Atanu Dey: OLPC is Inappropriate for India

   
   
   
   
   

Although I have only briefly handled an XO, the laptop from One Laptop Per Child, I have read enough reviews about the device to be fully convinced about the innovative computer that it is. Knowledgeable technical experts have expressed almost unreserved admiration for the XO and the innovative technologies it embodies. It is hard not to be impressed by the little green machine.


XO laptop is school-stopping hot

XO is Great, OLPC for India is Not

How could it be otherwise? Considering that some of the most technically brilliant people have worked on developing it - often coming up with truly innovative technical breakthroughs. Without a doubt, the XO has rewritten the rules of the game and indeed radically changed the way that laptops will be designed.

Its influence can already be seen in the success of netbooks in the developed markets. The chief evangelist and creator of the idea, Professor Nicholas Negroponte, can be justifiably proud of the OLPC program and what it has done--and undoubtedly will do more.

I have had the privilege of expressing my admiration for the OLPC XO in person to Prof Negroponte when I saw him at the launch of the OLPC India project in Mumbai last year.

All this may make me appear inconsistent since I have written dozens of posts about the XO on my blog since 2005 arguing that the OLPC project is absolutely the last thing that India needs. My position has actually been quite consistent.

The essential point is that even though something is technically marvellous does not imply that it is appropriate for a specific purpose or under special circumstances. My argument has been that the XO is inappropriate for India. It would be a mistake for the India to spend its limited public funds available for education in buying the XO laptop.


Have-nots are not happy

Educational Failure in India

It is worthwhile to recount the ground reality in India. First, the numbers: the school-going cohort is around 200 million strong. India has around a million schools, a few thousand colleges and universities. Over 90 percent of children drop out of school by the 12th grade. Public spending in education is in the low single-digit percentages.

A depressingly large percentage of schools are so cash-strapped that they don't even have a blackboard, to say nothing about any other facilities normally associated with schools. Of the little of financial resources available, a good proportion of it is wasted due to negligence and misappropriations.

The Indian education system is an unmitigated failure, especially for the children of the poor. Higher education does not fare much better but the much celebrated successes of a few who graduate from a handful of elite technical institutions superficially masks that failure.

Its Not a Technical Problem

There are well-known reasons for why the Indian education system is a failure but they will not detain us here. What is relevant is that none of factors have anything to do with technology. It is not a technical problem that leads to the dysfunctional system. So technology cannot be part of the fix that the system needs.

This is not to say that technology will not have a role to play once the system has been fixed, but only that it needs the non-technology related interventions before technology can have any effect on it.

It is a matter of sequencing. First get rid of the obvious faults of the system, taking care that the intervention is appropriate to the problem. For example, an administrative problem requires an administrative solution, not a technical or a medical solution.

One of my primary arguments against the OLPC program in India is that it is out of sequence in the sense that there are other more pressing important problems with the education system, which not only will not be helped by technology, but indeed that the diversion of resources to the OLPC will exacerbate the existing problems.


How much does this really cost?

OLPC is Too Expensive

One fact needs to be placed front and center about the Indian educational system: it is financial resource constrained. Sure, human resources are nothing to write home about either but at its base it is lack of money. India cannot afford the OLPC. Let's do the numbers.

Roughly 100 million children cannot afford to buy a laptop, regardless of whether it costs $400 (a well-equipped Dell) or $200 (the XO). This is somewhat like I cannot afford to buy a Rolls Royce, regardless of whether it costs $600K or half of that. It is outside my budget.

The base cost of XOs for 100 million children works out to be approximately $20 billion. That does not include recurring cost of use and ownership, such as replacement, repair, and support. That could add at least 20 percent more, or $4 billion recurring per year. That's more than the entire public budget for education in India.

Spending a fraction of that will not do because then only a fraction of children will get the XO, which will be a disaster in terms of privileging some at the expense of the others. It may bridge the much talked about 'digital divide' for some but leave the rest worse off because they will not get even what little they were getting before. It is like feeding some cake and starving the rest, instead of distributing plain bread to all.

There are many other reasons for why I don't support the OLPC program for India which can be explored later. For now, the bottom line is that it is too expensive. There are more affordable solutions for India - such as making good books inexpensively available and funding students (as opposed to funding schools.)

Netbooks Will Have to Wait

In summary, the OLPC XO can perhaps be useful in some middle-income and most high-income countries. But for a low-income country like India, we have to continue to look for something more appropriate such as blackboards, books, and paper notebooks. The netbooks will have to wait.

Related Entries

95 Comments

This article is ridiculous. I think it would be better titled "Education is Inappropriate for India"

The author essentially makes the argument that India can't afford high quality education. Hiring tons more teachers, buying millions more blackboards, books, etc. would require zillions of dollars as well as a great number of years of capacity-building. Hiring 25% more teachers would take 5-10 to build up to. And good luck getting teachers from Bangalore to move to the poorer parts of India like Bihar or UP ;)

Improving education is very expensive __period__ whether you are in India or Western Europe.

You're assuming that all the Indian education system needs is more money. Atanu seems to be suggesting that there are other major problems too ("an administrative problem requires an administrative solution"), though he has not given details. Even if money were the only problem, it might not make sense to spend more money on laptops WITHOUT spending more on paper, pencils, blackboards and teachers.

David, thanks for your comment. Space limitations do not allow me to detail what ails Indian education. There are financial resource constraints, of course. But more importantly the whole structure is defective in that what little is available is generally wasted through corruption and mismanagement.

If India cannot handle administrating the resources it has today, how do you expect it to handle an influx of technology as well?

If India can't improve its education administration then it is pointless to try to improve the system at all, whether w/ OLPC or incremental improvements.

Bryan, that is the most succinct way of putting it. Thanks.

Precisely why education should begin on screen that can compensate for various factors and inadequacies of social, cultural, technological admin, resources etc..

Think of cell phone. India could not handle POTS. Its doing fine with cell phones though it could always do even better.

The argument that India cannot afford the XO is equivalent to the argument "India can't afford high quality education" if and only if the XO and high quality education were exactly congruent. That is obviously not true. Billions have received a high quality education without the XO, or even high technology gizmos.

You are not serious. India has not produced a cumulative billion educated people yet!! Forget about a billion people getting quality education.

The only way to make India literate is use technologies that can compensate for its various inadequacies. Like Cell phones to POTS, OLPC XO can do the same to poor quality education. Just check out the global experience.

that's why Indians teachers still have a job and Americans are on paychecks or working in McDonalds instead of working in school.

I agree very much with this perspective. A quick search of the web and a few back-of-the-envelope calculations confirm your point: if India devoted its entire education budget to buying XOs for all K-12 aged youth, it still wouldn't have enough money to accomplish this task.

The idea of one-computer-per-child as a solution to the educational challenges of countries like India is simply a pipe dream at this time, and, if taken seriously, would hard other more urgent areas of priority, such as seeing that all children can receive at least a basic primary education.

The XO or other computers can still play a small role in Indian education, but not on a one-computer-per-child basis.

Mark, totally agree that there are lots of things that can be done for Indian education -- including the appropriate use of technology. I see IT as a boon for India's school children. Given the capital constraints -- both human and financial -- India needs to think a lot more and set its aims more realistically.

The GOI has a Rs 180,000 crore (depending on the day you may look at .. from $35 to $40 Billion school education plan)..

Now, if you had to equip 100 million children with a 100 dollar computer that will be $10 Billion, with a $200 laptop that will be $20 Billion..

Considering that the government spend less than $10 B in the last plan until 2 years ago, if it chose to upgrade the education with the technology, it has already planned for that..

Its website says, There is NO FINANCIAL CONSTRAINT for the Plan!!!

Atanu seems to live in dark ages.. He is like someone who does not like progress.. Just ask him what value has he created in his.. except potentially long term that a marginal researcher in social science is supposed to create..

India is a big enough and complex enough country to need or consider my opinion on it's educational system and how better to start introducing changes. So, I will not "offer" any.

However, I was wondering if a conflict of interest disclosure might be in order given that the author is an economist of a mobile oriented company (SMS sender company). "Free" netbook (and associated services) spreading could be seen as a threat/competitor to this business.
A statement that XO deployment is in no way conflicting with netCORE Solution Inc short-term interests and long-term planing, would be nice to have here. The author should be directly involved or at least aware, of both and could provide a credible statement.

Mavrothal,

I am not sure if you are aware of Atanu's profile in India's technology & development space. To think his opinion on OLPC is influenced by NetCore is a stretch, especially if you read his blog: http://www.deeshaa.org/

Well, if his profile is above $20 billion then I guess can be no conflict

Mavrothal:

Yes, conflicts of interests are always possible. But in this case it is not even remotely probable.

Wayan pointed to my blog. If you have the time, you could read the hundred or so posts on education, the use of technology in education, what the problems are and what solutions I propose for them. But it is not reasonable for me to expect anyone to waste time doing that.

Here's why there's no conflict. I work for a company in the mobile phone use space. To me the notion that the mobile phone has anything to do with education is absolutely ridiculous. So my argument against the XO in Indian education cannot be motivated by my interest in NetCore's success. For all intents and purposes, I could be working for a bakery or a laundry when it comes to conflict of interests with the OLPC program.

