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Laptops for education: $10, $35, $100 and points in between (but not above!)

Michael Trucano's picture
what price is right for you? | image attribution at bottom
what price is right for you?

When I started working full time exploring issues related to the use of educational technologies in developing countries about a dozen years ago, many ministries of education would express their desires for introducing computers in schools by saying things like 'We want something that can enable students and teachers to do x and y and z'.

More recently, this conversation has switched in many places, as increasing numbers of ministries (and especially their most senior officials) have initiated their related planning processes by saying that 'we need a computer that costs $___'.

The implications of this shift on planning practices in many places have actually been pretty profound.

Now, it is true that, in the 'early days', the initial rationales behind putting computers in schools were expressed in rather vague terms (e.g. 'we want children to access the world of information on the Internet').  That said, such formulations often presented a  useful starting point for discussions of what the educational goals of a particular ICT program for schools might be.  For the past half-dozen years or so, however, it appears to me that there has been a much greater focus in many quarters on *only* the retail prices of various devices, with discussions of what specific learning goals these devices are meant to help meet -- and how -- shunted to the side.

I recently heard, for example, of at least one place that has been distributing laptops to teachers based on price point alone, sporting technical specs that are out of date and with little attention on how these computers are actually meant to be used.  One practical consequence of this is that the laptops themselves are seen as junk by the teachers who receive them, and so they are not used.  Penny wise, pound foolish, as my grandmother used to say. 

The latest entrant in the '[fill in the dollar amount] laptop for education' sweepstakes comes from India, where a $35 (1500 rupee) tablet was recently announced to a great deal of media attention. This is just the latest in numerous similar news items over the years about various low cost computing devices designed in India, which include an earlier announcement of India's so-called $10 computer, the subject of one of the very first posts on the World Bank's EduTech blog, and reach back to what I consider to be the first low-cost ICT device meant for developing countries environments to capture the imagination of many, the Simputer

(Side note: For a few years while I was at infoDev, I actually maintained a list of 'low cost computing devices for education', with a companion archive of related news stories, to help track the steady procession of related announcements; the devices list was during most months the most visited individual page on the infoDev site.)

There has been much discussion on the Internet about whether the $35 price tag is achievable -- and if not, what a more reasonable price target might be in the near term.  I can add nothing to such discussions, interesting though they may be ... although I do think it is encouraging to see ICT products for use in education in places like India actually being designed .. in places like India.

I don't mean to suggest that the retail price of a given device is unimportant, nor to criticize this latest announcement out of India, which is quite intriguing in many regards. That said, the cost of the end-user device is typically only a fraction (and often a small fraction) of the actual 'costs' to a system associated with the introduction of a given technology -- at least if it is meant to integrated into the 'system'. And if research on ICT use in education *is* clear on one thing, it is that simply buying hardware -- and nothing else -- and expecting positive things to happen may not be the most prudent course of action!

How big of a fraction? It depends: Research studies have it ranging anywhere from 5-20% over a period of 5 years or so (depending on definitions of 'total cost of operation' and the variables considered). Absent complementary investments in technical support and maintenance, teacher training, content development and deployment -- and typically the re-engineering of various current processes as well -- the end 'value' or impact of investments in ICTs may be negligible.

One example:

  • Let's say the cost of computer drops from $200 to $50 and so a government decides to buy *lots* of them.
  • This is a pretty large reduction in per unit costs -- 75%.
  • However, if this cost is (for example) only 10% of the total cost associated with the use of the device over its life, we would actually only be realizing a reduction in costs of 7.5% -- not inconsiderable, of course, but obviously (and by definition) only a fraction of total costs.

Now you may not buy my specific numbers here: Fair enough (I am not sure I buy them either), I have made them up to illustrate a larger point.

My point is that while one cost component is regularly (and dramatically) dropping, the other components -- much larger in aggregate -- are often not dropping as well (and may in fact actually increase, in some cases). Estimating costs related to ICT use is often rather tricky, and the cost savings realized as a result of drops in hardware prices may not have as large an impact on the overall cost equation as one may expect.

A side comment: Most readers of this blog will quickly cite the emergence of the hype around the so-called "$100 laptop", which made its public debut at the World Summit on the Information Society meetings in Tunis in 2005, as the trigger that changed many discussions of the potential use of educational technologies in many places.

