India has prototyped a $35 Linux-powered tablet that it hopes to distribute to millions of students. Despite the ever-decreasing cost of computing power and components, the announcement last week raised some skeptical eyebrows.
Mike Elgan wrote an opinion piece in Computerworld that characterized it as a "a cheap gimmick" sold to a "gullible, shameless and lazy" media to "get press and win votes" for the politicians behind the news.
Among those joining Elgan with less-than-kind words on the announcement by Kapil Sibal, India's human resource development minister, was education technology leading light Gary Stager. In response to the news he tweeted:
Newsflash: India invents schools so its children have a place to store their useless "$35 laptops." #vaporware
So we tossed a few questions at Dr. Stager — a visiting faculty member at Pepperdine University and executive director of The Constructivist Consortium — to see what more he had to say about the Indian plan. He immediately brought up the comparison on everyone's mind: the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project.
It now appears that "mine's bigger" has been replaced with "mine's cheaper." The Indian announcement, like many of the "responses" to One Laptop per Child, appears to be more about a referendum on Nicholas Negroponte than improving the lives of children.
Like Negroponte or not, the entire high-tech industry swore that low-cost laptops were impossible until a handful of MIT visionaries and their friends proved them wrong.
The current line of attack seems to be, "Well that jerk wants to change the world with a $100 laptop, we will make it even cheaper."
When asked what defines an effective computing tool for education, Stager sees the Indian announcement as a flawed initiative:
Since the only functionality of the "device" is communication and information access (the low-hanging fruit of education), where will that connectivity come from? At what price? How much time will be spent haggling over which information children can or can't have access to?
Computers are so much more than information appliances. Reducing a computer to a web browser is fine for rich people with "real" second or third computers, but a bad, disempowering compromise for the developing world.
Beginning in 1968, Seymour Papert and Alan Kay (both integrally involved in OLPC) viewed the personal computer as a children's machine capable of serving as an incubator of knowledge where powerful ideas could be "messed about with" and where knowledge was a consequence of experience.
In my world view, children need a robust portable personal computer that will support modern knowledge construction. That computer, especially if it's the only one we can be sure they have access to, must be capable of making the poems, musical compositions, movies, radio programs, simulations, video games, scientific breakthroughs and acts of civic participation that we know children are able to create with the right software, support, time and high expectations.
While the cost of the proposed Indian device is the headline grabber, Stager says that making money the focus of any effort like this undercuts the ultimate goal of education:
Children deserve better than to have their future inhibited by price. Going to a funding agency and asking for one of something for every child requires you to pick the right something. It's often impossible to go back to the well when our initial goals were so meager and based on such unimaginative criteria.