If any entity the afford the XO, I would absolutely support their adoption of the XO or any other laptop.

The bottom line is that I am a taxpayer in India. My hard earned money is taxed at every turn. Every purchase I make, there is a cess on it for supporting education. Billions of dollars worth of taxes are collected from a desperately poor country -- and then wasted.

The OLPC XO is a great machine. But I want my money to be spent more effectively and efficiently.

I have no arguments against anyone else spending on XOs or BMWs or whatever.

Fair enough.
But I guess you would agree that when we are talking about laying the foundation of the probably second biggest potential market with a dead-inexpensive durable hardware from a non-profit organization running free software, you have every conceivable hardware and software company against you. And they can go all different ways about it. The margins are too big for anybody to be immune, unless he/she “walks on water”.
So a no-conflict statement would be handy.
Which you provided.
Thanks.

mavrothal wrote, "about laying the foundation of the probably second biggest potential market with a dead-inexpensive durable hardware from a non-profit organization running free software. . ."

Dead-inexpensive depends on who you are talking about. To me, a McDonald's meal is "dead-inexpensive." To the average Indian, the cost would be "deadly expensive."

Durable hardware? Don't know about that. It appears that most hardware is fragile enough that a significant part of the cost of ownership is maintenance and replacement.

From a non-profit company? Being non-profit is no guarantee that the service it provides is valuable or even that it is good. Al Quaeda is a not for profit organization, for instance. Most of the things that I pay for is produced by for-profit organizations and I think I get value for my money.


Obviously my point is not if the XO is a good investment or value for India right now, but that no hardware or software company wants it spreading in this emerging market, exactly because of the praises that you offered for the machine and the program (in a different setting of course).
Don't you agree with that?

" Al Quaeda is a not for profit organization, for instance"
Isn't this a bit over the edge?...
I was reading somewhere that someone killed another person with a book, does it tell us anything about the MOST LIKELY use or value of the books? Is it even REMOTELY relevant to their use?
Unless you imply that OLPC XO is indeed a terrorist device driven by a terrorist organization aiming at India's distraction.
Do you?

"Most of the things that I pay for is produced by for-profit organizations and I think I get value for my money"
Well,... to THINK you get a value for your money also depends on how you FEEL about the size of the profit margins. Right?...

Those who believe India cannot afford laptops for its children need only go as far as the website of India's Education Ministry, dubbed Ministry for Human Resource Development..

It clearly states that "There are no financial constraints"

It has just raised the budget by 350% for the current plan over the preveious one.

It has planned to invest $250 per child, over and above the existing budget.. On just the primary school children, it plans to invest close to Rs 13,000 over the next three years..

Much of this may be wasted on creating infrastructure that is known to have 85% leakage on which Atanu has no say whatsoever..

Atanu can only justify Netpro's fractional thin client webpad used by the state.. but would not like to invest in the future of his country..

If his premise is that there are no resources, then he has been flat out told by his government that there are no financial constraint and they will invest some $40 billion in a plan that will be doubled in teh next plan just on primary to secondary education.. upto the 9th grade that is..

How about thinking like those who create value.. they go and get all that it takes to create a new world.. they borrow for it.. If India has any interest in raising teh quality of its citizens of tomorrow, it better start investing in them yesterday.. $50 per child on something as innovative and helpful as XO, as even Atanu finds it so, is more than worth it..

How about leaving the analyst's dillema behind and think about the future, like a leader..

I think it must might be the opposite: every conceivable for-profit hardware and software company will be ROOTING for you. Why? Market development. If OLPC can produce hundreds of millions of incremental technology consumers in the future as these rural kids grow up with an ability and appetite for technology then ... the rising tide will raise all boats. Countless hardware and software companies will benefit from having these future consumers, at much higher price points and profit margins to boot.

Really? As it happened in the developed world?Because I thought that the world economy is moving towards bigger and fewer companies dominating (and chocking) the market and that everything that might remotely threaten their dominance must be moved way by any means.
I must have been misinformed.

No, I don't think you're misinformed. Large companies do tend to throw their weights around and try to squeeze out competitors and put up barriers against new ones, or to snuff them out before they even have a chance (as is your suspicion here).

However, the opposing force to this domineering behavior is an educated populace and empowered consumers that can vote down (with their wallets) those large companies that attempt to undermine the free market.

How do we foster an educated populace? How do we foster future generations of empowered consumers so we/they are not beholden to a handful of almighty companies? My proposition is education. The kind of education that OLPC facilitates.

Netcore has been promoting a product that aspires to compete with OLPC. It has tried offering Minitel like solution through India's state owned telecom company, a connected thin client in villages. Atanu is a great fan of Netcore, besides being its paid employee as well. OLPC is much cheaper than NetCore's whatever client and does a gazzilion times more for a child than Netcore's whatever can even aspire for. It will be nice to see Atanu's critique of Netcore though, if such a thing were possible at all..

@atanu: "There are well-known reasons for why the Indian education system is a failure but they will not detain us here. What is relevant is that none of factors have anything to do with technology. It is not a technical problem that leads to the dysfunctional system. So technology cannot be part of the fix that the system needs."

Let's say that the "unmitigated failure" you cite elsewhere in your post means that all aspects of the system are lousy. If we then abstain from proposing a "technological solution" for these problems, but instead look at the affordances of technology (communication, access to information) as enabling elements in in more appropriate solutions, does technology potentially play a role. Examples: administrative solutions (better school and teacher accountability), teacher performance (increased access to resources and professional development), student performance (increased access to better teaching, information, productivity tools) would technology play a role? (And in this instance we would almost certainly not be talking about buying laptops for all the kids, more something on the order of increasing the information and comms available to all school participants through much smaller installations.)

(I haven't mentioned assessment, which is obviously a huge part of the problem, because, frankly, IMHO technology doesn't even have the potential to play a real-world facilitative role. And without change in assessment, one is essentially without change in education.)

Ed, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

I am a huge supporter of technology -- made my living working for HP in California for years, academic training is in computer sciences (post graduate degree from Rutgers U), and engineering undergraduate. Technology powers our modern world and changes everything.

I am no Luddite.

The use of technology in education in India is a "derived demand." That is, if you find that the most efficient accounting method is the use of computers, the demand for computers is dictated by the needs. So also for say evaluation, as you point out.

Every solution to every problem could include a technology component. Education certainly can be one of the greatest beneficiaries of the advances in information and communications technologies. That general point is beyond debate.

What I am not persuaded about is the use of single-user laptops for a population which cannot afford even the most low-cost technology (such as a small set of well-written books.)

The same argument was provided when cell phones came.

Universal or rural telephony was nowhere in sight 15 years ago and no one could imagine telephone density will rise to 50% in even a hundred years and people will buy expensive phones that cost 50 times the price of POTS phones..

Just see what happened.. in 15 years India's telephone density went up from under 2% to over 50% at a higher phone and service price/cost

Let them try the XO and you will see that they will lap it up. For Rs 8 or 9 per day its the cheapest way to educate India for tomorrow.

if the seeds sprout many may thrive,many may not. those that flower will spread more seed.

Author wrote:

"One of my primary arguments against the OLPC program in India is that it is out of sequence in the sense that there are other more pressing important problems with the education system, which not only will not be helped by technology, but indeed that the diversion of resources to the OLPC will exacerbate the existing problems."

That's exactly the reason most countries will no adopt the program. It is not a solution to their problems - they must solve their many problems before even thinking of implementing OLPC's ideas.

OLPC would probably be more efficient in healthy education systems.

I have always wondered why there is not a single wealthy nation that believes in one-computer-per-child programs ;-)

Good points. Given the current cost of computers (even cheap ones like the xo) and the diverse educational challenges that countries face, I think the need for and prospects of one-computer-per-student programs is much greater in wealthy countries than developing ones.

I'm not that up to date on developments in other countries (I'm wondering, for example, what's going on in Singapore), but in the U.S. there are certainly a lot of advocates for one-computer-per-student programs in school districts across the country, with pilot programs going on in many districts and larger programs elsewhere. I expect that, with laptop/netbook prices continuing to fall and if/when the economy recovers, we may see an accelerating shift to one-computer-per-student programs in the U.S.

Mark, agree with you that OLPC is a great thing for developed economies.

Mark,

You asked about Singapore:

The experience there is being pretty well documented.

They recently kicked off the third phase of their 'masterplan' for using ICT in education. The Minister's launch speech is actually a useful sumamry of where things stand:
http://www.moe.gov.sg/media/speeches/2008/08/05/opening-address-by-dr-ng-eng-h-1.php

We recently had a videoconference where Thiam Seng Koh, one of the principal architects of previous masterplans, shared Singapore's experiences with colleagues in Indonesia and Jordan. The video is posted on-line at
http://210.137.74.228/viewerportal/vmc/video.do?eventId=1387. If for some reason you don't want to watch the whole thing :-) you could jump ahead to when Dr. Koh appears, at about 56:15.

-Mike

ps If you're interested, quick summary of the videoconference at http://blogs.worldbank.org/edutech/the-use-of-ict-in-education-reform-sharing-the-experiences-of-jordan-and-indonesia-and-singapore.

Irv, I could not agree more with you when you write, "OLPC would probably be more efficient in healthy education systems."

