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No OLPCs for Indian Schoolchildren 98

Posted by timothy
from the which-is-not-to-say-no-computers dept.
Yesterday we linked The Times of India's report that India's Ministry of Human Resource Development has rejected implementation of the One Laptop per Child initiative in that country. Readers speculated both on why India rejected the program, and whether it's a good or bad move to have done so. As usual, there are some insightful comments with wildly divergent conclusions; read on for the Backslash summary of the discussion to see a handful of the most interesting ones.
jalfreize applauded the move, calling OLPC "a crazy idea," and points out some of the less-obvious costs of the program:

In India, there are basically two kinds of schools — the high tuition, exclusive schools run by Christian Convents or rich, privately funded educational institutions, and the 'municipal' schools run by the government.

Most children that go to the former category of schools come from middle class/upper class families and already have access to computers at home.

Presumably, the OLPC program is for the second type of schools, which mostly children who live close to or below the poverty line attend. Most of these schools will have teachers who have never used computers, and who are likely to resent any drastic technological change such as computers in the classroom.

So, along with an OLPC program, the government would have to run a massive teacher-education program to teach the use of these computers in the classroom — not to mention overhauling the coursework so that it makes effective use of these machines.

In addition, the government would have to put in place infrastructure to service and repair these laptops at affordable prices throughout India.

All of this to be done in a country of more than a billion people speaking hundreds of known languages and dialects.

When you think of these factors, those laptops are going to cost way more than the $100 MIT claims.

I could go on and on about the fallacies of this scheme, but clearly, it would be crazy for India to adopt it at this point in time.

Sensing more sinister goings on, reader bstadil calls the decision the result of an "MS counter move":
Gates has been courting India for quite a while. This move is a political move nothing to do with the merits of the program.

I really don't care about India but would love to see Bangladesh adopt the OLPC program. They have thanks to Yusun and his Microloan program almost eradicated poverty so they seem to be a more innovative people. Remember 10- 15 years ago you almost always heard of about the plight of Bangladesh? Heard anything lately? I rest my case.

Reader eln takes the Ministry's objections at closer to face value, writing

Also, the concern about health effects may seem silly, but there have been plenty of cases where things that were relatively harmless for adults turn out to have adverse effects on still-developing children. Given this, and given that these children would presumably be using these laptops for many hours a day, asking for studies on this does not seem unreasonable.

While the OLPC program may have suffered a setback in India, reader Gord says it's
Worth pointing out that according to this brief article, Nigeria has ordered 1 million of these laptops at $100 a throw.
Nigeria's government isn't the only one who holds out hope for the benefit of a cheap, low-powered but durable computer. Danzigism is one of several readers who thinks that the OLPC hardware has a brighter future if it was made available on a larger scale:
I think they just need to market the damn things.. i'd gladly pay $150-200 for one, for my kid — just manufacture them damnit! I think the idea is great to give kids these things and all, but I'd rather buy the kids tons of books and put the money into providing them a good education, with good teachers and a nice working environment.
Reader theCat defends computer-per-pupil programs, and says that "[s]everal experiments in the U.S." have resulted in "general[ly] positive results," writing

I think anyone who says "feed them first, then give them a computer" misses the point that if all you do is ever feed people and then move on, that's as far as they get. I get the impression that while most people living in poverty will happily accept a meal, they will likewise fight hard and loudly to better their condition even at the risk of someone going without a meal in the process. You don't have to be a rich Western geek to understand that filling your belly today doesn't guarantee a full belly tomorrow, and food aid is notorious for drying up once a current crisis is abated.

Reader Bastian responds to that, writing

As a former student of a school with a one-student-one-computer program, I'd like to point out that I'm not convinced by the positive results people are reporting. When you spend God-only-knows-how-much-money and muck around with kids' educations with a program like this, admitting you screwed up is just about the dumbest thing a person could possibly do. I can't speak for anyone else, but my high school really screwed up with that idea. That didn't stop the administrators from bragging and bragging and bragging as if these laptops had turned everyone into a genius child. (Rather than just being one more distraction.)

... If we want to fix up our schools, we should start by reviewing our crufty old educational plan that hasn't been revised for decades and basically ignores all major research on how people learn. Once we have a new plan, we can go about figuring out how to implement it. I'm sure that computers will be the best way to implement some details of the plan, but they should be used only for those things, and if it turns out that there's a better way to do something else (lectures, for example, are almost guaranteed to suck if PowerPoint is involved), then they should be avoided.

But stuff like the OLPC program seem to work from the assumption that computers are this magic bullet that will instantly improve education — through some hand-wavy magic computron field, maybe?

Reality Master 101 asks for a link to positive results mentioned by theCat, writing

I've only seen studies that show how overall useless, if not negative, computers are in the classroom, especially when you give them to students. They get broken easily, they're generally used in non-educational ways, and they're a big distraction. I doubt you can find some clear, unambiguous gains for students with laptops.

