The Indian Economy Blog

July 29, 2006

OLPC — Rest in Peace

Filed under: Business — Atanu Dey @ 11:08 am

One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) is not going to happen in India.

The Human Resources Development (HRD) ministry of the government of India recently decided to just say no to the $100 laptop that Prof Negroponte of MIT Media Lab has been furiously peddling. He wanted the government to buy, oh, about 1,000,000 of those at the modest cost of $100,000,000 and give it to school children. Mind you, noble intentions motivate this: so that no child is left behind and the digital divide is bridged and all the kids will become computer savvy and what not.

The HRD explained that according to some American psychologist “any sustained use of computers may lead to a disembodied brain and bring about isolationist tendencies in social behaviour” and that the “pedagogic effectiveness of this initiative is not known.”

Not just that, it went on to warn that “Both physical and psychological effects of children’s intensive exposure implicit in OLPC are worrisome. Health problems of our rural children are well known; personalised intensity of computer-use could easily exacerbate some of these problems”.

I bet the good folks at the HRD ministry are not as careful when it comes to their own children playing with laptops and PCs in their government provided flats in New Delhi. The reasoning behind promoting OLPC in poor countries is flawed (as I had written earlier: Formula for milking the digital divide); but the reasoning behind the HRD ministry’s rejection of the OLPC is worse. I am not surprised.

However, the Secretary to the Ministry, Sudeep Banerjee wrote to the Planning Commission and argued that instead of spending on laptops, funds should be allocated to univeralizing secondary education. Good point, Mr Banerjee. Still, Banerjee said that OLPC “may actually be detrimental to the growth of creative and analytical abilities of the child”. Not at all convincing.

My opposition to the OLPC revolves around the notion of opportunity cost. First, let’s briefly consider the total cost. There’s the direct cost of a laptop, which was first advertized to be $100 but now has been pegged at $140. Add to that the operational costs. They will include the cost of maintenance. Assume that over its lifetime, given that it is a new piece of hardware, it is a conservative 25 percent, or $35. Then there are the “use costs.”

Use costs are incurred because the laptops are used by people. Predictably, people–especially children–drop things, misplace things, get things stolen. So what happens then? Does the government replace those laptops? Who pays?

Then who gets those laptops? There are, I estimate, about 100 million school-going children in India. Can we afford to buy laptops for them all? If not, who then will be favored? Will there be “reservations” for laptops so that favored religious and caste groups be given preference? Who decides? Will those in charge of handing out the laptops make a bit on the side, either directly or indirectly, through their power to deny or grant a shiny new gizmo to thousands of people. Power in the hands of people invariably corrupts them.

Who owns the laptop? The child or the parent? What does ownership mean? Will the parent be held liable for the cost of the laptop if the laptop is “lost”? Will a very poor family be able to shoulder that liability? Remember that the cost is $140, which is about 30 percent of the per capita income in India. Who pays for routine maintenance? If the user is not responsible, then there is the problem of moral hazard: the user will not be sufficiently diligent in caring for the object.

The total costs then is the sum of the direct costs ($140), the maintenance costs ($35), the use costs ($25, say): $200. Let’s say that India buys only 2 million of those cute green machines. The cost: $400,000,000.

Now on to the reason why I oppose the OLPC: opportunity costs. Some time ago, I had explore the notion of opportunity costs in “Casting Spells to Fix a Broken Car.”

The proponents of OLPC argue that spending hundreds of millions of dollars on laptops will empower many children, educate them, make them cross the digital divide. You will not get any argument from me against that. Some unknown percentage of those who use those laptops will benefit from them; some unpredictable percentage will get computer literate. Those things will happen because of the OLPC. My concern is with things that will not happen because of OLPC.

This point is worth stressing. It is not just that we make A happen; we have to also recognize that we have to forego the opportunity of making B happen. The important thing is to weigh the benefits of A against the benefits of B. Only if the former out weighs the latter, can we convincingly argue for making A happen.

