Why is OLPC so apprehensive about MHRD’s $35 device!


Those who know about OLPC and Mr. Satish Jha, the India head of OLPC are not surprised at the vitriolic outburst in Mr. Jha’s “Open Letter” published in the Times of India. In fact, the lead-in to Mr. Jha’s letter by TOI puts it quite aptly when it says

Until Sibal made the announcement in the summer of 2010, One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) from Massachusetts Institute of Technology ( MIT) Labs and Classmate PC from Intel were positioned as the cheapest laptops targeted at school-going children and would have been directly impacted by any such product in the market.”

It is perhaps not very well known that Mr. Negroponte had made a visit to India (like to so many other countries) in 2006 to sell the concept of OLPC and the device to the Govt. of India. However, given the very large numbers of such devices that would be required in India, the price at which Mr. Negroponte was trying to sell the device did not make economic sense (A BBC news article in April 2010 indicated the price still remains above $200)

Even a school student studying elementary economics has heard of the concept of “Economies of Scale” because of which in general, the larger the quantities the lower becomes the price. Mr. Negroponte, however, does not seem to agree with this concept as he insisted on selling the device at a high $ price. The number of students enrolled in institutions of higher learning in India as on 30th Sept 2008 were 18.64 Million (Source: Statistics of Higher and Technical Education 2008-09 released by MHRD, Govt. of India in 2011) and enrolment in K-12 in 2007-09 stood at 24.37 Million students (Source: Statistics of School Education 2007-08, released by Govt. of India, MHRD). It does not take great mathematical ability to do the simple calculation and see the very large sum of money that would be required to give a device to each student in India at the rates that OLPC were quoting. Quite obviously, like any other businessman, Mr. Negroponte too would have been delighted to be given a cheque of billions of dollars!

It was not just the astronomical sum of money required to give each student in India an OLPC device. A quick scan of the feedback on these devices also revealed that they suffer from serious design and operational flaws

What is the OLPC device?

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project aims to produce sub-notebooks for sale to government education systems which give each primary school child their own “laptop”. The target audience of this project from the design stage on has only been school children and the marketing model is to sell to governments and large corporations. Mr. Lee Felsenstein of the Fonly Institute wrote that the top-down model adopted by OLPC represents a striking form of a command economy “By marketing the idea to governments and large corporations, the OLPC project adopts a top-down structure.

So far as can be seen, no studies are being done among the target user populations to verify the concepts of the hardware, software and cultural constructs. Despite the fact that neither the children, their schools nor their parents will have anything to say in the creation of the design, large orders of multi-million units are planned.

Quite contrary to the rosy picture sought to be painted by Mr. Jha, serious flaws have been pointed out by various commentators in the OLPC “laptop”

One important criticism that has been levelled about the OLPC is that it has been designed from the top down. The actual users in the developing world for whom it was supposedly intended were involved only in the last stages, when some prototypes were “gifted” to children in these areas. Perhaps Mr. Jha, who purports to be an expert in such devices would be able to explain why such an topsy-turvy design model was followed? As he surely would know, successful product design begins with meeting the intended users, understanding their needs and requirements, and then building prototypes and not the other way around

Across the world, particularly in the developing countries, it is well known that the cellular network is far more pervasive than broadband data networks. A slew of research shows that in these countries, cell-phones and cell-phone type devices are the preferred means of connecting to the Internet

Another major observation made globally about the problems with the OLPC is the network paradigm. The OLPC system is supposed to work on a wireless mesh. This means that each device will connect with another and thus a mesh will be built up through which devices will get connected to the Internet. Strange thinking. This design clearly supposes that all devices will always be on. Quite obviously, if even one device is switched off for whatever reason, the mesh collapses and every device down the line is deprived of connectivity. Of course, those of us who know basic networking principles realise that such connections are good where the device connected to the net is a matter of a few hundred meters away from the last device that seeks to be connected, not many kilometres!

