Recently I participated in an online debate sponsored by Infodev and UNESCO on technology in education with Walter Bender, CEO of Sugar Labs, the non-profit organization that provides the software for the XO laptop of One Laptop Per Child. The debate was focused on which model was better for schools in the developing world. I am re-publishing my part of the debate here in two  parts.

As Wayan appropriately points out in his opening post, a computer is merely a learning tool, albeit an increasingly important tool, in enabling higher quality education.  And as Walter Bender pointed out in the insightful WSJ debate (Will Low-Cost Laptops Help Kids in Developing Countries?) with the CEO of NComputing, Stephen Dukker, “… computing is not a cure; it is an agent that will enable children to engage in learning.”

So the debate we’ve been asked to participate in is to posit which computing model is better suited in the developing world to proliferate computers to enhance learning and education.

Back in 2006, when I was co-General Manager of the computer division at Intel that was developing the Classmate PC, Intel was heavily promoting notebooks (which had higher average selling prices and higher margins than desktop CPU’s).

It may surprise some given my involvement with the Classmate PC, and Intel’s overall strategy, that I was not a proponent of 1:1 computing in the developing world.   My passion for significantly increasing the access to computers for those in the under-serve markets ultimately brought me to the role I have now at NComputing.

Access to fully functional, ultra-low cost, highly energy efficient connected computing is a critical component of enhancing and enabling the learning experience.  My belief continues to be that shared access continues to be the best starting point for developing countries that are introducing computers to their schools for the first time.

First and foremost, if mature markets have not adopted 1:1 computing in any great degree beyond higher education, how can we realistically expect emerging markets with more limited budgets to adopt 1:1 computing?

The math is simple.  Is it better to have 1.8M students share access to 50,000 computers for the first time vs. wait until the government can afford to proliferate notebooks to the same 1.8M students.

In the 1:1 model, who get’s these computers first?  This particular example is from the state of Andra Pradesh in India.

The government saved $20M by deploying the shared model in acquisition, maintenance and electricity costs.  They were able to

  1. Deploy more computers and
  2. Purchase generators to keep the computers running during power outages.

The $100 target price of the OLPC laptop was originally only the purchase price, regardless of being able to achieve it or not.  There are other significant costs occurred during the life of a single computer, including maintenance and electricity. Secondly, where is the point of diminishing return where the farthest extreme is having a computer at a student’s fingertips 24/7?

As a longtime professional in the IT industry, I would be lost without my notebook by side.  Blackberry’s, iPhone’s, etc. have reduced that dependence.  But what about the kindergartner or sixth grader.  I would agree that having increased access to shared computer model (more than one hour a day) would be better, but surely these students don’t need a computer with them all the time.

You could argue by digitizing textbooks you reduce their backpack load, but I have not heard of an outbreak of K-12 student back problems.

The portability aspect is another challenge, especially in developing economies.  Kids drop and lose things in general.  They have not developed their judgment skills to a point where they can be responsible for a notebook.  I finally broke down and got my son a mobile phone … he lost it within six months, and if you looked shell, it is considerably marred.

I am not entirely against 1:1 computing, and in the subsequent debate we will discuss hybrid models that could work, but when it comes to primary and secondary schools, I do feel strongly that economic realities strongly support shared usage.  I try to illustrate this in the chart below:

This is not a hybrid model.  This is an evolutionary model.  As students’ age/mature/progress, the need for a computer all the time becomes more critical.  And finally, everyone has different needs, abilities, talents and skills.  Some will gravitate towards the computer as if it is an extension of their body.  Others will find it mildly useful but will prefer paper, pencil, books, etc.

This is where “try” vs. “buy” comes in.  I would argue that 99% of people in the developed and developing world over the last 30ish years since the PC was introduced “try” before they “buy.”  Whether it is at a parents PC, school lab, cyber café, telecentre, or work place, they will be exposed first then build the interest and knowledge.  This is why, at Intel, before the Classmate PC “creosote bush” squashed all other projects (Rural Community PC, Amazon Kindle… yes, we were partnering with Amazon and e-Ink on a text book replacement product, and more), we had a significant push towards “shared access,”

In conclusion, I laud the efforts of Intel and OLPC who have significantly increased awareness of the importance of computing in education.  The question and debate remains, though, as to how computing is deployed.  The most economical and scalable solution is shared access computing.