Spending a few hundred million dollars will help some children, and also enrich the manufacturers of the laptops (Chinese manufacturing), and all the middle-layers that will be invovled in the selling, maintenance, and support. Compare that to the alternative use of the same money.

Tens of millions of children don’t go to school, and of the many who do, they end up in schools that lack blackboards and in some cases even chalk. Government schools — especially in rural areas — are plagued with teacher absenteeism. The schools lack even the most rudimentary of facilities such as toilets (the lack of which is a major barrier to girl children.)

Attention and funds need to be directed to those issues first before one starts buying laptops by the millions. Fact is that we need basic education (literacy, numeracy, etc) and secondary education. These have been provided very successfully without computers around the world. Every one who went to school and became educated more than a mere 30 years ago–in the entire history of human civilization, billions of people in all–did so without having ever seen a computer. What they had was much less expensive than PCs: they had teachers and an environment conducive to learning.

Here is an analogy. By pushing OLPC, what they are trying to do is to increase the capacity of a tub made of staves of different lengths. How much water the tub can hold is then dictated by the length of the shortest stave. If one were to pour water into the tub, the water level will continue to rise but only uptil the level reaches that of the shortest stave, when it starts overflowing. To increase the capacity of the tub, you will have to lengthen the staves. But lengthening any of the staves except the shortest stave will not increase the tub capacity. And even lengthening the shortest stave beyond the length of the next shortest stave is wasted. So the strategy for increasing the tub capacity is this: lengthen the shortest stave(s) first to match the length of the next shortest stave(s), and repeat.

The shortest stave in our tub is the will and commitment of our policy makers.

Post Script: My friend Ethan Zukerman commented on this over here.

18 Comments »

  1. One Laptop Per Child : The concept is equivalent to providing 4 meals a day to the starving and below poverty line
    people from day one to some (leaving others) instead of first providing atleast 2 times to all of them.

    The digital divide is more about the information availabilty to all, instead of some!!

    The need is for basic education > then computer literacy > then internet availability > then high speed internet
    > and then may come the need of one laptop per child.

    The probable reason why the HRD ministry would have said no to the sellers of these $100 laptops is obviously
    not due to the concerns they have for the users facing ailments because of extensive use, but most probably
    becasue the selling company would have denied any commission to government officals part of the deal.

    And the same officials would give the same digital divide reason to buy at double the price just in case they manage a deal where they get the desired share of the pie.

    ankur

    Comment by ankur — July 29, 2006 @ 3:11 pm

  2. India has not reached the level of OLPC.

    Practical solution if HR ministry is thinking progressive and would like to improve quality of education in primary schools is, they can provide 1 TV & Video CD player per class in India. Then distribute video recording of lessons on VCD, approximate cost will be Rs.15,000/- (US$ 335) per class room.

    It is easy to get the best teachers to present the lessons and record it on VCD, many best teachers in our country may even volunteer for a project like this. Lessons can be recorded, with enough pauses for the students to participate, for eg. the virtual teacher can sing a song and ask students to repeat it. It will be like an interactive class room session, but the difference is now the best teachers are handling the lessons rather than average teachers, this makes substantial difference, expert teachers has special way of presenting lessons to make it interesting, this focuses attention of students and stimulates better learning.

    The virtual teaching method does not eliminate the necessity of teachers, still each classroom will need a teacher, to maintain general discipline conduct class tests etc, what the virtual teaching method does is to substantially improve quality of instruction in primary schools all over the country.

    Many of the corporates may be willing to chip in with resources since there is advantage for them, when the people are educated the productivity goes up, and it will stimulate the entire economy.

    Comment by GeneralPublic — July 29, 2006 @ 4:36 pm

  3. [...] Atanu Dey at The Indian Economy Blog explains how the OLPC project is wrought with opportunity cost issues and implementation problems in India. [...]

