OLPC — Rest in Peace

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.

[Continued in Part 2. See also “Formula for Milking the Digital Divide.“]

Author: Atanu Dey


30 thoughts on “OLPC — Rest in Peace”

  1. INMHO,
    a good set of daily workbooks per child can be a lot cheaper than computers.
    you can still use computers(as in scantron…to grade faster.)
    But all this hinges on one important factor
    which is Availablity of a teachers/teaching assistants.

    I had previously suggested that one way could be forming a bhartiya vidya sena.
    The idea here is that every one after high school is required to teach for 9 months.
    Without having done this they can not
    get emigration clearance, a government job,
    attend college…
    Its forced labor, conscription, and will cost in terms of “lost” productivity of all those people. but i think the end result is that it will increase the size of available teachers/teaching assistant.
    I would say its not lost productivity but
    redirected labor…

    Most college freshmen can teach/grade primary level stuff.
    A few better ones can teach high school level…


  2. Atanu, the problems like teacher absenteeism, lack of black boards, etc, are not the common problems in schools in small towns. These problems are usually faced in villages. The teacher absenteeism in villages is mainly due to the fact that teachers don’t live there. If you suggest that the attention and funds need to be directed to these villages then isn’t it against your own RISC idea ? (if I understand it correctly)

    The opposite is true with respect to my village and town. Once the connectivity to the town was established (0.5 hr bus ride) the children came to the town. The parents moved out of the village when the kids reach class x for board exams, tuitions etc. The old village with its “absentee” teacher is still there. No one attends it beyond k.g. This is one of the reasons I was interested in RISC.

    If the attention and money can be spent on these schools in small towns then it will make a difference. But lot of them do have teachers. What they lack is quality teachers. They do have the basic infrastructure like boards. They lack the second level infrastructure. (say, limited availability of salts for chemistry lab, so you will see that salt only once before board exam). Ofcourse, then there are lot of villages which lack the connectivity itself which requires the attention and funds.

    But that is a good call on OLPC itself.


  3. Honestly, children would rather play outside with other kids and develop social skills, than work on the computers.

    In US, the states are encouraging children to leave their computers and go out to play.

    Plus, how many children with laptops, you know can tell 25% of 60.


  4. If there aren’t enough teachers at the village level and not enough good ones at the town level, perhaps it’s time to find substitutes. Some sort of a trial would’ve helped clear up some of the cost/loss-of-imagination hurdles. Aren’t K-12 books cheap because the government subsidises them? Perhaps a trial of OLPC with partial subsidies might have worked in towns and suburbs of cities like Bombay or a fully subsidised trial in villages where there is a lack of teachers. It may be an expensive idea but that doesn’t make it a bad one.

    I see it more as a jump from no-internet to wireless internet, rather than as a net loss when the opportunity cost is factored in. You’re right… there is a lack of will if this is a reason given:

    “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.”

    Great post, I don’t disagree with your opportunity cost analysis. I’m just too much of a technologist and Raj’s comment has left me very shameful. 25% of 60 is 15!


  5. Hi Atanu,

    Those things will happen because of the OLPC. My concern is with things that will not happen because of OLPC.

    From last 50 years govt is trying to do those things but no great response.

    So why not try this and put it in hands of children who are getting education but dont have access to laptops.
    May be we can get a next spark of innovation from there.


  6. I could be wrong.
    But to me the opportunity cost arguement against the OLPC seems like cutting down R&D budget of an organization because it wants to have a good quarter report.

    In short giving importance to short term goals over long term ones.

    I again repeat I could be wrong.


  7. OLPC is rediculouss idea. First let there be good computer infrastructre in government schools. There are no single computer in school where 1000 student study, let alone one laptop per child


  8. What age would be targeted? IMHO, a 12 year old is more likely to benefit from using a computer than a 6 year old, in terms of social and cognitive development.


  9. One simple thing the government can do by spending very little money is make all the NCERT textbooks opensource and host it as downloadable .pdf files. This will provide better access to the text books to who ever needs them when they need them where ever they are. This will avoid shortages and delays at the beginning of each academic year. I know as a parent how much running around I had to do just to get my children’s text books.
    Once the books are freely available on the net there will be small entrepreneurs who will print,xerox and sell the books to fill in the need as required.This in one shot will remove the shortage of textbooks


  10. Atanu,

    I am almost instinctively opposed to the handout of freebies by the government, however important the cause. And if I was in India’s education ministry and asked to implement the OLPC scheme, I’d use vouchers and co-payment. The co-payment will deter freeloaders, and vouchers will ensure that the whole contract is not sealed by one manufacturer. And bundle it with some kind of an insurance scheme to cover running costs. But I’d do all this only if a loaded gun were pointed to my head.

