Thursday, July 26, 2007
One Laptop Per Child
When I first heard about the One Laptop Per Child initiative, I was a bit skeptical. For those that are unfamiliar with this program, it is basically an initiative to provide inexpensive laptop computers to children in developing countries. According to the website for the program (http://www.laptop.org), "Most of the nearly two–billion children in the developing world are inadequately educated, or receive no education at all. One in three does not complete the fifth grade. The individual and societal consequences of this chronic global crisis are profound. Children are consigned to poverty and isolation—just like their parents—never knowing what the light of learning could mean in their lives."
Sure, there's really nothing you can disagree with in this claim. But is providing these children with a laptop computer really the best way to combat this problem? Immediately, 2 major problems came to mind.
First, wouldn't there be other aspects of education that could be invested in rather than the development and purchasing of these computers? You know, those small issues such as books, teachers, schools, etc. It seems to me that the inadequate education in these countries exists largely because the country does not have the educational infrastructure nor the resources to provide an education for its children, and not necessarily because the kids are having trouble connecting to Wikipedia. But perhaps this is a better approach, because it is apparent that the average American is outraged when someone tries to open a new school in Africa to provide a quality education for students (see Oprah - nasty blog comments). The whole laptop program also seems to have an aura of a very insular, short-sighted American mindset. It doesn't even seem like the computers are all that well-made, as the power generator hand-crank broke off in Kofi Annan's hands as he tried to demonstrate how it is used.
So this led me to my second problem with the program. The computer is a stripped-down version of laptops that you or I would be accustomed to seeing. No peripheral drives, memory supplied by flash cards, etc, all leading to a much lower price than we would be accustomed to. The goal is to get the cost down to $100 per laptop. Now $100 is far cheaper than any laptop that the western world can ever find, but it still seemed like a good amount of money for someone in a developing, third-world country - perhaps because $100 is still a decent amount of money to someone living on a postdoc salary. So I did a little research to find out how far $100 could go in an African country. With a little help from Google, I was able to find out that the average Ethiopian earns an annual income of $100. So does this mean that the average Ethiopian should do without everything for a year just to buy a laptop. Supporters of the initiative are quick to point out that these laptops would be sold to governments to distribute to children, but wouldn't this money still be better served to improve education, health care, and providing food for the population? It seemed obvious to me that these laptops would be quickly found on the black market, sold in exchange for enough money that could be used to feed a family for a year. And where would these laptops wind up? Probably some neo-hippie in Madison or Berkeley would be using one while sipping a latte made with organic, shade-grown coffee beans at the local coffee shop.
Now what I didn't consider (and I must say that I'm rather disappointed that this didn't occur to me) is that these laptops might not even be used for educational purposes. This third option should have been abundantly apparent to me, as I often spend far too much time checking out sites like ESPN.com, CNN.com, and more recently, facebook while at work. Could the children using these $100 laptops use them for something that's not education-related? I came across some news in support of this possibility the other day on Yahoo, where evidently some students in Nigeria were caught surfing the interwebs for pornography. I suppose that some might consider that to be educational....