In Brazil, a local alternative to the OLPC

Using technology developed in Brazil, an urban community plans to turn school desks into low-cost surface PCs for students.

Erica Ogg Former Staff writer, CNET News
Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.
Erica Ogg
4 min read

SAN DIEGO, Calif.--The citizens of Serrana, Brazil, are not waiting around for Intel or Nicholas Negroponte to deliver low-cost PCs to their school children. Instead, they're taking the matter into their own hands.

Serrana digital desk
A Brazilian student tries the Serrana digital desk Victor Mammana

Starting at the end of this month, the Serrana Digital Desk project will get underway when 200 surface PCs that transform into desktop PCs will be placed in classrooms in the city of 45,000. It's a trial run of a new, very local program that is intended to give kids computers in the classroom while involving as many community members as possible in the implementation of the project. See a video of one of the desks here (Note: it's a Brazilian news feature in Portuguese).

CNET News.com sat down with Victor Mammana, who heads up the display branch of the Brazilian government's Ministry of Science and Technology, here at the U.S. Flat Panel Display conference.

Mammana's interest in the project is two-fold: he's a physicist by training and co-invented the low-cost tablet display that will be used in the Serrana digital desks, but he's also involved evaluating the impact and utility of low-cost PC programs for education for Brazil.

He's worked closely with Nicholas Negroponte, who heads up the One Laptop Per Child initiative, as well as Intel, which has its own version, the Classmate PC. Both Intel and OLPC are currently bidding for the contract to provide their low-cost laptops to Brazil's federal government.

The Serrana project is intentionally local to the core. It wasn't Mammana's idea; instead he was approached by the mayor of Serrana, Valerio Galante, a man who Mammana describes as "passionate" about education. The mid-size urban city that's 3 hours outside Sao Paolo wanted to institute a local solution to bringing technology to their 7,000 school kids by taking the school desks already in classroom and refurbishing them with tablet PCs built into them. The key is that the desks will be refurbished in Serrana, and the technology is Brazilian made.

Dr. Mammana
Victor Mammana, head of the Information Display Division for Brazil's Ministry of Science and Technology Erica Ogg/CNET News.com

"The idea is not to make a business out of that, but more like a social franchise," said Mammana. "It's interesting, this idea of providing a local solution for a local problem."

When Galante approached Mammana, the mayor already had a site picked out to refurbish the desks. By employing local workers to do that, as well as maintain the new computers, the city of Serrana wants to demonstrate that education is not just taking place in the classroom, but also when young students see their older family members and community pitching in to find a local solution, said Mammana.

The tablet PCs, which feature 15-inch LCD with multi-point technology (not a touch screen, but the surface can pick up more than one stylus at a time), will cost less than $30 each to build, and incorporating them into the desks will cost roughly $550. Though that's significantly more than the idea of a $100 to $200 laptop, that's fine with them.

"The tabletop seems more expensive than a single (laptop) device, but by investing in the whole economy, it's OK if it's slightly more costly," Mammana said.

The tabletop PCs will have WiFi connectivity, Intel Celeron processors, small solid-state drives (no local hard drive) and will run a version of Linux. Each classroom will have its own server where all the data will be kept, and each teacher will have access to a content management system where they can input their lesson plans. Digital chalkboards at the front of the classrooms and will connect up with the desks.

The Serrana project is significantly different from the cutesy laptops being pitched to the federal government in other ways too. The biggest difference is that the digital desk isn't a mobile product, but Mammana, who's spent two and a half years exploring this segment of computing, says he's unconvinced portability is necessary in this case.

"I'm not sure how important mobility is for 8- to 12-year-old kids," he said. It's not as if they're checking e-mail on their way to the airport, he noted. Plus, keeping the PCs in the classroom allows for more structure in how they're used and cuts down on misuse of the government-funded devices, like illegal activity, pornography, or the devices being sold off piecemeal, or in whole, on the black or gray market.

They also like the surface idea because the bigger displays encourage more comfortable posture, and better legibility of the screens. But the digital desk shouldn't be considered a competitor to OLPC. Mammana is under no illusion that this scenario could work in just any city.

"There has to be the right conditions," Mammana said. "This wouldn't work in Sao Paolo." In other words, it's a more manageable issue to tackle in a city of 45,000 versus a metropolis of 17 million.

"I don't believe it's going to be viable for all cities. Brazil has 10,000 cities," he added. "If 50 can reproduce this social franchise, that's already a great achievement."