The 100 USD laptop and primary education

The 100 USD laptop has been doing more than just one round. Too many people have already spoken on why they think it is wonderful and will revolutionize education, so I won’t go too deep in those waters. It’s important to note here that whatever my opinions are – they are based on my own experience in rural Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and a couple of other places. They’re not a band-aid explanatory note on other places.

Back when I was in Hyderabad and working on some CAL (Computer Aided Learning) programs, a few things became apparent, both in the context of urban and rural schools. Surprisingly, sourcing hardware is NOT a big problem. There are a large number of IT firms that have to retire their machines every two to three years. My own experience with some of these machines was that with minimal investment they would work pretty smooth for about 3 to 4 years. Especially the ones retired in the last three years have excellent chipsets and processors that can take a heavy load. Additionally, while firms don’t retire monitors as frequently, there are quite a few monitors (with inbuilt speakers etc.) are available with a little hunting. On an average, to reset a machine (and usually the firms that retire them are willing to clean the systems) a maximum of 10 to 14 USD is required. 100 USD in all fairness is a figure that can be misleading. The machines would have to be bought, distributed and there will be soaring implementation costs.

While the idea of a 100 USD laptop is exciting and might make many people run out and buy some for students in developing countries – the situation presents a few pecularities. For one, the crucial problem in primary level schooling in India (i.e. in Government schools) is that learning levels are very low. After three to four years in school, a child can barely write her name, or even add two numbers. A closer inspection reveals that inadequate classroom transactions, and lack of skilled teachers is THE biggest problem. CAL programs can really help in such situations, where learning is enhanced through audio-visual interactive content, self-testing, group play and access to information.

Typically, where CAL is implemented, the focus is on peer learning with teacher’s supervision. Suppose children are being taught about the solar system, an interactive module is developed where kids are quizzed, and play around with things like orbits, light, eclipse etc. In many training sessions conducted to improve teacher learning and classroom transactions, it was found that teachers find it very hard to explain abstract concepts – especially in Mathematics and Science, and this gap can be beautifully bridged by CAL.

But here’s where it’s important to recognize that the real gap is software and education modules that can be localized, and tailored to meet students’ needs, and not particularly the machine. And you have to understand one thing – the kids who really need the computers are not in the middle-class schools, but in the government ones. These are the kids who need maximum interventions to ensure a better education and schooling experience. As of now, most of the modules developed (There are some excellent ones in circulation. You could try getting hold of the stuff done by Azim Premji Foundation/ Schoolnet etc.) are compatible with even a Pentium I processor, minimal RAM and Windows 98 OS. In the longer run, I expect that OS will become a big issue.

The Nanopolitan pointed out a while back that the real issues need to be a priority. I agree. Simple things like infrastructure are crucial. Crumbling walls, blackboards that have turned white, absent teachers, high dropout rates etc. are the priority. The problem with Indian government schools isn’t that children aren’t enrolling, or that parents are not willing. In fact, one groundbreaking study is the PROBE (Public Report on Basic Education) report that breaks three well-flung myths. There is a one page brief here that you should definitely read! My fear is that the government will happily order a million units, and when the whole thing turns out to be a grand sham because of poor implementation (The day they can provide every school with two toilets is the day I will begin to have faith in their implementation skills.) and service users (parents, children) will be blamed. Funds will be diverted from Public Education schemes and the gap will widen. And while reading Ethan’s post on Alan Kay’s talk on the laptop, my random thoughts became more nagging doubts. I am an optimist, but I believe in some sense of rational order. Unless we know who the laptop is for, how it can be used for kids in schools with poor infrastructure and teachers who don’t know the subject they are teaching (leave alone learning how to operate a computer and communicating ideas through it), a curriculum that USES the laptop is built and a few pilots are studied – my excitement is limited to its potential in other settings.

3 Comments

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3 Responses to The 100 USD laptop and primary education

  1. I also doubt what all they can squeeze inside a 100$ Laptop, and a three year old retired machine would make much better sense. But I don’t know if it is only with IT cos located within SEZs, or if it applies to all COs that buys M/Cs using export incentives. Our company donated 100 PCs last month to the Army Wives Welfare Association, and we had to go through such a maze of regulations. 1000s of pcs are just run over by bull dozers, as is the standard norm for IT cos located at SEZs. What a waste!!

  2. Abi

    Thanks, Neha, for adding your voice to this debate about the 100 dollar laptop. I really like the alternative vision — of putting to use some of the old computers discarded by the software companies — that you have suggested.

    As for Negroponte’s new initiative, there are some more reasons for caution.

    Let’s say there is a great product that goes for 200 dollars in the retail shops. When someone places a bulk order with the manufacturer, let’s say she gets a discount of 20 or 30 %; if she bargains hard, and if the order is big enough perhaps the discount may be as high as 50 %.

    Let’s come back to Negroponte’s laptop. If governments are to place an order of 1 million laptops each, they are essentially buying them at a 50 % discount. Implying, of course, that these laptops must retail for $200 each. Is this laptop worth 200 dollars? The only way to find out is if he sells them in stores, but he has already said that he won’t do that!

    What if this thing turns out to be a lemon? We cannot by an apple, because it costs ten times as much!

    What if it is not really all that it’s cracked up to be? What if kids just hate it? What if Negroponte and Zuckerman are wrong about what the children of the third wold want?

  3. ggk

    There is a catch with the $100 price. Its only available for institutional buyer. This implies 2 scenarios all of them are negative.
    Scenario1.
    The laptops $100 price does not reflective of its true value. Ie it costs more so the incentive would be to shift units out of school and sell them for parts or as whole.
    It also means some public/private entity is subsidizing it. In case of india i doubt it that they can do so for all the units

    Scenario2
    The laptops price does not reflect its true value. Again! well this time it costs much less but is being sold through government channel only because people wont buy it(ie market is smarter
    but governemtn thinks its smarter than people)

    I dont know what a laptop can do that a decent set of workbooks cant do.
    Its the shortage of almost every thing else in those kids life thats the problem. The books stationary all are horrible in the poorer schools. Above all its the cleanliness of the place.
    Please read this article by gladwell.
    http://www.gladwell.com/1996/1996_06_03_a_tipping.htm
    Its related b/c it explains how context and cleanliness effects behavior, although its not in educational settings but the lessons apply

    I am not optimistic about indias dismal rate of education in the short run. The long run solution is simply to have more teacher in far flung places accross india.
    The schools have to be clean daily.
    The books and workbooks proper.
    These are not glamourous solution where
    you would be invited to give talks at harvard or mit.
    These are true and tried solution and they will be cheaper
    (at leasts new workbooks/student)

    If people could learn through each other without having to learn through the traditional route societies would have used that method already
    Its not used in any society b/c it doesnt work on a large scale.