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 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.
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.
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.