    But it was good to see some interesting ideas thrown up by commenters: the idea of a Bharatiya Vidya Sena (or Education Cadet Corps) can increase the number of hands helping at primary and secondary school level. Many a challenge to be crossed, but a good idea nevertheless. Important for the volunteers to have sufficient incentives to do this seriously.


    Your suggestion of putting the text-books online for free download is excellent. There is absolutely no reason why a taxpayer funded resource should be copyrighted/controlled by the government. I wish someone on this forum can take this up. Why, worst case, we can just scan them and put them up without government assistance…and let NCERT sue and make a fool of itself. Private publications based on NCERT syllabus should of course be left out.


  11. Yep, I agree with Guru Gulab Khatri and others. We need a Bharatiya Vidya Sena.

    Countries have forced conscription aka military draft on their citizens, just because they have had a militant past (Turkey) or because they know the value of citizens who can handle arms (Switzerland, Finland, many Balkan states).

    We also favor conscription when we grant MBBS in India. We force candidates to serve as interns in different places, so there is clear precedent for this use case.

    So is this a no-brainer or what?


  12. India will miss our sorely becuase of its rejection of the idea. How long have we grappling with the problem of basic primary education to the children? We still have not been able to have enough infrastructure in place to provide a large amount of impoverished children to learn. The system has failed for them. The OLPC would have given them a chance to circumvent the deficient system for once and move out of the vicious circle of poverty.

    Its ridiculous that people are talking about how computers harm children. Its nothing but FUD. Children learn technology themselves. They figure it out for themselves and find out ways to make it work. Just look at a kid playing with a video game. Do they ever bother to read the manuals to learn it? The learn by expermineting.

    Mankind has been grappling with Poverty for ages. The answer everyone knows is in Education. And OLPC is a innovative new idea to bring education to those deprived children. How many innovations have tried to tackle a grass root problem like this? Negroponte is a hero just because he has been able to build and market this machine. By the looks of it a large part of Africa and Asia will get these machines. The results will not be evident for at least two decades. But when that does happen we’ll see a new generation emerging out of it.

    That will be the Open Source Generation.


  13. Sometimes it does not matter why things are done as far as the end result is acceptable. I dont think that the HR ministry has the balls to say that the money is better spent on basic infrastructure as it draws attention to their current lapses 🙂 So the OLPC has to be rubbished on non-specific grounds. The more important thing is that the Union HR ministry is trying to push the responsibility for *funding* the mandatory universal elementary education (currently being proposed as a law) onto the states. Sure fire formula to convert it into a dead letter before the law is passed.Maybe the best way is to link the spend on Education to a basket of other ‘essential services’ like defense spend, railway spend etc. If the government were forced to allocate a calculable percentage of GDP to Education and this is in turn linked to spends in other sectors we may actually see some investments in education. I for one dont agree that univesal service obligations on primary and secondary education can be met by private industry, unless all the villagers pack up and move into new towns as Atanu suggests. Also someone should file and RTI petition to get numbers on how the education cess that is being levied is being spent. We should be looking into that rather than get distracted by ‘a silly idea on stilts’! OLPC will be back in a different guise, till then RIP.


  14. Atanu,

    OLPC is certainly a great idea for countries like India and the African states. A computer with the right educational software can be great tool for students in the rural areas. The deficits in infrastructure can be circumvented by just the presence of this tool in a childs hand. The possibilities of one laptop for every child are immense and should have been pursued by India.

    I agree with Rajiv. The killing of this idea would cost India dear. I hope, if not the present govt, some non-state agency realizes that India is missing out on a once in a lifetime opportunity to combat illiteracy that plagues this nation and do something about it. Maybe the Tatas and the Ambanis can step in to do something about this project as its success depends upon large-scale orders and it is in the interest of the Indian Nation State that OLPC succeeds.