Technology enters the production function multiplicatively, not additively, speaking as an economist.

If you start with a dysfunctional system, technology could amplify that.

I believe that the "healthy" parts of India's education system can benefit from the use of high technology (and even the X0). For instance, upper middle class families send their children to good schools that can really make use of computers. They can afford it and more power to them.

This is a powerful argument that OLPC is not appropriate in India - at scale, at the current time. However, it ignores the fact that prices change. It is ridiculous to imagine that 100 million XOs would cost $200 each; economies of scale would reduce the cost significantly. And those reductions in netbook prices are coming anyway, one way or another. There will be a day, within well under 10 years, when individual netbooks, especially in lots of tens of millions, will be price-competitive with low-cost textbooks. India should be prepared for that day. With 100 million kids, a pilot program of tens to hundreds of thousands is, quite simply, an appropriate preparation.

I understand that the situation is always more complex on the inside. Corrupt interests can favor cosmetic solutions as a way of distraction, and that should be opposed. Yet that should not extend to a blanket opposition to a relatively small pilot program just because it isn't the most-urgent reform.

I agree with the general perspective of laying the groundwork for future developments, though I disagree with some of the specifics here. I doubt if India will be ready to incorporate 100 million netbooks in ten years for a variety of reasons. Textbook prices in India are probably extremely cheap, and India probably won't have sufficient infrastructure (in terms of electricity, Internet access, etc.) to productively make use of 100 million netbooks in schools within a decade.

Given the fact that India wouldn't be able to carry out such a solution for all its students for a long time, and the fact that there are serious educational equity issues with equipping some public schools with individual computers for students when other public schools may lack blackboards, I think that public education pilot programs of one-computer-per-student in India are premature. There are probably other ways to experiment with computers in public schools other than on a 1:1 basis, at least for now.

Mark, you have put it better than I could have.

Allow me a bit of autobiographical detail related to education. When I went to school (60s-70s), I only had textbooks. I estimated that in 11 years of schooling, I used about 100 slim textbooks. Mostly text with a few sketches and fewer pictures. What I had was limited but very good content. By limited I mean the whole thing would probably take up less than 10 MB space. But what I had by the truckloads was time -- time to sit and internalize the limited but good content, understand it well, and gain the confidence that it was not a totally opaque mystery to me. Once you have that, you can pretty much learn the rest of it yourself.

I saw my first computer when I went to get a masters degree in computer sciences in 1978. Not having access to laptops when I was in grades 1 through 11 apparently did not leave me totally incapable of learning.

Perhaps there's a lesson there for the hundreds of millions of children in India who don't have access to a small set of books like I had when I was in school.

I believe that the laptop is, in fact, the quickest and cheapest way to get good content to students in the context that I know best - Guatemala. India surely differs in many important ways, but I am not simply coming from a first-world perspective here.

In Guatemala, there are often no textbooks, and the ones there are are usually horrible. I believe that such second-rate textbooks, from both private and government publishers, are perpetuated by a system of private copyright, in which each author is working alone. Writing good textbooks, or even adapting them from the neighboring country, takes real work, real money, and real skill - but less work and less money if you can take advantage of neighbors, volunteers, teachers, and others. And yet, the process of printing words onto dead trees camouflages this reality, and puts enough inertia (of various kinds) into the system that moving to an open-content model is unlikely.

If textbooks can be delivered digitally, all that changes. That means laptops. Then, if every year one in a hundred teachers makes a serious 1 page of contribution, you have huge free benefits. You can never fire the editors, but you can certainly multiply their effectiveness.

I understand the issues with electricity and networking. Nevertheless, if India is anything like Guatemala, there are huge numbers of poor, rural children who nevertheless have electricity and data-enabled cell phone coverage in their schools. And a whole school can do educationally-useful things with a few times the amount of bandwidth that a moderately poor cell-phone owner uses.

Those who don't have those amenities could use the same texts, without their interactive features - the most important of which would be updates and the ability to contribute edits.

Proposing replacing 1-1 pilots with computer-lab experimentation is beside the point. Just as a school library does not substitute for a textbook (as your own argument shows), a computer lab does not substitute for a 1-1 program. (Though of course the reverse substitution probably works a lot better).

Oh, and by the way, by avoiding laptops you are not avoiding "serious educational equity issues". I'd argue that you're probably not even reducing them.

So: Atanu, can you clarify by stating what (if anything) would be the minimum things which would have to happen before a pilot program would be appropriate? (No magic pony requirements, please.) And when that happens, what would be an appropriate pilot program size for India? (Keep in mind, there are economies of scale even in pilot programs.) I suspect our points of view are closer than you think.

I replied to your comment, James, but it ended up at the bottom of the stack of comments. Sorry.

Oops, I mistyped your name, Jameson. Please pardon the error. Thank you.

Indian system may be slow to start but quickly catches up.

India has already signed up for more than 400,000 XOs. They will start getting deployed and may create virological demand as well.

Atanu and others do not want to learn from how cell phones changed the world of the poor. May be it has not got into the curriculum at American schools yet.

I was reading "the life you can save" by peter singer. He points out that : if you have 100 people facing death and you offer to save 80 through aid people feel quite good. If you save 10% of 1000 people, people are less inclined to give, yet more people are saved. My point is doing something is better than doing nothing!

Sure it would be nice if all children had access to a decent education system, and food etc. etc. but we should do what we can and not hold back because we cannot help everyone

Nick, good points about saving lives.

Our argument against the use of laptops for education in India is one of "opportunity cost."

If we had unlimited resources, not just a laptop for every child but a snow-mobile and a pony would be nice too.

Sure India can afford say 1 million laptops for children. They will gain. But that gain will come at the cost of 10 million others not having access to even a small set of books (like I mentioned in a comment above.)

In the world we live in, choices have to be made. One cannot, as they say, eat one's cake and have it too.

The base cost of XOs for 100 million children works out to be approximately $20 billion. That does not include recurring cost of use and ownership, such as replacement, repair, and support. That could add at least 20 percent more, or $4 billion recurring per year. That's more than the entire public budget for education in India.

That's underestimating. The Flicking mind mentions quotations in several parts that upkeep like support, teacher training, etc. should be closer to equal the cost of the purchase of the technology.

There's infrastructure costs: Installing and maintaining internet access. Servers, power (some places XOs have been distributed can't power them all at once), utility bills, and support in the form of helping with problems (hardware/software), finding new applicable applications, managing OS updates, help incorporating into curriculum, etc.

Someone mentioned high volumes driving down prices... XO-1 has been out for a while and the price keeps going UP.

John, as it happens, I am in the middle of reading The Flickering Mind. I find the book fascinating.

As I like to put it, high technology requires a "deep backend" and it often does not work as advertised when it is transplanted into a context which does not have the required ecosystem of support.

An anecdote: I was in a guest house in Delhi which had a roomful of connected PCs. The housekeeper, a young chap, had little to do and had access to all that IT setup. When I tried to teach him how to use the system in his spare time, he admitted that he could neither read nor write.

In India, with distressing regularity, state governments often buy hundreds of PCs for use in rural schools. They all generally gather dust in some room because of lack of human capital and even electrical power.

Atanu is right, and he is wrong. He is correct that India cannot handle olpc as it stands today.

However, the X0-2 is planned to sell for $75, and we can expect prices to go down from there. Eventually a large portion of the Indian population, which is so poorly served by its educational system, is just going to buy XO's on their own for their own children to use. If the government is hopeless, then the solution is to simply go around the government.

I have made this point before a number of times for other cases. No one has agreed, and no one has presented reasons it is wrong. Is there some sort of rule here against thinking outside the box?

Oops, I see that kiko likes the idea

http://www.olpcnews.com/countries/peru/olpc_peru_far_from_goals.html#comments

But I still would like to get some feedback from other people.

India and China have got to insert into the digital age all of their children or we are all doomed. It is not complicated really:

Laptop + Internet = Better Society

If India, China, Obama and others start ordering millions, it'll accelerate the development of XO-2 which thus will lower the cost per laptop below $75, increase the battery life x10 to then really start making the OLPC goal, to every child in the world, much closer to reality.

You seem to take a simplistic approach that computers and internet access will magically fix every thing.

As mentioned there's other issues to deal with first, like corruption, and lack of basic equipment.

Atanu Dey puts it nicely in this post:
http://www.olpcnews.com/countries/india/atanu_dey_olpc_is_inappropriat.html#comment-269858

When I went to school (60s-70s), I only had textbooks. I estimated that in 11 years of schooling, I used about 100 slim textbooks. Mostly text with a few sketches and fewer pictures. What I had was limited but very good content. By limited I mean the whole thing would probably take up less than 10 MB space. But what I had by the truckloads was time -- time to sit and internalize the limited but good content, understand it well, and gain the confidence that it was not a totally opaque mystery to me. Once you have that, you can pretty much learn the rest of it yourself.

I saw my first computer when I went to get a masters degree in computer sciences in 1978. Not having access to laptops when I was in grades 1 through 11 apparently did not leave me totally incapable of learning.

Computers aren't essential to learning. Millions (Billions?) of people have received an education without having access to a computer. Computers are just a tool, and like any other tool there's appropriate and inappropriate uses of it. Just like other education tools: pencil, blackboard, textbooks, paper. By far one of the most important resources in education isn't a computer, or even a textbook, but a teacher.

