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125,000 Ubuntu PCs to land in Pakistani students' laps

Education booster or vote-buyer?

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As the One Laptop Per Child initiative goes from strength to strength around the world, there are signs that Pakistan may be getting the message too, after the Punjab government began handing out 125,000 free Ubuntu-based laptops to college and university freshers.

Chairman of the Punjab Information Technology Board, Umar Saif, said the project was designed to “facilitate better access to educational content and tools”, adding that it was the first project of its kind on such a scale to use open source software.

“Supporting open-source software at this scale, in a country with rampant use of proprietary and pirated software, is bold and laudable. Due to its flexibility, zero-cost and broad-based academic support, open-source software is the de facto standard for college and university students worldwide,” he wrote.

“With 125,000 brilliant students equipped with laptops, there is great opportunity for the government, IT industry and universities to develop an ecosystem that affords ubiquitous network accessibility, localised educational content and applications to make best use of these laptops in our higher education system.”

However, while generally welcomed, the project was not entirely without its detractors.

Some students reportedly viewed the roll-out as a thinly veiled attempt by ruling party the Pakistan People's Party to secure the youth vote.

Others have suggested that the money would be better spent on rolling out free laptops to primary school students.

In fact, OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte argued as much at the Open Mobile Summit in San Francisco last November.

“Education is the long term solution to every problem,” he said at the time.

“I don’t know of any solutions that aren’t achievable without some form of education. Primary education is the most important - if you mess that up it’s a lot of work to change things for the better.”

There’s unlikely to be any let-up from the Punjab government, though, with a further 300,000 units reportedly set to be handed out in 2013. ®

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