Friday, April 30, 2010

One Laptop Per Child: But What About the Teacher?

It's quite a few years now since someone came up with the idea of giving a cheap laptop to every child in developing countries. The price mentioned was $100 and the laptop would have a device for winding it up for when there was no power, it would be robust against harsh treatment, dust, heat, humidity, etc. It would be simple but attractive and have everything that a child could want in a computer.

Well, such a laptop has been available for some time, but those who came up with the idea have not been able to persuade funders or governments of developing countries to order the things. They were hoping for orders of about one million at a time but they haven't even offloaded 2 million of them yet. The laptops come with Linux and Windows preloaded but they are selling for over $200. I'm not sure how much more than $200.

Some will remember, it's only a few months ago, that both Britain and the US governments decided to withold funding earmarked for education in Kenya. It was a paltry amount, less than $40 million in all. But many people here are having problems paying for school fees and costs because the so called free primary and subsidized secondary education still cost more than a lot of people earn.

There are about 9 million school children in Kenya at the moment. The figure should be a lot higher because some are not attending, though how many is anyone's guess. The money being witheld sounds like only a few dollars a head. But most schools are underequipped and understaffed. Infrastructures that the schools need are crumbling or non-existent, for example, electricity, water and sanitation. Even roads are appalling and transport to and from school is one of the biggest hurdles children have to face, to say nothing of the costs to their parents.

But the one laptop per child scheme, OLPC, that's a substantial amount of money. And they are hoping to raise the money for 30 million of them for the whole of the East African Community. Two hundred and something dollars could pay all the costs that are levied but not considered to be school fees, along with quite a number of other items. Books, for example, are in very short supply. Kids often come to school without having done their homework because they have no book (or because there is no lighting at home).

It's not that I don't think children (or adults) in developing countries should not have such a valuable tool as a laptop, it would be great if everyone had one. But I wonder if it's such a priority. So many infants and under fives are dying of preventable and curable diseases because of conditions such as poor sanitation. Malnutrition is rife and causes growth stunting and retarded intellectual development. And the list is endless.

Not only are there many things children need that would put laptops quite low on the list of priorities, but a lot of the things they need are quite cheap. For the sort of billions that are being proposed for OLPC, a lot of childhood health conditions could be prevented or cured. Children could go to school with things like books and other tools. Girls wouldn't have to stay at home several days a month because they are having their period. And pupils could have enough food to prevent them from falling asleep during classes or just not going to school at all.

Children have a lot of things to grasp when they are young, reading, writing, languages, mathematics, sciences, etc. It's easy enough to see how laptops could be used to help with this. But I have a suggestion: give free laptops to teachers in teacher training schools (who also lack the books they need, sometimes); teach them how to use laptops and how to teach with them. Then roll them out that way. Instead of spending the $6 billion dollars or more on giving tens of millions of children laptops, make sure the educational system is ready for the laptops.

There is no point in just spilling out a few more million to give a laptop to teachers as well. They have to be taughted how to use them and how to teach with them. When I was doing an MA at a London University college just a few years ago, an institute of education, no less, some of the academic staff there had no idea how to use computers to teach, so why should people who have never had the opportunity to even use them? In fact, teaching with computers comes with some huge pedagogical hurdles.

Frankly, I think the project stinks. But it could be turned around, it hasn't even started yet, to make African countries among the first in the world to use a laptop as their main teaching tool in primary and secondary education. Ok, training the teachers may not iron out all the problems of trying to do without books and other everyday teaching materials. But it sure as hell won't work if the teachers get no training (and no laptop). If you can raise that much money, OLPC, don't blow it on the laptops alone. It's not as if the laptops can be recycled if the project goes pear shaped.



Joyful said...

When I first heard about the OLPC scheme I thought it was a great idea. But you raise some excellent questions and issues that perhaps make this a non workable idea in Kenya.

It would be good if local national governments simply gave the funds they might otherwise use for OLPC ($100. or more) and give it directly to the families to help with school uniforms and pencils, etc. as these costs are beyond most village and slum families' means. Perhaps the funds wouldn't meet all the costs but it would help offer some respite. Better yet, maybe they could funnel the funds to educating girls to help close the gender gap in education. Even if the girls only marry at the end, they will at least be able to read and write.

Simon said...

Hi Joyful
Well, I think if other people are meaningfully involved it may make more sense. But it does sound like a lot of money to spend on a non-essential.

You make a good point. It's well known that well educated women have well educated and healthier children. Even women who spend a lot of their life raising children need education because their children will be much better off.

You build up the country's education and health by educating everyone but the effects of educating women go far beyond their education and health status alone, it's probably an even better investment than educating males! Not that I'm suggesting that you can do without educating males, of course.