New Delhi: The One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative is one of the most respected names in low-cost computing around the world, and they have recently announced the latest version of their laptop, the OLPC XO-4, which can also function as a touchscreen computer.
OLPC, headed globally by Nicholas Negroponte, designed the XO laptop to function in difficult conditions, so it would be usable everywhere in the world, including India. We spoke with Satish Jha, who represents OLPC in India, about the new device, and the progress OLPC has made in bringing their devices here.
What are the reasons to use an OLPC laptop?
It was specifically designed for use by the poorest sections of society. It’s not enough to make a computer and to make it cheap. Anybody could do that. But we took a lot of considerations in mind—it has to be tough, so children can use it. It has to have very low electricity requirements, so it’s easy to charge. A school in a village might not have walls, so the machine needs to be usable outdoors. This requires a sunlight readable screen. And then, if it starts raining, your machine shouldn’t become expensive junk. So we worked on water resistance. Getting all these things together, along with the right software, to make it engaging for children, and encouraging them to learn, was critical. Children also learn differently on screen. Using OLPC they can leapfrog, begin learning “learning”, become critical thinkers and problem solvers, and get ready for tomorrow.
One for all: Students at the Katha school in Delhi’s Govind puri slum cluster learn using low-cost OLPC XO laptops, with Jha. (Pradeep Gaur/Mint)
For a developing country like India, how feasible is it to invest in technology for education? Wouldn’t that money be better spent on basic infrastructure?
Schools require buildings, teachers, equipment and electricity. OLPC becomes a school in a box, removing all these needs. To create this infrastructurewould require $2,000 per child (Rs 1.1 lakh), OLPC costs a fraction of that. In 65 years, we haven’t been able to build a learning infrastructure in the country. India adds 25 million children to schools every year, but barely 3 million pass college. Education is not fun, and not engaging, and OLPC can change that.
How much money would it cost to implement a large-scale OLPC installation? Why not go with another technology, like netbooks?
India can afford OLPC today. By starting 22 million underprivileged children on OLPC today, India will only add $6 billion to its education budget. It’s already spending $41.5 billion on computers for schools.
The problem with other computers, such as netbooks, is that they aren’t well suited to the kind of use they will see. They aren’t built to work with little or no electricity. You can use pedal power to run the OLPC. They aren’t meant to be read outdoors, but in villages where schools have no buildings, how can they be used? They aren’t built to keep out dust, and if a child drops one, they can break. How does this solve the problem of rural education in India? They do not have the necessary applications children need to learn while enjoying learning. OLPC comes loaded with them.
You don’t believe something like the Aakash is a viable alternative?
I think that the Aakash, and other technology such as the Raspberry Pi, are missing the point. The Aakash cannot be read outdoors, you need to keep it charged, which is difficult for a very large segment of the population, and without a keyboard, it isn’t very useful to students either.
On the other hand, something like the Raspberry Pi, is excellent for hobbyists. I think it is an amazing device. But it also isn’t a solution for the education problems that plague India. After people buy the Pi, they have to buy televisions, they have to buy keyboards and mouses, and the whole thing is assembled by them so it won’t be very hardy, and, of course, it also requires electricity. I’m not trying to belittle these ideas, but they don’t solve the problem in front of us.
While OLPC was originally given support by the Indian government, the focus shifted to Aakash. Why do you think that was, and how has OLPC been growing?
I don’t want to speculate on why the government is making the decisions it made, but regardless of that, I am determined to make a difference in my country. I have been supporting OLPC with my savings and borrowing from friends. Negroponte tells me to stop, that India is not ready for real education. But we’re starting to see a positive response now. In Manipur, the first pilot with 1,000 OLPCs is properly under way, and we’re talking to chief ministers in Haryana and Rajasthan.
People want to bring in OLPC, but they don’t want to upset the Centre. These kinds of issues are what hold India back.
Preview: The OLPC XO - 4
The new OLPC XO-4, launching soon, maintains the rugged yet attractive design. It also retains the e-ink screen and is sunlight readable—highly essential for children in rural areas, where physical classrooms should not be taken for granted. For the same reason, the device is water-resistant as well.
Aside from the keyboard and touch input, a pressure sensitive pen can be used for painting and handwriting lessons. Pricing hasn’t been set, but Jha says it will remain affordable.
Powered by a 1.2GHz dual core processor, the XO-4 is powerful enough for educational purposes, and its design is also clearly aimed at engaging children. XO laptops ship with a custom operating system, allowing children to figure out how to access different features for themselves. It’s intuitive, and encourages them to try different options without feeling restricted. The laptops are pre-loaded with educational content that ranges from language, science and mathematics, to the more “fun” programs, such as a talking tool that children can chat with, and learn new phrases.
Appealing to children
The Katha School for underprivileged children, in Delhi’s Govindpuri slum cluster, has been using the OLPC XO laptop to teach its students.
Deepti Kakkar has been teaching there for 11 years, and has been the computer science teacher since the school first introduced the OLPC XOs four years ago.
Kakkar said, “The computers have been very helpful, particularly in building memory power for the children. There are games and puzzles which are fun for the children, but are also teaching them concepts from science, and teaching them maths at the same time.”
“The spoken activities are most helpful—we teach through reading and stories, and the spoken tools allow children to read even if they come across new words. The computer sounds out the word, and explains the meaning to them, allowing them to explore and learn for themselves,” she added.
And while this would also be possible with second-hand personal computers, the OLPC design means that it is portable, cost-effective, and doesn’t require electricity to function. It helps that it is also designed to be attractive to children.
Kakkar said, “The children are very keen to use them, and if given a choice, prefer learning from the laptops, instead of books.