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Pilot project extended with 1,000 new machines

By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, June 15, 2009) –Thirteen Pacific island nations are to receive 1,000 computer laptops each in hopes of improving results in public primary schools.

Several of the islands targeted for the second phase of piloting in the "one laptop per child" have struggled with poor academic performance.

"It’s about changing the way we teach," said Secretariat of the Pacific Community laptop project coordinator Ian Thomson. "Now the system is teacher-centered, with the teacher giving out information and the students trying to cram it into their heads. Using the laptops encourages the students to think, making education student-centered, with the teacher as a guide."

Over the nine months, these laptops have been piloted in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Niue and Nauru.

Later this year, Thomson plans to add eight more countries keen to integrate the laptops into their educational programs: Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, Tonga, Fiji, Tokelau, Tuvalu and Samoa.

The program is targeting a small number of schools in each island so every student and teacher in select schools will receive a laptop.

But Thomson said the $2.5 million project is not about hardware.

"I don’t want to run a laptop project," he said during a visit to Majuro. "It’s an education improvement plan."

Thomson is working with the ministries of education in each country to organize a trial of the laptops later this year.

"We need a well-thought out plan for the trial, including evaluation. The key is training of teachers (to use the laptops)," he said.

The laptops are part of a "one laptop per child" project initiated several years ago with the goal of revolutionizing education in developing countries that lack many educational tools and resources for learning.

The computers were designed by technicians at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Thomson said the cost of one laptop is $189.

His New Caledonia-based agency is still working out details of the funding sources to support expansion of the school laptop project.

"Having 13 Pacific island countries agreeing on the same project is unusual and I can’t see donors saying ‘no’ to it," he said, adding that the rollout of the 13,000 computers will include evaluation to track student results.

During the discussion about these uniquely designed laptops, Thomson picked one up and, while saying "these are unbreakable," tossed it into the air.

It landed with a crash on the floor, causing people nearby to jump at the noise.

Thomson picked up the laptop to prove his point: no damage, still working.

These rugged laptops have been designed to work and survive in harsh environments and in the hands elementary school students.

The approximately three-pound laptop is waterproof ("it can be used in the rain"), has no moving parts to break nor any fan to suck in salt air (it uses "flash drive" technology), connects to the Internet and other similar laptops wirelessly, has a battery that runs for six hours and can be recharged in two hours by solar or standard power, uses only five watts of power compared to 80 for a regular laptop and has a screen that is designed to be read outdoors ("the only such screen on a laptop").

The computers are loaded with open-source software including games, puzzles, music and multi-media software, dictionaries and encyclopedias, and even the Old and New Testaments.

"Employers want to hire people who can find and interpret information, and work with a team to solve problems," Thomson said.

The laptop program can help start that from an early age, he added.

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