    Pingback by DesiPundit » Archives » OLPC — Rest in Peace — July 30, 2006 @ 11:09 am

  4. Atanu-

    I am afraid I cant square with this line of thought.

    The costs are not too much compared to the potential benefits. Are we sure we cannot afford 450 Crores for giving a million poor children a peek into the wonders of the internet age ? Surely we do not bat an eyelid to spend 16,000 crores for tertiary education. We dont care to spend 3000 cr on colour TVs.

    Most of the implementation issues can be sorted out.
    1. These computers can be kept in the school premises.
    2. The schools can have an after hours or weekend programs where the kids can use these computers.
    3. In any scheme someone is going to get rich. I dont understand why some Chinese contract manufacturer cannot make money out of this deal. Dont you know that all set top boxes in India are made by Chinese companies ? All DSL modems yes, including yours and mine are made by Huawei or UTStarcom. Please explain.

    Visit my blog for more on this subject.

    Comment by realitycheck — July 30, 2006 @ 11:23 am

  5. I think OLPC is a silly idea. Computer hardware in kids hands without power at homes or school, without benches to sit on and proper education facilities at schools. If that’s all it takes to bridge a divide, why not ship all textbooks to kids (KG to 10th class) and declare 100% literacy – job done.

    In any case, I know some state governments actually have programs to provide computers and the supporting infrastructure to all schools in the state. And it’s outsourced. A friend of mine has a contract to do just that in few districts in AP (under the umbrella of NIIT, I think) and in Assam. He provides computers (which he imported from China, of course), location, staff, and networking and maintains it. He used to get paid promptly when Chandrababu Naidu (who initiated and implemented the project in AP) was around. Now he has to pay 10-15% back in (black) cash to get his dues from a Congress I lead government. One would think AP Congress I mended its ways being away from power for 10 yrs. No such luck – it’s free for all again, just like the good old days.

    Comment by Chandra — July 30, 2006 @ 1:45 pm

  6. My $0.02 worth is that one laptop per child, or even one desktop per child in India is a ridiculous idea. I’ll go one step further. One laptop per child is a flawed idea even for the US and for the same reasons. Kids need a solid education first. In India, they need a modicum of basic education first.

    Comment by Floridian — July 31, 2006 @ 3:10 am

  7. Floridian,

    Have you been to any public school in Florida ?

    Is there any school which does not have access to computers or the high speed k12 network ? Arent all schools in Florida networked ? It is futile to even compare the two countries when it comes to primary education.

    Yes, we need basic stuff first. That cannot be used as an excuse to deprive the neediest of the needy access to computers. We dont even have A,B,C so we cant have X,Y,Z. No action will be taken to either give A,B,C or X,Y,Z, and we will pat ourselves for having stalled another idea whose time has come and gone.

    Please lets us not talk about funds. We are about to spend 16-20,000 crores on tertiary education, obviously the same excuses, i.e, the lack of toilets, teachers do not apply in other areas.

    Comment by realitycheck — July 31, 2006 @ 9:23 am

  8. Dear Realitycheck:
    Have you bothered to consult teachers on this subject or all this is just techno idealism? No teacher worth his salt would put computers and laptops in the hands of little children who don’t even know how to read and write. I suggest you sit in a kindergarten class for a day, and preferably in a so-called advanced country such as the US, and then do a realitycheck of your laptop mission.

    Nobody is questioning the value of computers here? The debate seems to center on the value of OLPC in a country where basic education for the millions of rural and otherwise poor children is just non-existent.

    Comment by Floridian — July 31, 2006 @ 6:08 pm

  9. [...] The Human Resources Development (HRD) ministry of the government of India recently decided to just say no to the $100 laptop that Prof Negroponte of MIT Media Lab has been furiously peddling. The reason cited was ..any sustained use of computers may lead to a disembodied brain and bring about isolationist tendencies in social behaviour……Both physical and psychological effects of children’s intensive exposure implicit in OLPC are worrisome. Health problems of our rural children are well known; personalised intensity of computer-use could easily exacerbate some of these problems.. [...]

