Tuesday, January 02, 2007

One Laptop Per Child

One person on schoolforge said this:
An interesting article by one of the GNU Classpath Developer Roma Kennke

He thinks what our children really need are:
* Parents.
* Time to learn.
* Childhood.

and they don't need:
* Floods of information and media.
* Plastic toys
* And certainly, kids don't need a computer
Then another said this:
When your world is dominated by where your next meal is coming from and IF your next meal is coming, you probably aren't too concerned about things like PC's, the Internet, etc. This is one project that should die an early and fast death.
This is my reply:

It is true that people in developing nations are most worried about where their next meal is coming from. Computers aren't high on the list.

But that's the problem. These children have no way to earn a living, and when they are parents, they will have no way to care for their children.

It should be abundantly and blatantly obvious that aid to impoverished children should consist NOT ONLY of the basics of survival. At some point, aid needs to focus on how they will grow so they need no further aid. 'Teach a man to fish...' and all that.

The suggestion that they need parents and time to learn and all that is cutesy and all motherhood (quite literally) in a family values kind of way, but is utterly useless. They're not going to to get that (you can't just manufacture parents), and even if they got that, it would not improve their situation at all.

That's why development aid often consists of things other than the basics of survival. You might say that a starving child has no use for a road, and directly you'd be right, but the road is what allows people and goods to travel, and thus enables products to flow out of the community and the food those products pay for to flow into the community.

You might say that a starving child has no use for a power plant, or a furniture factory, or an aqueduct, or even things like a postal service, and you'd be right. But all of these things make it easier, make it more possible, that the child in question will get food.

The question is, WHAT BEST will improve the poor child's chances of being able to make a future for him or her self.

And honestly, it's hard to come up with something better than a laptop and free (or very low cost) internet connection.

The laptop teaches the child. Perhaps not as effectively as a parent or a teacher - but remember, these kids are not going to get parents or teachers. There isn't enough money in the world - have you any understanding of what a teacher costs? For many children, if the laptop does not teach them then nothing will. And a laptop is a whole lot better than nothing.

Moreover, once the child has learned a few things, then the child can use that very same tool to actually earn money. Unlike almost anything else, a computer allows you to make something from nothing. You can create software, you can create designs, you can perform services like translation or transcription, you can answer questions, you can write and make music and so much more.

The cost of this is $130 or so per child, plus whatever the connection costs are over time. That's less than it costs to feed them - a lot less.

And if we're doing comparative costing, well then let's keep in mind that the cost of one cruise missile would pay for every child in a developing nation to have a computer. The cost of the Iraq war could have provided every child in the world a computer (and probably fed and housed them too). The money developing nations spend on arms (usually purchased from the U.S. or France or Britain) would feed and educate their children. So I don't buy this whole 'misplaced priorities' argument. If a country can afford to fight a war, it can afford to provide computers for children.

I'm ready to entertain the argument that a computer might not be the best way to educate a child and to then provide a means of employment. But believe me, family values ain't it. Nor anything else I've seen.

4 comments:

  1. This whole concept of "development" is the probem here. These countries are not facing problems because they just happen to be a bit behind in catching up with so called "developed" countries. Their relative and absolute underdevelopment is caused directly by super exploitation using adverse terms of trade from the very countries who return back to them only a fraction of that which has been stolen and call it aid - with pro free market strings attached. The west would love to reinvest some of the excess profits if they could only find a market for the further over-production of manufactured goods this would cause. Meanwhile they will continue to extract the raw materials for a pittance, without any added value. "There isn't enough money in the world" is only true within the confines of a system which relies upon artificial scarcity to make it so. In reality, there are enough raw materials, land, knowledge, labour power, all the necessities and beyond to give every citizen in this world a decent and fulfilling life.

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  2. This also has resonance with what Hans Rosling was saying at LeWeb3 in Paris last month. His point: we should stop thinking in terms of first and second world, developed and developing world and, instead, look at modernisation as a measure:
    http://edu.blogs.com/edublogs/2006/12/hans_roslinglew.html

    I certainly find the idea of modernisation more helpful to get to grips with where priorities are than globalisation, which implies the unhelpful debate over global competition being the best way forward; after all, most of the greatest gains in the past have been through cooperation rather than competition, no?