Strangely, OLPC mandates a no-sharing policy. Considering that these devices are meant to be distributed in the poorer regions of the world, this certainly makes no sense. Also, as Prof. Jeffrey James of Triburg University has shown in a rather scholarly paper  using basic economic reasoning that meeting the goal of the OLPC proposal causes severe economic imbalances and negative welfare effects. He shows that the proposal requires poor countries to have fewer students per computer than is mandated even in developed countries

John Wood, founder of Room to Read, emphasizes affordability and scalability over high-tech solutions. While in favour of the One Laptop per Child initiative for providing education to children in the developing world at a cheaper rate, he has pointed out that a $2,000 library (cost equivalent to 10 OLPC devices) can serve 400 children, costing just $5 a child to bring access to a wide range of books in the local languages and English; also, a $10,000 school can serve 400–500 children ($20–$25 a child)

OLPC has faced a lot of flak due to the lack of technical support. This is a deliberate model followed by OLPC. In the words of Negroponte, "You Can Give Kids XO Laptops and Just Walk Away". This would have been fantastic if there were no technical issues reported. The organisation’s strategy of simply giving underprivileged children laptops and "walking away" has been criticised because "laptops are getting opened and turned on, but then kids and teachers are getting frustrated by hardware and software bugs, don’t understand what to do, and promptly box them up to put back in the corner." The project has also been criticized for allegedly adopting a "one-shot" deployment approach with little or no technical support or teacher training, and for neglecting pilot programs and formal assessment of outcomes in favor of quick deployment.

The OLPC XO-1 hardware lacks connectivity to external monitors or projectors As a result, students are unable to present their work to the whole class

These are just some of the issues that have found mention on the internet. Quite likely, Mr. Jha, being a senior member of the OLPC team would have access to more such case studies

Specifically, to the issues that Mr. Jha has raised in his “Open Letter” ….

First, Mr. Jha talks about the delays in the delivery of the MHRD device. Has Mr. Jha forgotten the delays in the OLPC device? Or perhaps he is not aware of them? The first prototype was unveiled by Mr. Negroponte in Nov 2005. The first working prototype was demonstrated in May 2006. Full scale production started in Nov 2007 (this was the XO-1 model). The next version, which took care of some of the bugs reported in the earlier model was the XO-1.5 and this was released in 2009. Thereafter, an XO-2 model was planned, which has been cancelled and now the XO-3 is slated for 2012. It took OLPC, with all their resources and talent two years to get from a prototype to the first working model, the XO-1

Second, Mr. Jha makes the point that the MHRD device is not a “laptop” but has the tablet form-factor, and calls it a “lappet”. News on the net is that the newer models of the OLPC device also follow the tablet form factor. This, for a device that has been sold all over the world as a “Laptop”

Mr. Jha names some individuals in his letter as having been very impressed with the OLPC device. A cursory search on the net would show the comments made by actual users all over the world complaining about the OLPC device. The point that Mr. Jha would understand, with all his experience is that for any new initiative, particularly an innovative one, there will be naysayers and proponents both. Hopefully, MHRD understands this too!

Mr. Jha has very nobly shown his concern about the future of 22 million children. Being an Indian, it would be great if he also understood the cause, the mission and the economics and became a supporter of this great initiative. Perhaps Mr. Jha could use his influence to get MHRD to invite him when the MHRD device is launched?

Pre-Production Images of MHRD $35 Device

MHRD LCAD 28 July -1

MHRD LCAD 28 July -2

[Editor’s Disclaimer: This post was received anonymously and the views mentioned here do not in any way represent Trakin’s or Editor’s view. One thing I can probably assume reading this article is – Author of this post is someone who is surely tracking this low-cost tablet space very closely and is in favour of Government’s $35 device!]

  1. Shahzor Ali says

    Please tell me the link where I can order to buy askash Tablet?

  2. Pooja says

    OLPC is far from apprehensive of MHRD’s $35 tablet. It’s sad that the govt of India has wasted 4 years and several thousand crore rupees making it’s vendors rich and denying the children an opportunity to learn in a creative and problem solving way. That could help them become thinking human beings. Butbthe government of India understands it’s middle classes but does not care for it’s poor. It wants to spend $35 billion on unique ID programs for the poor but what can give them an identity is learning and wisdom and the government is denying it to them.

    OLPC is also sad that the government of India is still following century old pedagogy and has not developed policy making skills that can take it’s biggest resource, it’s people, forward and enrich the nation.

