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19 May 2008  
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Mission education!

The OLPC project aims to revolutionize education in developing nations, and has the potential to become a transformational tool, says Nivedan Prakash

When Nicholas Negroponte from MIT Media Labs started the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative back in 2005, as an education project, he probably had not imagined that his pet project would be adopted on such a large scale across the world. The reason behind the rapid penetration of this initiative is that Negroponte has always projected OLPC as a non-profit organization providing a means to an end—that sees children in even the most remote regions of the globe being given the opportunity to tap into their own potential, to be exposed to a whole world of ideas, and to contribute to a more productive and saner world community.

The genesis of the OLPC project has always been to look at multiple aspects of education wherein developing countries have been starved of quality education for lack of proper teaching tools, inconsistent content, etc. The basic idea is to give every child a laptop and to reach emerging markets and developing economies where PC penetration is low. To this end, the aim has been to market an affordable $100 notebook.

Speaking about the OLPC project, Shailendra Badoni, Chief Operating Officer, Datacraft India, said, “It’s a good initiative and one that is useful for developing nations that aim at growth through education. It’s objective is to design, manufacture and distribute low-cost laptops and provide educational facilities. Opportunities to the children can prove very beneficial to developing countries.”

“The purpose of this initiative was to make available 60 PCs per 1,000 people. In developed countries what they are doing is that if you buy one laptop, the other one is being given to some deserving student in an emerging country as a charity,” added Diptarup Chakraborti, Principal Analyst, Gartner.

The mission of the OLPC movement is to ensure that all school-aged children in the developing world are able to engage effectively with their own personal laptop, networked to the world, so that they, their families and their communities can openly learn.

XO laptops

"OLPC as an initiative is very useful for developing nations that aim at growth through education"

- Shailendra Badoni

Chief Operating Officer, Datacraft India

"For OLPC to be successful, the entire ecosystem has to be in place"

- S Rajendran

Chief Marketing Officer, Acer India

"The government has to back up this kind of project to make it successful or take it to the lower strata"

- Diptarup Chakraborti
Principal Analyst, Gartner

The OLPC initiative has morphed into a device called the XO laptop, which focuses on primary schools that does not have access to PCs. The XO is a potent learning tool created expressly for children in developing countries, living in some of the most remote environments. The laptop was designed collaboratively by experts from both academia and industry, bringing together both extraordinary talent and many decades of collective field experience for every aspect of this nonprofit humanitarian project.

The XO is Linux-based, with a dual-mode display—a full-color, transmissive DVD mode, and a second display option that is black and white, reflective, and sunlight-readable at three times the resolution. The laptop has a 500 MHz processor and 256 MB of DRAM, with 1 GB of flash memory; it does not have a hard disk, but it does have three USB ports and an SD-card slot for expansion. The laptops support wireless broadband that, among other things, allows them to work as a mesh network; each laptop is able to talk to its nearest neighbors, creating an ad hoc, local area network. The laptops are designed to be extremely power efficient, enabling the use of innovative power systems (such as solar, hand-crank and pedal-power).

The laptops are sold to governments to be distributed through the ministries of education willing to adopt the policy of the OLPC project. The operating system and software is localized to the languages of the participating countries.

A few changes have been made in the XO laptops to keep pace with the fast changing technologies. For example, the flash memory size has been increased. The new B4 models of XO laptops have new games, new applications, design changes, and a few touch ups for the system. A camera has been installed and the machine has been made Wi-Fi adaptable. With all these features, the cost has increased from $100 to $180.

However, there has been a hue and cry about the XO laptops being too expensive and too late for the market. Badoni said, “$100 per laptop, which is just the cost of the laptop is still expensive for developing nations. Apart from that, there will be other implementation costs attached to it.”

Adding further, Chakaraborti commented, “XO laptops are dying a slow death with the coming of the ultra low cost mobile PCs.”

On the other hand, S Rajendran, Chief Marketing Officer, Acer India, said, “I don’t think it’s too expensive or too late for the market. It is because the costs will come down once the volume starts scaling up. But even if the spin-off benefits are realized three years late, it is going to be realized. As far as pricing is concerned, I think it’s still lower than normal notebooks. XO laptops are not the singular solution for the entire problem. The direction is quite right but the other players in the entire ecosystem should have played a much larger role. It is a laudable objective.”

