Atanu Dey On India's Development

Thoughts on Education and OLPC – 1

I am having a conversation with a bunch of people on the net about the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) and its relevance to education. I am of course speaking there from an Indian perspective. I would like to share it with you. Of course, you may have already read many of my arguments about the OLPC here already. So pardon me for some possible repetition.

Here is how I see the problem of education in India. India’s primary education is in trouble, which spells trouble higher up the chain. Around 94 percent drop out by grade 12. Only six percent go to college, and of those who graduate college, only about a quarter are employable. Astonishing does not even come close to describing how dismal the Indian education systemis.

Why is Indian education system in the pits? Primarily for the same reasons that the Indian economy is in the pits: government control, indeed governmental stranglehold. It is instructive to see that wherever for whatever reasons the government has let go of the stranglehold (or was not involved to start off with), that sector has flourished, and how!

For example, consider telecommunications. In five decades of governmental monopoly the telecommunications sector had a base of 20 million users; now that the monopoly is released, we add 20 million users in three months.

Let me reiterate that: 3 MONTHS as opposed to 50 YEARS. Sure, technical progress (cellular technology) is a factor. But it is not the major factor. See the air transport sector in India. The seats go abegging now compared to earlier when you had to beg a bureaucrat to allow you to get a ticket on a plane. Consider the two-wheeler and the four-wheeler markets. You had to wait for 7 years to get a scooter, and you had to choose between 2 models of cars, models which were of 50′s vintage. Today the firms drag you off the street and arrange financing for you to buy one of the several hundred models of cars and two wheelers, and give you coffee while your loan is processed and give you a toaster as your drive off with your new car or scooter–all before you know what hit you. Compare 7 YEARS with one AFTERNOON. What happened? The government let go of its chokehold on that sector.

I could go on for a long while demonstrating why government intervention in the Indian economy explains why the Indian economy performs miserably. This background information is relevant in understanding whether OLPC makes sense in the Indian context.

Here is an abstract of my argument. Indian education suffers from government intervention and lack of resources. Resource constraints are both finanical and human capital. Furthermore, the limited resources available are leaked away through bureaucratic and political corruption and ineptitude. The major barriers are not technological and therefore a technological solution is not going to alter the situation. Indeed, the OLPC would make the situation worse in the Indian context, what I would call the “immiserizing technological intervention.”

First however allow me to state up front that I am all for the use of technology in education. The educational system evolved before the advent of the amazingly powerful technological tools of today such as TV, radio, PCs, the internet and the world wide web, html, java, and affordable multimedia. ICT provides the most powerful tools that can fundamentally change how education is provided efficiently and effectively. In fact, in my day job I am working on creating a system which uses ICT intensively to radically transform Indian education. I would be happy to share my vision.

I have learnt an immense amount using computers and the web. I would have loved to have a connected computer when I was growing up. Unfortunately, I saw my first computer only near the end of my undergrad work in engineering. It was a IBM mainframe. Punch card era. Anyway, I learnt reading, writing, arithmetic, and some other useful skills entirely from going to an average school with great teachers and a few books. The fact that I hadn’t even seen an electronic device till I was 20 years old does not seem to have hampered my education. Indeed, 99.99999 percent of all humans who have ever got educated have done so without the benefit of any electronic devices.

Electronics is neither necessary nor sufficient for education. Sure it is going to transform education but the lack of laptops is not the barrier that faces our educational system. Therefore merely providing laptops is not going to solve the problem. I will argue that the so-called digital divide is at best a misguided notion and at worst a device used by self-serving money grubbing powerful vested interests to milk the poor for all they are worth.

I will show that in the Indian context, the OLPC will in fact widen the “digital divide” and make the system far worse off than it is today. I will then outline the solution to India’s educational challenges. And I promise you that the solution will use technology intensively, only that it will have little to do with children toting laptops around the place.

  • Biswajit


    I’m not quite sure that your experience in primary and high school is very relevant to today’s situation. When you went to school, the chances are that your teachers earned at least half of what an engineer earned. So the field had the potential to attract reasonably good people.

    Today, a teacher (particularly in commercially run average private schools) earns around a fifth of what an engineer earns, if not less. I think that the trend will get worse over time.

