In this interview, Mr. Satish Jha, founder and chairman of OLPC India Foundation discusses some of the hotly debated questions and controversies surrounding the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project – a foremost dream project of the ICT4D sector and the development sector as a whole.
Zunia: It’s 2012, and the XO laptop still costs $199 - so far not down to the original $100 goal of the OLPC’s initiators. Since January 1995 when the OLPC was officially formed, the cost of technology has gone down dramatically. We also have vibrant open source volunteer communities worldwide. Governments and charities have backed up procurement and funding of XO in several occasions.
Then what’s the root cause behind missing the $100 milestone till today?
Satish Jha: Cost of technology creation is generally exogenous to the aspirations we may have. It requires technological leaps to find a new level of functionality and costs that go with it. OLPC was announced as a $100 laptop in 2005 and conceived as that a couple of years before that. That was in response to the prevailing prices of technology then. At the time, a PC was about $1000 and a laptop used to cost a little more.
If we look at the baseline OLPC, without the tablet features, for an order of 10 million pieces the manufacturers can still get it down to $100 as its cost of production. Adding the features like laptop cum tablet, a sun readable screen, a mesh networking environment, making it rugged, making it a low power computer are each a leap that were made with OLPC. So while it is possible to create a $100 laptop, there is another principle that is key to learning and that is about a holistic computer that engages a child, is fun to learn with and that is what has kept OLPC's cost of production around $200. But the irony is that the distribution and taxes alone add up another $100 per piece when it is brought to India.
That said, OLPC just announced a new tablet that is revolutionary in more ways than one. Even that will cost more than $100 because technologies have not come to the next round to reduce prices below that just yet. A comparable computer on the other hand will still go for a few times higher price point.
There are other ways of seeing the $100 perception as well. What is the value of $100 of 2005 in 2011? And the third generation of XO is several times more powerful and consumes half the power and the price point remains the same $200, almost like $100 of 2005.
Secondly, OLPC is not just a laptop. It comes with all the software a child needs and just to buy that in the market place will cost way more than the price of OLPC. It saves electricity by 90%+ and that alone can pay for its cost over 5 years. Its maintenance free and works where nothing else works. For someone seeing it over a 5 year time frame, OLPC is more than free a few times over. To create the ecossystem that OLPC offers as a seamless standard will clearly cost a few times more than the cost of OLPC.
Open source and free software are also not as free as they sound. Good software needs the best of minds and they need to be paid. Good software requires much deeper insights, greater experience and an ability to innovate beyond the normal as well. Maintaining that also requires organization and a business model to support it. Governments only pay for what they procure and non profit Foundations have been a marginal contributor to the diffusion of OLPC so far.
We hope everyone sees what the world is missing out on because a billion children have no hope of any meaningful education and given an opportunity they could contribute to the world as much as any. That gap alone should be a huge trigger to scale up and bring down the cost of computing for learning. If we achieve the scale of 100 million annual, the cost of OLPC may touch $100 as well.
Zunia: Two sides of an argument – “Just putting a computer in a school and having students interact with it does not actually contribute to educational outcomes” Vs. “In developing countries, because teacher absenteeism is such a problem, that at least a computer is better than no teacher at all” – what’s the Indian experience in this regard?
Satish Jha: The way education is understood today in developing countries is, in a manner of speaking, centuries old. It has contributed to turning perfectly capable people into those who cannot read, write or speak well even after graduation. In India, companies looking for entry level employees find it hard to choose one out of a thousand applicants at times. In other words, what is there has not worked in providing education that has any meaning beyond a very basic literacy with letters.
Giving them OLPC laptops, not just any computer, transforms their world beyond what a teacher and a regular computer could achieve together. My experience is that wherever we have OLPC deployed, virtually anyone visiting those schools has almost had an "spiritual" experience of what learning learning can be. How children can be engaged in learning by themselves, as a class and engage the teachers as well. We have seen the teachers who used to be absent not only come to the schools, they like to learn with children and grow. Let us not forget that the teachers typically know very little when the are appointed as teachers and they also know little about the world they are not exposed to. OLPC laptops become their first opportunity to get engaged with learning without leaving their environment and for no cost. It transforms the school from a place where children are forced to go into a place they don't want to go away from.
A laptop for very child is much more powerful incentive to learn both with and without teachers than the way education is imparted today. OLPC helps take the children and their teachers from the world of "rote" to critical thinking and problem solving from day one. It bridges the gap between the potential and where the reality of the villages is- firmly a century or more behind the times we live in.
Zunia: With the Indian Government now heavily funding and promoting it’s own $35 Akash tablet project, what is the future of OLPC in India? What is the OLPC’s official stand in this regard?
Satish Jha: The Indian Government is not "heavily" funding "Aakash" yet because "Aakash" is not yet a stable product and the state governments are aware of that. It is the central government's aspiration to produce a cheap laptop or tablet and that has taken them 5 years from moving the target from $10 to $35 and actually offering something that costs $60 and the reviews are as disappointing as anyone with any sense of computers may have expected. What is being offered as Aakash can be bought in the Asian market for a little less and does not meet most of the requirements of education and that is the reason little tangible has happened with it yet.
