaluated whether it is safe for the students to walk on the streets with the machines”, Cezar Alvarez says. “The computer breaks several paradigms, and it is essential for it not to be seen as a foreign body in the classroom. But it is not the federal government’s intention to determine how the computers will be used. States and cities will have autonomy for presenting their projects.”

courtesy olpcThe price of US$ 100 should only be attained in 2008. Each unit currently costs about US$ 150courtesy olpc

The government’s decision will not depend merely on the technical and pedagogical evaluations. The Ministry of Development, Industry and Trade is sounding out Brazilian companies from the information technology sector about the possibility of producing the computers in Brazil. “The project is educational, and not one of industrial policy. But if we have competence and scale to make the laptops in Brazil at competitive prices, there would be no reason for ordering them from abroad”, Alvarez says. With this, the government should choose one of three options: buying the computers from Quantas, opening up an international tender process, or ordering them from Brazilian manufacturers. The semiconductor giant Intel announced last month that two Brazilian companies – Positivo Informática and CCE – are going to manufacture the Classmate PC, a laptop created to compete with Negroponte’s laptop.  By associating itself with Brazilian manufacturers, Intel makes Negroponte’s program more vulnerable to the criticism that it could be harmful to the local industry. The problem is that Intel’s computer is far more expensive. It costs about US$400.

To define which model of notebook is technically most adequate, the government is testing three different models: Negroponte’s US$150 laptop, Intel’s Classmate PC, and also the Mobilis portable computer, from the Indian group Encore Software. To make the evaluation, in July 2005, and group was created made up of professionals from three Brazilian research centers: the Integrable Systems Laboratory of the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (USP), the Renato Archer Research Center (CenPRA), connected with the Ministry of Science and Technology (MCT), and the Center of Reference in Innovative Technologies Foundation (Certi), an independent non-profit technological research and development body from Santa Catarina.

“The three teams are responsible for making a technical and economic evaluation of the equipment, as well as an analysis of the aspects of pedagogical applicability of each one of them”, explains electronic engineer Roseli de Deus Lopes, from USP’s Integrable Systems Laboratory (LSI). In the next three months, the equipment, which has already undergone preliminary evaluations, will be submitted to a series of product engineering tests. For Roseli Lopes, some technological characteristics are essential for one or other model coming to be adopted by the government. The most important of them is perhaps low consumption of electricity. Nicholas Negroponte likes to say that more difficult than arriving at the cost of US$ 100 is to reach the 2-watt consumption level. To meet this objective, besides perfecting the display (one of the components of the computer that most wastes energy), the model must have an operating system adapted to use less electricity. At the same time, the useful life of the batteries must be expanded, to prevent environmental problems with their disposal, since the government program provides for the acquisition of thousands (or millions) of laptops. “The low electricity consumption is also important for allowing the digital inclusion of people with low income who do not always have access to the electricity network”, the researcher from the LSI points out.

Another relevant aspect of the laptop is related to connectivity. It is important for the laptops to be fitted with a wireless system and for them to be able to communicate amongst themselves, by means of a technology known as mesh networking. With this, each machine linked to the connection also becomes a transmitter, the signal from which is received by the closest machine, and so on and so forth, creating a mesh of wireless computers. Presupposing that the pupils take the laptop home (which has not yet been defined by the government), in isolated communities, where there is only an antenna, the notebooks themselves form a wireless communication network, independently of the distance of the computer from the antenna or central server. To do so, the devices would have to remain continuously switched on in the standby mode, which reinforces the need for the laptop to have a low consumption of electricity. “Naturally, it would be ideal for there to be more points to sustain the network. But should it be impossible, it is more important for there to be some kind of connection, even a slow one, than to have none”, Roseli Lopes explains. “In some of the prototypes existing today, we do not see this concern with reducing consumption, although it is perfectly possible to incorporate this.”

Resistant and robust
For the researcher, the popular laptop should also be a robust and durable piece of equipment. “Imagining that it will be handled by children, it is reasonable to suppose that the device must be resistant to being dropped, for example. This question is still being developed and is not present in the solutions that we have to hand today. Perhaps they have to have a rubberized covering, or of some other material, to protect them against shocks”, she explains. This is one of the reasons that mean that the machine have to have a small screen, of around 7 inches, and not be equipped with a hard disc, which is the most fragile component in the system. In its place, the models being evaluated have flash memory, a device in the form of a rigid card, similar to the memory in pen drives and in digital cameras. It is on board the computer itself, which makes it far more resistant.

The fact of not having such a large storage capacity is not a problem, since the information from each computer should be kept in the server at the school, at the Secretariat for Education, or at the Ministry of Education. But to compensate for this limitation, a broadband connection is essential. “Without broadband, the project would not sustain itself”, says Cezar Alvarez, an advisor to the Presidency of the Republic. As to the screen, ideally, it is one that allows the student to operate the notebook not only in the classroom, but also outdoors, in sunshine, during work in the field. For the researchers who are evaluating the popular laptops, this is also a fundamental aspect in equipment intended for educational activities.

