OLPC: A Steep Cost? Or a Profitable Edu-Investment?

   
   
   
   
   

In his recent EduTech post How do you evaluate a plan like Ceibal?, Michael Trucano wrote,

olpc nasdaq investors
OLPC ownership math?
"All of this comes with a cost, of course: a steep cost. Is it worth it? And how will we know?"

When you say that something is expensive, you have to say also, compared with what? This comparison cannot only be on price. You have to compare value received. What is the value of an education, then?

In crass financial terms, you can set a price on education based on the Net Present Value of expected earnings over a lifetime. You can design a government education budget around the NPV of the person's tax contributions over a lifetime, with due consideration for other expected public services.

But this is the lesser component of the value of education. The true value has to include the unpaid contributions that the educated person makes to society through volunteer work, perhaps in charities, perhaps in civil society organizations, perhaps in emergency services, perhaps simply by being adequately informed and active as a citizen. Creating and sustaining a society is far more important to that society than merely making money.

Even if we leave that aside, however, investing in your children's future has a huge payback, and the Return on Investment for one-to-one computing is increasing rapidly as costs decrease and capabilities increase.

Let us suppose, for purposes of illustration, that the MIT technologists are correct in saying that a second-generation XO can be made to sell for $75. Let us further suppose that students use them for three years, perhaps receiving them in grades 1, 4, 7, and 10. The cost for the computers then comes to $25 per child per year. Further investment is needed in electricity and Internet, at comparable levels.


OLPC Cambodia via satellite.

But the entire community gets to use electricity and communications, which are both essential for economic development. There will be expenses for other equipment, for teacher training, for reworking textbooks into digital learning materials, and so on, but many of these are one-time costs, and all will also contribute to development.

Now let's look a little closer at textbooks. Even the poorest countries spend $20 annually per student on textbooks. Not necessarily $20 per child, given the numbers of children not in school. But close enough for government work, since it is a duty of governments to support every child, and someday each of them will. California has taken the lead in the US in moving to electronic textbooks, but other countries are moving ahead, and substantial grant funding is becoming available.

So, what then? So this. Is it a steep cost to save money on textbooks by buying computers, and by investing in revamping the textbook industry, teacher training, and the schools? Is that a steep cost for ending poverty in the next generation? How about for ending wars and global terrorism caused by poverty, ignorance, and oppression? Do you know how much we spend on those? Now that's a steep cost.

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This post comes across as a desperate attempt at justifying the cost of buying laptops for kids without any further thought.

The results of implementing these ideas without a clear plan for curriculum integration and without a clear idea of the actual, REAL cost can be disastrous - especially for a poor country. That's exactly what is happening in Birmingham, Alabama (USA):

http://www.bwcitypaper.com/Articles-i-2009-11-26-232786.113121_A_Costly_Lesson.html

Technology, without a doubt, has a place in the classroom. But is is not a simple or inexpensive task; books can't be replaced by wishful thinking and implementation plans can't be pulled out of geek's hat.

The results of implementing these ideas without a clear plan for curriculum integration and without a clear idea of the actual, REAL cost can be disastrous

Agreed! As an example of clear plan for curriculum integration I would like to link to my visit to a class using OLPC in Nepal

Marco

Hi Edward,

Many thanks for your comments on the World Bank EduTech blog post you reference above.

I have responded on the blog at http://blogs.worldbank.org/edutech/evaluating-ceibal.

To save others the click, I have copied it over here as well (as I know many people read OLPCnews via RSS):

(apologies in advance for the length)

------

When I used the word 'steep' above, I did not mean it in a pejorative sense. I used it in its sense of being 'high or lofty', and not 'unduly high or lofty'. (The word can convey either; my apologies if this has led to any misunderstandings.)

Whatever the definition, just because a cost is steep (or expensive or dear) certainly doesn't mean that such a cost should not be borne -- and that the end results won't be profitable (however one defines the term). Nor, of course, that it should be borne just because it seems like a good idea.

I agree with you 100% that "When you say that something is expensive, you have to say also, compared with what?" (And I would agree with your next sentence as well, if you used the words 'costs' instead of 'prices'.) The point of my blog post is to highlight some of the many choices available when comparing and evaluating investments like what we are seeing under Plan Ceibal (and, truth be told, to help contribute in a small way to getting the word out more broadly about what is happening there). You are, I think, right to argue that the costs associated with Ceibal are most correctly evaluated when looking not only at the impact on the formal education sector, but against broader economic and societal development measures as well (I suspect many people in Uruguay are thinking the same way).

