Unless you have been living in a cave for the past few months, and even if you have a marginal interest in technology and development, by now you should at least have heard of the One Laptop Per Child Project. The project was initiated by the MIT Media Lab and aimed at providing school children in developing countries with low cost, rugged laptop that runs on open source software and as such would ideally contribute to bridging the “digital divide” by technologically empowering school children who would otherwise be sans PCs. The project was initially dubbed the “$100 Laptop”, a name which is now only symbolic with the first batch of machines selling at $200. Still, the technology is impressive and it is the first serious effort to bring low cost computing to the underprivileged masses. The production unit, known as the XO-1, is scheduled to ship on a “Get 1-Give 1” program as of this week (at least in North America)
One cannot help but applaud the efforts of the OLPC foundation and the its potential contribution to bringing down part of the walls between students and educators in developing countries and access to technology, and the subsequent gradual leveling of the proverbial playing fields in the realms of applying technology to education and access to information. I am impressed by the XO’s relative technological prowess at what is still a low cost despite an overshoot by double the initial target price. What I am concerned about- and very interested to follow closely- is the degree(s) of success of the adoption of the OLPC project by the countries that has committed (or thinking about it), and what this will mean in terms of effects on two fronts: the paradigms of looking at the relation between technology and development in the sphere of education, and further efforts to develop low cost, open-platform (or quasi open-platform) personal computing devices.
Before we talk about that, let’s remember, underline and highlight what this project is about: Education. As Nicholas Negroponte simply put it:
It’s an education project, not a laptop project.
In projects like this, it is often all too easy to get a little too excited about the technology and stray from the main objective: in this case being providing means to “digitally empower” students and educators in developing countries. I have no adequate knowledge of the educational system and the institutional groundwork that form the structural ecosystem for such projects in most of the countries that signed-up for OLPC purchases. With respect to Egypt, however, my main concern is that the XO is merely a shiny new gear that will is going to be fitted into an old rusty machine.
To me, the OLPC project is quiet a laudable one. The technology is very exciting and the ultimate goal – reducing the digital divide – is praiseworthy. Nevertheless, here is what I meant by the metaphorical shiny new gear in the rusty old machine: The shiny new gear is of course the OLPC and the old rusty machine is – you guessed it – the Egyptian Ministry of Education. Think about who will be receiving all those XOs. They are the kids in public schools with average class headcounts of 40+. You know what? Some of these public schools actually have computer labs which are under lock and key for most of the year and the dust covers are only removed for visiting Ministry “educational zones” inspectors and other outsiders. Back in 1994, the Ministry of Education launched an ambitious program to create a new breed to “technology-enabled” public schools. They gave schools PCs, Internet access and even satellite TV. Sounds great right? It does, but the project failed. What the MoE essentially did was take some potentially useful technologies and “jimmy-rigged” a development project to a dysfunctional schooling system. The public education system in Egypt is plaqued by overcrowded classrooms, unqualified and underpaid teachers, and consequently unmotivated and alienated students. Here is a potentially beneficial, well-funded project that was hastily strutted on a a system that needs a complete overhaul in the first place.
Here is a central problem that we should consider though: The so called digital divide is not static, it is constantly expanding. As a policy maker in projects like that in a developing country, would you rather be an “early adopter”, believing that new technology is good even if not compatible with current national development priorities, or would you adopt a wait-and-see strategy, bearing in mind that the “wait” in national policy making can range from 5-20 years, by then your country would very well be light years behind in terms of development in technology-based and technology-supported sectors. The good news, however, is that the pace of “catching-up” is now much faster. Oftentimes a laggard approach to adoption of technology is required, and refraining from jumping on “magic pill” project bandwagons is a sound decision in light of local socioeconomic givens. Ideally, long-term policy making with respect to IT-based development projects, especially in the realm of education, should adopt a “layered” approach. That is, technology-based projects are not standalone, they need a working institutional foundation and developed human capacities as a backbone. Alas, far-sighted policy-making is often the exception, not the rule.
Taking a something designed based on constructionist learning approaches and dropping it in an system burdened by multiple more pressing issues outlined above is a well-intentioned but short-sighted decision. Egypt has come a long way since the mid 1990s in the field of telecommunications in general and the proliferation of affordable Internet access in particular, but again: this is not about the technology as an end in itself, its about what technology can do for other sectors. One cannot help but wonder about what corners will have to be cut after Egypt makes the purchases for several thousand XO units. Teachers’ salaries? Public schools’ renovation budgets? Where does the OLPC fit in on the priority scale?
It is a rather universally agreed upon notion that new, open and affordable technology is a catalyst for development. In my opinion, a series of pilot programs should precede wide-scale deployment of the units. Additionally, a strong institutional commitment is what this project will pivot on, and why not involve the private sector? Again, the OLPC project itself holds much promise, but it only tells half the story. The other half is yet to be told by the nations that have signed up and committed to the project.