[Op-Ed]: The (Il)Logic of Laptops and Education

By Prerna Srivastava|22nd Oct 2008
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At several points during his presentation at MIT yesterday, Nicholas Negroponte mentioned prominent figures in passing – Kofi Annan, Steve Jobs, the Prime Ministers and Presidents of dozens of countries – but at no point did I think he was being self-aggrandizing. His style of speaking was interspersed with personal accounts and anecdotes that shed light on the approach employed by One Laptop Per Child – compassionate, principled, and highly insightful, specifically in terms of technology and distribution. But was there something lacking once the laptop actually reached the classroom?

Before I venture to answer this question, I quickly want to mention 2 points from the presentation that I found particularly fascinating:

1) Why Non-Profit?

This question might not have interested me a few months ago, but after taking a class on entrepreneurship and innovation, I have found that this question is absolutely central to the future of a social venture. In the case of OLPC, Negroponte mentioned three specific reasons for taking the non-profit route (as opposed to for-profit):

a) Clarity of purpose – The label of “non-profit” mitigates fears, and ensures governments that the primary objective of the organization is education, not profits.

b) Outstanding talent at no cost – This was especially interesting. Negroponte mentioned how he was able to attract extremely talented people without having to pay them a single penny. According to him, by choosing to be a non-profit, they were able to get talent that they would otherwise have been unable to afford.

c) Cross-sector partnerships – Negroponte mentioned specifically the extent to which he was able to access heads of state, resulting in the rapid potential for scalability of the venture.

2) Why is scale important?

This seems like a really traditional question, but the answer Negroponte gave was completely untraditional. He relayed a story of meeting with the head of a corporation, where he requested the manufacture of more compact, less complex laptop components for OLPC. The corporation head declined, and said their niche was in the hi-colour, hi-quality, large screen laptop market. At this point, Negroponte said, “Well too bad, especially since I’ll need about a million of these laptops over the course of a few years…” At this point, the corporate head did a double-take. Takeaway point – you can change “corporate strategy” through scale, not through small projects.

More after the break.

There were a number of other points that were fascinating, but I want to focus next on something Aishwarya talked about in his post about NComputing. Given my interest in grassroots development, I asked Negroponte a question regarding implementation, specifically in India, where rote learning and discipline take precedence over creativity. It’s not enough to provide schools with laptops – we must change the way teachers teach, and the way children learn. If a fundamental shift is required in pedagogical practices, or the very culture of the classroom, where do laptops fit in?

Negroponte acknowledged the point, and admitted that India has been especially difficult, but I wonder whether they’re missing something. What about large, community-based education NGOs such as Pratham? Wouldn’t it be wise to partner up not only with the government, but with grassroots organizations as well? It seems as if OLPC’s strength is in technology development, distribution, and government networks. Wouldn’t the next step be to supplement this expertise with the grassroots expertise of community-based organizations?

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