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