Ask Amicah Bitten about her home life, and what she likes to do outside of school, and the 9-year-old is cagey, doling out only small details: she reads the J.C. Penney catalog, she likes to swim sometimes, and she knows someone who does drugs, and she hates that.

But ask the Birmingham, Ala., girl about her computer, and Bitten opens up, smiling brightly and chatting easily as she taps the machine’s tiny green keys and shows off what she can do and what’s possible with this machine, a small and ultra-light laptop known as the XO.

Bitten was given the green-and-white computer, about the size of a hardcover book, as part of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative’s first foray into the United States. Initially launched three years ago to bring technology to children in developing countries, the nonprofit partnered with Birmingham–at the behest of Mayor Larry Langford and the Birmingham City Council–for the first large-scale educational deployment of low-cost XO laptops in this country.

The pilot program, running from April 15 to Sept. 1, began with 1,000 of the group’s $200 laptops for students in Glen Iris Elementary School’s first through fifth grades. After some bureaucratic squabbles, the school board went on to approve the city’s purchase of 14,000 more–funded by taxpayer dollars–with plans to eventually include all 15,000 students in the school system’s first through eighth grades.

But concerns remain. Some critics wonder whether a computer initially designed for children in poor, rural parts of the world–and primarily using its own non-Windows operating system–is the right learning tool for students who eventually will seek to join the general computing population in the U.S. Others worry that teachers will have trouble getting up to speed. Still others are concerned that it could be difficult to track progress and achievement on machines that promote a constructivist approach to learning, which could pose a problem in today’s educational climate of high-stakes testing and accountability.

So, as students like Bitten embark on a new school year spent with a new learning tool in their bookbags, education leaders are keeping a close eye on Birmingham to see if this program will work–and whether it will be worth duplicating in school districts across the U.S.

"There’s enormous potential here," said Tracy Gray, managing director at the American Institutes for Research and head of its Center for Implementing Technology in Education. "There’s also enormous pressure."

To hear Nicholas Negroponte talk about it, the idea of giving a laptop to every child is not extravagant–it’s a matter of necessity.

In a speech at the 2006 annual Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) gathering of bright minds in California, the founder of OLPC and former director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab called children our "most precious natural resource," best tapped if they’re given a solid education and understand how to "learn learning."

This constructivist approach to education, pioneered in the 1960s by MIT Media Lab professor Seymour Papert, can be taken a step further with a computer, Negroponte said. As students create their own programs and projects and use technology as a tool, they also learn to think about thinking.

With this idea in mind, Negroponte in 2005 created the nonprofit OLPC to bring low-cost, hard-drive-free computers with mesh wireless networks to poor, rural children in the developing world. Quanta Computer built the machines and agreed to take less profit per unit than usual. Also helping to keep the cost down was the use of a customized version of the free, open-source Linux operating system.

At about $175 a pop, Peru bought 272,000 machines, and Uruguay picked up 100,000. The program continued to grow, in part owing to the temporary "Give One, Get One" campaign that allowed customers in the United States to pay $399 for a pair of laptops and donate one or both. As part of that program, more than 150,000 machines were shipped to places like Rwanda, Mongolia, Haiti, and Afghanistan.

The success of this international effort naturally led many educators and officials to ask why the program was not available to the thousands of students in the U.S. with little or no access to technology.

(Maine is among a growing number of states that have tried their own version of one-to-one computing programs, giving laptops to more than 34,000 seventh- and eighth-grade students and teachers. But at $300 per machine, per year, including software and support, Maine’s leased computers are too expensive for many U.S. school districts to consider.)

Negroponte said the reason the U.S. wasn’t initially included in the OLPC program was because of the vast difference in need; the U.S. spends upwards of $10,000 per child in elementary school, while Bangladesh, for example, spends $20. But, he said, the U.S. was part of OLPC’s long-term plan all along.

Enter Birmingham, which–after a hard push from the mayor’s office and the city council–committed $500,000 to the purchase, deployment, and support of 15,000 XO laptops, along with training and maintenance.

And now, the hard part: proving this was a worthwhile expenditure, overcoming negative assumptions about the technology, training the students and teachers to use it, and figuring out a way to measure students’ progress on a machine that falls outside normal curriculum and performance measurement methods.

Said Janine Langston, the Birmingham Public Library system’s literacy, outreach, and youth services coordinator: "If it can work in this large of a system, it’s a good sign for other schools and cities."

"At first, people might think it’s a toy. It’s green, it’s cute. But it’s not a toy," said Garen Elaina Fowler, manager of special projects for the city of Birmingham, above the din during a recent session of training camp for students and their XOs. "Any issues people have with the computer are mostly based on assumption."

