Since the announcement of the Rs. 1500 ($35) laptop, there has been a slew of posts from either side of the school (of thought). In a ZDNet Blog, it has been mapped to the rhetoric of the Nicholas Negroponte $100-pc. The thought is that this is a reference spec only and the cost factor depends on much more than just a statement:
“So not only is it apparent that the prototype only lays out the specifications for the tablet but that cost estimates rely on predictions of massive economies of scale and local government large-scale purchases. If this sounds familiar, it’s virtually the same rhetoric that Nicholas Negroponte used to convince the world that he could build a $100 laptop.” (Via Christopher Dawson, ZDNet Education Blog: How can India build a $35 tablet? More details emerge)
In various other places, there is an upbeat mood over the announcements; in my opinion those that are very positive about this, are looking at a very specific piece of information and disregarding the context of the device and the educational environment in which this device will play. In the article by Christopher Dawson, above, he quotes an editorial in the Times of India, that laments the lack of basic infrastructure for education in India and the subsidy that the government plans for this device.
Another interesting article about the device, came from Michael Trucano of EduTech: A World Bank Blog on ICT use in Education titled Laptops for education: $10, $35, $100 and points in between (but not above!). It’s interesting to note that while low-cost devices seem to be the panacea for inclusive and wide-spread education in the world, the focus is less on the educational context, the environment, the student, but more on the cost of the device. He says:
I don’t mean to suggest that the retail price of a given device is unimportant, nor to criticize this latest announcement out of India, which is quite intriguing in many regards. That said, the cost of the end-user device is typically only a fraction (and often a small fraction) of the actual ‘costs’ to a system associated with the introduction of a given technology — at least if it is meant to integrated into the ‘system’. And if research on ICT use in education *is* clear on one thing, it is that simply buying hardware — and nothing else — and expecting positive things to happen may not be the most prudent course of action!
What I do mean to criticize is the often singleminded focus, even obsession, on the retail price of ICT devices alone, which is in many ways a distraction from more fundamental discussions of the uses of educational technologies to meet a wide variety of educational goals in ways that are relevant, appropriate and cost-effective.
There are many examples in India, where significant investments have been made in acquiring the hardware for the purpose of ICT, but they have remained just that. A few areas, where the government(s) would rather focus on, to make ICT deliver the results that we expect:
- Teacher Training: While many public and private initiatives are in action to initiate teachers in the proper use of ICT, it is still very basic. The basic knowledge and skill to use office tools hardly qualifies as the proper knowledge for implementing ICT. ICT skills are not embedded in the core curriculum for teacher training (and where they are, they are very basic). The first level of intervention that government needs to do is to make teacher literate about what ICT really means and how it can be implemented in the education environment – not just the school.
- Content/software: Even if the Rs. 1500 device were to succeed (with the support of private enterprise), there isn’t decent learning content or software for the children to use on the device. Availability of a device means little for learning experience. Having seen what the government has done in the past, or knowing how governmental thinking is, about content, you will have a whole lot of low-quality scanned pages in the limited 2GB memory of the device. No use-cases have been announced yet for the device. There needs to a serious thought about the content and the software that will drive this device.
- Support: In a country where basic literacy is an issue, the government needs to actively consider how it will support the large number of users for the device – especially, since they will look to take this to backward and rural locations. Importantly, how will they train the people who will provide the support.
Michael Trucano’s concerns are well-placed. An obsession with the cost of the device may prove very costly in the long run.