It will be unfortunate if children are saddled with a dysfunctional device that has little to do with education or learning. So our approach is to help everyone understand that in the context of education, Aakash as an aspiration is little different from Plan Ceibal (which also means Aakash) of Uruguay. But Uruguay focused on education. India is focusing on a device. However, education is hardly about a device. It requires a whole ecosystem to be developed. OLPC offers that like nothing so far in our evolution. I volunteer for OLPC because I see what it does for the underprivileged children where nothing else works. We would love to support the government think through the issue and see the merits of OLPC approach and offer it as an opportunity they need to understand and explore rather than as a sale. OLPC does not sell a computer. It offers an opportunity to transform education unlike what has been achieved in the 65 years of freedom from colonial yokes. It offers an opportunity for every Indian, no matter how poor or remotely located, to become who he or she can become unlike any other device that will at best be a device for some use for those who may use it.
Zunia: Please share with us some challenges and failures you encountered in implementing the OLPC project in India that other countries can learn from.
Satish Jha: To understand OLPC requires seriousness about knowing what countries are missing out on by not transforming their education. The leaders who see OLPC as a "vaccine against ignorance" will transform their entire population in 15 years into people of unfathomable capabilities. Leaders who are looking for devices will continue to keep the pace most developing countries have shown since the last world war. The biggest challenge from the Indian experience are as follows:
OLPC requires resources to even evangelise. Its too large a job for a few folks to run with. For each population segment of 10 million people or a million children, a center of excellence for 10,000 children that demonstrates the transformational capabilities of OLPC can help take it to the next stage. In other words, just like OLPC raised resources to create OLPC, it may do well by raising resources to diffuse its use.
Governments need to start experimenting with OLPC before concluding without experience and they should all not only visit, spend some time as well in Uruguay, Peru, Rwanda and the schools in India like the ones in Khairat near Mumbai, Keekerwali in Rajasthan, Udaan Schools in Uttarakhand, Katha in Delhi, among others.
All Governments should set aside 2% of their budget towards innovation in education and look for projects with more holistic approach rather than patchwork approach.
Large countries like India need to realise that technologies are not bounded by geographies and they are created by humans for everyone to use regardless of nationalities and communities of interest. They cannot be created within the boundaries of a nation any more. Its in creating a culture of "global knowledge, local solutions" rather than "local knowledge, local solutions" that we can help the next generation of humanity to reap the benefits of human progress.
Zunia: Lastly, some say it’s a silly argument while some consider it a matter of prejudice. Why must the XO laptops look so different from ordinary laptops? ‘Shoe-box’ and ‘bricks’ are the two things XO laptops are most frequently said to look like! While branding of a product is certainly an important issue, don’t the poor children deserve something that doesn’t instantly differentiate them from the privileged ones? Isn’t it just another form of (digital) divide?
Satish Jha: I think the world is being doubly unfair to the underprivileged. In the modern times. it did little for their education in any meaningful way until OLPC made it possible. OLPC will help even the privileged children become a lot more creative and help them engage in critical thinking and problem solving way more than they do now. But that aside, by looking different, it gives them their identity. Why does children's bicycle look different from the grown-ups'? Why does anything that relates to children look like what it does. So on the one hand they say its too expensive for the poor and on the other they find it too cheap for their children. Clearly those arguing have not tried OLPC first hand and have not explored it. If they did, they will have better things to say.
OLPC is a computer for "learning learning". There are professors of computer science in the University of California system who use it as their primary computer. There are professors of physics at Ivy League schools who use it as their second computer. So the glib comments come from who have not even tried it out. I have heard about OLPC looking like a lunch box but never the shoebox or brick until your question. So, I would say that when the Government of Peru makes OLPC laptop the sculpture at the gate of its Education Ministry, that answers to them all. When Uruguay takes OLPC to every child, rich or poor, to learn with OLPC that is an answer to those skeptics.
Anyone who suggests anything about OLPC without actually trying it out the way it is supposed to is being reactive for reasons they need to understand better and share as well. Observers also need to have, as Americans would say, their "skin in the game". That said, OLPC laptops offer what no other computer does today. So as we speak, there is no real point of comparison either. I sincerely hope that there will be some other approaches that make computers for learning that are more valuable and cost effective. As of now, the opponents of OLPC offer cheap devices without anything that addresses the questions as to why have computers not reached the villages and the poor and why is there so much ignorance around despite so much progress that mankind has achieved!
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Satish Jha, Chairman, Pinewood Partners, is a volunteer for One Laptop per Child movement and is the founder and chairman of OLPC India Foundation. Earlier he worked as the Editor of Newsweekly Dinamaan of The times of India Group and Co-founded the national Hindi daily "Jansatta" for The Indian Express Group. In the field of technology and management, he started out as the Head of Global Information Systems for the Vitamins Division of Hoffmann-La Roche and was later Chairman and Managing Director of James Martin & Co Pvt Ltd.
He has worked at the intersection of technology and development for the past couple decades and co-founded, seeded and/or mentored several organizations including FREND, tarahaat.com, eHealth-care, Drishtee, Digital Partners India, Baramati conference, DESI Power and has been associated with World IT Forum (WITFOR) as a co-chair and chairman of its Economic Opportunities Commission, UN-GAID and the Kofi Annan Center in Ghana, among others. He has also been associated with TiE as a Charter Member for a decade, co-founded TiE Pune and was on the Board of TiE Washington DC.
He studied economics at Jawahar Lal Nehru University (JNU), international affairs at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Science Policy at the Kennedy School of Government, Foreign Policymaking at University of Maryland, Political Economy and Development at the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague and earned an MBA from EDHEC, France.
He has been published in and interviewed, among others, by The New York Times, BusinessWeek, The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, CNN and is a columnist for Dainik Bhaskar, the largest circulated Hindi newspaper in India.