Is The One-Laptop-Per-Child Program Really Practical?

1 06 2007

I’ve been following the progress of the One-Laptop-Per-Child (OLPC) initiative for a while now since it was announced. Frankly, I thought it was a dumb idea then and I still think its a dumb idea now. The whole ideology of this program is to boost education and literacy in third-world countries as means to raising the standard of living in those places. It’s a nice goal, I admit. But, I have to wonder just what Nicholas Negroponte, the Director of the OLPC project, and all the other yahoos in the UN and various governments were on when they cooked up this hare-brained scheme. I’m not questioning their motives here. I’m just asking if there’s any sense in trying to foster creativity in kids who are having a hard enough time surviving on a day to day basis.

Just consider what they’re trying to achieve here. They’re targeting some of the most poverty-stricken areas in the world. We’re talking about places where electricity is a luxury, regular potable water is at a premium, and getting a square meal a day is the priority. So, enter into this scenario the OLPC cadres toting specially-designed laptops for kids to become computer savvy. Sorry, their vision is “To provide children around the world with new opportunities to explore, experiment and express themselves.” Thats fine, but isn’t it a bit moot if the kids are creative but lack fundamental knowledge like reading, arithmetic, and writing to take advantage of their creativity? How does the OLPC plan to impart that knowledge? It’s not like that the kids can learn all these things just by looking at a laptop screen? Just looking at something doesn’t make you smarter. If they could, then I should be a frigging genius for the stuff I’ve read and watched on my computer, TV, books, etc. An obvious statement I know, but one that has to be mentioned given the scenario here.

I respect what Negroponte and the OLPC stand for and are trying to achieve. But, when countries in Africa, like Rwanda and Ethiopia, and in Asia, like India and Bangladesh, are willing to spend US$100 per laptop for kids, you have to hold up your hands and say, “Stop the Cheque!”. Do some rough number crunching. Say that a country wants to provide about 100,000 OLPC laptops to its various primary schools. That’s a cool US$10 million right there. That’s just for 100,000 units. Unfortunately, it was recently announced that the price target of US$100 was not feasible, so the price has been revised US$175. So now its going to cost US$17.5 million for the 100,000 units.

Now, this may seem like a lot of units to you, but consider the population sizes in these countries. One of the sad statistics that define a developing [or third-world] nation is that life expectancy is not very high. So a large part of the population is the younger generations. Still, countries like Nigeria have a population of around 100 million, not to mention Bangladesh and India, which are 120 million and 1.3 billion respectively. Assuming that you’re even trying to target 2.5% of the population for this program, in Nigeria you’re still talking about 2.5 million kids. So you’ll need a minimum of about 1 million units to be shipped of Nigeria, a cost of about US$437.5 million, almost half a billion dollars.

Sure, Nigeria can afford it with it’s oil money. But what about Bangladesh? How would they pay for half a billion dollars worth of units? In the case of India, the cost of the OLPC project will run into billions of US dollars. All for what is really an advanced toy. Can’t this money be better utilized in some other manner? Why can’t the governments focus on improving primary education by boosting the salaries of educators and improving the facilities? Or why can’t governments start a fund to encourage parents to send their kids to schools?

The real issues to be tackled, in my opinion, are poor educational facilities and teaching standards, as well as encouraging parents to send their kids to school. Too often, kids are being denied the chance at a decent education because of the extreme poverty they are born into. The parents need all the help they can get to earn a living, so kids are put to work for the common good of the family. Unfortunately, they lose the opportunity to gain knowledge and have a career that might allow them to help their family overcome poverty.

Looking at the lack of educational facilities and standards, I recall a story I heard about one state-funded school here in Chennai that was giving a reading room by an NGO. The NGO wanted to encourage kids to read so it funded the construction of a reading room at a local school. They got all sorts of books for the kids in different languages and even got cute chairs and tables for the kids to sit at while they read. When the NGO staff went to deliver the furniture at the school, the staff asked them, “Why are you wasting your money getting books for kids? Just leave the furniture and go please. These chairs and tables are so nice. We can use this for our lunch room!”

How do you react to this kind of situation? The NGO staff were quite irritated, at the time, and starting criticizing the staff for not thinking like educators and for depriving children of the chance to learn. The staff responded by saying, “What can we do? We hardly have any facilities for ourselves. We don’t have proper books, no furniture, nothing. How can we teach kids when we have nothing to help us or to make it easier for us?” Unfortunately, this has been the story of Indian public schools since Independence. In fact, it has been found that India spends less on its public school education than most low-income countries. The Hindu has a very interesting article on this here.

Getting back to the point. The OLPC looks like just another gimmick by politicians to look good and squander more money. The net beneficiaries here are the manufacturers of these laptops, not the kids. Given the kind of money that is likely to be involved in this scam, governments might be better off investing in more long-term measures. After all, a laptop has a limited life-span. Also, has anyone even thought about the recycling problem this is going to create in all those already “polluted” countries?

It just shows that if you give politicians a chance to showboat, you can sell them anything. It’s just like the Emperor’s New Clothes. Only with laptops.

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