Even within the education sector in many countries, choices of investments in things like computers (and digital content) are not only set against investments in things like printed textbooks (which some people see digital learning resources largely replacing) but against things like school feeding programs or vaccine programs for children -- two areas where the economics of such investments are often quite compelling, and based on a strong existing evidence base.

Our global evidence base relevant to the investment in things like Plan Ceibal is not as strong as for investments in things like school lunches and vaccines. But this does not mean that investments such as those being made in Uruguay should not be made. I know that many people are looking to the emerging Uruguayan experience to help provide an important contribution some of this evidence base -- and it is encouraging that there appear to be so many people in Uruguay interested in rigorously investigating the costs and benefits (variously defined) of what is happening there.

There is more than a little of the 'chicken and egg' dilemma for policymakers contemplating large scale investments in ICTs in education. I am regularly told by policymakers in the education sector that, while they believe intuitively that such investments are important, and could well become transformative, they don't feel that existing data allow them to make as strong a case as they would like when in conversations with (for example) the Ministry of Finance for expanded financial support.

Evidence from programs like Plan Ceibal and its successors (and initiatives like those happening in Portugal and Maine, to cite prominent 1-to1 computing initiatives), both in terms of its impact on educational outcomes, and on broader societal developmental objectives, can only enrich such conversations.

In my classroom, with a clear vision for the use of technology, I'll gladly give up the text book money I'm using if I could use the funds for $25/year/student investment in a laptop computer.

In having these discussions, it's helpful to use real numbers rather than projected ones. Currently, XO computers cost $200 -- not $75. And that is without warranty or individual delivery. The support costs are extensive as well, and not all are one time. And there are not insubstantial repair costs. The cost of an XO implementation will thus be at least 4 times the $25 per year you mention, and likely much more.

I'm also curious where you came up with the poor countries paying $20 per student on textbooks per year. At the elementary school level, it may be well under $5 per student (assuming that the locally produced and printed textbooks are very cheap and they last a few years). Of course I may be wrong--do you have data to back up your number?

I think the Ceibal project is fascinating, and I am looking forward to learning the results, an on accurate cost-benefit basis.

Dear Prof Warschauer
Since your blog is not very active lately :-) would it be too much to ask to distill your latest papers on 1-to-1 computing in education in a post here or anywhere else you see fit?

Ask and you shall recieve tomorrow morning on EduTechDebate.

What a disappointment... :-(
I was really expecting something interesting. Something that would provide new information, documentation and analysis. Instead this! Rephrasing known arguments with the "I did studies" notion.
I guess professors are too busy to explain or document their statement. We must accept them based on their authoritarian status!
At least it provides a link to Irv's arguments documentation!

@mavrothal
That's a fair point. When Wayan asked me to post my opinion on this topic, I chose to do so at the level of general argument, rather than with specific reference to data.

On my behalf, I can say that I make all my academic papers available for free on my website (http://www.gse.uci.edu/markw). (Unfortunately I can't do that with my books, but much of what I've said in them is distilled in the papers). You'll find all the data you want there, in several papers on laptop programs and other implementations of technology in schools.

I am sure that what you would most like and expect would be more references to data on XO programs. I have recently done a small case study of an XO program in the U.S., and, assisted by a graduate student, a small case study of an XO program in Mexico. These studies support the points I have made. As I am still analyzing the data, and I'm sure its expressions will benefit from an academic peer review process, I decided it would be best not to blog about it, but I'll make the resulting papers available as soon as they are published.

I did look at the papers, thus the request for the "distillation" (with hopefully some new XO-specific info)
Regarding the XO-studies, we'll wait. Hopefully they are of representative cases and cover the required time frame that would allow comparisons with your other studies indicating a lag period before any benefits could be observed...

I have worked with schools previously, as an outside consultant in both Tijuana and San Diego, I can assure you that schools and technology haven't been good buddies (even in technology schools) Why?

well, schools usually use dated software and legacy hardware, they misuse the few newly acquired machines on meaningless tasks, in short, technology in schools is very poorly managed (its a bit better in schools that have a sysadmin that is not a grad student)

Why do I mention all of this?