    Pingback by Linking India.com blog » One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) is not going to happen in India — July 31, 2006 @ 8:38 pm

  10. Hi,

    What do the children of india need?

    http://kmc.sulekha.com/blogs/blogdisplay.aspx?cid=73078

    courtesy: ixedoc

    Comment by hobbes — August 1, 2006 @ 10:10 am

  11. Lee Felsenstein has written on several occasions why the OLPC initiative will fail.
    Idealism often collides with reality:
    http://fonly.typepad.com/fonlyblog/2005/11/problems_with_t.html

    Comment by Erwan — August 1, 2006 @ 8:24 pm

  12. To all of you detractors of this initiative. This was pioneered way back in India (as an experiment – Search for “Hole in the wall”)
    http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/india/thestory.html

    This shows that there is a plus side to this. True that we are lacking in infrastructure, basic education but consider that there are millions of students who lack access to same amenities enjoyed by their more well todo brethren. These are kids going to public schools, competing with kids from private schools.

    This will atleast bring them upto par at (elementary or high school level).

    Comment by shrini — August 1, 2006 @ 11:30 pm

  13. Dear Floridian,

    I can assure you that I have been to primary schools in advanced countries such as the USA and Germany.

    My point is this ,

    The HRD ministry and its supporters are conveniently trying to use the lack of basic facilities to :

    1. neither provide those basic facilities (nor)
    2. provide what better off kids consider basic facilities like computers

    If you think (1) is wrong, I would challenge you to write to the HRD ministry to allocate the 450 crores that would have been given to the OLPC toward the basic facilities.

    How many generations must pass before we can trash the excuse of basic facilities ?

    Any computer is better than no computer, even if a kid can barely read he/she can dramatically improve those skills with the help of a computer. I have personally seen a dozen slum kids in India (where I live and work) get addicted to a kaun banega crorepati CD, which I gave them.

    Comment by realitycheck — August 2, 2006 @ 2:58 pm

  14. [...] The Indian Economy Blog says the Indian HRD Ministry explained that according to some American psychologist “any sustained use of computers may lead to a disembodied brain and bring about isolationist tendencies in social behaviour” and that the “pedagogic effectiveness of this initiative is not known.” [...]

    Pingback by Dweep’s Weblog » Blog Archive » One Laptop Per Child - Not in India — August 4, 2006 @ 2:58 am

  15. Dear Realitycheck:
    A little off the main debate, did you see a documentary called “A Hole in the Wall?” It was about some organization in Delhi that has installed computers in kiosks in poor neighborhoods.

    Comment by Floridian — August 9, 2006 @ 7:19 pm

  16. [...] OLPC — Rest in Peace (??? ???????) [...]

    Pingback by Diablog » Blog Archive » ? ??????????? ??? 100 ????????? - ?????????? ??? ????????? (????? 1?) — December 21, 2006 @ 6:34 pm

  17. [...] so many Indian immigrants become millionaires. Atanu Dey has two good posts on India’s proposed “One Laptop Per Child.” The Indian Economy Blog has a round up of recent Foreign Affairs essays on India. Aditya Dash and [...]

    Pingback by Stephen Hicks, Ph.D. » Worth Reading for September 2006 — February 20, 2009 @ 11:42 pm

  18. [...] The Indian Economy Blog » OLPC — Rest in Peace The Indian Economy Blog says the Indian HRD Ministry explained that according to some American psychologist “any sustained use of computers may lead to a … indianeconomy.org/2006/07/29/olpc-rest-in-peace/ – 68k – Cached – Similar pages – [...]

    Pingback by SACRIFICES for HUMANOIDS « Palashbiswaskl’s Weblog — April 5, 2009 @ 9:00 pm

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