If the digital revolution is about “placing power and opportunity into the hands of individuals,” as Kurt Steinhaus, president of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), told NECC attendees before Thursday morning’s keynote, then former MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte is a modern-day Sam Adams.

Negroponte–founder of the One Laptop Per Child initiative and chief architect of the $100 laptop–brought conference-goers to their feet by describing his efforts to give kids in developing nations a low-cost computer they can take home with them.

Negroponte’s goal is no less than the elimination of global poverty: “You’re not going to have peace if you have poverty,” he said in a press conference following his speech. In the process, his ambitious plan just might transform education worldwide.

** For more on the One Laptop Per Child initiative, watch this seven-minute video clip, “$100 laptop & Billion-dollar idea.” **

“Kids learn not by being consumers of knowledge, but creators of it,” Negroponte said. And that’s the idea behind giving every child a laptop equipped with the tools to inspire creativity, collaboration, and communication.

Negroponte’s plan comes as evidence is mounting that laptops can improve student learning.

In Maine, he said, where officials there were the first to provide laptops to all seventh graders statewide, about 80 percent of teachers initially were apprehensive about the idea. Now, he said, “try finding a single teacher who has anything bad to say about the program.” Attendance is up, kids are more motivated, and they’re assuming more responsibility for their own learning.

At NECC, Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) announced the results of an evaluation of Michigan’s Freedom to Learn program, which was modeled after Maine’s laptop project. The study, conducted by the Center for Research in Educational Policy at the University of Memphis, found that equipping Michigan teachers and students with laptop computers is increasing students’ motivation to learn, and they’re also gaining valuable technology skills.

HP and Microsoft collaborated with Michigan officials to design and implement the Freedom to Learn program, which currently has the participation of some 23,000 students and 1,500 teachers across 100 Michigan school districts. By giving students and teachers wireless laptops combined with training and curriculum, students are able to learn at their own level and pace, the study found.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates is on record as saying that cell phones, not laptops, hold the most promise for getting technology into the hands of every child around the world (see story: Gates: Cell phones, not laptops, will best answer poor students’ needs). At the press conference following his keynote, Negroponte dismissed that idea.

“You don’t learn in a one-inch by two-inch window,” he said.

In introducing Negroponte, Steinhaus said the digital divide is a problem that “only innovation and smart public policy can bridge. & Just think what one innovation like the $100 laptop can do in these places.”

Steinhaus referred to a Gates Foundation study of more than 400 high-school dropouts, which revealed that most had at least a passing average when they left school. Why, then, did they drop out? “Because they were bored,” he said.

But if you give kids the tools they’re familiar with–computers and internet access–“the results will be astounding.”

Links:

One Laptop Per Child
http://www.laptop.org

Maine Learning Technology Initiative
http://www.state.me.us/mlte

Michigan’s Freedom to Learn
http://www.fltwireless.org

NECC 2006
http://center.uoregon.edu/ISTE/NECC2006