It’s true that the XO is small, light, and has a Fisher-Price sort of appearance. It looks as comfortable in Amicah’s little hands as an old-school Speak and Spell. Other perception problems plague the XO. For one: The fact that the machine initially was designed for children in developing nations leads some people to think the XO is somehow inferior to other, more expensive and jazzier machines.

Not so, Negroponte says. "Fifty percent of the cost of your laptop is sales, marketing, distribution, and profit," he told the crowd at the 2006 National Educational Computing Conference in San Diego. Of the remaining cost, he said, about three-fourths is used "just to support the operating system and the obesity of the software in it. It’s like a fat person using [his] energy to move [his] weight." (See the video "$100 laptop … Billion-dollar idea")

The XO is lean, fast, and powerful. Applications are called "activities," and on this computer they allow the user to engage in chatting, painting, programming, music composition and synthesis, audio and video recording, slideshow creation, and mathematical calculations. The Birmingham computers also have the Firefox web browser, and other programs can be downloaded from the internet.

Perception problem No. 2: The non-Windows operating system is weak and doesn’t prepare students properly for a real-world computing environment. (Though some XOs are now being equipped with a version of Windows, Birmingham did not purchase that model of the machine.)

"In the world, most companies do use Microsoft. That’s something I’m a little bit concerned about," said Joanne Stephens, executive director of instructional technology for Birmingham City Schools.

Shaundra Daily counters that concern. She’s from MIT and was the director and facilitator of the XO camp in Birmingham. Consider this, she says: A computer that uses Windows or a Mac operating system largely does all the work for you–there are handy icons and snazzy graphics, and rarely does a user gain an understanding of the programming behind it.

With XOs, the children don’t just use an application to find out the circumference of a circle. They make a circle and connect the dots and arrive at the answer after employing critical thinking. "The language they use with the XOs is not something that will hinder them later," Daily said.

Amicah would agree with that. She has used other desktop and laptop computers and says she much prefers her XO. "This teaches children about technology," she said knowingly, while efficiently stacking homework papers. "There’s so much you can do."

Students like Amicah have caught on to the use of their XOs very quickly and, during the camp, ended up teaching each other new uses, activities, and programs for the machines.

But some critics worry about the teachers: Can they get up to speed as quickly, while also devising educationally sound, project-based uses for the machines in their classrooms?

"Technology is only a tool, and unless you have other support systems surrounding it and teachers who know how to use it and creatively build it into the content, then it’s really like bringing a piano into every classroom and then wondering why everyone is not able to play Carnegie Hall," said Gray, from the American Institutes for Research.

In Birmingham, Daily and her husband (Julian Daily, executive director of Boston-based G84 Consulting, hired by OLPC to build local teams) trained about 50 teachers before the start of the school year, said Robert D. McKenna, the mayor’s liaison to the city council.

During these training sessions, teachers learned how to use the machines to support instruction, and they created project-based learning environments to take back to their classrooms.

"The thought is that these teachers will then train other teachers throughout the system," McKenna said.

This could be problematic, Gray said: "The computers might increase students’ interest and might keep them engaged, and [they] might make [students’] projects more legible–but unless you have well-trained teachers and a vision for the computers’ use in the curriculum, then I’m not sure this is any different than giving each child a new textbook."

And though educators are very familiar with how to measure a child’s achievement when the child is using a textbook as a tool, Birmingham officials don’t yet know how to track progress with the XOs–a big issue in the era of No Child Left Behind and standardized testing. Most of the existing educational software, complete with assessment and data-management capabilities, is geared toward Macs or Windows-enabled machines.

"We’re working on how to assess and track progress," Stephens said. "We’re trying to find an instrument to measure that."

Some advocates of the XO suggest its effectiveness can be measured in non-traditional ways. When the Maine laptop program went into effect in 2002, Negroponte said, truancy dropped. Parents who hadn’t been participating in teacher conferences began to show up. Discipline problems decreased and student participation increased. Even writing scores got a boost. (See "School laptop program begets writing gains")

It’s too soon to tell whether this or any of the other predicted problems, or triumphs, will occur in Birmingham. But officials there are cautiously optimistic–and school leaders elsewhere in the country will be watching closely.

"Right now it’s trial and error," Fowler said, "but we expect it to be successful."

Christine Van Dusen is an Atlanta-based freelance writer.


Birmingham City Schools

One Laptop Per Child

XO Activities (a wiki from One Laptop Per Child)