    Hans' words are probably more succinct than my paraphrasing here, though ;-)

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  3. I recently met a fellow working in South Africa. His goal was to set up teacher training using mobile phones. Anyway, I asked him what the African people thought of the One Laptop Per Child project. He said they had mixed reactions. Why, they ask, do they get the cheap equipment rather than the same kinds of machines that are used by the rich countries? They see it as, well, insulting. They are also very suspicious of why they are being given these machines. I, too, wonder about the project. Wouldn’t it be great to open up new markets in the “developing” world (as one person has already alluded)? Or, better yet, wouldn’t it be a great source of cheap labor? I would like to think that this is a philanthropic project, but that really isn’t what motivates most corporations to donate their time and equipment.

    Interestingly, I presented these comments to one of my colleagues. Her response: “Well, at least they’re trying to do something.” Doing something poorly conceived can be very destructive. Introducing technologies or new ideas can severely disrupt cultures; it can disrupt already survival patterns that are already at the brink. What, exactly, are the practicalities of providing these machines? Who is involved in designing instruction that is relevant and useful? Who determines what is relevant and useful?

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  4. Stephen says:

    "It is true that people in developing nations are most worried about where their next meal is coming from. Computers aren't high on the list."

    I agree.

    "But that's the problem. These children have no way to earn a living, and when they are parents, they will have no way to care for their children. It should be abundantly and blatantly obvious that aid to impoverished children should consist NOT ONLY of the basics of survival. At some point, aid needs to focus on how they will grow so they need no further aid. 'Teach a man to fish...' and all that."

    I agree completely. I discussed this with my class and many agreed that aid (although worthwhile in its own right) is not a cure. While aid is given, there must be energy directed at finding innovative ways for impoverished regions to participate on a level economic field. Broadband FLOSS technology opens an opportunity (unique to the late 20th century and onward) for individuals to garner income.

    Projects like OLPC are applaudable because such projects are smashing away at two huge barriers at once. One, the barrier of cost - if you can't afford it, you're screwed. And two, the barrier of proprietary software - if you run it (especially a proprietary operating system) you increase the risk of being censored, spied upon, or attacked through a network. FOSS-based computers are obviously the best defense to these problems.

    "That's why development aid often consists of things other than the basics of survival. You might say that a starving child has no use for a road, and directly you'd be right, but the road is what allows people and goods to travel, and thus enables products to flow out of the community and the food those products pay for to flow into the community."

    Yep. And like the roads and beastly machines we drive upon them, our current computers are environment wreckers. This is yet another reason to applaude initiatives like the OLPC. It's far from ideal, but these machines consume a considerably less amount of resources to build and operate.

    "The question is, WHAT BEST will improve the poor child's chances of being able to make a future for him or her self."

    And this is where I must stress that, in terms of an OLPC-like project, the BEST is a FLOSS-based machine. There will be proprietary alternatives to seduce the beneficiaries of these machines. But if we really want to maximize opportunities for the poor, they must be given a chance to enter into a community of freedom, not a world of monopolies.

    "And honestly, it's hard to come up with something better than a laptop and free (or very low cost) internet connection."

    Free (or as you say, "very low cost") broadband is key here. And we can have it easily if we wish to cooperate and view the process not from a shareholder or nationalistic perspective, but from a human perspective. There is something seriously screwed up when I'm living in West Africa and have to pay 3 or 4 times the cost for a connection that's much slower than a broadband connection in the United States.

    "Moreover, once the child has learned a few things, then the child can use that very same tool to actually earn money. Unlike almost anything else, a computer allows you to make something from nothing. You can create software, you can create designs, you can perform services like translation or transcription, you can answer questions, you can write and make music and so much more."

    These are some good examples of ways that individuals with a connection to the Internet can participate in the information economy. As well, it seems that initiatives like the Creative Commons will go far in helping mesh the shared works created by a community of free individuals with the sanity of reserving some rights of artistic publication (e.g. attribution, commercialization).

    Thanks for your post, Stephen.

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