I am having a conversation with a bunch of people on the net about the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) and its relevance to education. I am of course speaking there from an Indian perspective. I would like to share it with you. Of course, you may have already read many of my arguments about the OLPC here already. So pardon me for some possible repetition.
Here is how I see the problem of education in India. India’s primary education is in trouble, which spells trouble higher up the chain. Around 94 percent drop out by grade 12. Only six percent go to college, and of those who graduate college, only about a quarter are employable. Astonishing does not even come close to describing how dismal the Indian education systemis.
Why is Indian education system in the pits? Primarily for the same reasons that the Indian economy is in the pits: government control, indeed governmental stranglehold. It is instructive to see that wherever for whatever reasons the government has let go of the stranglehold (or was not involved to start off with), that sector has flourished, and how!
For example, consider telecommunications. In five decades of governmental monopoly the telecommunications sector had a base of 20 million users; now that the monopoly is released, we add 20 million users in three months.
Let me reiterate that: 3 MONTHS as opposed to 50 YEARS. Sure, technical progress (cellular technology) is a factor. But it is not the major factor. See the air transport sector in India. The seats go abegging now compared to earlier when you had to beg a bureaucrat to allow you to get a ticket on a plane. Consider the two-wheeler and the four-wheeler markets. You had to wait for 7 years to get a scooter, and you had to choose between 2 models of cars, models which were of 50’s vintage. Today the firms drag you off the street and arrange financing for you to buy one of the several hundred models of cars and two wheelers, and give you coffee while your loan is processed and give you a toaster as your drive off with your new car or scooter–all before you know what hit you. Compare 7 YEARS with one AFTERNOON. What happened? The government let go of its chokehold on that sector.
I could go on for a long while demonstrating why government intervention in the Indian economy explains why the Indian economy performs miserably. This background information is relevant in understanding whether OLPC makes sense in the Indian context.
Here is an abstract of my argument. Indian education suffers from government intervention and lack of resources. Resource constraints are both finanical and human capital. Furthermore, the limited resources available are leaked away through bureaucratic and political corruption and ineptitude. The major barriers are not technological and therefore a technological solution is not going to alter the situation. Indeed, the OLPC would make the situation worse in the Indian context, what I would call the “immiserizing technological intervention.”
First however allow me to state up front that I am all for the use of technology in education. The educational system evolved before the advent of the amazingly powerful technological tools of today such as TV, radio, PCs, the internet and the world wide web, html, java, and affordable multimedia. ICT provides the most powerful tools that can fundamentally change how education is provided efficiently and effectively. In fact, in my day job I am working on creating a system which uses ICT intensively to radically transform Indian education. I would be happy to share my vision.
I have learnt an immense amount using computers and the web. I would have loved to have a connected computer when I was growing up. Unfortunately, I saw my first computer only near the end of my undergrad work in engineering. It was a IBM mainframe. Punch card era. Anyway, I learnt reading, writing, arithmetic, and some other useful skills entirely from going to an average school with great teachers and a few books. The fact that I hadn’t even seen an electronic device till I was 20 years old does not seem to have hampered my education. Indeed, 99.99999 percent of all humans who have ever got educated have done so without the benefit of any electronic devices.
Electronics is neither necessary nor sufficient for education. Sure it is going to transform education but the lack of laptops is not the barrier that faces our educational system. Therefore merely providing laptops is not going to solve the problem. I will argue that the so-called digital divide is at best a misguided notion and at worst a device used by self-serving money grubbing powerful vested interests to milk the poor for all they are worth.
I will show that in the Indian context, the OLPC will in fact widen the “digital divide” and make the system far worse off than it is today. I will then outline the solution to India’s educational challenges. And I promise you that the solution will use technology intensively, only that it will have little to do with children toting laptops around the place.