My friend Atanu Dey has a requiem for the One Laptop Per Child project in India that’s as critical of the Indian government as it is of Negroponte’s project. This is a bit of a surprise, as Atanu’s past writings on the laptop initiative have compared it to efforts by makers of infant formula to talk women in the developing world out of breast-feeding. In other words, he’s not a fan.
But Atanu is most critical of what he sees as sloppy thinking, and there’s more than a little evidence that the Human Resources Development ministry engaged in some intellectual sloppiness in declaring that “any sustained use of computers may lead to a disembodied brain and bring about isolationist tendencies in social behaviour.” Interesting – I noticed the problems of disembodied brains clogging the streets of Bangalore when I was last there, causing traffic snarls as they sought to isolate themselves from each other. As Atanu notes, “I bet the good folks at the HRD ministry are not as careful when it comes to their own children playing with laptops and PCs in their government provided flats in New Delhi.”
There are, he believes, good reasons for Indians to be skeptical of the OLPC project:
Then who gets those laptops? There are, I estimate, about 100 million school-going children in India. Can we afford to buy laptops for them all? If not, who then will be favored? Will there be “reservations” for laptops so that favored religious and caste groups be given preference? Who decides? Will those in charge of handing out the laptops make a bit on the side, either directly or indirectly, through their power to deny or grant a shiny new gizmo to thousands of people. Power in the hands of people invariably corrupts them.
He also worries about maintenance, “use costs”, lost and stolen laptops. But his argument is primarily centered on “opportunity costs” – given the huge shortcomings of India’s primary and secondary education systems, what else could the money that might be spent on laptops be spent on:
Tens of millions of children don’t go to school, and of the many who do, they end up in schools that lack blackboards and in some cases even chalk. Government schools—especially in rural areas—are plagued with teacher absenteeism. The schools lack even the most rudimentary of facilities such as toilets (the lack of which is a major barrier to girl children.)
I’ve raised some of the same questions to my friends who are working on the OLPC project and have gotten a range of answers, some satisfactory, some less so. I feel pretty confident that the laptop being designed will be quite easy to repair, and that much of the repair work can be done within schools, perhaps by the children themselves. Negroponte has been very clear on the issue of ownership – laptops will be owned by children, reducing the moral hazard Atanu worries about regarding maintenance of laptops.
But the larger problem is the problem of educational priorities. For the laptop project to make sense, it needs to be in the context of widespread educational reform in developing nations. The project carries the hope that schools in developing nations can train students at the same level as schools in wealthier countries, giving students a chance to use computers at least as much as students in the north. This is a radical idea, and one that demands thinking beyond the paradigm of textbook replacement that OLPC has been using to open conversations in developing nations. Yes, the funding the laptop demands will be counterbalanced, in part, by reduced textbook costs. But embracing the potential of the project requires increasing educational spending so you can attack the problems Atanu talks about, as well as the problems of training teachers to utilize this new tool in the classroom.
I’m curious how Atanu’s evaluation of the project changes if we don’t consider a zero-sum game, but an overall increase of educational spending. (I suspect he may tell me this is unrealistic given Indian politics and economics, but what I don’t know about Indian politics could fill Wikipedia, as my Indian readers sometimes remind me… :-)
I don’t see India’s decision not to be a pilot country as fatal to the OLPC project. Nigeria is emerging as one of the countries likely to pilot the machine, though sources in Nigeria tell me it’s premature to declare “the check signed” as recent stories have implied. I think we’ll see news soon that other nations are close to signing agreements to pilot the laptop.
I’ve got high hopes that debate over the laptop will soon change from whether it is technically suited for use in developing nations (it is, certainly to a greater extent than any other machine I’ve seen at a price point below consumer devices in the US) to conversations on the sorts of issues Atanu brings up. And I hope that my friends in Cambridge will bring in interested critics like Dr. Dey to ensure they’ve got answers for the hard questions he’s asking, as well as questions like “how can we make this machine use only 2 watts of power”?