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LAPTOP-DEVELOPMENT Oct-30-2007 (960 words) xxxi

Tech support: Some church officials keen about One Laptop Per Child

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

ROME (CNS) -- A plan to equip the world's poorest schoolchildren with a low-cost, rugged, portable, wireless laptop has found some enthusiastic support among the Jesuits and in the Vatican.

Vatican officials, ambassadors to the Vatican, and representatives of the world's religious orders were among the more than 200 people attending an Oct. 29 conference highlighting the One Laptop Per Child initiative. The conference was sponsored by the communications office of Rome's Jesuit headquarters and two commissions of the international organization of superiors general of religious orders.

Nicholas Negroponte, founder and chairman of the One Laptop Per Child nonprofit organization, originally looked to individual nations to buy massive quantities of the XO laptop that governments would then distribute free of charge to school kids.

While a number of developing nations initially jumped on board to buy the laptops, Negroponte said he soon discovered "there's a big difference between a head of state agreeing to do a million laptops and the state sending the $200 million check."

While Uruguay has since become the first country to buy 100,000 of the first 300,000 laptops that begin production Nov. 2, Negroponte has widened the list of potential buyers to include individuals and religious orders. Some 7,000 older laptops have been used in pilot projects around the world.

"There are 50 million students in the Catholic Church's school systems," which include children in some very poor parts of the world, he told Catholic News Service Oct. 29.

He said he would like to "get the church to directly participate and maybe provide (the laptops) to kids in very poor countries, in very remote areas."

U.S. Jesuit Father Keith Pecklers told CNS the Jesuits were encouraging other religious orders to become involved in the One Laptop Per Child project.

"The impact the One Laptop Per Child program will have on a global level is phenomenal," he said.

A professor of liturgy at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University, Father Pecklers said the Jesuits have always been "at the forefront of education, particularly in the poorest of the poor areas where many would not wish to go, so it strikes me as appropriate and important that the Jesuits would take the lead in supporting this particular program."

In an hourlong presentation, Negroponte outlined the ways the white-and-bright-green laptops have already changed the lives of children who have been using the wireless technology in pilot projects for the past eight years.

He said in one school in a small village in northern Cambodia, many parents fell in love with their kids' computers because switching on the laptop -- which is powered by cranking or pulling an internal dynamo -- often made the display monitor the "brightest light source in the house."

The children soon became "guide and instructor" for their parents, teaching adult family members how to Google for information and "find the wholesale price of rice, for example, which really annoys the wholesalers, who go to this village and usually take advantage of the rice farmers," he said.

Kids even have set up their own makeshift "laptop hospitals," where they have been able to "repair 95 percent of any failure on their laptop," he said.

The computer's WiFi mesh network, he said, means one laptop can communicate with every other laptop around it, relaying a signal or message hopscotch-style until it reaches even the farthest-flung destination.

Connectivity to other XO users and the Internet is crucial, Negroponte said, otherwise the tool would be "like a plane without wings."

Swiveling earlike antennae help a child home in on a nearby signal, he said. Children in more remote areas can get a $10 solar panel-powered signal booster "you can nail to a tree" to catch a signal more than 550 yards away, he added.

The One Laptop Per Child program provides the machines, and the users create the content, he said.

He said teachers can share successful ways of teaching mathematics with students and other teachers while children can e-mail teachers anytime, anywhere for help in their studies.

When asked if he planned to give Pope Benedict XVI a XO laptop, Negroponte told CNS: "We keep asking to do it. The answer is 'Yes, all intentions,' but we haven't succeeded yet."

Another invited speaker, Cardinal Paul Poupard, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said "a lack of education is as serious as a lack of food."

If people are to rise out of poverty and enjoy greater justice, education is key, the cardinal said.

Just as Pope Paul VI warned the world 40 years ago about the growing gap between rich and poor in his encyclical "The Progress of Peoples" ("Populorum Progressio"), the cardinal said that divide is still evident today, even in the world of technology.

One member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Antonio Battro, serves as the One Laptop Per Child program's chief education officer. He told conference attendees "education is like a vaccination" that can immunize people against a whole host of ills.

The XO laptop is "a portable school" that children will be allowed to take home as their own and use anytime "to explore, discover and share knowledge," he said.

Though the low-cost laptops were initially destined only for children in the developing world, Negroponte said individuals can soon purchase a laptop for themselves when they buy one for a poor child. For a brief period of time starting Nov. 12, people can take part in the "Give 1 Get 1 Program," he said.

He said individuals can also go online at www.laptop.org to purchase any number of XO laptops to donate to children in poorer nations.


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