    OLPC also wonders that with a track record of having produced nothing world class since it’s independence India has liitle capacity to do something new and does not even how to do something new other than by taking a world class idea and imitating to make it worse, a bit like the Delhi airport or Gurgaon! While learning by doing is always good, learning with the leaders in thenworld is always better and surely more rewarding.

    What’s intriguing is thatbrather than embracing a solution and an opportunity when it presennts itself, reinventing the wheel hurts those who need the solution now. Reinventing may be a luxury that the powers that be may enjoy but the net loser is the neediest.

    So give it a new title.. Why does MHRD want to ask IITs to make the cell phone when thenworld is already offering it to use it now.. Had the GOI decided to get a cell phone made by IITs in 1995 how far will our poor be in using the cell phone today????

  3. Well give Wayan anything anti OLPC and he will be excited! Regardless of authenticity and validity of arguments.

  4. Sunil Pande says

    Clearly the writer of the comments is far from well informed about whatever he/she/they may be referring to. And let us analyze them one by one as it is a serious debate indeed:
    Sibal did not make a clean announcement. He was misled by his team through into shaming India to the world by claiming something that does not exist is not likely to come by. It also showed that his advisers did not even understand the issue at stake, as is visible in nearly everything we do. At best a poor imitation several generations behind the average of the advanced world.
    He had no tablet or laptop to talk about. It was purchased in Taiwan with ZERO Indian input for an unspecified price and his team with ZERO track record of creating anything that could be considered original and usable by the world outside of the Govt of India had promised him something they had ZERO competence to produce.
    He was NOT talking about SCHOOL education. He was referring to URBAN, COLLEGE going students rather than the underprivileged children in the villages towards whom the country has a constitution responsibility to give RIGHT education to make any sense of the Right to Education and has not been meeting its constitutional responsibilities. If you and I did that at our jobs, we will be fired. If a minister did that, there are no penalties. Instead, promotions await.
    Prof Negroponte’s visit is very well known- as he cancelled his visit to a country that was not ready to let its children realize their potential.
    The price calculation is simple: India spends Rs 800 per month on a school child to given them the skills to become at best a domestic help after 10 to 12 years of “education”. Adding Rs 300 per month to that with OLPC at age 4 or 5 years may allow that child to become a scientist, a problem solver, a creative person and that may add to India’s income several times that person would earn. It’s a simple calculation. India has Rs 6000 crores annual to waste on supplying computers that are the subject of Anna Hazare’s agitation because they fill the needs of those who run the system, not that of education.
    That money spent on the primary school since 2006 may have changed the lives of 5 million children every year by now rather than the pockets of the intermediaries of the government system and may have contributed many times over to India’s national income in another 5 to 10 years.
    Prof Negroponte does not take a salary from OLPC. Nor does Mr jha. Prof Negroponte does not own any shares in OLPC as it’s a Foundation duly audited by the largest accounting firms under the prevailing laws and open for inspection by every stakeholder. To argue that is both dishonest and unfortunate. Prof Negroponte is NOT a businessman when it comes to MIT or OLPC.
    The issue is what is the responsibility of the Govt of India towards its children? Why is it that it considers allocating Rs 150,000 crores towards the most unfortunate project called Unique ID and does not want to educate its children in the first steps towards using it? Its misplaced priorities rather than a lack of resources. The note anonymously written has the hidden of a government section officer who has little awareness of the big picture and the priorities of a nation and is primarily concerned about a job given by his/her masters.
    The feedback on these devices is to be had from those who actually use it and NOT from its detractors ALONE. When a Uruguay ordered multiple times to make sure every child has an OLPC laptop to learn from, when a Peru ordered not only multiple times but went to the extent of installing a sculpture of OLPC at the gate of its Ministry of Education, when 20 schools in India that received these laptops stand by them, when the Bureaucrats from various state governments visiting these schools talk about the most rewarding and uplifting experience they have, the anonymous writer who is unlikely to have visited any of these institutions is indulging in inspired and willful defamation to hide his/her ignorance and exhibits a rather CLOSED mind that is so typical of bureaucrats who fail to make it.
    What is the OLPC device?
    OLPC designed and produced the FIRST netbook in the world if you want to call it that way. Call it PC 3.0. But it is NOT a subnetbook. Its more inclusive and expansive than your and my laptop. These are designed for the UNDERPIVLEGED children where there is NO electricity, even school building, paucity of quality teachers, no desks, virtually nothing and can be used by professors at Harvard and Berkeley as well. Little said about the “Fonly Institute” person the better because by that token the entire education is designed TOP-DOWN.. Unless the Govt decides NEVER to make a policy that line of argument is outright silly. And OLPC does NOT MARKET to Corporations! It does not even “market” to Governments.
    All that OLPC suggests is: Dear Education Minister, you have tried educating your children for 65 years and have not succeeded in doing what you really want to do. Here is the most affordable, state of the art, quality option created with the help of the leaders of the world, including Google, Intel, Redhat, Marvel, AMD and such companies who paid to create a solution for the world’s underprivileged children without expecting any return (Intel, seeing the possibility of making big buck, bolted away and produced its own version that could not even copy the basic philosophy and is still more expensive) of any kind except helping the bottom of the pyramid, a concept developed by an Indian professor, who unlike the wisdom of India’s education ministers, made global contributions to the world of learning! So, dear Minister, you have an opportunity and use it for the good of your children, your country. You have tried your bureaucrats for 65 years and failed your own people and country. Here is an opportunity and you can learn from other leaders like the Presidents of Peru and Uruguay. If you do not believe them, just try it out with 1% of your children NOW. You already waste too much money. Even if it turned out to not meet your expectations, one thing is guaranteed: the children using it will be the biggest fan of your for ever and they will be more creative than nearly any you may have seen. Just try it out with 1% of them.