As it is, there's little evidence to suggest that computers, or internet access magically make everything better.

Obviously, Atanu Dey is right. But he is wrong too. It is a matter of perspective.

Indeed, India's spending on education went from "3.23 percent of GDP in 2000-2001 to 2.88 percent in the recent times"
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_India

In contrast, the developed world spends around 5% of GDP on education (OECD average). And in India this

That would also hold for money spend on XOs. To get an XO in every child's hands could end up costing $1000s per laptop in "overhead" and "extra costs". With a very large risk of most laptops never reaching the children anyway.

So far, Atanu Dey is right.

Where he is wrong in my opinion is about the future. At some moment, India will be forced to chose between improving education or falling back into poverty. Economic growth requires an educated workforce.

And the most efficient way of improving the efficiency (productivity) of the system will be by using technology, more specific, ICT. At that point, the OLPC, or some other program like it, will be in focus again as a fast way of getting information, communication, and modern teaching methods to teachers and children.

But I do not think Atanu will mind be proven wrong here.

Winter

Sorry, text disappearing. The broken sentence should read:

"In contrast, the developed world spends around 5% of GDP on education (OECD average). And in India this..."
money is also spend very inefficiently (not to say badly).

Winter

Winter wrote, " At some moment, India will be forced to chose between improving education or falling back into poverty. Economic growth requires an educated workforce."

That point was about 50 years ago! Because of its disastrous educational system, India is a desperately poor country. Unless it gets its education system fixed, it will keep falling behind. All this is as astonishing as that the Pope is Catholic or that bears do their business in the woods.

I agree that ICT will be critically important in fixing the system. But given the current constraints, providing an XO for every child who cannot afford it is out of the question.

As John McCarthy puts it, "Those who refuse to do arithmetic are doomed to speak nonsense."

At some point in the future everyone will be able to afford a laptop. But it is at least a generation away for a poor country like India. For now, we have to figure out the least cost method of educating around 200 million kids. Let's do the arithmetic.

@Atanu:
"At some point in the future everyone will be able to afford a laptop."

About 20 (10?) years ago this was said about telephone handsets.

Things can change really fast. In the developed world, the internet has become a necessity of life, on a par to telephone, mail, books, and newspapers.

Winter

So, bypassing government education ministries seems appropriate. OLPC should open more channels for non-governmental distribution of XO laptops, including retail sales of quantity one.

I like the anecdote about learning from a hundred slim textbooks. I myself got thru highschool before I ever touched a computer. There are many aspects to education, only a few of which can benefit from expensive technology. Laptops require a lot of infrastructure and tech support. Maybe we are working on the wrong project if we want to improve education for the world's poorest children. Maybe we need to start a new project: One Textbook Per Child (OTPC), to be followed up eventually with Ten Textbooks Per Child (TTPC), then One Hundred Textbooks Per Child (OHTPC). Eventually ebooks on a laptop will become practical.

Your article is an excellent reality check, Atanu. Thank you.

Thanks, Thomas. I think it would be wonderful if we could get a set of inexpensive textbooks which is available to any student for free.

As I said before I will not “offer’ any suggestions.
It seems to me that the whole argument is that the money for few pilots, in the case of India this may translates to ~1 mill laptops, will be better spend in books and other necessities and that the educational system has so many fundamental “malfunctions” that no positive outcome can result from these pilots.
What would be nice to know is how are we SURE that the money, if not spend on laptops will be spend on books or blackboards, as opposed to not spend at all or spend in an even less productive/more elitist activity. Given the questions about India’s educational policies and practices, this would be hard to exclude. Some info here would be handy (even the link to the respective blog entry :-)
For the second point, it may be so. I wouldn’t know, though I could assume a positive influence on the recipients’ education at least. But placing computers and communication devices in rural areas even with barebones infrastructure may result in unexpected activities beyond education. I remember reading stories of businesses set-up around a single cell-phone. Imagine a connected laptop. Even if 1% of these machines go to rural areas and the rest goes to middle- high- class schools, the “fringe benefits” can be major.
Obviously if all the machines go in areas to fill an educational gap, instead of “replacing” or “improving” a functioning setting in the expense of others, then the benefits are obvious in the education front too.
Is there any indication for the proposed initial deployment scheme? This may at least tell we are eating someone else’s cake or we are feeding more peopel with the same one (even if they might get a more generous piece).

Obviously my point is not if the XO is a good investment or value for India right now, but that no hardware or software company wants it spreading in this emerging market, exactly because of the praises that you offered for the machine and the program (in a different setting of course).
Don't you agree with that?

Ignore. It;s in the wrong place... :-)

Some of the benefits that OLPC gives is probably overzealously pushed by Negroponte. No One knows Moore's law better than himself. The great promise he is jumping about is just a 2 year leap in moore's law by not buying the $400 laptop from a dell. 2 years down the line the same config from dell could cost $200. Of course dell would not probably like to make a 50$ device to protect its laptop market. But cellphone companies the android phones etc would probably do that job. So mr negroponte is just helping u skip a about 3 years ahead if everything was really smooth.

The bigger problem is that he is demanding a $20 billion experiment. You cannot experiment with 1/6th the population of the planet just to see if some idea works. Even a company like Google first tests out ideas on its own employees, then does a preview then a beta and then a final product.

Stuff like Nepal, Peru etc. are like these large scale betas. It takes TIME to see if such tests delivered on their promise. While I am aware of how bad the indian system is, it probably is better than that of rwanda/nepal. So if it can work wonders in those places, it may have promise in india too. But to see if works, you have to wait at least 5 to 8 years.

The pilot projects have passionate teachers. The average teacher still would probably care little about education. So overzealous claims by the pilot projects would also need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

By the time we all know whether such an experiment on such a large scale is really necessary, by moore's law, the cost of the olpc or competitors would have come down to say $10.(Just 2+2+2+2 8 years away). Moore's law facor of 16... It would no longer be a big deal and any parent would buy it for his kid, coz a computer that costs Rs 400 or Rs 300 by 2016 would be worth every pisa even if was just an ebook reader. Buying a something that also serves as a mobile phone would be more than enough of a deal for even the poorest.

Politicans in our country pull off gimmicks like distributing tvs around to voters. No I am not joking. This was an election promise of one of our state governments which was implemented. I do not think a laptop for $10 in 2015 would be a big deal. So even if olpc vanishes away, I'd suspect every citizen of India would have a laptop by 2016.

India's education system is not a nimble web 2.0 like company. It is a huge monstrous crawly dinosaur like creature. Dreaming that someone can barge in and turn it upside down in no time is just day dreaming. Taking 5 to 8 years to deploy olpc in india is as good as allowing market forces to sell the laptops to consumers including rural consumers directly. And if that is the case I would prefer my tax money not blown away in a multi billion $ experiment.

But I do hope a lot of open educational content would be generated through various initiatives including olpc which would be accessible to students across the globe when having a laptop would be a no brainer.

Right now I hope India uses a wait n watch policy with some pilot projects to check out some pedagogical claims.

Moore's law does not apply to monitors, batteries, keyboards, etc. These parts make up a non-negligible part of the XO's COGs. A $10 XO-equivalent is not coming in 8 years.

I would suggest to visit the schools of the Parikrma Foundation in Bangalore once http://www.parikrmafoundation.org/home.htm and to check why Shukla Bose understand IT education is so important http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wl5eXQyf4w

So: Atanu, can you clarify by stating what (if anything) would be the minimum things which would have to happen before a pilot program would be appropriate? (No magic pony requirements, please.) And when that happens, what would be an appropriate pilot program size for India? (Keep in mind, there are economies of scale even in pilot programs.) I suspect our points of view are closer than you think.

I suppose if the opportunity cost of the pilot program were zero, it can be anywhere and in any size.

Let me give some examples of when the opportunity cost is not zero. Suppose the Indian government spends $10 million in a pilot program. That money could have alternative uses in education -- such as fully educating all the way to high school 10,000 students. (That is 10 years times 100 dollars times 10,000.)

That argument holds regardless of whether the Indian government paid for it (from my tax money) or whether a very high net worth individual or some foundation donated the money -- the money can be used more efficiently in providing education to a lot of people.

To do a real test, I suggest that two pilots -- one with the OLPC and one which uses text books and teachers but spends the same per student. That would tell us something.

In any case, I am rehashing things that I have written about at length on my blog. If you are interested, please do take a look at Formula for Milking the Digital Divide and OLPC Rest in Peace.

You are right. Such a challenge, in which two pilot programs fought for results with the same amount of money, would be far more useful (per dollar spent) than further argument here. I doubt that this argument is worth the paper it's printed on anymore. So I'm not going to repeat my point of view on pilot programs and falling costs.

As Bryan says, this post is based on a ridiculous premise - that because a system is broken, applying an otherwise valuable change is 'inappropriate'.

Opportunity cost is a fine way to assess new projects. One of OLPC's strengths is the way it draws attention to education, and reminds people and policymakers alike of the importance of focusing on young children to ensure they stay in school and get something out of it.