    The present HRD ministry is run by a group of worst charlatans one wont find anywhere. There is the dreadful singh along with his assistant, a rapist on the loose named MAA Fatmi. This govt.,
    rather the entire political class of India, has great stakes in keeping much of India illiterate and backward, for there own political survival. Its no wonder that when an idea like OLPC comes along,
    the charlatans recongnize the threat and move in to kill it before it consumes them. The arguments to kill it, as put forward by the babu, is meant for retards.

    Best Regards.


  15. Dear Atanu,

    This OLPC RIP thread has thrown up three ideas: your own opportunity cost basis for rejecting OLPC, Bhartiya Vidya Sena and pdf version of NCERT textbooks. I will skip the second since it is likely to be controversial. I hope the open source textbook idea goes into action.

    In general, I buy into your argument against OLPC even though I am in the IT industry for over 30 years. The OLPC cost would be Rs 2,000 crore. By rejecting it, the money would be available to lengthen shorter staves. How much is needed for this latter development? Would 2,000 crore do it? Would 2,000 crore allocated transalate to 2,000 crore on the ground? I am sure there is far more than 2,000 crore that exists in the HRD budget which does not reach the intended audience! By pitching OLPC against the alternative use of that money we are setting up an internal fight which would only delight HRD ministry.

    Knowing that OLPC run by government would be a sure disaster, I began to think what it could turn into in the private hands. Today we have rich (say Premji) who may not match Bill Gates but can certainly be charitable to fund this exercise without a great dent in personal fortune or even world rankings.

    Next, we will need a management in place. That will ensure that the production is not all with few vendors (can be mostly in India), the logistics is transparent and accounted for. There will be management overheads which should be capped at 10%.

    The inventory, maintenance etc. can be managed at the local level by developing a cadre of small vendors as happened with STD booths. This will generate employment while meeting real market needs.

    I would elminate cities and large towns from the purveiw of OLPC except for slums. The target should be mostly small towns that have the RISC potential.

    I would not give the ownership to individuals but to edu-cybercafes (possibly without net connection). It is here that children can come and use the OLPC. Even after eliminating some children from the scope, we will still have a large ration of 2 million OLPC to a much larger audience to cater to. There is no need for the laptop to be sitting idle with one child. The laptop is better used by sharing it with others.

    The edu-cybercafes should also be accessible to adults on a limited basis.

    I would give OLPC the analogy of TVs. I think for all the bad content the TV dishes out, the rural India does get a vast exposure through it. It also benefits the industry by creating wants (at the cost of what would otherwise be savings and investments). Given the preponderance of PC in our lives, exposing the rural India to this medium from now will help India in the long run.

    Industry and investors are turning to infrastructure because now they see good returns there. The long term real returns (but not to the investor) on primary/secondary education can be even larger. But in the absense of an economic incentive we have to fall back on government funding.



  16. ???
    I dont understand Rajiv’s and Pankaj’s arguement…
    Is having access to PC the cure for education.
    As they say here in the states its
    RRR reading writing and arithmetic.
    computers can aid in it, but at this stage computer can NOT replace good teachers.
    I think a set of daily pencil and paper workbooks that are monitored immidiately give students the feedback for most primary level stuff(on a daily basis…setting up
    …Basic psychology(or experience with animals/toddlers) teaches this.
    weather you want to teach a kid to do a high 5/ or lyrics to some musical the thing is near constant feedback. I wouldnt deny that a computer cant aid in that but so many other things can.
    The open source idea is good(though i think a mixed model would lead to better quality text)
    On another point
    I dont know how much should state be involved in higher education.
    It is clear that there is real demand growing from a lower middle class to the rich for such education.
    So i’d say private universities should cater to them while goverment shifts Rupees (only money and not too much ministry) for primary education.


  17. Sir,

    As a grassroot observer, I would say that the so called Govt.Schools in cities too do not have any infrastructure or tiolets or drinking water. The teachers come as if on a job, say what they have to.. and become indifferent after some time.The environment in the Govt. schools in big cities is hardly conducive for education.
    Many of the students are poor and mid-day meal is more important than studies. Universal primary education? who cares, so long as the govt. gets the statistics right!
    The Bharatiya vidya Sena and pdf version of NCERT seems interesting. We can request all the IT companies, Financial Institutions, engg. and medical colleges to adopt Govt.Schools and bring up their standards!


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