    There are 41 countries that are using it. There is a concept of repeat business in the world: If a country actually buys it 10 times, it cannot be because it found it did not work the first or the next nine times. Why not ask Gandhi to prove the ROI on making India free before freeing India? Did you investigate UID before allocating Rs 150,000 crores towards it? Did you know that UK scrapped it after losing $5 Billion on it?
    As regards the Govt of India’s education policy, which parent has had anything to say about any of its steps before these were planned? OLPC was designed with the help of world’s LEADING professors like Jean Piaget and Seymore Pappert who are at the frontiers of knowledge like NO Indian can claim to be as of date and 70 scientists of MIT , from where the education minister would love to have a degree over an opportunity to earn it from any other Indian institution, even at a much higher cost, and some 3000 engineers from around the world contributed to its making.
    Nearly EVERY feature of OLPC is at the state of the art level, advancing science and technology in each of its attributes. Its is not bought of the shelf by some minister or some joint secretary from some market without any acknowledged understanding of either education or technology.
    The countries that want to know its benefits do the studies in user population. These countries have created their centers of excellence that monitors the benefits and look for what is relevant to them India could do the same.
    For the benefit of the ignorant writer, Negroponte went to Laos in the 1980s and spent a year there and in Africa and in Latin America and his team studied it in dozens of countries over the past 30 years how children respond to learning on screen. The writer has ZERO experience of designing anything and as has been reported many times, Sibals’ so-called IIT team has not even established the specifications by Jan 2011, well 6 months after he had announced that it will be available in 3 months. That is because his team neither understands education nor technology. It studies the western textbooks with a time lag and remains generations behind in thinking about even the simplest idea.
    Anyone even suggesting that cell phones are designed for learning clearly lives on another planet and has no track record of learning about anything other than rote learning. And a less a bureaucrat talks about research, better it may be for his/her administrative talent.
    On mesh, the writer is clearly far from trained to even understand the basic nuance. Internet is always on and we use it when we use it. Those who need are connected. But internet is always on. So mesh is on. Depends on who is keen to connect. And in a small environment of 50 students, they may evolve their own way of working. Is that something a joint secretary should be dictating? One device being switched off does not collapse the mesh. Just one device goes off unless that particular device was the only bridge between groups. That said the remaining devices will remain connected, save for an exceptional situation of a bridge being switched off. But then people in villages do not live beyond 300 feet each and its is meant to complement and is still fine inside a school campus.
    Jeffrey James may have a view that is being posited against the view of the leaders of the science of education and technology who defined the field. Its like quoting Dr A B Sinha on heart surgery after Dr Naresh trehan and Dr B K Goyal have both given their opinion and 50 other heart specialists of repute have seconded Dr trehana nd Dr Goyal.
    John Wood is not creating technologies and perhaps will not even claim to do so as he may not have such interests. But he is entitled to his opinion. A more sensible way will be to start a small experiment with 100,000 students in a few blocks, like the GOI is used to doing and explore the answers you seek. After all there are 40 plus countries using it and there are a number of high profile experiments including a two year study by 20 scientists of NSF with each one standing by with their names to the study and GOI can take those examples too. John Woods model is akin to asking every government employee to share their shirts at the time of duty. Would the writer like that? But if you have 100 laptops, you also get 100 digital books each, bigger than any library John Wood created anywhere. John Wood lives in yesterdays and does not understand education. He just wants to enrich ONE aspect of learning. OLPC is HOLISTIC from the word go.
    OLPC is designed as a maintenance free laptop and its easier to manage than normal laptops. That said, wherever saturation occurs, a team can be created to ensure that there is 100% availability of laptop. The GOI has contributed ZERO to the evolution of OLPC and wants to solve all the challenges even before knowing what the challenges are based simply on hearsay. For heaven’s sake get out of your attitude and take some responsibility of educating children who may be thousand times more productive in 16 years by raising your education budget by 25%, by prioritizing your expenses, by plugging the leakage in the system. You can maintain it like every corporation does. Is that an issue that you cannot handle?
    OLPC XO is NOW 1.75 and does not lack what the anonymous writer has to say.
    No Mr India, you are depriving children of India an opportunity every day that you delay offering a solution that is available today. Mr Negroponte was not born to solve India’s problems. He took upon himself to address world’ challenges and MIT Media Lab he founded contributed more value to the world in 25 years than the GDP of India a few times over. Let us not compare the two delays. One had the capability to do it. The other has NEVER created anything.
    Mr Jha will unlikely have any issue with a tablet. I am sure he must be using iPad etc. What he seems to refer to is that when the Minister was showing a tablet, he was calling it a laptop! That ignorance may be forgiven by the disciples, makes India look a little silly in the eyes of the world.
    We are glad people complain for each complain is a feedback as well and it makes the researchers and designers think.
    I am positive that Mr Jha having been an Editor of The Times of India Group when he was 25 years old knew enough prime ministers and cabinet ministers not to worry about influence. Just that MHRD will hopefully seek his advice as he has been an exceptional Indian to have left a senior earning role to spend his own million dollars to work for the children of India. As I saw Mr Jha write somewhere, he is from village India and wish he had a littler better learning opportunity to contribute a world class innovation for India, something his rote learning deprived him of.
    So he wrote somewhere, he feels he is EVERY child! That is a great sentiment to have. I would rather respect such a man than ridicule him.
    I would also recommend to the writer that OLPC is not a STAKEHOLDER in the laptop business. Its about education and may be the writer can use his/her clout with MHRD to start at least a few experiments with 10,000 children each and find the answers while the $35 laptop gets ready for the colleges of India.