The Indian scenario

The OLPC project is primarily focused upon emerging and developing countries of South America, Africa and South East Asia. Countries like Argentina, Brazil, Rwanda, Haiti, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, Afghanistan, Thailand, Cambodia and Mongolia have been part of this project. The OLPC team has also done some pilot project in India and Nepal.

“As per my knowledge, the Nepal government has provided laptops and is planning to introduce this project across the country,” added Badoni.

As far as India is concerned, OLPC has done a pilot project in the Khairat-Dhangarwada village school, Raigadh district in Maharashtra. Some Indian states have entered into partnership with the OLPC project and in some cases, even deployment is taking place. The Indian government had shown an interest at the initial stage but lacks the support system to implement such new technology. It can work well in urban areas where there are schools that teach computers. Although in a multi linguistic country like India, this project can be beneficial if localization is done to support regional languages.

According to industry players, the success of the OLPC project depends on support, and big orders from governments. The loss of such a potentially huge, and relatively technically sophisticated market like India, will be a serious blow. Although there is a lot of buzz created by the pilot project in Khairat, the government can look at it more seriously because the benefits are not just linear, but exponential. There is however definitely a lot of room for improvement.

Commented Chakraborti, “Right now, the makers of XO laptops are not concentrating much on the Indian market. They are concentrating more on African countries because there the success rate is higher. Even Intel is heavily pushing its Classmate PC in a big way, and not in government education as such. In countries like India, Brazil and China, a lot of funding has gone into promoting the XO laptops. Still a lot remains to be done to make XO laptops successful in the Indian market. Frankly speaking, instead of One Laptop per Child, we are looking forward towards a library wherein one laptop or a desktop is being shared by four-five children rather than 1:1. This concept in a county like India will take a long time to pick up.”

“The possibility of this to be well received in the urban areas is greater, as a PC per home has grown but is far from being called successful. This project has a long way to go in India unless it gains political backing and is made a part of the education system. At this stage in India where several schools in various parts of the country still lack basic infrastructure, focusing on investing funds in this new age technology may be irrational,” added Badoni.

Looking ahead

Firstly, this initiative has the potential to become a transformational tool. India has the benefit of demographic equity and this is a huge potential we have. There is a lot of money deployed by the government at the local or Panchayat level. There should be a lot of awareness building on the power of this tool. So there has to be some resource allocation to drive this awareness. Improvement in the attendance and retention of people coming to schools is needed. Plus, a part of government fund can be allocated for this kind of activity.

Chakraborti said, “The government has to back this kind of project for it to be successful and taken to the lower strata. OLPC is itself a NGO and it needs support from the local or the state government as well as some funding organizations like the UNICEF. Or, it would need backup from players like Intel, which is most unlikely to happen.”

“Everyone knows that PC education along with primary education is going to fail here in India. Our country is highly under educated. PC literacy of just about 2.8%. There is a huge gap and so much has to be done in this area. But, at the same time, you cannot skip it either. The basic fact is that we have to enhance the skill levels of the educated rural students of our country. For people who have access to education at the semi urban level, this initiative can be pushed into making them employable,” added Chakraborti.

As far as India in concerned, we need to focus on a greater number of schools and teachers at the rural and urban levels, and provision of basic infrastructure in rural areas. The impact of a project like OLPC will definitely take time to pick up because there is a dearth of funds, teachers and infrastructure. At this point where lot of outsourcing is taking place, this initiative will help the future growth of the IT industry in India.

Meanwhile, as far as the future of the OLPC project is concerned, there is a huge debate amongst the industry players. They believe that it will morph into two categories. One is the social responsibility kind of area where education would be the key driver and wherein you will see a lot backing from players like Intel and Microsoft trying to make computers cheaper with a price point of say $200. The other category will be $300 plus, which will be targeted at high-end users.

The other argument highlights that the growth of telecom and the low IT penetration could act as a disruptive agent. The OLPC project has a lot of life and cannot be rendered obsolete over night. It is a powerful tool for developing countries and the only thing needed is to build an awareness.

In the end, one could just suggest that India is a vast multicultural country with many interest groups. Participation in the OLPC project will not only revolutionize the way we teach children, the vision behind this “educational” project, but will also scale up the ecosystem of sharing between the diverse set of communities existing in the Indian subcontinent.



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