Craig Barrett on the OLPC

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project has powerful interests on both sides of the debate. It is easy to guess who’s on which side. Bill Gates, for instance, is predictably against the OLPC as it does not use Microsoft software. The OLPC is not using Intel chips. That could explain why Intel Chairman Craig Barrett will be a critic. Mind you, merely because they are not disinterested observers, it does not follow that they are wrong in their criticism of the OLPC project of Mr Nicholaus Negroponte.

I have a great deal of respect for Gates and Barrett and I am happy to find myself in their company in my opposition to the OLPC. My point of view differs from them however. Does the OLPC make sense in the Indian context? I don’t think so. Here’s why briefly.

I think the OLPC is a great idea and will benefit a lot of people. Unfortunately, that lot does not include students in poor underdeveloped economies such as India. The OLPC is irrelevant in the context of Indian education. It’s a technological solution, and the problem in India is largely non-technological. It doesn’t make sense to me to recommend an unaffordably expensive technological fix to a non-technical problem. I think that some very clever people have misunderstood the nature of the problem. It is as if someone recommends casting spells to fix a broken car. Psychological methods cannot address mechanical problems.

Here’s how I see the problem of education in India. India’s primary education is in trouble, which spells trouble higher up the chain. Around ninety-four percent drop out by grade twelve. Only six percent go to college, and of those who graduate college, only about a quarter are employable.

Why is the Indian education system in the pits? Primarily for the same reasons that the Indian economy is in the pits: government control, indeed governmental stranglehold, of the economy. It is instructive to see that whenever, for whatever reasons, the government has let go of the stranglehold (or was not involved in 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 twenty million users; now absent the monopolistic stranglehold of the government on the telecommunications sector, we add twenty million users in three months.

Let me underline that: THREE MONTHS as opposed to FIFTY YEARS. Sure, technical progress (cellular technology) is a factor. But it is not the major factor.

It is easy to demonstrate why government intervention in the Indian economy explains why the Indian economy performs miserably. Let’s for the moment consider that as read. This fact is relevant in understanding why OLPC does not make sense in the Indian context.

Indian education suffers from government intervention and lack of resources. Resource constraints are both financial and human capital. Furthermore, the limited financial resources are leaked away through bureaucratic and political corruption and ineptitude. The major barriers in education 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.

Electronics is neither necessary nor sufficient for education. Merely providing laptops is not going to solve the problem. I have argued before that the much lamented “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.

In the Indian context, the OLPC could in fact widen the “digital divide” and make the system far worse than it is today. The solution to India’s educational problems will and must use technology intensively, but it will have little to do with children toting laptops around.

OK, the Problem with OLPC in India:

1. India cannot afford two hundred million laptops at an upfront cost of US$40 billion. Merely buying a million laptops for $200 million will be a problem, as you would have to figure out which one out of every two hundred students will be the lucky one to have a laptop.

2. One million laptops has an opportunity cost. That is, the money could be spent on other things. $200 million could be used to provide one million students with one full year of education plus boarding and lodging in rural India. This money could be spent locally and provide jobs and have the usual economic multiplier effect.

3. Even if we had the $40 billion to spend on OLPC, we would not have solved the real problem of why India has half the illiterates in the world. Government involvement is the problem. And OLPC actually would increase government involvement.


1. The countries that can afford to buy laptops in numbers comparable to their student population will not face the problems of equity and distribution. There aren’t many developing countries like that.

2. OLPC is a costly device for poor countries. It’s going to be a huge waste of money that could be more efficiently spent on other technological solutions such as radio, TV monitors, and DVD players.

[Related Links:

1. Here’s a Craig Barrett interview in Foreign Policy magazine “Wiring the World’s Poor” (Hat tip: Rohit.)

2. Previous posts on the OLPC.

3. I like this post on opportunity costs. I argue that the notion of opportunity costs is basic to logically thinking about economic matters. Even many otherwise educated and sane people have a very slender grasp on this fundamental truth of our universe. ]

Author: Atanu Dey


10 thoughts on “Craig Barrett on the OLPC”

  1. Indian rural school education:

    0. Think outside the box – why necessarily through schools per se? Basic Math, English and socio-economic awareness has to be taught. Why not through free books (instead of free schooling and free mid-day schemes) and better national TV/Radio educational content (content should be privatized and depoliticized)

    1. While I am a big proponent of English from the primary level, I also strongly feel that in the mean time we need to have many quality (not glossy paper type quality but non-dogmatic interesting chapters’ kind of quality) academic books in the vernacular. At least those who are determined (and there are many more than we sometimes assume) would gain knowledge and understanding.

