Now I am all for the penetration of technology into developing countries and whatnot, but I have to be honest. I think the whole OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) thing is one of the most presumptuous and misguided efforts I have ever come across. Unless it’s goal is to make money. Which is possible. But would be very sad. And this article only confirms my initial assessment:
LAGOS (AFP) – A Nigerian school has received a gift of 300 laptops — one per pupil — but has no electricity to power them up, the official News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reported Friday. – [Yahoo/AFP]
I have watched the whole OLPC ordeal with both interest and irritation. My interest was piqued because I’ve always believed that the technology to create low-cost, Internet ready mobile computing devices has been available for years, and could never understand why no one had taken advantage of it. However it was a major source of irritation to see that these devices were intended for markets that were not ready for them, and might, in fact do more harm than good.
Let me explain a little bit. Having spent a great deal of my youth in a developing country, I believe that my knowledge of the needs of students in a third world country is better than most. I believe that while his intentions are good, Mr. Negropontes proposed solution fails to take into account some of the fundamental problems that developing countries face on a daily basis, and has also overlooked many of the underlying problems that need to be solved in order for real progress to occur.
As demonstrated by the article, many developing countries still do not have the infrastructure to generate consistent supplies of good clean electricity. Power outages were par for the course, when I was growing up. In fact, in some places, they occurred with scheduled regularity. This situation has improved immensely over the years, but adding more electronic devices to the grid would still only aggravate a tenuous situation.
And then there’s the whole Internet thing. While telecommunications networks in developing countries have improved by leaps and bounds over the past decade, they are nowhere near the reliability, capacity and sophistication of their western counterparts. Adding more Internet enabled devices can, and will, tax the current communications infrastructure. I can only guess what the added cost to the electricity and telecommunications infrastructure will be when these laptops begin wide circulation.
And then there is the cost issue. It would appear that Mr. Negroponte, and indeed most westerners, do not seem to realize that $100, which may seem inexpensive to western eyes, can do for 10 students what he is trying to do for one. Throw in the added expenses of maintenance and repairs for laptops in countries with little experience with such technologies, and the total cost of ownership of these laptops will equal a small fortune that could have been much more effectively utilized. The truth is, I think these laptops are little more than high-tech baubles that will really won’t add much to the development of third world countries as a whole.
My message is this. Students in developing countries don’t need laptops. They need more/better access to education. More schools, better schools, better books, better teachers, better training. You cannot effectively use technology to solve a problem unless you fully understand the problem. And technology itself is worthless without training and understanding. Until then these technological devices are little more than really expensive toys.
And if you absolutely have to throw technology at the problem, there are many cheaper, simpler, and much more more effective ways of helping developing countries advance. Like ODPC (One Desktop Per Class). Or OELPC (One Electronic Library Per School). In fact, you don’t even need technology. How about OSPV (One School Per Village). Or OTCTFIEMC (One Tech Career Training Facility in every Major City). A little long but you get the idea. I can almost guarantee you’d get technological penetration much faster that way, without the trail of busted laptops to boot…
Nigerian school without power receives 300 laptops – [Yahoo/AFP]