Sunday, December 10, 2006

Laptops in schools

I know some readers of this blog live in the West. I would greatly appreciate it if you could share your practical experience on the following issue: How important or crucial is a laptop for a school kid in your country? If it is important, at what age does it become important? 5, 10 or 15?

It's entirely possible that a laptop may not be all that important, since the students have access to a PC with internet connection at home. I realize also that some of their homework may involve the use of online resources. But my question is about the need for a laptop that a child carries with her to school. If you have any insights, please share them with us.

* * *

I'm sure you are able to guess that this request is really about the OLPC. Some of you may recall that our Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) produced a stinging report rejecting the laptops from the OLPC project. One of the things it said is pertinent:

It also finds it intriguing as to "why no developed country has been chosen" for MIT's OLPC experiment "given the fact that most of the developed world is far from universalising the possession and use of laptops among children of 6-12 age group". [bold emphasis added]

Sidebar Links:

NYTimes: Third World stirs big debate

Slashdot discussion of True cost of OLPC

OLPC News has an on-going coverage -- extensive, definitive -- of this initiative.

Negroponte: Rich nations may sponsor $100 laptops.

Via Reddit, I came across this interesting WaPo story about the use of laptops in a school in Alexandria, Virginia. The overwhelming impression I get from this story is that this laptops-for-kids business needs a lot of work to make it succeed -- the kind of work that will need a lot more money than the current price of 138 dollars per machine (in fact, there are some wild estimates for the cost of this product over its lifetime; also see this post). And, much of this effort is going to be in training the teachers:

"I think they made the realization that they may have put the cart before the horse," said G.A. Hagen, a technology resource teacher at T.C. Williams. "It was like, 'Okay, teacher, here's the laptop -- go with it,' and [teachers] were like, 'What do you mean, go with it? Is there a Web site I go to?' "

Nearly all T.C. Williams teachers have been trained on Blackboard. They will be required to make their courses available on the system by Jan. 8 and to use the program regularly by June. [...]

... [S]ome teachers say they have felt pressured to emphasize laptops, even when using them might not be the best approach.

"You absolutely have to show that you're using them in some way, shape or form," math teacher Mercedes Huffman said. Sometimes, she said, students "have benefited from certain things I can do with a computer that I couldn't do before."

But Huffman said computers can be less efficient than paper in a discipline that often requires writing out problems or drawing figures. "There've been times when a geometry class said, 'Couldn't we have just done this on paper?' "

Another teacher, who did not want to be named for fear of angering administrators, said: "There's a big drive now to get everyone to do as much as possible on the computer. There's a real divide between those who see the computers as an end in itself and those who see them as a tool."

To be fair, the WaPo story does point to some positives. My point is not just to highlight the negatives; it is to indicate that there are all these other issues that need to be addressed before computers -- not just OLPC -- are introduced into our classrooms.

My fundamental complaint against the OLPC in the Indian context remains valid. Our government spends about Rs. 4,000 to 5,000 per child per year. This expenditure is roughly equivalent to seven tenths of an OLPC laptop! In other words, the cost of a million of these little monsters is the same as educating 1.38 million kids a year. A country which has roughly 40 % of its kids out of its school system should not be wasting its resources on a fancy gadget of questionable educational value.

This complaint does not apply to richer countries, that have achieved the goal of having all its children in good schools with teachers, classrooms, blackboards, desks, toilets, and other infrastructure. You know, countries like the US, UK, Sweden or Japan. Which brings me back to the question that I started with: How important are laptops for school kids in these countries?

Many thanks in advance for sharing your insights.


  1. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    I don't live in the west, but I agree with all the objections you point out.

    Even if all facilities exist, I am doubtful. I feel comfortable reading long articles on a screen, but that's because I have a 1600x1200 screen with antialiased subpixel-hinted fonts and whatnot. And even then, I end up printing out longer articles. I think reading textbooks on a screen such as the OLPC laptop's would be a terrible idea.

    Children should be taught computing as in computer programming: they should think of a computer as a computing machine, not as a glorified typewriter or mobile phone. But that's only one part of their education and a school lab should suffice. For other aspects, it's simply not required. I wouldn't encourage hand-held calculators, let alone computers, in mathematics education. I recently had a horror experience with a project student who was producing reams of graphs with SigmaPlot (on his Windows machine at home, so I couldn't verify it), and couldn't even plot an exponential on the blackboard when I asked him to do so. He simply had no clue what he was doing.

    Back to the developing world -- one issue I haven't seen discussed adequately is localisation: will they cater to the dozens of languages, each with their own scripts? If not, it's a waste of time. If they're doing it, how? Their wiki says it's a goal to cater to all languages, but is quite fuzzy on details -- they seem to be hoping volunteers will step forth. If they expect governments to do it, I think the governments can spend the money on translating old-style dead-tree books (just as they could spend the hardware money on other things).

    Speaking as someone who uses a computer for his work nearly all the time -- no, I'm not an admirer of this project.

  2. Anonymous said...

    I don't have any experience with school students. But I did come across the following two articles that speaks about the success story.

    Actually one particular point in the second link caught my attention

    "On the other hand, people who worry that students with computers at home have an unfair advantage over students who don't have computers at home might argue for school-system-funded laptops for every student."

    Even though I agree with your argument against $100 Laptops with regards to India, I feel that empowering the child with technology is vital for the success of the child. When issues like teachers, classrooms, blackboards, desks, toilets, and other infrastructure are taken care off, I don't see any problem with the Laptop for kids. If we don't empower the kids with the latest technology (provided we give them every other basic amenities), the kids might lose out in this highly globalized world.

  3. Anonymous said...

    >if you could share your practical experience on the following issue

    Precisely where we need to focus. Discussions are moot without field studies in India. The hole-in-the-wall experiment is the only one I can think of that may provide some clues. Access to networked computers is essential to deliver content and have children participate. Whether the computer sits on the lap, on a table or on the palm is clearly irrelevant. Given the technological investment in tabletop and laptop computers, I do not see any immediate change of product lines.

    If we create content models for schools in local languages and dependable networking infrastructure, we can very well recycle old and discarded computers and get on with it. IMHO, the focus on the cost and form factor of computers is secondary.

  4. Doctor Bruno said...

    Well Abi, I don't live in West, but in my opinion,

    1. Drinking Water
    2. Toilet
    3. Black board which are black and not grey
    4. "Minus" Desks

    are needed for all ages

  5. Anonymous said...

    I'm a student at T.C. williams and I feel that having these laptops are great. They helpl a lot with note taking and there is this online program called blackborad that has assignments on it, virtual classrooms, and links on online textbooks and complete and accurate encylopedias.