    2. The conventional government school system has to be done away with. 2 lakh more teachers this year and 5 lakh more classrooms this year, according to our FM. But given their track record, this would just result in income redistribution (from public to public machinery) and effectively reduced productive social investments.

    3. Also, it should be made easier for anybody to take the Class 10 exams (even if they have just passed Class 5) and hence get “certified” for further study / slightly better employment. To our FM’s credit he has introduced scholarships and a common national exam for Class 8 (at least in the rural areas) so that efforts can be recognized at the child and school level.

    4. Current-issues’ awareness has to be generated through radios, TVs etc. Doordarshan and radio educational funding has to be increased and the content – outsourced (not to other public agencies but to the private sector on a competitive basis). Technical literacy will accompany the upcoming rural mobile phone boom.

    5. To end my very long and slightly redundant rant, instead of wasting almost all the allocation on government “teachers”, spread content through TV, radio and books in a more aggressive, coherent manner.

    AND yeah, no OLPC-bureaucrats nexus !


  2. The debate about OLPC in India was settled long ago, IT IS NOT AN ISSUE IN INDIA ANYMORE. “The Indian Education Ministry rejected a proposal to order a million computers, noting that the money could be better spent on primary and secondary education.”(Source: November 30, 2006 NYT Technology section article titled “For $150, Third World Laptop stirs up a Big Debate” )
    So it is important to know the facts before rushing to use every non issue to push for state withdrawal. Even after all these years, it is the Government owned BSNL which provides much of the rural landline and mobile connectivity. One reason why private mobile companies are responsive to customers is because there is the Government regulator TRAI. In any case, Telecom penetration is a mere indicator and facilitator of progress, not progress itself.
    The author goes from saying
    “The OLPC is irrelevant in the context of Indian education. It’s a technological solution, and the problem in India is largely non-technological.” and that “Electronics is neither necessary nor sufficient for education.” to doing a back flip “The solution to India’s educational problems will and must use technology intensively, but it will have little to do with children toting laptops around.” Before finally concluding “OLPC is a costly device for poor countries. It’s going to be a huge waste of money that could be more efficiently spent on other technological solutions such as radio, TV monitors, and DVD players.”. Wish he paid some attention to the non technological solutions for improving education in India.


  3. Srinivas,

    While I agree that OLPC is by now a non-issue in the Indian context, I don’t think Atanu has done any back flips.You may want to read his previous (there are many) on the ills of the current education system and the possible solution/s.I don’t think we readers should expect him to restate everything in every post.He usually does give links to relevant posts from the archives.

    Coming to state withdrawal – a complete withdrawal by the Govt may not be necessary.Local self governing bodies could still be involved in the education aspect. And at the National and State levels, there could be a regulatory body (similar to TRAI for Telecom) that monitors the various entities in the education field, and provides guidances from time to time.

    By monitoring, I don’t mean ‘authority to give licenses to run educational institutions’. I mean a watchdog that ensures that unscrupulous elements can not misuse the liberalization of the education sector.

    Now, I would like to highlight something I have noticed of late in my visits to my hometown (Kadapa in Andhra Pradesh).Both my mom and my two aunts work in Govt schools and colleges.One of them is a Maths lecturer and Principal of a Govt high school and junior college in a rural area.She told me a few months back that most of the students have been leaving the school in the past 2 years. Reason: They are all joining the local branches of (private) corporate schools and junior colleges. In fact, throughout rural AP, literally hundreds of schools and colleges have come up as franchisees to big name branded institutions in Hyderabad.

    Students are leaving govt schools and colleges in droves and joining these
    private schools.These new schools are charging less than what they charge in the cities and towns, but still, it is a significant investment for the villagers to make. And the ‘poor’ villagers are making those investments for their children because TV/Telecom growth in rural areas has taught them the need to educate their children to the best possible quality.

    It is a different point whether these private schools are offering quality education compared to the Govt schools.But the ‘consumers’ are demanding more attention and results and are willing to pay for the same.

    How are the teachers in Govt schools reacting to this?Some of them are quitting Govt jobs and joining these private schools.Some are ploughing on trying to do their best for the remaining children. While a few are continuing to receive govt salaries, but also teaching in private schools.

