Saturday, February 24, 2007

One Laptop per Child? Can OLPC's Strategy Succeed?

Contemplating some problems plaguing Thailand's education system (posted here), I was cheered by something I had read about some time ago. I thought: well, there’s always that $100 dollar laptop-for-each-child project at MIT. It had heard that Thailand planned to buy some of the nifty green machines.

I have long held out hopes that MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte's plans to provide one $100 laptopsper each child would revolutionize education in the developing world. Some background on the scheme:
The Children's Machine, also known as XO-1 and previously as the $100 Laptop, is a proposed inexpensive laptop computer intended to be distributed to children around the world, especially to those in developing countries, to provide them with access to knowledge and modern forms of education. The laptop is being developed by the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) trade association. OLPC is a U.S. based, non-profit organization created by faculty members of the MIT Media Lab to design, manufacture, and distribute the laptops. (Wikipedia)
I thought the best things about the $150 dollar laptops (present estimate) is that they'll be Internet-ready, and so it will be easy for kids to download online books. So for the first time, kids everywhere will have access to real libraries with great books. I thought at long last, neither lousy teachers nor lack of textbooks nor lack of a library need prove an impediment to learning. I must say I loved the idea.

I first read about OLPC and became an enthusiastic fan of the concept before relocating to Southeast Asia…. And it’s funny how even after you have some new life experiences, it can be some time before a long-held opinion pops, vaporizing into thin air.

One-hundred and fifty dollars – the cost of the laptop – did not sound like much money to me back when I lived in the West. But that’s a lot of money for the average Thai.

The question stuck me: what is to prevent the laptops from being sold on the black market?

That’s the Achilles heel of the project. You have these kids in poor villages with a laptop worth up to 6 months income for a local (assuming a $1 a day level of poverty -- that's a typical earnings for many Indonesians, Cambodians, etc.). I can easily imagine administrators, teachers, siblings -- even parents -- would sieze an opportunity to sell such a laptop to black-market dealers for some hard cash. Maybe the students themselves would try to sell them...

One thing that made me cringe reading the OLPC website was this sentence: “Children must not only own the laptop, but take it home.” This statement implies that the poor child in question has recognized property rights. I learned in Indonesia that the sense of individuality and individual ownership is not so clear-cut.

Once I asked a Balinese man: “Do you own a motorcycle?”

“Yes. I have three motorcycles.”


“My brother has one, my sister has one, and I have one.”

I tried this question out on some other Balinese; same kind of answers every time.

The child’s computer will belong to the family. And the family will decide what is to be done with it.

If you can turn the laptop into cash and food-on-the-table today, why not try? The uneducated tend to think less about the future – that’s one reason education is so important. Yet this same quality also makes them less likely to invest in it.

Negroponte’s response to this problem is to
...make this machine so distinctive that it is socially a stigma to be carrying one if you are not a child or a teacher. Now you can obviously take it down to your basement, but I hope your spouse will even say: "Oh God! Honey! What did you do?" OK? you stole from the church. It's like a red cross on something. So I'm hoping that the distinctiveness of the product will be the third one that maybe isn't thought of that often.
Social stigma? Let’s hope he's consulted with the anthropologists on that one. I have my doubts. I think owning something that looks cool (one of the design specs for the laptop is that is must "look cool") is not going to prove a social stigma in the developing world. Let's get real here: the average guy on the street in Karachi is not going to care where some green laptop came from!

What really made me question the enterprise was when I learned of the “additional costs” associated with each laptop: “The $100 figure does not take into account any setup, maintenance, damage, or replacement costs. An online critic of the project estimated that the true and ongoing cost of the OLPC initiative would be USD$972 per 5 years per laptop.”

That kind of money can go a long way anywhere the Third World. For example, many young students in Cambodia lack pencils. The estimates may well be too high, but it does make me question whether the one-laptop-per-child approach is a wise way to focus the very limited funds and resources allocated to educating children in these countries.

By way of contrast, John Wood, founder of Room to Read, is building and filling libraries for children in Cambodia for a far lower cost per student. According to Wood a $2,000 library can serve 400 children -- that works out to just $5 per child.

I found the MIT's OLPC website lacking in technical content – too much glossy PR for my taste. Also very little meat on OLPC's private Wiki. The Wikipedia article I found to be superior – various technical specs are posted and the critique section was especially worth reading. And I found another thoughtful critique of the project at the Fonly Institute (don't miss the comments).

It would be disturbing were governments in various developing countries asked to fund such an expensive and large-scale "experiment' as OLPC. Not only does this provide an incentive for corruption; it could drain money away from proven educational programs and initiatives. My own experience as an IT entrepreneur taught me the benefits of small scale experimenting. An economist explores such issues here.

I would be surprised if small scale experiments using mostly existing technologies – mobile phones, used laptops or PCs parts, etc -- could not achieve similar results to those aimed for by the OLPC at lower cost. Here's a list of similar tech projects.

I've met individuals and seen organizations doing great things for education in the developing world. People you probably haven't heard about. I would hedge that what these people are learning on the ground is going to prove far more important in this good fight than any single technology product, however marvelous.

1 comment:

  1. I thought the best things about the $150 dollar laptops is that they'll be Internet-ready, and so it will be easy for kids to download online books.


Because all comments on this blog are moderated, there will be some delay before your comment is approved.