    1. Nish says

      Great piece. Of course the events of past year have proved how wrong Kapil Sibal and his cohorts have been. Sooner India gets off this Aakash path, better off will it be.

  5. Rocío Lara says

    Really interesting and well documented references

  6. Balaji yadhav says

    Why does anyone take this OLPC project seriously.
    We can get an android smart phone for 6000 RS in India which helps you to read all textbooks,do some basic processing and spreadsheet functions and even games which is all you need in an educational laptop.Not to mention the innumerable free apps that you get on education,if not we can always create an app on it.
    Probably the govt can subsidise half the rate and give it at 2000 Rs for the students. That would simply be a better project.
    In reply to Mr Cherlin above i would like to educate you that i live in Chennai and almost all the school textbooks are available in the Department of Education of Tamil Nadu website in pdf format. Almost all the textbooks that were needed for my education were always available in pdf format but i buy some books as it is very difficult to read extensively from my laptop. Infact i recently attended a coaching class which was video-conferenced live from delhi to 63 centres across India for the emtire course of 8 months. The Company which was facilitating this coaching was the world famous Educomp. We are already BRIDGING THE PHYSICAL DIVIDE DIGITALLY which is also Educomp’s Slogan.
    Indian Private enterprise is always much smarter and quicker than the Indian Govt. The Indian Govt ,my guess is that will stall on this project for another 10 years by that time the smart phones cost itself will come down to 35$ due to the same “Economics of scale” concept which the author of the article alluded to and the Govt will have no need to provide laptops cause almost 800 million Indians would have a smart phone by then given the rate at which the smart phone sales are rising. By the way lets all celebrate the 20th anniversary of the “the birth of real India” – Economic liberalization of 1991.God Bless MMS for that.