    Only the very poor, who cannot afford the private schools, are continuing to send their children to the govt schools.At least in AP, over one lakh education volunteers (unemployed graduates who act as interim teachers for half the salary till permanent positions are created)are working in rural areas. Some times, they don’t receive any money for months together.And when they do, some money is deducted by the bureaucracy as commission.And guess what, for the money spent on Vidya Volunteers, the Govt deducts 50% of it from the funds given to the village/mandal.

    My point: You tell me now, whether the problem is that of technology or of government control of education? IMHO, the problem is primarily due to the nature and scope of the govt control, and the policy around distribution of resources. The Govt could get out of the education execution field, be a regulator/watchdog, and also provide education vouchers to the children of the very poor (middle and bottom layers of the bottom of the pyramid).This can’t be done overnight.But we need to start sometime.

    Ok..that was a longish ramble:-)


  4. The author is against OLPC because bill gates and barret are against it but he is for DVD players, TVs and FM radios.They also cost money and the only difference is they donot use open source software but they do not use any.But the author must then support karunanidhies gift of TVs(may be to promote SunTV).If Tamilnadus midday meal scheme ( a government scheme with corruption thrown around) is being bandied about by World bank, then there is something there, sir.
    I will even advocate a MOBILE PHONE with WIFI with open source software if the author doesnot like OLPC.
    The DALITS are crying for education in english while vested interests are tomtoming the benfit of mother tongue.


  5. I attended a talk by one of the OLPC guys at Parc last year (

    There were a couple of interesting questions from the audience:

    Q1) Someone asked whether the OLPC guys did any research before they decided to launch a social experiment of this scale?
    Q2) What about viruses spreading through all these connected laptops?

    The presenter did not appear very happy with these kinds of questions. Check out the video for yourself.


  6. Thanks Kumar N! You and probably the author too are very correct, when you say that education is a victim of willful state neglect, thus denying quality education to common people especially in the rural areas. My comment is regarding today’s post which initially starts off well saying that “The major barriers in education are not technological and therefore a technological solution is not going to alter the situation.” and that “Electronics is neither necessary nor sufficient for education” ( both reflecting views of social determinism) to a strange prediction, rooted in technological determinism, which says “It’s going to be a huge waste of money that could be more efficiently spent on other technological solutions such as radio, TV monitors, and DVD players” That only means he has a problem with OLPC as a solution for education, not other technological fixes like TV, Radio(which ironically have a longer history of failure, well documented in development communication literature) this is contrary to his earlier statement(what I called a back flip), You are right that TV, (if not telecom) has spurred the people in the villages to aspire for quality education as an important means to a better life. But lets not kid ourselves, that villagers, either in Kadapa, Warangal or Bapatla, are using a TV or Radio for educational purposes. My point is instead of promoting technology as solution for education(whether a laptop, TV or Radio)there should be focus on other practical solutions to promote greater access to quality education,some of which you have touched upon, like Strengthening Govt school education, better infrastructure, staffing and mid day meals schemes. With due respect to the author, he may have offered these solutions in the past in a different context. But his today’s post sadly reflects an excessive faith in technology (Radio,TV monitors, and DVD players if not a low cost laptop)which history proves, stands on a shaky ground.


  7. There was a comment i once read by a doctoral student (whose name i forget) whose dessertation was on the role of the caste system in the Agrarian economy. To cut a long story short the lady demonstrated that education levels and quality are stacked by caste and also that the current system of agricultural labour as we know it will vanish with better opportunities provided by education. In other words our food production system *depends* on having a feudal, non-educated set of agricultural hands at the bottom of the pillar to keep costs in check. While this will raise anyone’s hackles irrespective of their ideological persuation, the truth is that with this population size there is no *better* way of keeping the “aam admi’s” body and soul together.i.e. Keep food cheap enough to actually eat. Not surprisingly the political class is well aware of this.This economic rationale is what keeps the caste and associated systems going. Claiming privilage is pointless unless it allows a greater standard of living. Like the europeans the only way out IMHO is migration driven colonization or fraticidal war over resources. Education is but one such resource. We are at a point of history where we see the concept of a nation state withering away.It will be interesting to see the next container for governing energy flows in the planet.


  8. I agree with the argument that technological advancement/access is not the “direct” solution for the problems in India. Nevertheless, projects like OLPS which are aimed towards removing/reducing digital divide are of great value for a developing country like India. Another such initiative (in cellular domain) is EMC i.e. ‘Emerging Market Cellphone’ which is taken by GSMA to make affordable cellphones available to masses.


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