    If you look at engineering schools, the average fresh graduate with a B.Tech. degree earns around 2-3 times what a full professor earns. The best students (fresh graduates) earn between 10 to 20 times what a full professor earns. (These are earnings per year.)

    I can see no way in which a privately run education system will be able to pay such amounts to teachers. Therefore, schools will not be able to attract good talent except for a few rare idealists.

    I like your optimism and hope you are right that opening up the field to commercial enterprises will do the job. I’m not sure how well such entities have done in the US. Do you have any data on that?

    I do agree with your point about ICT in primary education. The few kids who have access to computers use these primarily for gaming. Because internet access is slow and restricted only a small percentage are “connected”. It is the connectedness that is important, not just the availability of a computer or a phone.

    On a different subject – I went and read your position paper on the RISC idea. I understood the basics (I think) but the details seemed sketchy. I agree with you on the effects of small perturbations to a stable system of around 100,000 people. However, I don’t understand how you plan to perturb a system of size 0 into a system of size 100,000. Could you elaborate on some of the details of your plan?


  • Arvind Ashok

    I agree with your comments on the OLPC. While it is in philosophy an education project, not a laptop project, I am not sure if thrusting a laptop is the right answer. Digital artifacts need to seamlessly fit into people’s lives and reinforce them, and empower them. Thrusting a western artifact, maybe modified, in a different context is not good design.

    But I am a bit confused. You argue very convincingly against the centralization factor, and government intervention. And I dont really need convincing about that point. But in your article about RISC, your design is inherently top-down. I have commented on that entry as well, and I sure hope that I am not making an idiot of myself. But I’d rather get embarrassed, it is a noble cause :-) . Bottom-up seems to be the way to go, especially in a large, diverse country like India. I am looking forward to the rest of this. My thesis is about the impact of ICTs in development, and the design of these ICT-based projects. And I am of the view that the OLPC falls under a badly designed product, and I am not arguing about it being an engineering marvel.

  • Aravind

    OLPC is a poor slogan, if one were to use it for improving the education system. Government’s role cannot be eliminated as such. We still need government to set education standards, monitor and evaluate working of the system and subsidize learning, wherever necessary. However, separating the public and private roles is important. Competition will improve quality and encourage innovative learning. Technology should be used on a value addition basis and not to portray something else.

  • shiv

    What are we training the children for ? One thing that has escaped me (even when i was a kid) and now as a parent is the purpose of our primary,secondary and most important tertiary education. The structure, mode of instruction, carriculum all stress academic work in a kind of one size fits all approach.Tertiary education should be skill oriented, however it is not. There is no emphasis on original work or innovation. If the education policy is framed centrally (which it is not) things like projections on the HR needs can (should?) be factored in with a decadal time scale.However our federal system seems to have none of the virtues of its decentralization but has all the ills of fragmentation. While we churn out millions of ‘graduates’ most (IMHO) have no real functional skills. Our hiring costs are large due to the intensive filtering required to reach acceptable candidates at *all* levels. The olpc devices are more appropriate as rectal aide memoir’s for the policy makers in the HR ministry. That is probably the reason that they turned down Negroponte’s kind offer :)

  • Ram

    The Real rural Indian kid is too far from making good use of google. The OLPC seems too early now for India. Even at 100$ ( or 140$ Negroponte is selling at ) the PC is useless unless we can get really viable applications on it.

    Yes there will be a small %age of rural kids (maybe 5 in 1000 ) who will use the laptop effectively do something big and all the OLPC folks would go ahead chest thumping. But the rest of the masses would still be wondering what is this for.

    I think we need EEPC ( english education per child ) more than anything else. Give them Conventional english education , then a large chunk of rural kids can make it big in atleast the call-center hubs. Besides they can even use google on their lap top better. ( But our govts seem to insist on imposing regional languages and creating the next generation of the poor for their votes )

  • Abhijat

    @Ram: Whether EEPC or RLEPC (regional language education per child) would work could be determined by the costs incurred in each. It isn’t the language that matters, as much as the development of the ability to deal with ideas. Given the lack of motives for teaching at almost all levels, would it be cheaper to translate ideas from English to local languages or train more and more English based teachers? The cost of “copying” a book is less than the cost of “copying” a teacher. I guess the costs of distributing books are also less as compared to relocating teachers, unless technology is employed, and used (to share costs and reduce per head costs) on a sufficiently large scale. Regional languages by themselves do not give us poverty, lack of access to ideas through them does. EEPC could work provided the rate at which EEPC spreads is more than the rate at which the population grows.

