Should Education IT care about OLPC?

We've heard it all before -- long before "One Laptop Per Child" was dreamt up by Nicholas Negroponte, the illusive $100 laptop was the goal. Is it real? Will it be available to US children? Should it be? Why do we care?
Written by Marc Wagner, Contributor

You've all heard me rail-on about Nicholas Negroponte's brainchild called "One Laptop per Child" and nothing has changed to alter my opinion.  But now my fellow bloggers at ZDNet are wondering if Microsoft should be worrying now that this long-dreamt-of $100 laptop, running an extremely thin ROM-based Linux client, is about to become a reality (albeit at a $150 price-point -- more on that in a minute.) 

The last time I wrote on this subject, a representative of the OLPC foundation called me to task for missing a very important part of the plan -- eBooks.  (See One Laptop per Child … a new perspective.)  Of course, if your target audience is a group of school children living in the jungles of Southeast Asia -- without a library within 100 miles, much less a bookstore -- having a virtual library stored inside a (hopefully) waterproof container which can utilize human-generated electricity to view would be a very important accomplishment.  Actually succeeding in getting these machines high-speed access to the Internet would be an even more remarkable feat. 

Having seen a number of images of these devices as they have undergone change, I keep asking myself the same question.

Will they hold up?  They don't look like it!  In fact, they look a lot like that 'educational' computer which I bought my son when he was three in which he never showed any interest.  He much preferred my Dell laptop!  (And, at seven, he still does!)  From the perspective of someone living in the industrialized world, so what if a $100 computer only lasts a year or two?  But, from the perspective of an educator with no financial resources at hand, or the perspective of a Third World government who is spending a great deal more than $100 per laptop to make this project work, if the bulk of these laptops are not still functioning five years from now, the situation is considerably more grave.  Frankly, I wouldn't expect my $1,000 Dell to survive in the rain forest so I wonder what makes these 'toy-like' laptops so much more robust? 

From the start, I have found OLPC to be an extremely optimistic undertaking -- especially considering that a large part of this project is dependent upon the Third World governments involved to put in place the infrastructure necessary to provide high-speed Internet access to these laptops sitting in a jungle village without electricity or telephone service.  Sure the technology exists to do the job but the per-capita costs in the jungle are bound to be orders of magnitude higher than $150 per computer per year.  All that aside though, it is a lofty goal and if only ten percent of the kids living in the Third World benefit, the goal will have been worth the effort. 

But what about in the USA? 

We would all agree that there are too many schoolchildren here in the USA without sufficient access to reading material at home, let alone technology of any kind beyond a family TV set and maybe a cell phone.  We would all like to give these children of the working poor the same opportunities to excel as their more fortunate peers.  Would these OLPC laptops help?  Probably not.  Why?  Largely, because of cultural difference, and because Americans have come to expect a very high-level of autonomy. 

While few Americans would take exception to the federal government providing laptops to underprivileged children, how many would agree if the federal government were also including with that laptop a list of ebooks deemed by the government as appropriate?  How many of our school boards would agree to letting the government select reading materials for their curriculum?

If these laptops were distributed 'en masse' to schoolchildren coast-to-coast, and the interests of each local school board (and interested parent) were not at least heard, the uproar would be deafening. 

If the government were to embark upon such a plan under the auspices of OLPC and there was no competitive bidding for the hardware and software, the entire program would be faced with years of litigation!  (On a project of this scale, do we think that Microsoft and Apple would pass up such an opportuntiy to bid?) 

You might be thinking But our underprivileged kids would benefit so much!  But would they really?  Unlike those Third World children living in the jungle without any access to information (except that told to them by tribal elders, or perhaps the village teacher), our children are inundated with 'information' daily.  They don't need access.  They need to understand how to leverge the information already available to them.

Almost every schoolchild in America is a short bus ride from a local public library -- or at least a school library full of 'school board-sanctioned' reading materials.  And the majority of those institutions have some level of access to the Internet.  Wouldn't it be more cost-effective to better equip our public libraries and schools with more robust technology accessible to all, not just the one's deemed by the government to be 'underprivileged'? 

Finally, there would be the temptation for the families of our underprivileged children to sell that government-provided laptop for much needed cash for meeting the bare necessities of life in an industrialized nation. 

In the end, to compare the needs of Third World children with the needs of the children of the working poor of the USA (or in any industrialized country) is simply laughable. 

So, what about just selling the $100 (now $150) OLPC 'brand' laptop in retail outlets so the poor of the industrialized world could have greater access to the technology? 

Sounds like a great solution.  Right?  Sure, IF that OLPC computer were really a $150 computer -- but it's NOT! 

First and foremost, the $150 OLPC laptop is a target price based upon selling tens or hundreds of millions of them!  No maker of any computer anywhere in the world has ever sold 10 million of the very same model of computer -- let alone hundreds of millions! 

Second, the OLPC computer has no shipping expenses or profit built into its price.  Without these costs factored in, there is no opportunity to sell this computer in a retail setting. 

Third, the key to the OLPC project is it's 501(c)3 status under U.S. Law.  Were the companies involved not allowed to donate their R&D expenses to the project and turn around and deduct those expenses from their corporate tax bills, they could not afford to make an investment in the project.  As it is, they are motivated by the potential rewards of such large numbers of computers containing their components.

In truth, if these 'hidden costs' were factored in so it could be sold through retail channels, the cost for the OLPC computer would probably come very close to the $330 I just paid for an entry-level Vista Home Basic computer with considerably greater capabilities. 

Further, if any first-tier OEM had the opportunity to provide tens of millions of a single model of computer for redistribution to underprivileged Americans (with the US government picking up the tab for redistribution), I believe these OEMs could come very close to matching a realistic OLPC price-point on considerably more robust hardware. 

So, as Education IT professionals living in the industrialized world, does OLPC mean anything to us?  No, not really.  Our students need considerably more robust hardware to meet our objectives and those of our educators.  Even the thin client model is dramatically more robust (and cost-effective) than the hardware proposed by OLPC. 

And what about the question being asked by my fellow bloggers?  Does Microsoft run any real risk because the OLPC laptop has Linux burned into its memory?  I don't think so.

The differences in capabilities between the OLPC laptop and a full-function laptop are so great that when and if these Third World children get an opportunity to buy themselves a computer, the fact that the OLPC computer was Linux-based will not likely make a difference.  Microsoft will already be entrenched in that same market with Windows Vista Starter Edition -- competing head-to-head with more robust Linux distributions. 

(In my opinion, the only thing holding back the Linux desktop today is the intransigence of Linux vendors when it comes to competing in the consumer space.  Unless Linux becomes available to consumers preloaded on anything except this lame OLPC laptop, Microsoft will continue to dominate the space.) 

So what should we as Education IT professionals be doing to improve the educational opportunities of our students?  Should be look to OLPC?  No!  We should be actively pursuing life-cycle funding for our schools and school districts.  And we should be thinking like CIOs looking for the best long-term choices to meet the needs of our students and our educators. 

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