Laptops Better Than Books for Thai Students?


After thinking more about last week's announcement by Thailand's Caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra that the OLPC laptop will replace books in Thailand's schools, I have to question those that believe Prime Minister Thaksin's quote

"Each elementary school child will receive a computer that the government will buy for them, free of charge, instead of books, because books will be found and can be read on computers''
is a positive change for Thailand's students.

And rather than focus on the pedagogical difference between schoolbooks or laptops, for I am not a education expert and we have no long-term studies to cite, I'm going to take an economic look along the lines of the relativity of $100 and OLPC's real cost to develop the opportunity cost these laptops have in lieu of schoolbooks.

Let us begin with the estimated cost of the One Laptop Per Child laptops (maybe called CM1), which we know to be somewhere around $140.

First, that $140 does not include shipping, and using the US Postal Service surface rate for a 6 lbs package, that would be another $25. Supposedly, both the books and the laptop would cost the same to ship from Bangkok to the rural areas - no cost difference there.

On arrival in the rural school, each would need to be distributed to the kids, again not much of a cost difference. Now let's think of the first week of use of each. The cost to train teachers and students how to use books? Approaching zero. Laptops? We'd need a trainer, someone who can show people how to use the laptops in the classroom.

I'm not talking how to turn it on, but how the teacher can integrate the laptops into lessons and activities for the children. How to make sure the students are focused on learning and not just IM'ing the day away. Estimated cost: $100 per day for 5 days based on training rates of reputable firms in Bangkok and Chiangmai, plus $50 per day per diem equals $750.

Technology maintenance is usually estimated at 20% of purchase price per year, so that's another $30 per laptop and throw in the current spare parts distribution plan - buying 1% more to replace defective units, and you have $140 per shipment.

So what's the initial cost for the One Laptop Per Child laptop for 530 units, assuming they are distributed to ten villages of 50 students each? Per laptop it would be $195 (laptop: $140, Shipping: $25, Maintenance: $30), so for 530 laptops it would be $103,350 + $140 for the spare machine, and you have $103,480. Teacher training for those ten sites would be an additional $7,500, for an estimated total of $110,980, or $210 per student.

Now how many school books can $111,000 buy in Thailand? My Thai friends say text books are around $5 each and they bought 3-4 books on different subjects per year.

Going on the high side, that brings us to $20 per student, per year. Or only $10,600 in text books for the same 530 students, one tenth the cost of laptops.

While the OLPC laptop may be a more comprehensive educational tool than four books per year, is it more effective than spending the $100,000 difference on teacher training, or even Atanu Dey's radical One Blackboard Per School initiative?

I think not.

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1 Comment

That's a very interesting calculation you made there.

Except the base assumption that laptop should be shipping from the US (whilst the'll be manufactured by Quanta in Taiwan) there's little to be said about it all.

Training and changing the education program to use the laptop will be the biggest challenge. If the system is intuitive enough it should be little problems but from experience I gather that there will be a need for trainer and specialist (being techy teachers or Linux interersted developers or users) to make the use of the laptop a reality and a benefit to the schools and kids.

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