Reader loquacious d offers the disclaimer that he is "currently contracting with several Alaskan organizations in the area of education technology," along with a defense of encouraging computers in schools:

One neat thing about technology in schools is that it lets you do completely new kinds of schoolwork. A new kind of project that many of my English-teaching acquaintances are starting to like is the fake-novel-movie-adaptation-trailer, or artsy-literature-inspired-music-video. Going outside the bounds of the traditional two-page book report or reading journal really helps students think differently and more deeply about the subject (especially for students not compatible with the text-based U.S. school system). Film also really lends itself to literary tropes like symbolism, foreshadowing, and irony. This kind of thinking is just not possible (or at least very difficult) without prevalent access to technology. I've heard anecdotally that music students love GarageBand for recording state honor band/choir audition tapes, or just for practicing in general (recording yourself is notoriously one of the best ways to figure out all the myriad ways you suck). And the sheer amount of good information and media available on the internet is rapidly rivaling even the best-equipped public school libraries.

Obviously the $100 laptop isn't going to be a great video editing machine (though, if you can do it on an Amiga [wikipedia.org]...), but even the basic functions of word processing and Internet capability (the Wikipedia, for chrissake! how great would the world be if everyone had the Wikipedia?) have the capability to dramatically improve the baseline quality of education for developing populations.

In a separate thread, reader Angst Badger was broadly skeptical of the educational value of computers in the classroom, but did spot a few exceptions:

To be fair, while I was working for a school district, I saw some really creative uses of computers, but these were a) the exception, and b) still not very good uses of money compared to other things that it could have been spent on.)

The other problem that is not often considered at the outset is the maintenance cost. A school district full of computers needs a full-time support staff, which takes away money that could have gone to hiring new teachers and reducing class sizes, and it also requires regular replacement. One-third of the IT budget for the district I worked in was devoted to replacing obsolete machines.

Surprisingly, the best use I saw for computers was reducing the amount of time it took teachers and staff to take attendance and collate grades. That actually did some good because teachers had more time to teach.

Readers debated at length the difference between the use of laptops in education in poor countries compared to rich ones; one argument, as phrased by reader xzvf, is that Industrial Countries have Textbooks:
Industrial countries have and can pay for nearly new textbooks to give to each child. Most parents in industrialized countries have computers their children can use. OLPC replaces books and gives the entire family access to information.
To another reader's question about "the pedagogical use for notebooks in class," twofidyKidd jokingly offered "two words": Sex Ed.

That, according to Capt'n Hector, isn't funny.

Not funny. Insightful. Do you know how much ignorance there is in developing nations about STDs, birth control, pregnancy, etc?
To that, Jherek Carnelian says

Which may be one of the reasons countries reject these laptops. Regressive ideologies, particularly the ones that think women are only good for babies tend to reject that kind of knowledge.

Many comments focused on the seeming incongruity of providing high-technology in the form of laptop computers rather than what is conventionally described as "humanitarian aid" to countries plagued by more immediate problems, such as extreme poverty. StefanJ says these are not mutually exclusive:
There is no reason not to simultaneously provide medical aid, food aid, aid to repair infrastructure, and etcetera, and computers. That is a phony dichotomy.

One of the big failings of aid and development programs in the past has been a lack of appropriateness; clueless big projects which do little or nothing to help.

It is possible that the One-Laptop-Per-Child project is one of these clueless projects. It could, however, end up as a sort of force multiplier, a source of intelligence (in the "information" sense of the word) and a form of feedback that would let aid organizations know what is really needed and where.

Reader Senzei also chides as simplistic the argument that computers aren't appropriate until more basic issues are resolved:
Yep, there are a lot of people with really basic needs. Too bad there are not more educated members of society with the ability to communicate those needs to each other and organize some aid. It would be awesome if someone could help give an education boost to those countries that are above starvation but not yet affluent enough to really provide a lot of help. Oh wait...
pherthyl addresses one of the , writing
The side effect of feeding the hungry is that it effectively destroys their entire local food production business. The farmers who previously supported themselves selling food can't compete with free and are suddenly themselves dependent on handouts to survive.

Do some reading on how the flood of donated clothes from the western world destroyed the textile industry in many areas of Africa. Handouts are a terrible long term solution.

Reader Whiney Mac Fanboy distinguishes good aid from bad, writing

Depends on how its done. Aid agencies such as Oxfam have recognised this for a while — and rather than importing food to troubled areas, try to either give locals money to buy food or buy from local farmers.

Government agencies don't particularly like that however, as they'd rather spend their aid budget within their own country, helping their own farmers (its amazing how much of the average first-world nation's "aid" budget will be spent within that country).

Finally, Lemmy Caution offers a note of caution that probably applies to any computers-in-classrooms project, but in particular ones along the lines of the OLPC project, which aim to increase educational opportunities by spreading technology through charitable and other low-cost measures to the developing world:
[N]ot all markets work the same: housing is sui generis (particularly when it is land and location that is the cost-driver.)

Also, education is not a panacea. You can over-educate a population past its economic opportunities and create a variety of problems, from the wide-scale loss of the best-and-brightest to other countries, to a population of resentful, overeducated people who are only able to find jobs in the lower ranks of the agricultural and industrial sectors (this is much of what happened in parts of Latin America -- the Sendero Luminoso of Peru was largely officered by a generation of well-educated poor youth who found no job opportunities awaiting for them after their much-vaunted education was finished.)

England did not have the most widely educated population back when it was the richest, most powerful nation in the world. I think you might find the correlation between education and prosperity, historically, to have a number of suprises.


Many thanks to all the readers who took part in the discussion, in particular those whose comments are quoted above.

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No OLPCs for Indian Schoolchildren

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