You claim that funds spent on one initiative related to education are necessarily drawn from a fixed education budget, which is regularly not the case. OLPC (here for once I mean the capital project, not the lowercase global movement) has the iconic capacity to inspire a change of vision for what a solid education entails, including how it is supported across a country.

You criticize the cost of a defined and tangible project -- whose very public details allow you to do so even without doing too much homework -- by comparing it with a vague and unquantified class of alternatives.

Your claims that notebooks and blackboards are more effective uses of resources, all else being equal, is interesting but unproven. Can you point to groups doing such work and rough estimates of their costs? Certainly there are corner cases where this is true, and corner cases where laptops hit a sweet spot. Is it a 40/60 ratio? 99/1? Direct school improvements suffer from higher overhead and corruption costs, are restricted to changing student experience in the classroom, and do not provide significant new incentive to attend school.

You could make the argument that India is bubbling over with students who need nothing but access to a dozen more books, hot meals, and a larger blackboard to realize their potential and graduate from highschool. If you have evidence to support this, that's a real incentive to find out how inexpensively you can print out a billion books and install a million room-sized slates and erasers.

But in many cases (including I expect some parts of India) this is not all that is needed. Children need a way to effectively learn on their own outside of school. Or they have books but feel they must pay tuition to actually 'get an education'. In which case you might argue that a massively distributed tutoring network is the lower-opportunity-cost solution, and one that will strengthen social bonds at the same time. Another fascinating and possibly compelling argument needing real assessment and definition of a solution.

You are good at bold comparisons; it is hard not to be impressed by your writing. But I am put off by the hand-waving. I do not think you will improve education without spending more time researching solutions.

You overstate the cost of repair and maintenance of laptops (or at least of XOs in particular), and do not estimate the cost of books and blackboards. You compare the cost of a 40,000 laptop deployment with that of education 10,000 students from K through 12, and assume that the latter will lead to more high school graduations.

> I suggest that two pilots -- one with the
> OLPC and one which uses text books and
> teachers but spends the same per student.

Let's get specific. You said that the average cost per student per year is $100. Assume that you can get your choice of laptops whose total cost of ownership is $300 over the course of 3 years (an XO would be significantly less and last longer, but let's make this impersonal and assume you may not like green.) One school receives a laptop for every child, that the children own and take home, and you can spend another $100 per student per year at the other school however you like. What would you spend it on?

@SJ

It's easy to assault Atanu's logic without putting forth a coherent counter-argument. As he pointed out, if you're not willing to do arithmetic, you come up with nonsense.

As reflected in your last paragraph, if India in fact has $100 per student per year, then a $300 investment in computing over a three-year period does not come on top of a child's education, it replaces it. And I would suggest that continuing India's national education program, as flawed as it is, is a better investment than shutting down its entire school system and simply giving children inexpensive laptops.

As for a strength of OLPC that it supposedly "draws attention to education" and reminds people and policymakers alike of the importance of young children staying in school and getting something out of it--what does that mean? Do you think there are really people, or policymakers, around the world who are saying "gee, I never realized the importance of children staying in school and getting something out of it until Nicolas Negroponte came up with the idea of a cheap green laptop?"

Mark wrote, "Do you think there are really people, or policymakers, around the world who are saying "gee, I never realized the importance of children staying in school and getting something out of it until Nicolas Negroponte came up with the idea of a cheap green laptop?"

That pretty much does it. Game, set, and match!

SJ write, "As Bryan says, this post is based on a ridiculous premise - that because a system is broken, applying an otherwise valuable change is 'inappropriate'."

No, that's a complete misreading of the argument. The argument is that the system is broken and that it needs help. The significant point is that any proposed solution has to meet the budget constraint. The XO fails to meet the simple arithmetic test -- there is really nothing much more to be said if it fails that basic test.

The XO is not anymore a solution to the broken Indian education system than proposing low-cost BMWs is to India's transportation system. I defy anyone to prove that a very low-cost BMW is not a better solution for the needs of an individual than say a bicycle. But I also defy anyone to do the arithmetic and show that collectively the low-cost BMW is even remotely affordable compared to a mix of transportation alternatives such as bicycles, autorickshaws, buses, light rail, private cars, etc. If subsidies have to be provided to a large number of people who cannot afford any transportation at all, the first goal should be to see that at least everyone has access to a bicycle, and then if money is left over, then to help others who do need more costly transportation modes, even up to subsidizing low-cost BMWs for some.

My point is that subsidizing low-cost BMWs for a few is silly if that is at the cost of not providing a very large number of people bicycles.

Of course to makers of low-cost BMWs, that a huge number of people will not ever get bicycles is of little interest. They just want to sell as many low-cost BMWs as possible -- and damn those who are left on their own.

SJ wrote, "Your claims that notebooks and blackboards are more effective uses of resources, all else being equal, is interesting but unproven."

And your claim that giving a few a costly device at the expense of denying a very large number something that has been proven for a very long time (the whole of the 20th century) is proven?

SJ wrote, "You could make the argument that India is bubbling over with students who need nothing but access to a dozen more books, hot meals, and a larger blackboard to realize their potential and graduate from highschool."

I could make that argument but I don't. Nobody needs "nothing but" -- everyone would like to have everything. Given a choice between -- (A) a few good textbooks, basic hot meal, a blackboard, and a competent teacher, and (B) a laptop, internet access, excellent meals with huge servings, and all the rest of it -- nobody would choose (A).

Arguing that (B) is not better than (A) is asinine, and reading that argument into my piece is equally so.

The claim is that (1)there is a set of alternatives all of which have the potential of serving the need, and (2)that one should choose the best alternative which meets the budget constraint.

To restate my point for the n-th time, I claim that the XO solution lies outside India's budget constraint.

To makers of XO, I would ask them to consider the low-cost BMW scenario -- since they are likely to be more objective about BMWs than about the OLPC project.

SJ wrote, "You are good at bold comparisons; it is hard not to be impressed by your writing. But I am put off by the hand-waving."

Why, thank you, SJ, for your kind words. If you knew me, you would not dismiss hand-waving. It's what pays my bills. But before I add all the hand-waving, I do the arithmetic so that I don't sprout patent nonsense. The hand-waving bit is just to keep my customers entertained because the result of all the arithmetic is often oh so boring.

I hope this is my last comment on the matter in this thread.

I have been nothing if not sincere in my piece that the XO is a great laptop and will be very useful in education. I don't think that point is ever in doubt. As someone deeply interested in education, I am delighted that the OLPC project exists and I wish it all its deserved success.

It is a great pity that every student in India cannot be provided with a laptop. The undeniable sorry fact is that India is desperately poor.

Once in an airline magazine, I had seen an ad which said, "If the solution to Africa's AIDS epidemic was just a glass of clean water, Africa would still be out of luck" (or something to that effect.) Expensive drugs to combat AIDS in poor populations is out of the running from the get go.

Somewhat analogously in India, even if the solution to India's education challenge were just some basic schools with low-tech traditional teaching tools, even then India would be out of luck. High technology gizmos for the 100 million or so who need education is out of the question.

Funny how a country with so many billionaires that also spends ~$15 billion/year educating (200-300k) kids abroad can not afford textbooks and blackboards because of the "badged constrains" of its $10 Billion education budget (100mil x$100).
Are the two related by any chance?

Isn't it time to think outside "budget constrains"? With $100/student-year, NOTHING can be done. Splitting the breadcrumbs better or adding few more is not going to feed anyone, specially when there is apparently plenty of food to feed everyone. India is a country with a huge number of poor people but not necessarily a poor country. Arguing that this or that can not be done because all we have is $10 Billion for 100 million people, what it effectively does is KEEPING THE BUDGET at $10 billion.
Maybe is conceived as the prudent path. But can a modest increase to 10.5 or 11 billion change much? Adding another 2 books or a teacher every 1000 kids or a school for every million kids, is it going to revitalize India's education?

It would appear that is a matter of political priorities (OK, corruption). If it is how do you change it/
"Revolution" is a way but is a pretty messy and unproven solution.
Here is an "appealing to the system" alternative. Instead of spending more money on teachers (many, for a looong time and no-one profits), books (many authors, low tech, labor intensive) buildings (many constructors and labor intensive) etc, have local manufacturers build the computers, with a guaranteed marker of 100 million units and profit margins of choice. More money for education may "suddenly appear" under these conditions.

So an OLPC-like project may actually be more likely to increase "education spending" than the other labor-intensive/low(no)-profit options. If we assume that we have a corrupt system not really interested in education, the only way to improve education spending is as a by-product. If "trickle-down" economics is implemented in India, an OLPC-like project could be its implementation in education. Build (primarily) computer manufacturing companies and (as a side project) improve kids education.
The only problem is if you do not want to build any computer manufacturing or in no way want to better educate your people. Is this the case? I hope not.
Of course there is always "revolution" or wait for another 25-50 years for things to improve and the $100/student, become $200 or $300. Till then India we'll live with the "budget constrains" that God-forbid, can not be changed.
Maybe an OLPC pilot is not such a bad idea after all.

mavrothal, pardon me for saying this but you don't have a foxtrotting clue about India and its governance, do you?

India is poor. Look up the numbers. Yes, those at the top of the socioeconomic heap do send their children abroad to study. Know why? Because the government has made it impossible for private firms to enter the education sector? Do you know why? Because by maintaining monopolistic control of the sector, it can rent-seek to its heart's content?

