The $100 laptop that was marketed as a saving grace for starving children in Africa is on its way to the New York City public schools.
Two elementary schools are already testing the laptops, and the city Department of Education is accelerating a plan that would make low-cost laptops available to all principals for purchase by the end of this year.
The department now has a relationship with only one computer contractor, Dell, which offers laptops that cost about $1,000. Maintenance and service costs can run even higher. But the XO laptop computer created by an MIT professor, Nicholas Negroponte, for use by children in developing countries has inspired a new market of low-cost computers being developed in America. The biggest brand is Intel, whose Classmate model sells for between $300 and $500.
The department has put out a request for proposals to companies that make such models.
School officials said the laptops are not just for children in countries such as Libya, Egypt, and Russia.
"We have students in our schools that are not so far off from ó they get free lunch, they are often living in shelters ó they don't have access to the same sort of things that many kids in other countries don't have access to," an official in the department's office of instructional technology who is working with the project, Lisa Nielsen, said.
The first round of low-cost laptops is going to two city elementary schools, one in the Bronx, P.S. 5, and one in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn, P.S. 20.
Mr. Negroponte's group, One Laptop per Child, is donating XO laptops to the schools, according to city officials.
The officials said the laptop now costs $200, up from the original $100 price tag Mr. Negroponte had hoped to achieve.
Some children received their laptops last year; all are to get them by November, school officials said.
The idea is not only to connect students living in poverty to the rest of the world ó but also to transform public education in the city into a 21st-century enterprise.
"Kids now, technology is just so embedded in their lives. So not only do you need certain technological skills just to function well in society, but also in the future I think that learning is going to be different," the chief of staff to the Department of Education's chief of instructional technology, Bruce Lai, said in an interview yesterday.
He said the question the laptops will answer is, "How do you take advantage of these new technologies and use them to find new information? How do you teach kids to look critically at information on the Web?"
Some educators are suspicious of the idea that bringing more technology into the classroom will improve education.
Ms. Nielsen said she spoke to a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University about her interest in bringing laptops to children. At the time, the laptops under consideration were about $1,200.
"She said, 'Why on earth would you spend $1,200 on a laptop? If I had $1,200 per child I would prefer to give it to each kid so they could have a library of books in their home,'" Ms. Nielsen recalled. "I told her that if we put this in every kid's hand, it will give them access to endless books."
The executive director of the nonprofit spearheading the test sites with Mr. Negroponte's group, Lynette Guastaferro of Teaching Matters, said that when she held a meeting for principals to show them the laptops, interest was high.
"We handed out these things like candy," she said. Then she said she told the principals, "You can't buy them yet, in the DOE."
"Schools are really clamoring for it," she said.
Ms. Guastaferro's group is not only putting the computers in schools but is developing a curriculum to help teachers use them in the classroom.
The department is also launching a study of the laptop program, to see how it affects learning.
Ms. Guastaferro said the project is going well so far.
"The research in instructional technology says one of the major benefits to student learning outcomes is that it improves students' writing," Ms. Guastaferro said. "You can get that benefit with a $200 device."
She added another benefit of the XO laptops: They are sturdy.
"The kids can throw it in a backpack," she said.