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
[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!]