The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project has powerful interests on both sides of the debate. It is easy to guess who’s on which side. Bill Gates, for instance, is predictably against the OLPC as it does not use Microsoft software. The OLPC is not using Intel chips. That could explain why Intel Chairman Craig Barrett will be a critic. Mind you, merely because they are not disinterested observers, it does not follow that they are wrong in their criticism of the OLPC project of Mr Nicholaus Negroponte.
I have a great deal of respect for Gates and Barrett and I am happy to find myself in their company in my opposition to the OLPC. My point of view differs from them however. Does the OLPC make sense in the Indian context? I don’t think so. Here’s why briefly.
I think the OLPC is a great idea and will benefit a lot of people. Unfortunately, that lot does not include students in poor underdeveloped economies such as India. The OLPC is irrelevant in the context of Indian education. It’s a technological solution, and the problem in India is largely non-technological. It doesn’t make sense to me to recommend an unaffordably expensive technological fix to a non-technical problem. I think that some very clever people have misunderstood the nature of the problem. It is as if someone recommends casting spells to fix a broken car. Psychological methods cannot address mechanical problems.
Here’s how I see the problem of education in India. India’s primary education is in trouble, which spells trouble higher up the chain. Around ninety-four percent drop out by grade twelve. Only six percent go to college, and of those who graduate college, only about a quarter are employable.
Why is the Indian education system in the pits? Primarily for the same reasons that the Indian economy is in the pits: government control, indeed governmental stranglehold, of the economy. It is instructive to see that whenever, for whatever reasons, the government has let go of the stranglehold (or was not involved in 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 twenty million users; now absent the monopolistic stranglehold of the government on the telecommunications sector, we add twenty million users in three months.
Let me underline that: THREE MONTHS as opposed to FIFTY YEARS. Sure, technical progress (cellular technology) is a factor. But it is not the major factor.
It is easy to demonstrate why government intervention in the Indian economy explains why the Indian economy performs miserably. Let’s for the moment consider that as read. This fact is relevant in understanding why OLPC does not make sense in the Indian context.
Indian education suffers from government intervention and lack of resources. Resource constraints are both financial and human capital. Furthermore, the limited financial resources are leaked away through bureaucratic and political corruption and ineptitude. The major barriers in education 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.
Electronics is neither necessary nor sufficient for education. Merely providing laptops is not going to solve the problem. I have argued before that the much lamented “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.
In the Indian context, the OLPC could in fact widen the “digital divide” and make the system far worse than it is today. The solution to India’s educational problems will and must use technology intensively, but it will have little to do with children toting laptops around.
OK, the Problem with OLPC in India:
1. India cannot afford two hundred million laptops at an upfront cost of US$40 billion. Merely buying a million laptops for $200 million will be a problem, as you would have to figure out which one out of every two hundred students will be the lucky one to have a laptop.
2. One million laptops has an opportunity cost. That is, the money could be spent on other things. $200 million could be used to provide one million students with one full year of education plus boarding and lodging in rural India. This money could be spent locally and provide jobs and have the usual economic multiplier effect.
3. Even if we had the $40 billion to spend on OLPC, we would not have solved the real problem of why India has half the illiterates in the world. Government involvement is the problem. And OLPC actually would increase government involvement.
1. The countries that can afford to buy laptops in numbers comparable to their student population will not face the problems of equity and distribution. There aren’t many developing countries like that.
2. OLPC is a costly device for poor countries. It’s going to be a huge waste of money that could be more efficiently spent on other technological solutions such as radio, TV monitors, and DVD players.
1. Here's a Craig Barrett interview in Foreign Policy magazine "Wiring the World's Poor" (Hat tip: Rohit.)
2. Previous posts on the OLPC.
3. I like this post on opportunity costs. I argue that the notion of opportunity costs is basic to logically thinking about economic matters. Even many otherwise educated and sane people have a very slender grasp on this fundamental truth of our universe. ]