Voltaire’s dictum that the perfect is the enemy of the good is fascinating because of the delicious ambiguity embedded in it. The ambiguity arises from what one identifies as the “perfect” and the “good.” If perfection is by definition unattainable, and the good is defined as an attainable “optimal” (again defined suitably), then it is by definition true that an attempt to obtain an unattainable perfection can be a hindrance to an attainable good. Then the only disagreement remaining pertains to what is considered the “perfect” and what the “good.”
Since the “One Laptop Per Child” (OLPC) proposal is being considered here, we have to have alternate proposals which can be considered in contradistinction to it. I propose, for arguments sake, the “One Blackboard Per School” (OBPS), “One Teacher Per School” (OTPS), and “One Set of Basic Facilities Per School” (OSOBFPS) schemes out of many potential candidates. First, we will consider how they stack up against the OLPC proposition. The next thing we do is to figure out which of the alternates is the one that is “perfect” and which therefore poses the threat to the achievement of the “good.”
It is almost common knowledge that hundreds of thousands of schools in India, especially in rural areas, don’t have blackboards and sometimes even chalk. I say “almost” because some people in positions of influence are apparently not fully aware of this ground reality. Some schools have student to teacher ratio approaching infinity (because the denominator tends to zero due to teacher absenteeism). Some schools are so strapped for resources that they cannot provide basic facilities such as toilets. It would be good to have schools where at a minimum the students are guaranteed a teacher who is present, a black board or two, some chalk, and a toilet if you please so that girls don’t suffer.
Proposing high tech tools such as laptops for education in light of the missing basic facilities is wonderfully surreal like the Cheshire cat’s disembodied smile. Alice in her adventures in Wonderland comes across the Cheshire cat and remarks that she has seen a cat without a smile before but never a smile without a cat. I have seen schools which have teachers and blackboards, and which also use laptops, but I have difficulty imagining a school where there are laptops but don’t have teachers, blackboards, chalk, and toilets. Perhaps I have not had much practice imagining impossible things.
There is a sort of hierarchy of needs when it comes to providing the basic infrastructure for education. You need, at a minimum, a trained teacher, a good place to learn in, and some teaching aids such as blackboard and chalk. Slates for the children is also a good idea if notebooks are too expensive. Next, it would be good to have books. If after providing those basics to all who need it (irrespective of their ability to pay), if we are still awash in funds, perhaps computers with internet connectivity for those who cannot afford them on their own should be provided.
Time for me to take a brief digression with tin-foil hat firmly atop my head. Why is it that you find billion dollar projects such as the OLPC but never hear of even million dollar proposals such as OBPS? The answer, I believe, lies in the nature and structure of the computer industry. Broadly it is oligopolistic. The major players can be counted on the digits of your hands. Heard of Intel, AMD, Microsoft, HP, Dell, etc? Of course you have. They have deep pockets and concentrated interests in pushing their wares on whichever market they can serve. Can you name any blackboard and chalk manufacturers? Nope. They are many, small, and barely eek out a living. So there are no OBPS schemes hitting the headlines screaming “The Blackboard Divide” unlike the OLPC and their wonderfully alliterative “Digital Divide” which strikes terror in the hearts of the do-gooders who are convinced that empowering children means giving them an expensive gizmo that neither they nor the economy can afford. (see Why Telephones, Radios, and TVs Don’t Make the Conference Circuits, Seduced by ICT, and Milking the Digital Divide.)
Well, never mind the tin-foil hat. Even non-wearers of tin-foil hats should recognize that there are commercial imperatives that motivate high-technology firms to push for adoption of expensive solutions to impoverished people. There doesn’t have to be a cabal hatching schemes with an evil glint in their eyes. If the developed economies’ markets are saturated, manufacturers of high-tech gizmos will seek out greener pastures to graze upon. When it comes to spending, educational or otherwise, it is a matter of choosing the most appropriate among several alternatives. And one has to be suitably grateful that one has the option of using laptops in school. My gripe is not that laptops are not a good idea; it is that in our case it is not appropriate because the sequencing is wrong and the cost is prohibitive.