    Atanu: I am most curious to see how the central control for effective intervention is nullified. Not being into economics, finance etc., I am limited and unable to see how continued funding over such a huge scale can be managed so that education becomes accessible. I can see that ICT could be used to effectively distribute provided it scales up. However, there are human beings at each end of the connection – the teacher and the students. I wonder how the teacher can manage the increase in scale. The multiplying effect is difficult to engineer out given the lack of incentives. I seem to be stuck at the scaling issue at each point. I have not been able to come up with ideas yet. Sorry, I do sound like a classic theo.comp.sci (you cannot have algorithm for problem x, you cannot exceed so-and-so bounds etc.) pessimist. Time to breathe in some fresh air and re-examine.

  • mani

    Your argument that Indian education system suffers due to poor government and bureaucratic control is justified. I hate to be cynical but I strongly feel about three things when it comes to education in India, most of which was a realization during higher education in the US. Firstly, our primary to high school education system does not instill in us a sense of confidence, intellectual independence, honesty and basic manners. These are the very bases of a civilized and progressive society. These students graduate to attend college where bunking classes, learning by rote and dishonesty becomes a way of life, why?…because “chalta hai” attitude subsists amongst teachers and students.
    Secondly, there are very few career choices for High School graduates and since vocational training is never part of school curriculum a fresh graduate has no option but to choose from regular courses in college. And thanks to population growth and reservation her choices are further limited. So now we have students who think a few years of job at a call centre followed by an MBA for some private college in by lanes of a metro is the key to their success.
    Thirdly, nobody has promoted research and development amongst university faculty and graduates. Lack of funds and information has not helped our scientists and doctors, and the result is brain drain. I was surprised to hear that PhD candidates outsource part of their thesis data gathering and writing for few thousand rupees.
    I think OLPC, if implemented, will be like a drop on parched land. Digital divide will further increase as you have mentioned and perhaps most of these cheap laptops will end up with kith and kin of our politicians and bureaucrats. I would be interested in seeing your solution to the problem.

  • Guru Gulab Khatri

    How does a laptop/technology or even teacher help in learning?
    The goal is learning and like it or not its a very individualistic process.
    Mass Education has to be flexible enough for every one but also has to be able to discern ascertain and quantify the knowledge gained.
    Its not an easy problem, But some education is better than none.
    Perhaps until the primary level a basic level of knowledge has to be drilled in to a students head after which it relies more on learning and making the material his own.
    Not every route will lead to academic route.
    One should not underestimate the intelligence required to build a house, using metal working tools, diagnosing a transmission, understanding animals…
    It would be OK if the next 3 generation or so in india graduate the same amount of college graduates but increase primary school educated people who can learn stuff easily because (a) the rest of society is not telling them that they are any stupid for not going to college
    (b) they have learned enough critical skill to navigate the paperwork needed for dealing bureaucrats managing money and reading and learning new skills.
    A large part of the issue is psychology.
    Preparing people to be tenacious and hardworking and making the most of their formal education and becoming autodidacts
    for life is for the most part a psychological discipline.
    How much will a Computer Aid in this?
    That is the real challenge.
    Its not the computer what the minds who have the tools will do with them for the rest of their lifetimes.

  • Apun Ka Desh

    “The OLPC will in fact widen the “digital divide” and make the system far worse off than it is today”

    This couldn’t be more true. This is exactly the way i feel too.

  • Arvind Ashok

    I have already commented here, and I want to restate that I think the OLPC is a bad idea, and that it is not a universal design, as it is thought out to be. But many comments here indicate a misunderstanding of the OLPC idea/vision/philosophy.
    First of all, it is an education project. And learning is not an “individualistic” process. It is so for an exceptional few. Collaboration is essential, in the form of peers or teachers or others, and the vastly experienced people at OLPC know and understand this.
    The OLPC is NOT a replacement for schools. It is not about a medium that replaces notebooks. It is trying to be a medium that enlarges the lens of a kid, who does not have the resources, because he/she is poor, and so is the system.
    I would like to see the rest of this article, because the author (and most of the people who have commented here) and I share very different opinions about why the OLPC is a bad idea. Again, for those who do not know the OLPC well, take time out to read