The answer is quite simple, just averaging taxes and counting children and costs of books and overhead fees is just not enough. There is an urgent need for someone to manage technology in schools so it is put to better use.

A laptop/netbook for each child/student sounds like a great election campaign slogan, but in reality it is not as sound. I know everyone is hyped about laptops/netbooks and other portable PCs, and why not, they have been coveted even before the Desktop PC was even invented, the power to take my data everywhere, with me, right next to me at all times.

Ok, sounds like good hype, the market has reaped its benefits from this market, I mean laptops/netbooks now outsell desktop PCs, however, here are a few facts to consider:

Fact 1 - The usable life span of a desktop is far greater than a laptop/netbook almost 4 times as long.

Fact 2 - A desktop PC is more economic and faster to repair than a laptop/netbook, you just buy a new CD drive or memory module, video card or hard drive and presto. Good to go.

(Try doing that with a laptop/netbook)

Fact 3 - The wear and tear of a mobile device is far greater than a Desktop PC since a laptop/netbook is moved from one location to another and is exposed to the constant impact of travel.

Fact 4 - The risk of a desktop PC being misplaced or stolen is also far below the risk factor than that of a laptop/netbook

I can see why they want to push this, if they were really concerned with technology and education they would better use and manage the technology that is available and quit following market trends and tech-hype.

What's next? An iPhone for every child?

@Legionzero:
"Ok, sounds like good hype, the market has reaped its benefits from this market, I mean laptops/netbooks now outsell desktop PCs, however, here are a few facts to consider:"

But the point is not to add ICT to the classroom. But to give children access to ICT (email, IM, texts, internet, wikipedia) *when and where they are learning*.

That is, mostly at home.

Children should read and practise to learn. That can best be done at home. A computer in a classroom is not useful for that. The same holds for electronic textbooks.

In that light, a desktop at school would be a cheaper solution to a completely different problem (or even a non-existing problem)

Ok, it seems that the point I was out to make got a bit lost in my long post. So I shall be more direct :)

A computer is not a substitute for a teacher.
Learning is a discipline in which you don't just teach facts, you teach them to think and gain the ability to teach themselves.

I have not read (maybe someone can point out) the teaching plan that is intended to go along with the OLPC.

@Rob
"Children should read and practise to learn. That can best be done at home. A computer in a classroom is not useful for that. The same holds for electronic textbooks."

Yes, but they need supervision and guidance, a computer just by itself can be a great learning tool, but it can also be an incredible time-waster.

My 6 year old nephew can sit at the computer for hours and if no one guides him all he takes away from those hours is the ability to cross the finish line with a gorilla on top of a go-cart.

Your last paragraph is perhaps the most concise explanation of why the OLPC model in its pure form -- just handing out XOs to children and getting out of their way -- is absurd.

From my own experience having investigated many laptops programs across the U.S. (including several using low-cost netbooks and open source software, and one of which uses the XO), excellent things usually happen when laptops are introduced in a carefully planned and designed school environment based on clear curricular goals and substantial professional development; nothing much good happens (and a lot of money and time is wasted) when laptops are simply handed out with the belief that simply providing them will improve learning.

@legionzero:
"Yes, but they need supervision and guidance, a computer just by itself can be a great learning tool, but it can also be an incredible time-waster."

A knife cuts both bread and fingers.

In the classroom, students get instruction. To actually learn and practice, they need time and some kind of privacy. My personal experience is that I have never been able to read and learn in large groups.

There was a study over here (sorry, can't back it up with a reference) about the number of contact (classroom) hours versus study (private) hours for learning. It seems to have shown that too much time in class (say, over 30 hours a week) were detrimental to grades. Therefore, it was concluded that students should be allowed ample time to study in private.

Now, without going into details about the quality and motivations of this study, there is some sense in that conclusion. You will not get good high school or university grade if you do not spend time studying in a undisturbed place. You can question this conclusion for primary school children. But even here the children should at least start reading at home to stay literate.

All the above points towards giving children resources for studying at home. That is, books, maps, libraries, news, and other materials. Which, in these resource poor regions is at the hearth of the problem. And it will not be solved by locking up computers at school.

Winter

Dear Prof Warschauer
Since your blog is not very active lately :-) would it be too much to ask to distill your latest papers on 1-to-1 computing in education in a post here or anywhere else you see fit?

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