  7. Niloy Debnath says

    One point I would like to make is, its not only about the low cost Hardware, but also the apps or the software that goes into it. Are we in India ready with the Learning Apps? Do you know of any body who is dabbling in this space?

  8. Niloy Debnath says

    One point I would like to make is, its not only about the low cost Hardware, but also the apps or the software that goes into it. Are we in India ready with the Learning Apps? Do you know of any body who is dabbling in this space?

  9. Edward Mokurai Cherlin says

    I see that the line I quoted in Bangla shows up only as question marks. You don’t use Unicode on your Web pages? For shame!

  10. Edward Mokurai Cherlin says

    [sigh] Anonymous smears are so much fun. Nobody can argue with you about the facts if you aren’t there to reply.

    I could refute many points alleged by the writer, but I will focus on just cost. This article claims that India cannot afford laptops that cost $189 each, and ridicules their less costly successors. Yes, I know. We have even more miserly rich people in the United States.

    But I must ask, then, how much India spends on textbooks now, and also how much India fails to spend on textbooks. In many countries, $189 would not cover the textbooks for one student for one year. If India is not among them, we must ask why. Is it that India has discovered how to create wonderful textbooks at lower cost than any other country, or is it that India fails to provide textbooks to many students, especially in the villages, and that the textbooks it provides are sorely lacking, as in so many countries that “cannot afford” a decent education system even though education has a higher Return on Investment than any legitimate business?

    * If India does spend even $50 per student per year on printed textbooks, then laptops with Open Education Resources, that is free e-learning materials under Creative Commons licenses, cost less than textbooks, and India cannot afford to go on cutting down forests to print textbooks on.

    * If India has a magic formula for producing good textbooks for far less money, then it is incumbent on the authorities and the publishers to tell the rest of us how they do it.

    *And if India has inadequate textbooks, then there is all the more reason to buy laptops, and to install solar power units and wireless Internet connections on school roofs. These will provide not only the digital equivalent of excellent textbooks, but all the rest of the information riches of the Internet besides. It will also allow students from every part of India to connect with each other, and with all the rest of the world. Perhaps that is what some are afraid of?

    If you have a fourth alternative, I would be interested in hearing it. But no matter what the excuse being made, the example of Bangladesh should shame every Indian. BD has digitized more than a hundred textbooks for all standard school subjects at every grade level, and is making them available at no cost. Now that it has freed up its textbook funds, it can begin to buy laptops.


    Bangladesh National e-Content Repository in Bangla. Story: PM opens e-content repository. 30,000 teachers, 148 government organisations and 50 local and foreign non-government organisations. 50,000 pages, planned to increase to 5,000,000.

    e-Book ::. ?-??? ???? ??????? in Bangla. Story: PM opens online version of textbooks Access to Information (A2I) Project of the PM’s Office and the National Curriculum and Textbook Board (NCTB) jointly transformed 33 primary level and 73 secondary level textbooks into e-books in collaboration with the UNDP.

  11. Wayan Vota says

    I love this post. May I have the honor of republishing it (with credit to this site for original publication) on OLPC News?

  12. Wayan Vota says

    I love this post. May I have the honor of republishing it (with credit to this site for original publication) on OLPC News?

    1. Arun Prabhudesai says

      Wayan, you can go ahead and do that as long as you give complete attribution to the original site..


  13. Sumit Mehta says

    Hope MHRD's $35 Tablet comes live fast, as for Mr Jha $200 is the price at which Retailers are selling Netbooks then why buy from you?

  14. Sumit Mehta says

    Hope MHRD's $35 Tablet comes live fast, as for Mr Jha $200 is the price at which Retailers are selling Netbooks then why buy from you?

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