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Intel Seeks to Bridge the Digital Divide with a Rugged Tablet PC

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Efforts over the past several years to bridge the digital divide using low-cost computers have put millions of these devices in the hands of students in developing countries throughout Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. Backed by the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project, chipmaker Intel and others, these computers initially appeared in 2007 as stripped-down laptop PCs with Internet access and educational software. These devices are changing with the times, however, heavily influenced by the emergence of tablet computers, smart phones and portable digital video game players.

The newest entry is a durable tablet called the studybook designed by Intel to be built by computer makers in local markets for students in nearby schools, an approach meant to reduce costs while stimulating regional economies. The studybook features a 17.8-centimeter multitouch LCD screen that’s roughly the size of an Amazon Kindle Fire. The tablet also includes very basic front and rear cameras (0.3 and 2 megapixels, respectively), a microphone, one gigabyte of memory, up to 32 gigabytes of storage, an accelerometer  and light sensor.

A key feature of the studybook design is sturdiness. The tablet is constructed from a single piece of plastic, and its screen sits on a rubber gasket designed to act as a shock absorber, so the device is water resistant and able to absorb a 70-centimeter drop without breaking, says Wayne Grant, director of research and planning for Intel’s Education Market Platforms Group. The price of the studybook—which can connect to networks via WiFi, 3G or Bluetooth—is set by local manufacturers, but Intel anticipates it will cost between $200 and $300, depending on how it is configured. A version using the Windows 7 operating system is available now and will be followed in a few months by one running Google’s Android Honeycomb operating system.

Even more important than the hardware is the software, some of which turns the studybook’s cameras into microscopes, magnifying glasses, video recorders and cameras. Other software simulates lab experiments or acts as an e-reader for digital textbooks.

Studybook is Intel’s third PC designed specifically for students, following the Classmate PC, which debuted in 2007 and opened like a clamshell. A version of the Classmate PC introduced in 2010 has a convertible design that allows students to use its keyboard as they would for a conventional laptop or use its touchscreen as they would with a standard tablet (this device is less durable than the studybook). Intel claims that more than 7 million Classmate PCs, which range in price between $250 and $400, are in use.

Not to be outdone, OLPC plans to deliver its own ruggedized tablet—XO-3—by the end of the year. The XO-3 will use a Marvell Technology Group microprocessor, perpetuating a rivalry that began in January 2008, when Intel dissolved its relationship with OLPC, a spin-off of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. At the time, OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte had insisted that Intel stop selling its Classmate PCs because they competed with OLPC’s XO laptops. The XO-3 is expected to cost $100, although the actual price won’t be known until the tablet is available.

There is no shortage of demand for these devices; Intel and OLPC are selling their computers to school systems in dozens of countries worldwide. A recent study by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) found, however, that while programs like OLPC increase access to computers, they do not necessarily improve students’ math or language test scores. IDB, established in 1959 to finance education projects throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, analyzed test scores from 319 public schools in Peru, including more than 200 where OLPC computers were in use.

The bank is not claiming that the programs are useless, though. It acknowledged the study’s limited scope and said the results indicate that low-cost computers must be more carefully woven into overall lesson plans to truly improve student learning. More details about IDB’s research can be found on the organization’s Web site.

Images courtesy of Intel and One Laptop per Child

Larry Greenemeier About the Author: Larry Greenemeier is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. JamesDavis 8:58 am 04/11/2012

    It seems like these computer makers know nothing about children or learning. Why don’t they ask a teacher what they need a computer to do and what size it needs to be so they can more effectively educate the children? I have taught young children for several years and I can tell you what they need: The Apple iPad and the Samsung Note is the perfect size for young and older children; Samsung Note, because of it size and easier for children in grades 1 through 9 to handle and the Apple iPad for all the other children to their graduate degree. Both computers need a stylus pen and a video camera on front and at least a 5 mp camera on back. The video camera on front is so the teacher can have audio and visual contact with the student at all times so they can help when they have a problem with the lesson. The camera on back is so the student can take pictures for nature type classes or engineering classes. Both computers need large storage space for digital textbooks and apps. The digital textbooks coupled with the apps can teach a student just like a teacher can. This will leave the teacher free to have more time to help the more needy child(ren). You do not need big complicated programs, like Windows, for the children to learn…keep it simple and easy to use. If you are teaching a first grade student how to write, you need an app that looks like a sheet of paper with the approved lines that tells the student how to draw each letter and number and that will check the letter for accuracy and give the student a grade for their work. You can even design the program, if you want, that will ask the student to keep drawing a letter until it is accurate or 100%. It is not complicated, it just takes a good programmer and someone who knows how to teach children and young adults, and the best person to know that is a teacher, not a computer maker. Get involved and get it right the first time.

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  2. 2. uconnron 9:58 am 04/11/2012

    JamesDavis is missing the point of this article. We need to provide all students with a low cost ($100-$300), rugged computer that can: access the internet to get information, act as an e-reader, provide instruction, and generally act as a tool to assist in instruction. I-Pads are simply too expensive. I also noted that you percieve the Windows operating system as too complicated for children. As a trainer in both Apple and Windows environments, I found this to be a myth – usually perpetrated by technophobes.

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  3. 3. JamesDavis 11:21 am 04/11/2012

    No, ‘uconnron’, I did not miss the point of the article and I am a far cry from a technophobe. I own a digital publishing company that uses numerous programs and security programs to develop the e-books and protect my authors, which are all over the world.

    The iPad and Samsung’s Note, if used in education, can be bought by the educational system for under $100.00. I have already checked with Apple on the price of an educational iPad designed just for that purpose. Samsung’s Note will cost even less if used as an educational instrument.

    You said that you are a trainer for both Apple and Windows environments and that it is a myth that a child would have trouble learning either of those two environments. I seriously disagree with you. I have taught children and I know their limitations. It is not necessary for a child, in a classroom setting, to learn either of those two environments and it would be a waste of the student and teacher’s time to teach and to learn either of those systems. Those systems are not needed in the educational computer system. A self-contained digital textbook and compatible app is all that is needed; a Windows type environment is not needed.

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  4. 4. bardi 1:52 pm 04/11/2012

    Two points though.
    1.The Studybooks not only aid the students, but their communities. According to the article, the tablets would be built in local areas.
    2. I am hardly a fan of Windows. However, at the moment it is primarily a Windows world out there, and it only makes sense for the students to become comfortable using the OS. Although I note they are also coming out with a Android Honeycomb tablet. Which is also useful, although for different reasons at the moment.

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