Now we get back to my OBPS, OTPS, and OSOBFPS schemes. Let’s just reduce it to OBPS and let the headlines scream “OBPS to Bridge the Blackboard Divide.” Nope, it does not have the same zing to it as “OLPC to Bridge the Digital Divide.” Not high-tech enough; not much money in there; doesn’t make good advertising copy; doesn’t involve high-flying overpaid executives of multinationals corporations making breathless Powerpoint presentations on LCD projectors to developing economy government officials.
When I went to school, we were not on the wrong side of the blackboard divide (BD) although the digital divide (DD) was something astounding. None of us had even heard of laptops, leave alone own one. We had teachers, blackboards, chalk, slates, notebooks, books, and toilets, however. We sat in our simple classrooms, and did our sums. We (at least some of the time) paid attention to what was being taught and even did our homework. A few years later, we found ourselves proficient in the three R’s and went on to college. Moral of the story: it is possible to become educated without laptops.
Question: would we have become better educated if we had access to laptops and the internet? Arguably yes. At least some of us would have had a richer educational experience. Strictly speaking for myself, I would have probably flunked. I would have surfed the web for god alone knows what, I would have played computer games (I once spent an entire year playing Solitaire on my laptop), I would have wasted all my time socializing on the web. In short, I am grateful that I got access to the internet only after my basic education was complete. Even now, as a grown up and presumed responsible person, I find that my work suffers when I start surfing the web. I am sure that if my internet privileges are not restricted, I will probably never finish the work I am supposed to do and I fear that I will get fired.
If you have not read the overwhelming evidence about the dismal state of the Indian educational system, then take it from me for now: something like half the 7th standard students cannot read nor write and do arithmetic. Position that fact against the fact (mentioned earlier) that a large percentage of schools lack even the most basic of facilities. See the correlation? It is strongly suggestive of causation. Moral of the story: lack of basic facilities hinder basic education.
At the risk of repeating myself ad nauseum, it is not a lack of laptops that is at the root of our illiterate and innumerate children; it is the “Blackboard Divide.” Giving children laptops will not achieve anything if they are illiterate and innumerate. Here is an illustrative personal anecdote.
A few weeks ago, I was staying at a Tata Chemicals guest house in New Delhi. For internet access, the guest house had a room with a couple of connected PCs. The housekeeper was a young Nepali who turned on a PC and told me the password. He watched intently as I checked my mail and did other sundry stuff. I then offered to teach him how to use the PC and the web, since his job left him with lots of free time. With great enthusiasm, I told him that all he has to do was to open a browser, and then type in the address and . . . That is when he blurted out that, aside from writing down phone numbers and taking down names, he does not read nor write. Yes, he had 24-hour access to connected PCs which he could use to his heart’s content, but the PCs were as useful to him as a bicycle to a fish. Moral of the story: bridge the literacy divide if you wish to have a hope of ever bridging the digital divide.
Now it is time to do the numbers. Allow me to compare the OLPC against the OBPS (“one blackboard per school”) proposals. In a previous post (“The OLPC – Rest in Peace”) I did some back of the envelope calculations. For one million children, the cost was estimated to be US$ 200 million for the first year. Assuming that the laptops have a working life of three years, the total cost of ownership of one million laptops works out to be US$ 320 million ($200 million for the first year, and $60 million each subsequent years for “use costs”). That is approximately, $100 per child per year.
A brief note on the numbers. These are educated guesses and are suggestive of the magnitude rather than exact numbers. I believe that the argument is sufficiently robust that minor deviations from actual numbers will not affect it materially.