Did you know that the Indian education sector is the most corrupt of all sectors of the economy -- which includes the police and the judiciary?

I don't suppose you realize what this means? It means that the more money the government spends on education, the more it grabs and the less actually reaches the students. If you introduce a $100 billion "laptop for every student" scheme, it will mean that the government will suck the blood out of its citizens even more effectively.

Please do learn a bit about India's economy. It is not do mind-numbingly poor without a reason. And any proposal that involves the government and involves tens of billions of dollars is a great way for those who control the government to rob even more. Recent reports claim that around $1.5 trillion has been safely stored by Indians in secret Swiss and other bank accounts. That's money that was made by people with control over public spending.

We need to get a reality check.

Indeed I have no clue about India. Is obviously a unique case in human history and world economy!

So could you please lay out in few steps if possible, the way out of this? Which social groups will enforce the required changes in education and beyond (obviously against the will of this corrupt government) and how?

I think that this is the missing cornerstone in the entire OLPC argument. I would really appreciate a response. Even a link to another post.

So the basic premises against OLPC in India are as follows:
OLPC/XO is an excellent idea/implementation but not for India (even for a pilot) because:
India is too poor
Implementation of even a pilot will cut money from more effective venues
Increase of the Education budget is out of the question under any circumstances
India government and particular the education department is way too corrupt to be trusted with anything

Although a lot of Q&A when on after the post, 3 of my question went unanswered
"no hardware or software company wants it (XO/Linux) spreading in this emerging market. Right?" Asked twice. The first time a misleading answer was given and the second was just ducked.
"how are we SURE that the money, if not spend on laptops will be spend on books or blackboards, as opposed to not spend at all or spend in an even less productive/more elitist activity?" ducked
And the one above (looking for a way out of this corruption hydra) "Which social groups will enforce the required changes in education and beyond (obviously against the will of this corrupt government) and how?" No response 3 days now.

Obviously he can not answer everything but did answer most, including:
Al Quaeda is a non-profit organizations (in response to value of non-profits),
He is happy with FOR-profit products (in response to XO being non-profit),
The middle and upper class of India is spending $15billion/year to educate their kids abroad because the corrupt government does not allow corporations to open private Universities (in response to the dismal education budget).
A government with a 200 billion total budget (in a 3+ trillion economy) "reportedly" has 1.5+ trillion in private personal accounts abroad (in response to distribution of wealth in India),
Government and corruption is THE problem in India (India stand above the middle in the corruption list and only the second time in India's recent history, the prime minister just got re-elected).
As long as the government is involved, nothing can be done in India (in response to locally produced laptops as an "incentive" for educational budget increase).

I did search his blog for answers since my requests for a relevant post were also ignored. No relevant post there too. Found posts like this though:
"Dismantling the bureaucracy would be the first step to fixing the problem of corruption in India, followed by reduction of the public sector"( http://www.deeshaa.org/2003/10/21/corruption-in-india/ ) or
"Liberalization of the economy has given us some gains but certainly not enough liberalization has been done. What the government has to do is to reduce the interference of the government in the economy so that the economy can be truly free to grow." ( http://www.deeshaa.org/2007/06/13/fake-pms-speech-part-teen/ )
Which does provide a clear view of his preferences and priorities.

I also search Google Scholar to see what makes Atanu Dey expert in Economics, Education or even plain Politics (besides the 4000+ blog posts of course). Nothing. Only his PhD. No peered review publication and no citation by the people in the respective fields (2004-2009). And there are plenty of peered reviewed publications in the field (7000+ only in his PhD subject).

So despite the abundant and smooth writing, the fundamentals, the howto and the prospective are still missing, other than "the market will fix everything by itself" mentioned above (and by now, we all know how this ends up).
There is no doubt that India has major problems but it would appear to me that in its core the opposition to OLPC pilots is mostly based on "Karma Raegamonics" and good old political opposition. There is not necessarily something wrong with either, but lets be clear about it.

I will try my best as a Westerner who is completely ignorant about India to start the discussion:

@mavrothal:
1 "no hardware or software company wants it (XO/Linux) spreading in this emerging market. Right?"

The Indians already build the Simputer as a predecessor of the XO. The government actually backed it, sort of.
It was a good design targeted at the rural population. I think it did not take on the world because they did not have Negroponte to advertise it and the technology was not yet at a level it could really take over. Especially, they lacked the screen technology of Mary-Lou.
So the answer is, indeed, no industry will cater to the poor and indeed, vested interest will hamper new technology. This can be traced back into ancient history (Assyrian times?).

@mavrothal:
2 "how are we SURE that the money, if not spend on laptops will be spend on books or blackboards, as opposed to not spend at all or spend in an even less productive/more elitist activity?"

You cannot be sure. Developing countries are developing because they have not been able to get their act together. If you want to wait until they have, they won't need you anymore.

@mavrothal:
3 "Which social groups will enforce the required changes in education and beyond (obviously against the will of this corrupt government) and how?"

Those who have to pay the bill? But that would be the uneducated utter poor. Not a group that has the organization and power to change things.

India is a democracy. As in any country, the Indians get the government they deserve. The Indian government and bureaucracy is corrupt because their subjects "want" to be able to bribe them.

Not different from the USA where bribes have been legalized as campaign donations. Americans could vote out corrupt politicians if they wanted to. But they keep voting for the person who spends most on campaigning knowing very well where that money comes from.

@mavrothal:
"I also search Google Scholar to see what makes Atanu Dey expert in Economics, Education or even plain Politics"

What is the relevance? Do you search Google Scholar when you visit a MD? Literature and studies about the economics of India are plenty. We do not need people who write studies, but who integrate them into useful knowledge. Atanu Dey has shown he tries to do that. If you think he did a bad job, explain what he did wrong. His publication record is only useful in Academia.

@mavrothal:
"There is no doubt that India has major problems but it would appear to me that in its core the opposition to OLPC pilots is mostly based on "Karma Raegamonics" and good old political opposition."

As much as I see Raegamonics as responsible for the current financial meltdown, I cannot but agree with Atanu Dey that the various Indian governments must be utterly distrusted on anything related to industrial or educational policies (or any other policies, for that matter). In Indian politics, you should not believe before you see.

Winter

Winter:

Thanks for your point about academic publications. Though it is self-serving for me to naturally agree with you, it is also true -- as you point out -- that there is a lot of existing academic literature on these matters.

I could, if I wanted to, write academic papers. I am a student of economics and got a PhD thesis accepted at Berkeley. Writing theses and papers is alright if that is what one likes. I would rather spend my time writing stuff that reaches more people and hopefully makes an impression. My blog probably has around 10,000 readers (the counter is around 1 million unique visits -- or 2 million page views -- over 5 years) and my thesis has probably been read by 10.

I am sure that I am not so smart as to write academic papers that would radically add to the growing pile of academic stuff. But many people have written to me over the years to say that he actually understood some stuff much better by reading my blog and other writings in the popular press.

Thanks once again for your kind support. I appreciate it very much.

Kind regards.

mavrothal:

I am afraid that I don't have answers to your questions. Sorry about that.

I try to make a distinction between means and ends. I want to see India's education system improve and that the hundreds of millions get a chance to get some access to some education. That's the end in this context. Then I try to figure out the means. There are many. One tool being proposed is the XO. Fine. I do the numbers. It does not work out.

It is basic arithmetic. It does not matter whether I have a dozen publications in academic journals or not -- because I am only making an argument that relies on plain arithmetic. If you can, please find fault with the numbers, and not support your argument on the fact that I am not an academic. If it were an academic debate, I would not get into it.

Thanks for your input to the discussion but for now, I have said all that I had to say to you on the matter. Kind regards.

Look we can debate at different levels.
So far the debate goes on
1) If in a given setting computer education is better than book/other education and
2) what level of corruption is acceptable before we allow/accept (not trust-mind you) any action to a government

I say that there is a third issue, related to core beliefs that (understandably) contribute to the opinions expressed. I bring up examples of the manifestation of these beliefs, and I question the validity of the rest of the arguments that (obviously to some extend) are based on these core beliefs when the topic relates to education, economy and policy. What's wrong with that? Why this is not a valid argument?

AD says "but the numbers...". The numbers are what you make of them, specially on socioeconomic issues. We could discuss this if interested, but I'll play along for a moment. India more than doubled its GDP in the last 10 years and likely will do it again in the next 10 years. By then the government budget can be half a trillion and could certainly fit the computers that obviously will take a similar time frame to implement IF PROVEN valuable.
Is also the argument of the "set of books..." which can be discussed for ever since it's so much context dependent. But let me add another twist. In India ~30% of the teachers can be absent from their spots without an apparent reason. So is more valuable a set of books with a spotty/absent teacher or a computer like the XO? If the latter is true then the actual cost of the books could be 50% more than the nominal. The opposite could be true too. In short unless we try it we can not be sure either way. And without concrete data, judging a priori what is good or bad, what will succeed and what will fail, can only be driven by beliefs...

