More penny-wise, pound-foolishness

In a third-world setting with little infractructure, no access to reading materials, and no perspective from which to view the larger world around them, projects like OLPC promise school children more than they have today. Elsewhere OLPC and its ilk is insufficient.

Just this morning I read another one of those "cheap computers for the classroom" stories in eSchool News. (See Low-cost school computing set to take off.) This time it's 400,000 thin clients for school children in Macedonia. Akin to the OLPC project, this one drops the wireless angle but promises $30 - $40 per seat instead of the (yet to be attained) $100 per laptop goal of OLPC. Quoting Robert L. Jacobson, Senior Editor, eSchool News:

"Although the development of sub-$100 computer access for schoolchildren is still more prototype than practice in most places, its prospects seem increasingly promising. Not only are children in poor countries around the world destined to benefit, but so are a growing number of American children whose school districts so far have been unable to finance the notion of computing for all students."

"Increasingly promising?" Maybe, but I am skeptical. What is most promising is the competition arising out of the prospect of billions of potential customers -- but not for low-end not-for-profit computing systems. The competition for OLPC dollars among AMD, Intel, and others is leading to technological innovation that will eventually find itself in mainstream systems with real computing power. That innovation will benefit everyone.

I think most of us in Education IT want to put these tools in front of as many of the world's schoolchildren as we can but it is naive to assume that those same $40 to $100 per seat solutions are suitable, or even appropriate, for American schools (or schools in most any industrialized society).

In short, neither the OLPC nor the Macedonian project to which the eSchool News article refers makes sense in an educational setting where the technological baseline is so much higher -- as it is in the United States, Europe, and most of the rest of the industrialized world.

Are we really going to ask our school children -- many, if not most, of whom carry cell phones and iPods, and most of whom have access to computing and broadband at home or at the nearest public library, to accept and take seriously lame equipment in their schools?

While American business and industry continues to lead the world in technological innovation as well as overall productivity, our schools are faltering. What makes us think that we can improve our schools by providing them tools which are not suitable for our own businesses and industries.

Why is it that OLPC is having such a difficult time identifying high-volume buyers of the scale necessary to reach their $100 price-point? It is, at least in part, because their potential customers are looking for more robust solutions built upon sound business practices which don't just look at the short-term gains of using one-time money to put low-end entry-level equipment in place with one-time money.

Our schools are facing budget challenges of staggering proportions, brought to us, in large part, by politicians seeking to use unfunded mandates to turn our schools into experiments in social engineering. Funding is the issue and funding is the solution.

Accepting inferior solutions to make modest short-term gains at the expense of real reform is a recipe for more of the same.

One Lame-laptop Per Child connected by an unsecured and unreliable mesh network will be far less effective in addressing our children's educational needs than would a smaller number of state-of-the-art life-cycle-funded computing tools connected to a robust and secure network with sufficient bandwidth to leverage the Internet -- and sufficient funding to perpetuate.

Let's not settle for more false promises.