Birmingham approves low-cost laptop project

In what will be the first large-scale educational deployment of low-cost laptops from the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative in the United States, the Birmingham, Ala., Board of Education has voted to accept 1,000 of the group’s $200 XO laptops from the city as part of a pilot program set to run from April 15 to Sept. 1.
The program was approved on an 8-to-1 vote, the Birmingham News reported.
The 1,000 computers are part of an initiative by Mayor Larry Langford and the Birmingham City Council. The plan was to give 15,000 laptops to first through eighth graders.
Board members said they would see how the pilot program goes before accepting the remaining 14,000 computers.
The pilot was originally planned for Glen Iris Elementary School. But board members said they might instead try it out at another school, because Glen Iris recently was renovated and has more up-to-date technology than other city schools.
Last month, the Birmingham City Council gave Langford permission to buy 15,000 laptops from OLPC, but the school board hesitated at the offer. Board members said they had not been consulted on the program and had concerns about the district’s ability to integrate the machines into instruction.
Founded by former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Nicholas Negroponte, OLPC’s goal is to revolutionize education worldwide by distributing its low-cost XO laptops to students in developing countries. Birmingham is the first U.S. city to purchase the machines for its students.
Several school board members expressed uncertainty at a special April 3 meeting called to discuss the program.
Board member Virginia Volker questioned whether the proposed project was truly a pilot program, or whether the city intended to distribute the remaining 14,000 laptops regardless of the pilot’s outcome, the Birmingham News reported. And board member Martha Wixon reportedly argued that the project should be put up for bids and that the district should be working with more concrete numbers instead of guesswork.
"I have never in my life seen a project of this magnitude with so many gray areas," Wixon is reported to have said.
The City of Birmingham did not solicit bids for the computers or make a request for proposals, the News reported, though Alabama’s bid law requires that most purchases more than $7,500 be subject to open bids.
Although the city did not open the project for bidding, several developing countries have, and OLPC has faced stiff competition from other low-cost products, particularly Intel’s Classmate PC.
The XO laptops use a customized version of the Linux operating system called Sugar instead of Microsoft’s more common Windows OS. Langford’s office has argued that this won’t be a problem for younger, more intuitive learners. On April 3, most board members seemed to agree, the News reported.
"The biggest problem will be teaching our teachers," board member April Williams reportedly said.

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