Now regarding the Google Scholar, was not _I_ that claimed authoritarian knowledge/expertise... But beyond that, Google Scholar is a good place to judge the quality and the validity of any given issue or position (particularly in the "cited by:" part). For example a search about 'education government India corruption' in the Social Sciences, Arts, and Humanities section reveals 80.000+ publications and cites R Wade - D Bayley - A Gupta - S Gupta - R GOETZ as key authors, and another 20.000 in Business, Administration, Finance, and Economics section, with P Mauro - A Krueger - A Shleifer - R Vishny - T Besley as key authors. I would love to see what any of those has to say about a 250.000 XO pilot in India, by the way.
In reality, I assumed that a PhD holder with such a keen interest in a specific field and such an extensive writing record, would have some original idea, analyzed it and exposed the conclusions to his/her peers. I was actually surprised that he didn't. You see I was looking for the "core issues" and Google Scholar can be very helpful on that, since the vast majority of the usual press/blog/politics BS is filtered out by the peers.
AD counters Google's scholar validity by the feedback he gets. I do not doubt it but I consider this: He writes a blog. Only 2 mill households (~1%) have internet access in India now and the number was much smaller the previous years. So I wonder whom he gets feedback from? What is the socioeconomic status of this 1% of connected Indians and how this reflects in the oppinions expressed?

@mavrothal:
"1) If in a given setting computer education is better than book/other education and"

Wrong question. The question is, can we teach better by distributing networked computers with electronic books or spend our money on books alone?

@mavrothal:
"2) what level of corruption is acceptable before we allow/accept (not trust-mind you) any action to a government"

This is a completely pointless discussion.

The Indians are stuck with their government for better or worse. If they "want" a better one, they have to vote them in and I do not see that happening soon.

And the whole point of a government is that you cannot get around it. You cannot simply ignore them like you can ignore a used-car salesman. They have the power and money and they control education. Please, forget these X-files ideas of "people versus big bad government". That is completely irrelevant in the rest of the world. You either work *with* the bureaucracy or you do not work at all.

@mavrothal:
"Now regarding the Google Scholar, was not _I_ that claimed authoritarian knowledge/expertise..."

If I know someone has a PhD, I simply assume I can held her to better standards of data and analysis than those who do not have it. So if you see errors of data or analysis in AD's work, you are right that he should know better. But you should always judge by the WORDS, DATA, and ANALYSIS. Not by authority. That is why I consider AD's academic credentials only as a way to set my expectations.

Because, if AD would have be a keen and prolific academic investigator of corruption in India, he would probably have not have the time to study education or ice versa. Which would make his writing uninteresting to us.

The same as with a General MD. I want my MD do have a lot of experience treating common patients, not writing learned treatises on rare genetic afflictions.

@mavrothal:
"AD says "but the numbers...". The numbers are what you make of them, specially on socioeconomic issues."

Not expressing a lot of confidence on scientific data. The numbers are that India is spending too little on education as a percentage of GDP. And that percentage is decreasing instead of increasing.

Winter

"In Indian politics, you should not believe before you see."
So why not see an OLPC pilot then?...

PS: I do check Google Scholar before I go to an MD (The near by hospital is a University Hospital!) and those who don't look for a second opinion for anything remotely serious

Please, let's have fewer ad hominem attacks. Here are the facts that I think we all agree on.

1. At current prices and budgets, giving XOs to a significant fraction of India's students is unfeasible. I think we'd all agree that the gap is somewhere between a factor of 3 and a factor of 20. This takes as given that the majority of any budget must go to pay teachers, build schools, etc., but leaves plenty of room for disagreement on the exact numbers.

1a. Corruption makes that worse. I'd say it multiplies the budget gap by a factor of less than 2, and reduces the effectiveness of almost any alternative including laptop programs, more books, or more teachers.

2. Laptop prices are going down. Moore's law's 18-month doubling time does not quite apply unless you keep a constant price point, but even if power:price at a given time follows a power law, it is still exponential growth with a doubling time of 3 years or under.

3. India's education budget per student can be expected to increase in absolute numbers, even if it decreases as percent of GDP.

4. We do not have good data as to the relative effectiveness of laptop programs relative to other comparable spending options.

Given these undisputed (AFAIK) facts, the numbers say: laptop programs will be economically feasible in India at scale in something between 3 and 12 years. It is in India's interest to have good data on relative effectiveness at such a time.

I argue that facts 2 and 3 support a pilot program. Atanu Dey argues that facts 1 and 1a weigh against one. I don't see that arguments about credentials help resolve this argument for any reader.

“Please, lets have fewer ad hominem attacks.”

Political and economic issues are never isolated. Looking at the big picture is fundamental in understanding a specific positions on a subject. For the big picture the author of the massage and his/her general positions is as important as the message itself. Querying the author’s premises and attributes does not consist a personal attack, but is merely positioning the specific pieces in the big puzzle.

Now if the tone is not coming across as polite (which is entirely conceivable …:-) has nothing to do with the substance but only with the person. This I’ll accept but I’m too old to change now… :-)

@mavrothal:
"For the big picture the author of the massage and his/her general positions is as important as the message itself. "

I am fundamentally at odds with you here.

Why someone says something is almost irrelevant with respect to what she says. And if you are keen on having an academical discussion, you just discredited yourself completely.

I know that it is very popular to discredit the message by discrediting the messenger (especially in US politics). However, the truth of the message is never affected by the morals of the messenger.

If you do not trust the message, just say so. Tell us why you think AD is wrong, or what he is missing or hiding for us.

Personally, I disagree with some of his arguments and conclusions (but not his facts). But I find it irrelevant whether these arguments were proposed by a dish-washer in a restaurant or a full professor at Harvard.

It is the arguments and actual writings that count. And AD can be proud of a lot of writings. So it must be easy to show where he went astray.

If you attack him personally, I must assume you simply do not like the message and do not care about it's truth.

Winter

@winter

It eludes me why you keep saying that I do not argue the "facts". In the thread above there are all kids of arguments some of them mine. I did not see any point repeating them but if you insist here is the fast count down.
AD has two arguments: 1) India is too poor to implement such a project 2) Indian government is too corrupt to implement such a project. The more general about "education's best practices" have been argued here and elsewhere dozens of times from all angles and applies to any XO implementation eg is not India specific.
About (1) I already pointed 3 things. a) Depending on the year that you look, India has 25-50 billionaires. b) India is exporting 15 billion/year to educate a small fraction of its kids abroad c) India doubled its GDP the last 10 years and conceivably will do it again the next 10 so its budget that currently stands ad a dismal 5% of the GDP (developed countries are in the upper teen and developing in the low) is likely to increase considerably and probably exceed by far half a trillion. Money sufficient to implement a 20 billion XO like program. In short, India IS NOT too poor for such a pilot now, and a program latter (IF the pilot is successful).
About (2), though in an asking form, I pointed out that government corruption will manifest distributing books or computers or anything else. Actually the major form of corruption is hiring federal employs as political leverage and asking kickbacks (political and economic) for the investments. Something very common through out the world at varying degrees. However, this can not be relevant to the specific project since it would apply to ANY project in India. So unless you want a Government that does _nothing_, corruption level is irrelevant.
So that's it about the "facts".

Then I pointed out that the "too poor, too corrupt" are presented as insurmountable problems by AD, because his idea for India's development appears to be a "Wild-East" business Ed Dorado. He suggests that even this anemic public sector is given to corporations and any regulation or Government involvement is eliminated, so corporation can develop the country (I even gave relevant refs from AD's posts and responses to other points in this thread). I have nothing against corporation but the fact is that corporation are rightly interested for their share holders ONLY. Not the development of any country and its people. So trusting them more than the corrupt Government is just a matter of political preference and priorities, if not of personal interest.
To put it in your favored MD example, if you have a condition that can be treated to some extent either by surgery or by non-invasive procedures, a surgeon more likely will recommend operation and a specialist the alternative approach. Both of them will value as more important the data supporting their views. Do you need medical arguments to doubt either one?
In short I'm saying that AD could be expressing the views of a specific socioeconomic group. And I pointed out that exactly because the communication medium used is accessible only by very few in India, this is the group he is catering to and gets feedback from.
The views expressed (way too poor and too corrupt for an XO project) are based do a degree to political beliefs (the latest example is GW Bush's school voulchers) and thus not necessarily correct. Let's not forget that the "what should we do" answer is not "facts" but interpretations, extrapolations and assumption for future events and thus highly sensitive to one's more general beliefs.

I hope you do not see any personal attacks so far and understand the validity of querying the author (not messenger) and his general views.

Now about the "touchy" Google Scholar point. I already tried to explain the reasoning before and I will not repeat it.
Beyond that and on the personal level. The problem is not academics versus non-academics, who has the "right" to express an opinion or who's opinion is more "valuable", as you may see it. The problem is that someone is getting a PhD from a prestigious University and neither him nor his/her supervisor publishes a relevant peered reviewed article. This means that either they were very unlucky or that it was a poor/incomplete work. If the first was the case, I would suspect that a person with the ability, the interest and the time (apparent in AD's case) would try again. If the second was the case, it indicates a specific level of competence. So I do not dismiss AD because is not academic. I consider the luck of peered review publications from his PhD, as evidence of poor intellectual work. This is very relevant to the validity and accuracy of the arguments presented by any person.
To put it again in your favored MD example, would you consider even a very thorough explanation/recommendation of a doctor if you had indications that he is not doing a good job? Should you have medical arguments in order to doubt him/her?
If there is an indication that AD did not do a good job in his field of expertise, "telecommunications and economic development in India", why should we value his word in "computer assisted education and economic development in India"? Should you be an academic to doubt him? Should you try to do a PhD on the subject yourself first, analyzing all the data and parameters, before you question the validity of his extrapolation/assumption based conclusions?

