In recent months many leaders of education in Nepal and elsewhere have been attracted by the rhetoric about One Laptop Per Child (OLPC).
While computers in schools are a good idea, an over $100 million project to give each Nepali child a laptop is not.
There are advantages to having computers in schools. FIT Nepal has recently installed telecentres in government schools; ENRD has done so in Kaski; Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya's Bhasha Sanchar project has installed four-computer networks that work in Nepali in two schools. These enable teachers to prepare teaching materials, and children to use educational programs and become familiar with computers.
With internet connections, these computers could be used for management, interacting with computers in local District Education Offices and ultimately with the Ministry of Education and Sports (MoES). Two locally developed proprietary schools management systems were demonstrated at CAN Softech in May. An open source system is being localised to the Nepali language and education context.
An installation of four computers with a high-powered 'server' and cheap recycled 'thin clients' costs Rs 120,000 ($1,700). With transport, installation, and training, the final cost is around Rs 200,000 ($2,800). Equipping Nepal's 26,277 schools (MoES. 2004) with this very simple network would cost $74 million, not including installation and training. Schools also need internet access and a reasonably reliable electricity supply. This infrastructure has not been costed in, since it is necessary for any computer use in education.
A great potential use of computers, the internet, and a schools network is to disseminate the best teaching practices in inclusive education in Nepal. This is where one laptop per teacher comes in. The OLPC is too small for adults. It aspires to be the $100 laptop, but in reality costs $150-$200. Fortunately other companies have announced competing full-sized offerings-Taiwan's AsusTek has announced a $200 full-sized laptop and Intel has a similarly priced community PC.
With a laptop each, teachers can take distance education courses, share practices, and develop educational materials. To equip each teacher with a laptop and a computer lab in each school would cost around $100 million.
OLPC groups sell their proposal partly on price (though it costs twice the claimed $100), its robust technology, and its claimed educational advantage. Now OLPC was conceived by Nicholas Negroponte while he was director of MIT's Media Lab. In 1995 Negroponte wrote Being Digital, which describes a world that has become real for many rich northerners, in line with MIT Media Lab's mission. His enthusiasm for computer-based education, based upon the advocacy of Seymour Papert, is embodied in OLPC.
But Negroponte's expertise is questionable, particularly on big and expensive projects. In the 1990s he sold the Media Lab to the governments of India and Ireland. In exchange for substantial payments for using the 'Media Lab' brand, and for advice and help in setting them up, Media Lab Asia was established in Mumbai and Media Lab Europe was established in Dublin. But just a few years later, the collaborations had failed and both governments lost a lot of money-the Irish figure is reported as $40 million. This negative experience should make us cautious about acting purely on Negroponte's assurances.
Olpc.com, says the project's mission is "to develop a low-cost laptop-the '$100 Laptop'-a technology that could revolutionise how we educate the world's children." The website does not elaborate how it will do so, but points us to the olpc.news.com site where a June 2007 article by an anonymous 'Roland' talks about Seymour Papert, "the mental father of the education part of OLPC". Papert believes children learn best as they did before going to school-by exploration, learning from errors, and responding to challenges. These ideas date back 50 years, but the technology just wasn't there then.
There is no evidence to back up OLPC's aims of embodying exploratory learning through interactive multimedia software and internet access. The top story in the 17 June issue of African e-zine Balancing Act was an interview about OLPC pilots in South Africa and Nigeria with a South African enthusiast Antoine Van Gelder who is still looking for funding, and whose best evidence of success from Nigeria is 100 percent school attendance and "a lot of smiling kids". BBC World reported the same week that an OLPC trial run in Peru involves 250,000 OLPC laptops, making this a large, costly experiment.
Research in the UK on children using laptops and other mobile devices at school and at home in the manner envisaged by OLPC shows that learning only improves if teachers, learners, and parents are closely involved in the design of their content and use.
In the US there has been a much wider use of laptops in schools, but the New York Times reported this May that many schools are dropping laptops, troubled by breakdowns and the need to manage inappropriate use, and most damningly because there is "literally no evidence it had any impact on student achievement-none," and that "It's a distraction to the educational process."
It would cost over $1 billion- Nepal's entire educational budget for the next four to five years-to give a laptop to each of Nepal's 6 million school-going children. For this price you could rebuild and modernise every school.
But while Nepal is better off without OLPC, some level of school-based computer provision is worthwhile, particularly to disseminate some of the excellent teaching practices in Nepal, and promote good teaching that embodies OLPC's principles.
Some able and enthusiastic young Nepali engineers are working on OLPC, localising software and creating new content in Nepali. The volunteers have deliberately made it possible to use this software and view this content without OLPC. We need to channel this talent into supporting schools in an economically and pedagogically appropriate way.
Pat Hall directs the Bhasha Sanchar project at Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya and is a visiting professor at Kathmandu University. (email@example.com)