The $100 per child per year cost of OLPC is not instead of the other costs of teaching but rather in addition to it. You still need teachers, blackboards, and other facilities. The OLPC assumes that these are a given. I contend that there are hundreds of thousands of schools with tens of millions of children who don’t have the basics, and giving them OLPC will be about as useful as throwing both ends of the rope to a drowning person—a grand-looking gesture but of no utility. The available funds have alternate uses. Let’s examine one alternative use for a bit.
Consider a small rural school with 300 children. Ten teachers, 10 classrooms, and a few other basic amenities. From our experience, the operating cost of the school is around $12,000 per year, which includes teacher salaries ($1,000 per year). Additionally, books and other teaching and learning material add another $3,000. Total cost per year (neglecting land and building costs): $15,000, or $50 per student per year. Note that two-thirds of the operating costs of the school is allocated to teacher salaries. This has important consequences.
If we consider about 100 million children in the age group 4 through 15 need to be in school in rural India, then the total cost is of the order of US$5 billion per year. Given the student/teacher ratio of 30, we will employ about 3.33 million teachers at an annual wage cost of around $3.33 billion. The two important words in there are “employ” and “wages.” We are employing educated people as teachers and they are earning wages which they spend in the rural areas. The forward and backward linkages of this wage spending affect the entire economy more positively than the spending on buying high-cost high-technology gadgets. I posit that the multiplier effect of employing teachers in schools is greater than that of buying OLPC for India.
Let us now consider the OLPC. I am assuming that the intent is to give the laptops to children who already are going to schools which have the basic infrastructure and who have the support of teachers and parents. That is, I cannot imagine giving laptops to children who have no schools to go to. So in effect, those who lack even a basic school, don’t get laptops. The much lamented “digital divide” is being increased rather than decreased when seen from the point of view of the tens of millions who don’t even see the insides of a school. So therefore, giving an already “privileged” child a laptop at the cost of $100 per year is depriving two children of a basic education for a year (which as we estimated costs $50 per child per year.)
Imagine the government of India spending $100 a year on a relatively privileged one million children and depriving two million children of going to school. Let’s leave aside the thorny question of who gets to get the goodies; no doubt vote bank politics will figure centrally in the decision and go to further pitch one caste/religion/linguistic group against another. The immorality of arbitrarily deciding to favor one group over another is odious and abhorrent.
I absolutely agree that meritocracies fuel the engine of growth upon which pluralistic heterogeneous societies depend for economic growth and development. The issue is one of identifying the constituent elements of these meritocracies. I also admit that innate talent and abilities are endogenously determined, as Dr Banerjee pointed out in the previous post. This endogenous determination must be catalyzed through making opportunities available to as large a population as possible. The net must be cast wide to identify those who would be most able to benefit from an education. In this respect, while the OLPC has the potential to help a percentage of those who get them, it will also assuredly deny twice as many an opportunity to advance.
Now on to the point we began our deliberations with. Which of the two—the OLPC or the OBPS—is the “perfect” and which the “good”? If OLPC is the prefect solution, then clearly it will impair the good solution of providing basic educational opportunities to many; if the OBPS is the perfect solution, then the OLPC, as the good solution, may be prevented. My position is the former: in an ideal world, where all children have the opportunity to gain a basic education irrespective of the accident of birth, giving all children laptops will be an unalloyed blessing. An ideal world, which in our case we have not got, would admit the perfect solution and no trade offs will be required. The imperfect world, which is what we have, requires we trade off the potential benefit of the few for the guaranteed benefit of the many.
In conclusion, allow me to stress that I am not a Luddite. I have a deep and abiding faith in the ability of technology to solve technical problems. Today I find it inconceivable providing higher education without the aid of PCs, laptops, and the internet. Even for certain aspects of basic education, I am convinced that we have to use the power of the advances in information and communications technologies if we have to fix our educational system. In fact, I am betting my future on the use of computers for providing effective and relevant education efficiently. My proposal, however, does not depend on spending public monies on selectively providing laptops to some school children while denying some others even the opportunity for basic education.