So although it may reflects bad on AD, the Google Scholar point is neither "personal" nor "academic" and certainly is not "shooting the messenger".

In conclusion. On an issue involving data interpretation and future event predictions, besides providing your own (which me and many others did), examining someone's interpretation principals and analytical abilities is very important in evaluating his/her conclusions.

Hopefully you'll restore my credibility... :-)

@mavrothal:
"It eludes me why you keep saying that I do not argue the "facts". In the thread above there are all kids of arguments some of them mine. I did not see any point repeating them but if you insist here is the fast count down."

Then I can only hope I was the only one who misunderstood you.

So the point boils down to the fact that you are more optimistic about the future possibilities of India than AD. Which is entirely reasonable.

Winter

mavrothal wrote, "Political and economic issues are never isolated."

Quite so. But an argument either stands or falls on its own merit, regardless of where the proponent is coming from. After the argument has been judged, one may legitimately inquire about the person behind it. It could be to better understand why he or she is making the argument. That seems fair and reasonable.

In some cases, one can legitimately inquire into the person's credentials for deciding whether the argument being made is likely to be valid or not. This happens in the case of very complex subject matters, matters in which only an expert with serious scholarship can hope to have a reasonable argument. Global warming, AIDS, arms control, global financial systems -- these are so complex that one has to rely on authority.

This case about the XO and whether or not India can afford it is not a complex case. Just do the arithmetic. And we ordinary people can do the arithmetic as well as the Nobel prize winners in economics can.

I think it should be fairly clear that I am not against the XO as an educational tool. I hope hundreds of millions of kids do get laptops. It makes a lot of sense. It is a question of affordability.

What I am against is some bureaucrat making the decision of how to spend very very VERY limited resources on something that to many is a luxury. What I am against is that politicians would be using the scheme to further divide India.

Here's what I suggest. Take the money that is available for education. Divide it by the number of people who need it. Give people a voucher for the amount to be spent on education. You could go buy books, you could go pay your tuition, you could buy laptops, or MacBook Airs. Whatever you want. You decide.

That is, fund students and not fund any specific technology project.

My considered opinion is that the money will certainly not pay for the XO. But it will pay for some ordinary schooling -- the type that I received -- that is quite reasonable and does the job.

Enough said. I am really out of here.

"Give people a voucher for the amount to be spent on education."

Wow. And I had thought that this argument had reached the point where nothing new was going to be said.

This suggestion is based on the (extremely ideological) idea that markets are the best solution to any economic problem. There are several obvious ways this fails in the case of education. First, education is, by definition, a case of asymmetric information, which is a known cause of market failure. Second, and more germane to the current question, markets systematically under-invest in public goods - such as educational research or open source software. Third, markets do not respond to externalities; for instance, high inequality and low social mobility are negative externalities which could easily be incidentally increased by a voucher program (especially given assymetric information).

In fact, when someone is completely oblivious to all of these points; points which are not only obvious, but which are also already explicit and central to the discussion; I begin to doubt whether they're open to non-ideological discussion.

In other words: sure, under such a system, no poor Indian would buy a laptop today. And then, when laptops become price-competitive with schoolbooks, a whole generation of students would have to blindly choose which they think is better, and blindly decide how to best use the laptop if they choose it. This is obvious and I've said it three times now, avoiding it is in fact the whole meaning of the words "pilot program", and if you can't address it then there's no point talking.

Here's something I wrote previously on my blog related to the point by Jameson:

BEGIN QUOTE:

The criminal neglect of primary education starts with the involvement of the government in providing primary education. Universal primary education is too important an activity to be entrusted to corrupt and inept public sector bureaucrats. To actually deliver a quality product most efficiently, the only option is vigorously competitive private sector participation in the provision of not just primary education, but all levels of education.

It is true that the private sector will only serve those segments which have the ability to pay. The role of the government is therefore to support financially those who don’t have the ability to pay on their own. Then the poor will also constitute paying customers for the competitive private sector educational institutions.

The operative word is “competitive” – competition must not merely be allowed in the private education sector, it must be actively encouraged. Only through the forces of competition would the immense task of making education available and affordable to all be accomplished.

There are a number of distinctions between the way the private sector operates and the way that the public sector operates: the private sector firms are constrained by hard budget constraints and have to operate at a profit. They can only make a profit if and only if the benefits of the service which they provide exceeds the cost. Private sector competition ensures that the profits are not super normal.

To survive in a competitive environment, private sector firms are forced to innovate. Innovation which is sorely required in the education sector will be missing as long as the government is involved in it.

Monopolies in general don’t have an incentive to innovate, and it is a theoretical impossibility (supported by empirical evidence) for a public sector monopoly to innovate. As long as the government has a monopolistic control over education, there is little hope of innovation.

The policy prescription is straightforward to state. First, liberalize the education sector and not merely allow but actively encourage private sector participation and competition in education. Second, provide need-based financial support for universal education up to the secondary school level. Third, provide loans to all those who qualify for enrollment in higher education. Fourth, for those who do not qualify for higher education, provide channels for vocational education.

The educational sector is ripe for innovation. The most appropriate innovation will be the use of information and communications technology (ICT) tools. There have been phenomenal advances in ICT. More than any other sector, education can benefit from it because ICT has the potential to reduce the cost of providing quality education. The use of ICT in education will be as fundamentally transforming as the invention of books was in the previous revolution in education.

Books reduced the cost of education because they could conveyed information across time and distance, and were cheap to reproduce. Books were an innovation compared to the system where humans had to be directly involved in the transmission of knowledge. The time has now come to replace books with its cheaper alternative: information in digital form. Among the great advantages that digital information has over books is that content can be far richer than mere textual information: now it is possible to have hyperlinked content in the form of audio, video, text, and graphics.

It is easy to predict that education will be transformed by the use of ICT tools. There are huge potential commercial gains and at the same time, there is the opportunity to do good. We are only constrained by our imagination.

END QUOTE

[Source]

As far as opportunity cost is concerned, India it seems is still able to tolerate the forgone lifetime productive potential of an educated child in exchange for the dehumanising exploitation of child labour. Official estimates range from 20 million to 50 million child labourers. that's about 5 to 12 times more Indians than those who have access to broadband internet! so these choices are political. By even asking the question: why don't we do more for our children? we are asking policy makers to justify the status quo, a task that once undertaken begins the work of shifting the status quo.

In Oceania, where I work for OLPC, we are framing OLPC as a catalyst to encourage policy makers, governments and bureaucracies (both state and non-state actors) to FOCUS on delivering better quality education, while at the same time stimulating community level demand for that better quality.

Michael is right that to change the status quo, the policy makers have to be held accountable.

The child labor situation is truly deplorable. It did not arise overnight and is unlikely to be solved quickly either. Without getting into that issue here, I would like to make a general point.

Poor people do not necessarily love their children less than rich people do. Child labor is the result of desperate circumstances only a fraction of which is within individual control. Broadly speaking, it is a tragedy of the commons. It is individually rational to produce kids one cannot provide for but collectively it leads to an unsustainable situation.

If it were such that the economy had the resources to give these kids a decent education but was not doing so out of some perversity, then at least the hope would have been there that something could be done for the kids. But the truth is that the resources simply do not exist -- the economy is too unproductive -- and it leads to the Hobbesian existence for the tens of millions of children. Malthus was right.

If politicians in India were educated (and most weren't morons) this statement "Public spending in (on?) education is in the low single-digit percentages." wouldn't be true.

I do agree with the author though, money could be used better on essentials as opposed to the OLPC which is, relatively, quite expensive when you crunch the numbers. Consider this - most state education boards disallow the use of scientific calculators (and just use log tables and data sheets) because a lot of students cannot afford one.

You don't quite mean that. What may have been unaffordable a few years ago has been made affordable and more useful to address precisely the issues India faces. $1 per week for investing in the future citizens is far from expensive and if it is, treat it as an investment and beg, borrow and steel to ensure that every mind produced in the conntry is put to best use. There is nothing that offers a better ROI. May be educational investment on Atanu did not pay off as well. No the rest should be denied the opportunities he had?reason why

Going through the comments on this post, I'd be curious to know if opinions have changed in the past year. With the price of devices falling, is there a way of improving education with them? e.g. E-book readers are already dropping in price. So far that just means more textbooks in a small package, at a price. What if the few really motivated had access to devices that could help them learn on their own (I know it comes down to content, but that is not an unsurmountable problem) or to complement what little they learn at school, including answering tests, comparing scores and so on. That would be one way of playing out the right to education dream into reality.

XO Tablets for Sale

Buy Your XO Tablet on Amazon.com
OLPC is selling the new XO Tablets on Amazon.com for just $149. Buy yours today!

xo-tablet-amazon.jpg

Discussions

Recent Comments

Community Forum

Close