One laptop per child

15 12 2007

Africa and the developing world in general are littered with the detritus of expensive, ambitious projects that intended to leapfrog their countries to development. Silted up dams and non-functioning steel works lie abandoned, simply leapfrogging the countries to increased debt and industrial pollution. I fear that the next fiasco isn’t being pushed by the IMF but instead by the respected American university, MIT.

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative is described as an educational project to get computers to the poorest children in the world. A specialised computer has been designed and built that is cheap, robust and designed specifically for a child’s enquiring mind to enable them to learn through exploration. They have various ways to recharge the battery that don’t need an electricity supply and so can be used in rural areas.  They haven’t reached the target price of $100, they cost about $198. So far so clever, I hear you asking what “what can possibly be your problem with OLPC Tim?”

My first issue is that as far as I’m aware there is no academic evidence that this style of learning is actually effective. I can’t help feeling that yet again the developing world is being used as the richer world’s laboratory. What academic evidence does exist suggests that any technology introduced into the educational system should be at the same level as the general society.

Also, twenty years of experience working in the IT industry leads me to believe that the best programmers have solid engineering or science degrees and good basic skills; not experience of playing with gadgets. I spent January working in Pune, India with the results of a developing country that has focused on IT by concentrating on the quality of higher education.

The lack of respect for intellectual property rights in the region will also hold back any nascent software industry. What benefit will it be to an African Bill Gates to produce the Hausa killer app if it will simply be copied and passed around without him/her receiving a single penny?

Two hundred dollars is a lot of money to spend on a child’s education in a region where the most governments spend less than $20 per student per year, especially on something with no proven beneficial effect. Any money spent on OLPC will have to be diverted from other things. In the case of government budgets that will have to be at a cost to other necessary expenditure. I have a nasty suspicion that the money will be cut from the spending on the poorest children and the laptops will end up in the wealthier regions. The area I live in was affected by flooding earlier in the year. I’m not sure what a family living in temporary accommodation because their home was destroyed and facing hunger because of impending crop failure would make of a laptop anyway.

If governments in developing countries want to use their education or science budgets effectively then there are proven and imaginative ways of this. It would cost a lot less to supply a wind-up/solar powered radio in every classroom and fund an effective schools radio broadcasting system. Sadly I suspect that radio broadcasting isn’t as “sexy” to politicians. Producing an elite of science and technology graduates would emulate India and China’s approach. Actually as would simply increasing basic literacy.

I realise that it shouldn’t be either basic literacy or IT, but sadly economics dictates that that is what it will come down to.

One of the countries that was originally considering OLPC was Nigeria – one of the most corrupt countries in the world. I may be cynical but I wonder how many of the XO laptops would have reached Nigerian children and how many would have ended up back in the US or Europe, with a few Nigerian civil servants a bit wealthier.

At the moment I’m volunteering in Northern Ghana as an IT advisor for a small NGO. This has given me a much better idea of what the reality of education is for the poorest children. Many schools have no electricity or nearby water supply. This means no easy supply of washing or drinking water in a tropical climate and you don’t even want to think about the toilet facilities. If there is a supply of charitably donated sets of $200s available I can’t help thinking that there are more effective ways of spending them. The charity ComputerAid will ship refurbished PCs for a great deal less than $200 if you want to put PCs in front of kids it might be more effective to put a few PCs in classrooms that run industry standard software. The charity WaterAid will put boreholes in for schools giving them access to water. The charity I’m associated with (VSO) sends experienced teachers to supplement and train local teachers. Oxfam and ActionAid are both involved rebuilding infrastructure after the recent floods.

Despite all this I’m interested in the OLPC project. I wouldn’t have worked for nearly 20 years as a programmer if I wasn’t interested in technology. I wouldn’t have left a well paid job to volunteer in Ghana if I wasn’t interested in development. And with both parents and a brother being teachers it is natural that I have an interest in education.  One of the arguments in favour of OLPC that I’ve seen in blogs is that if they double the income of a farmer living on one dollar a day then they are worth it, without actually explaining where that extra income will come from. At the moment arguments in favour of OLPC seem to rely on faith and hope with a noticeable lack of clear evidence. Africa can’t afford any more false hope.

[Linked post]




8 responses

15 12 2007

Africa is an enigma to me. I canot figure out how such a continent with such huge natural resources and warm climate can be so poor. And can they still blame European colonialism for all thier misery 60 years after the fact, along with the annual tens of billions of dollars in aid?

17 12 2007

Hi Tim,
This topic is hot across the African blogosphere especially with IT savvy social entrepreneurs, here are links to some of the discussions:

BTW there is a nascent and growing software industry in West Africa that I believe would benefit from and catapult OLPC so that it really delivers, I am not sure if you are aware of the local institution Ashesi University? They’re hoping to be the Swarthmore of Africa and are churning out programmers and hardware engineers who can exploit existing technology and apply it to basic socio-economic needs of the country. They have some intersting ideas on how they’ll use OLPC, granted Ashesi’s graduating class is only 400 in a country of 20 million but it is an example of my earlier point that there are coherent linkages between the objectives of tertiary education in Ghana that aim to facilitate a knowldege economy and the base needs of early primary education which is where OLPC enters the picture. Definitely Ghana is not where India is at but then again India has shown we cannot wait to reach to where India is before we exploit opportunities such as this.
Other collaborators with OLPC that are local software firms include SOFTtribe, Suuch Solutions, AITI-KACE, GoogleAfrica

17 12 2007

Hi Tim

17 12 2007

this issue is a hot topic within the African blogosphere especially with IT savvy social entrepreneurs:

Anyway, I wanted to comment briefly on the issue of programming capacity. Ashesi University has some interesting ideas on how they’ll exploit OLPC and make it relevant to the contemporary socio-economic needs of Ghana, other local software houses that are planning to collaborate include SOFTtribe, Suuch Solutions, AITE-KACE and now GoogleAfrica. Last but not least there is the nascent and growing:……….and their ideas for OLPC

17 12 2007
4 03 2008
Tim Little

Sijui, Sorry it’s taken me a while to respond, but I’ve put some more thoughts here:

6 03 2008
OLPC: I can’t make the numbers add up « Tim in Tamale

[…] the numbers add up Posted on 4th March, 2008 by Tim Little I wrote before Christmas about OLPC, but didn’t properly respond to some of the comments. Here are some more […]

30 05 2008
ezeokeke obinna nkemakonam

i am a nigerian boy and in my middlle 20s.i am applying for the laptop per child.i will be greatful if u assist me in secureing a laptop for my studies thanks

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