Friday, June 5, 2009

Enter the laptop kids

The One Laptop Per Child scheme aims at revolutionising education among the poor. But is it feasible in India.......

Just 81km from Mumbai, Vastishala Khairat-Dangarvada school is not very different from most primary schools in India. The one-room school has a single teacher. A painted black strip on the mud wall serves as a blackboard. Children, till the fourth standard, attend classes in the same dimly lit classroom with the same teacher.

One small difference makes this school special, not just in India but the world over. Each of the 20 children in this school has got a green-and-white laptop, no bigger than an oversized lunchbox. With the laptops — called XO — children learn their lessons almost by themselves, oblivious to what is going around them and even to what the teacher is saying or doing.

The teacher, Sandip Surve, doesn’t mind because some of the children have indeed picked up ‘XOing’ skills much better than him. Says Surve, “XO has solved problems like absenteeism. Now children relish coming to school every day.”

The children, however, aren’t even aware that they have been participating in an ambitious global education experiment called One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). The project had its genesis at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US four decades ago. XO represents a learning theory proposed by Seymour Papert who had worked with the educational theorist, Jean Piaget. Inspired by Piaget’s work, Papert developed the theory of constructionism, which proposes that children learn most effectively when they are doing things rather than when they are just sitting and listening. Later Papert’s colleague Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder of MIT’s Media Lab, became an ardent believer of this seemingly utopian idea. Through a series of experiments, Negroponte and his team zeroed in on the computer as the key to enlightening poor children across the world.

“XO is not just a computer but an educational tool meant for collaborative, and self-empowered learning,” says Satish Jha, President & CEO, OLPC India. According to him, XOs have been devised keeping poor kids in mind. The laptop consumes little power, has got a screen visible in sunlight, is resistant to damage and can be powered by solar energy or electricity generated by a hand crank. “The entire course content of primary schools can be fitted in it. Kids won’t need any books, bags or even a school building,” says Jha. To enable collaborative learning among children, XOs are equipped with a novel mesh network that makes each laptop capable of talking to its neighbours. With broadband connectivity the mesh works even better.”

The laptops are sponsored by individual donors, companies, non-governmental organisations, international funding agencies and schools.

XO’s software is also unique. It is pre-loaded with various ‘open source’ or free software and supports most operating systems. It also has Wikipedia, and a program called Squeak E-toy — inspired by a programming language innovated by Papert for children — which helps kids visualise, simulate and create projects based on their lessons. According to its creators at OLPC, its central concept is ‘play… it makes children explore instead of being force-fed information’.

How is it working in the Indian pilot study? Says Jha, “The Khairat children have already cruised ahead of those that learnt without XOs. Even a six-year old can write in Marathi and English. They can work with videos and use Wikipedia for their curriculum.” Pilot studies in Nigeria, Brazil, Peru, Cambodia and even Nepal show similar results.

So far so good. But is the programme really feasible in hundreds of thousands of threadbare primary schools across the country? Notwithstanding the success of OLPC in the poorest setting, scepticism abounds. A top bureaucrat in India’s education ministry famously brushed aside the project as ‘pedagogically suspect’ and described XO as merely a ‘fancy tool’. Says Kumar Rana, a senior research associate at Pratichi Trust, a charitable trust promoted by economist Amartya Sen, which conducts research in primary education and health in India, “The concept is wonderful in theory for its potential to bridge the digital divide among people. But it doesn’t seem to be feasible in practice when there is so little infrastructure in primary schools in West Bengal, Jharkhand or Orissa.”

Others contend that the economics of providing a laptop to every child is daunting. Stephen Dukker, CEO of Ncomputing, the low cost computer company, wrote in technology magazine ZD Net, “Given the economic realities in the developing world, $200 (Rs 10,000) computers cannot generate the profit essential for the creation of a robust IT ecosystem, which is essential to ensure successful deployment, ongoing operation and maintenance.” Incidentally, Dukker is now in discussions with the Indian government to introduce his small desktops in primary schools.

Such scepticism is just the tip of the iceberg of hurdles that the OLPC project faces. Because the XO costs just around Rs 9,500 — the next version (XO2), set for launch next month, is going to cost even less (Rs 4,000) — it has irked big computer companies. These companies, which have been selling exorbitantly priced laptops loaded with extravagant tools (also called ‘bloatware’), are in a mad rush to launch cheap machines which are described as learning tools.

Jha ripostes that Dukker is talking about the economics of running a bus when OLPC is akin to a bicycle as an appropriate means of transport in villages. empowering everyone. He also says that the pilot project has shown that XO works even in situations with minimal infrastructure.

As the debate rages, two things are clear. First, OLPC has made laptops somewhat affordable for the masses. Second, the XO pilot project could have far-reaching significance for primary education in India.


  1. The Telegraph of Calcutte published this article in print on 29th of May, 2009..


  2. Nice Article, So when you visit Primary School in India
    look to see if teachers smile and are generally encouraging of children. Look to see how the teachers interact with the other children in the classroom and if there seem to be strong connections between them. Also talk to parents at the school about their experience.