The models currently being tested have some characteristics in common. The three of them are light, compact, and equipped with the Linux operating system – although one version of the Classmate PC is also produced with Windows XP. They measure about 23 x 20 x 3 centimeters (cm), the size of a thicker school notebook. These characteristics make it possible for them to be easy to transport and to fit the pupil’s desk, leaving space for books and school material. The One Laptop Per Child device, baptized as XO, is the only one to come with a color camera for photos and films. It uses a 366 MHz AMD Geode processor and has a 7.5 inch screen of 1200 x 900 pixels, three USB ports for connecting other equipment, a 128 MB memory and 512 MB flash storage capacity, which can be expanded.

courtesy olpcIntel’s notebook will be produced in Brazil by Positivo Informática, of Curitiba (PR), and by CCE, of Manaus (AM). With a price estimated at US$ 400, it will have a 900 MHz processor, a 7 inch colored LCD screen, a 256 MB memory, 1 GB flash memory and two USB ports. The waterproof keyboard has small keys and is compact, 6.5 cm in depth and 18 cm in width, but this may probably not become a problem, because, after all, it will be used by children. One differential of the equipment is the antitheft system, which prevents it from working after a predetermined number of days away from the school. “Let’s see how this device works, but it is one concern that we need to take into account”, Roseli Lopes explains. Another characteristic of the Classmate PC, formerly known as Edu-Wise, is a class management application, which allows the teacher to accompany in the classroom what the students are doing with their machines.

The Indian mobile computer Mobilis has one characteristic that distinguishes it from its competitors: it is a PC tablet, a portable computer with a touch-sensitive screen, which can be explored with the fingers or with a stylus attached. With this, the notebook does away with the use of a keyboard, just as happens with the handheld computers, the palmtops. One of the positive aspects of the equipment is precisely is screen of 7 inches and a resolution of 800 x 480 pixels. According to its manufacturer Encore, the Mobilis has a long-lasting battery, about six hours, that is quick to charge.

Of the three models, Encore’s portable is the lightest, with 900 grams, against the Classmate PC’s 1.3 kilos and the XO’s 1.5 kilos. It was designed with two USB ports, a 400 MHz Xscale processor, a 128 MB and a 128 MB storage capacity, expandable to 2 GB. The machine should reach the market for an amount close to US$230. Encore is the only one of the three manufacturers that has not yet indicated how many laptops will be made available to the government for carrying out tests in 2007. Intel has already arranged to send 800 Classmate PCs to public schools in the first quarter of this year, and the OLCP is going to donate a thousand units of its portable.

Besides the three “official” competitors, running as an outsider is a product developed in Brazil by the Applied Information Technology Laboratory (LTIA) of the Computing Department of the São Paulo State University (Unesp) of Bauru. The project, which started in November 2005, has consumed about R$80 thousand and has had the involvement of the technology companies Tecnequip (as a supplier of the motherboards and technical assistance) and MSTech (technical assistance and donation of scholarships for pupils of the laboratory), installed, respectively, in São Paulo and Bauru. Microsoft went in with training in the Windows CE operating system, chosen to equip the computer. According to researcher Eduardo Morgado, the coordinator of the LTIA, the choice of this system occurred “because it offers the best relationship between development costs and experience of the user”.

Baptized as Cowboy
“it is likeable name and a free version of ‘caipira’ [hillbilly], which as the first name for the project”, Morgado says –, the apparatus is halfway between a notebook or personal computer and a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant). According to Daniel Igarashi, who is studying for a master’s degree, is from the LTIA and one of the coordinators of the project, it was created on the basis of the concept of “comfortable computing”, which allows simpler, more organized and more intuitive browsing. The Cowboy has an LCD panel that slides over the keyboard for it to be used as an electronic book, and its applications include an MP3 Player, an e-book reader and remote terminal access. The prototype was configured with a 400 MHz microprocessor with RISC technology, 128 MB in memory RAM, a 7 or 10 inch high resolution colored display, 1 GB of internal capacity and connectivity by wireless or by cable. The cost of producing the simplest version is US$ 250 a unit, but this price may be brought down should the model thrive in the market and the manufacturer achieve gains in scale.

Although he does not deny his interest in taking part on the “competition”, Morgado thinks it difficult to meet the time limits stipulated by the government, which intends to acquire the first units before the end of this year (2007). “We have a prototype, but we still have to find a partner in business to conclude with us the industrial product of the Cowboy”, Morgado explains. Researcher Roseli Lopes, from the Integrable Systems Laboratory, looks favorably at the emergence of new low cost projects, like the prototype from Unesp. “We need to have different alternatives”, she says. “It is not just a question of choosing a laptop. We have to give liberty for the schools to choose the most adequate solutions for their pedagogical projects.”