I was reading a paper by the Harvard Kennedy School which focuses on the world’s most ambitious projects, their causes, outcomes, deficits et al. While the paper mainly revolved around environmental, infrastructural and scientific domains, there was one brief mention of a whopping educational pursuit that allegedly acquired its due success. Now with macro-budget projects success is an incongruous relative. But this certain program is said to have achieved heights of unexpected objectives despite anticipated shortcomings and is spreading like a virus.

The docket goes by the name One Laptop per Child (OLPC) program. The program has developed a radically new low cost laptop computer and aggressively promoted its plans to put the computer in the hands of hundreds of millions of children around the world, including the most impoverished nations. That said, if the critique of Sir Francis Bacon had a say on this, he would comment – “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” Following suit, it should be mentioned that, the provision of individual laptops is a utopian vision for the children in the poorest countries, whose educational and social futures could be more effectively improved if the same investments were instead made on more sustainable and proven interventions. Middle- and high-income countries may have a stronger rationale for providing individual laptops to children, but will still want to eschew OLPC’s technocentric vision. This is because, when policy wonks will dive in to scrutinize the blueprint, the first thing that will strike them is, this program represents the latest in a long line of technologically chimerical development schemes that have unsuccessfully attempted to solve complex social problems with overly simplistic solutions.

In India, this program has been widely pursued more as an interactive exchange programme than the elsewhere ‘only education’ undertaking. While Satish Jha’s (President and CEO of the OLPC India Foundation) endeavours are highly commendable, considering the unending chase (of NGOs, governments, corporations and international bodies) for funds commenced – it should be duly noted that, as a functioning policy, the fuel to channelize resources which makes a difference in tender lives is not at the least adequate. Of course, Mr Jha is not at fault here. The creek lies in the basement.

The OLPC program represents a marriage of Negroponte’s (Founder – MIT Media Lab) digital utopianism and the constructionist learning theory of Seymour Papert, Negroponte’s long-time colleague at MIT. Their inference being, having several students share a computer is as inadvisable as having multiple students share a single pencil. Whereas this sort of idealism works fine in the cosiness of the MIT Action Labs and America’s affluence, the contours of the likes of the OLPC program hit an abrupt halt when faced with the many economic and social challenges of countries like India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar, etc.

Unlike Negroponte’s approach of simply handing computers to children and walking away, there needs to be integrated education improvement efforts. No one pondered over this, sadly. Without the basis of elementary education, a computer is as good as a pestle and mortar to children, with no utility other than the amusement of funny keys and a magic touchpad. Papert’s hypothesis also falters for a nation whose literacy rate is as good as the number of healthy eaters in Indonesia. He says, “In the end, [students] will teach themselves [how to use the laptop]. They’ll teach one another. There are many millions, tens of millions of people in the world who bought computers and learned how to use them without anybody teaching them. I have confidence in kids’ ability to learn.”

OLPC Program in Nigeria

This amplification of pre-existing differences through computer access stem from two main factors. First, students from high socioeconomic status backgrounds are more likely to have family members and peers who can support and guide them in learning more sophisticated new technologies. This kind of support is referred to as the social envelope of educational computing. In other words, it is not the computer itself that brings benefit, but rather the social and technical support that surrounds the computer that makes the difference. Second, students who already have strong language and literacy skills, as well as background knowledge on topics at hand, benefit most from unstructured learning environments. For underprivileged India, this is where the OLPC falters and the exercise becomes completely futile.

Constructionist theories require a proper skeleton to be built upon. But in the case of this country, there is only a carcass, or rather, nothing at all. There are important differences between a research-oriented development effort and a large-scale international campaign involving the production, distribution and use of millions of educational computers. For an effort of that sort to be successful, it requires an understanding of how to organize large-scale social improvement efforts involving technology and how best to support learning in diverse contexts. Racing ahead without this understanding can waste precious resources required for development and divert attention from more promising approaches to educational and social reform. Regrettably, there is no magic laptop that can solve the educational problems of the world’s poor. A genuine effort to curtail that will require the talents of a wide array of policymakers, practitioners, scholars and designers, including the kinds of technology innovators that have been drawn to OLPC.

Written for The Broadmind