Schoolkids given WORLD'S CHEAPEST TABLETS: Is it really that hard to swallow?
What's the point of one device per child?
Sysadmin Blog For some time now The Register has been tracking an effort by the Indian government to provide their schoolchildren with low cost tablets. The subsidised cost of the devices for Indian families is slated to be 1,500 rupees (£14, $24), with the unsubsidised version available to the rest of the world for £30.
The decision to subsidise tablets for schoolchildren has attracted a lot of criticism, almost all of which misses the mark completely.
This isn't to say there aren't valid criticisms for such programmes. There certainly are very real issues that have to be carefully managed. The most simple of problems is the hardest to resolve: if you crank out low-end commodity tablets for kids, they are going to break and break often – as occurred in a similar project in Thailand. Any such programme needs a way to cope with this.
That very real issue, however, isn't where the majority of criticism seems focused. Instead, the argument gets lost in the weeds. Some highlight complaints are: the cost of the project as a whole, keeping up to date with standards (the validity of software stack over timeframes that exceed any realistic device lifetime), access to power infrastructure and the cost of internet access.
I don't want one
The bulk of this criticism boils down to "first world problems." Individuals from privileged economically developed nations look at these devices and realise that even if someone gave it to them for free, they wouldn't use it. They already have devices that do more, or they have incomes high enough that a very minor sacrifice on their part means they can easily get something faster, strong, smarter and better.
If people in developed nations wouldn't even want these devices, how then are they going to be the magic wand that makes developing countries "just like us?" Our worldview is locked into the concept that these projects are somehow about making the children of these other nations somehow more like the children of our nations, and once we've started down that path we can't disconnect the thought.
Reality is a lot greyer. A wealthy kid in a developing nation isn't going to see any real-world benefit from these tablets. Heck, a lot of upper middle-class kids probably won't either. Like us, they have PCs or notebooks with full-bore internet access. They probably have a smartphone. They have most of the advantages we do, even if what's to hand isn't as powerful or up-to-date.
Is an OLPC or a low-end tablet going to let a child in a developing country learn Autocad? No. Will it allow them to become familiar with Microsoft Office or any of the other "standard" technologies of the developed world? No. Are they even particularly useful as devices to type up homework or any of the dozens of other mundane "chore-like" tasks that students have to perform? No.
That's not the purpose of these devices. That's not where their impact will be felt.
I don't have to look far to understand the impact that these devices can have on children in countries with underdeveloped infrastructure. I was born before the internet was mainstream and was well into my teenage years before the birth of the web. The computer was more than just a portal to "the network", it did things all on its lonesome.
The single most important application in my personal development was Microsoft Encarta 1994. It was to me then what the internet is to so many of us today. It unlocked a world of knowledge for me. Gave me glimpses into cultures I didn't even know existed. It taught me history, science, math, physics, and so much more.
BBSes and some basic productivity software taught me how to use a computer, but Encarta taught me to think. It showed me the world was bigger than my preconceptions, more vast and complex than I would even be able to understand or know. It ignited and nurtured a craving for knowledge that continues to this very day.
And it is 20 years old.
Encarta may be history, but today we can download the totality of Wikipedia for offline access. Project Gutenberg gives us access to over 40,000 free e-books while classic video games like SimCity can help us think about how to apply our newfound knowledge.
Punch "engineering" into a Project Gutenberg search and you will end up with dozens of quality books to nurture a young mind. Start with Electricity for the farm, enjoy a brief diversion with The Wright Brothers' Engines and Their Design and work your way to The Standard Electrical Dictionary. Take some time to look up things you don't understand in Wikipedia and get lost chasing links and learning.
A "worthless", low spec, outdated-before-it-is-launched £30 tabled that no person from the developed world would ever want can contain dozens of times more information than Encarta 1994. When and where internet access is available, it can give those children access to all of humanity's collected knowledge.
Return on investment
Will every kid that gets their hands on one of these tablets dive in, learn, and explore? Certainly not. I suspect that regardless of the tools made available that kind of curiosity is only truly present and encouraged in a small fraction of children. This, however, doesn't make the project as a whole worthless.
It is not the majority of individuals who grow up to be inventors, engineers and scientists in any society. They are a rare lot, and governments need to both nurture the young and fledgling as well as provide inviting environments for the mature and practicing.
History tells us that these curious thinkers are the people who drive technological development. They are the ones who keep economies moving; the more of them a country manages to get, the bigger the advantage they have over their neighbours. "Investing in the children" in this fashion is good ROI, even if the tablets on offer aren't remotely top of the line, or even have regular internet access.
In some of the poorer parts of the India, Rs.1,500 could reasonably be the better part of a month's income for some families – a heavy price to ask of the poorest. Yet, when I think to my own childhood, the cost of the PCs I used growing up wasn't that different. I'm pretty sure that the first PC my folks bought was at least a month's gross income for both of them, probably more. The second certainly was.
A similar project aimed at kids in the developing world, One Laptop Per Child, gives the children Quanta computers. This pic was taken at the Kagugu Primary School, Kigali, Rwanda by Rory Cellan (licensed under Creative Commons)
"One device per child" projects are never easy. They aren't going to meet all the lofty goals that so many people decide to heap on them. Ultimately, however, these projects don't have to meet those goals to be successful. They only have to provide these kids something they didn't have before: a window into the world.
With that kind of head start, I think India's children will be more than capable of building a very capable nation on their own. Even if what they come up with is nothing at all like ours. ®