Friday, February 15, 2008

The One Laptop Per Child Program: The Politics and the Bureaucracies

With two major competing programs known so far. Will the current one laptop per child program really help children in developing nations prepare for future I.T. jobs, or will the two competing programs devolve into a commercialism turf war similar to the VHS and BETAMAX War of the early 1980’s?

By: Vanessa Uy

Despite over-extensive press coverage, a lot of us “nettizens” never seemed to have lost interest on the promises and the problems surrounding the one laptop per child program. As of late, there are two major programs all rivaling the merits for their raison d’ĂȘtre like fiscal sensibility, technical feasibility and sheer practicality. The two programs are currently field tested on a scale to accommodate the need of a typical school in Nigeria to gauge the success – or failure – of the program.

One “version” of the program is the brainchild of Nicholas Negroponte. One of the aims of his one laptop per child program is to provide a bridge that would span the gulf of the existing “Digital Divide” that exists in developing countries. Another aim of Nicholas Negroponte’s program is to promote computer literacy in the poorest parts of the world. The computer laptops used in Nicholas Negroponte’s pilot scheme costs a little over a hundred US dollars each, they’re Internet / Mesh Network capable and can send video and still pictures to the Internet via it’s built-in webcam. If it succeeds, the program would serve as an irrefutable proof of the modern computer’s feasibility as an educational tool even in developing countries. One of the program’s more intransigent problems is the endemic lack of a steady supply of mains / grid electricity in developing countries. This problem can be solved by using a rip – cord operated generator similar to those used in those portable radios that are distributed throughout Africa during the 1990’s to help broadcast information in preventing the spread of HIV / AIDS. Though equipping the laptops with such generators would increase their price, there are also plans for solar / photovoltaic chargers for the laptops built-in batteries. Despite of the problems, the hands on / try something / creativity promotion proviso of the laptops has been one of the most redeeming qualities of the program. By training their problem solving skills, the laptops have become a very positive educational influence to the students despite of Nigeria’s rigid “old school” tradition of educational hierarchy that new knowledge and skills should flow only one way – from the teacher to the students.

The other one of these one laptop per child program that rivals Nicholas Negroponte’s is being run by the Intel Corporation, and is called the Intel PC classmate program and is tried on an another school in Nigeria. The Intel PC classmate program according to Intel is about investing in school kids (Tapping the knowledge economy?). The laptops that are provided by Intel to the students currently costs 350 US dollars each. The reason Intel’s laptops are more costly is because of the extensive use of solid - state flash memory technology in their laptops. At present, solid – state flash memory technology is much more expensive than conventional data storage devices like hard drives and CD / DVD burners. But solid – state flash memory devices can work much more reliably than their “conventional” counterparts in the arduous conditions typically found in the environment where the laptops could be used like dust, moisture, and the shock forces produced when the laptop is “accidentally” dropped. The Intel Corporation says their program is investing on Nigeria’s children by “grooming” them to acquire skills as future I.T. employees. Thus making the children’s job prospects in the future much more secure.

From my point of view, both programs are really visionary in tackling the current problems that can be encountered when developing countries try to improve their educational system. Will the promise of both programs remain but a dream when faced with the harsh realities of the high cost of upgrading the telecommunications infrastructure of developing countries just to make them Web 2.0 compliant, and what about these countries electrical grid infrastructure? Plus, let’s not forget that most developing countries like Nigeria is still currently trying to upgrade their existing “conventional” educational system just to provide basic literacy skills – which includes the English language by the way – which are a pre – requisite to computer literacy.

Even though both of the one laptop per child program is already 5 years old. Both of the programs original “mission directive” was to alleviate the “lack of qualified teachers” problem in developing countries by allowing financially disadvantaged kids access to the vast stores of knowledge that’s available on the Internet. Despite of current technical problems like status of the local telecommunications and power grid infrastructure, plus the politics of censorship that’s recently discussed by this year’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The greatest benefit that the one laptop per child program will be to the environment because unnecessary air travel will be kept to the absolute minimum. This is so because NGOs and program overseers can track the progress of there respective “pet projects” on-line because the kids are uploading the video documentation of the program’s progress. Who knew that something that started out as an educational program is now a part of the solution in reducing our overall “carbon footprints”?