Just to be clear: My point in this blog post is not to criticize the organization that initially touted a '$100 laptop', the device itself, nor the movement that has grown up around it.  Pro or con, the topic, and the project, still has the power to incite great passions from both supporters and detractors, and there there are enough places you can go on the Internet to find such discussions.

Nor is it to criticize the term itself, which has proven to be irresistable to headline writers around the world and which I have always considered to be a masterful marketing formulation.  In ways that perhaps no other slogan or tagline could have, it quickly drew attention to the project -- and, by extension, on the larger movement to provide educational technologies to students in developing countries -- even if the $100 price point has remained, for lack of a better word, elusive.  For many people -- if perhaps not for the readers of this blog -- the first time they thought about the possibility and potential for using ICTs to aid education in developing countries at a large scale was triggered by hearing about the '$100 laptop' and the One Laptop Per Child project.  (The term '$100 laptop' has since been pretty much abandoned by those working on the OLPC project itself, for a variety of reasons, but one could argue that it has largely served its purpose in catalyzing attention for the project.)

What I do mean to criticize is the often singleminded focus, even obsession, on the retail price of ICT devices alone, which is in many ways a distraction from more fundamental discussions of the uses of educational technologies to meet a wide variety of educational goals in ways that are relevant, appropriate and cost-effective.


Two additional related comments (I couldn't figure out how to weave them into the post above in a seemless way, and so am presenting them in a sort of quick annex):

  • I don't mean to imply that ICTs necessarily increase costs (although they often do, of course).  The one great potential/promise of ICTs is that you might be able to *significantly alter* other parts of the cost equation (possibly even removing some costs altogether) -- but this typically happens when a system or process is re-engineered to take advantage of the affordances that a given technology may offer. So: ICTs + business as usual --> perhaps no cost savings.  But ICTs enabling/driving the reform of various processes, and thus changing the overall cost equations ... this is where things get interesting.
     
  • For what it's worth, I increasingly hear ministries of education talk about their 'one laptop per child' pilot projects that are not related at all to the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) initiative.  In many circles, this seems to be the default generic term of choice these days (although '1-to-1 computing' remains the phrase used in North America, Europe and Australia). It will be interesting to see if the phrase 'one laptop per child' follows in the path of other 'proprietary eponyms' -- i.e. brand names that morph into widely-used, popular common names used for an entire type of class of product or service.
     

Please note: The image of the price listings outside a petrol station in Thailand used at the top of this blog post ("what price is right for you?") comes from the Wikipedian Mattes via via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license.

Comments

Submitted by Wayan Vota on
Mike, Your low-cost ICT devices list was updated, and dare I say it, improved in the process: http://www.infodev.org/en/Publication.891.html

Submitted by Clayton R. Wright on
Do we have to wait for everyone to have a bicycle before anyone can have a car? Michael Trucano, I don’t want to suggest that ideas in this response to your blog are new; but, if the answers are so well-known, why do the situations keep occurring? I agree with your comments regarding the implementation of computers, especially in developing countries. In particular: - a shift from what we can get a computer to do, to obtaining one at the lowest price; - the increased focus on buying computers rather than on the pedagogical uses of them; - the lack of focus on the total cost of the effective implementation of computers; - the current obsession on the retail prices of ICT devices; and - the need to consider how ICT implementation can alter the cost structure of education. For years, I have heard that the cost of a computer prevents teachers and learners in many countries from obtaining one. This is quite true. As you have stated on your blog site “In Benin, the cost of a generic PC is equivalent to a teacher’s salary for eight months.” In countries such as Sierra Leone where a high school teacher may make $100 to $140 per month, obtaining a used Intel-based, Microsoft-compatible machine can cost $400 to $600. Thus, it can be extremely difficult for these teachers to own a computer let alone buy software and courseware. They are more likely to own a mobile phone starting at $30 each – these are relatively inexpensive, easy to use, enable people to reach out to their families and communities, and the infrastructure to support them is present. Few of these attributes apply to the current state of computer implementation in many developing countries. So why spend the money on computers instead of placing more teachers in classrooms (with the funds that would be spent on computers)? Perhaps, I have part of the answer. In the Western world, many donors to educational institutions donate their funds to building new educational structures and facilities. It is something that they can see and touch. Often, their names are displayed on the buildings. The donors are able to have their photos taken in front of it. I think that it is likely that politicians and educators in developing countries also want to be associated with things that they can see and touch. “What have you done with our money (or donated funds)?” says the public. The politicians reply, “See, this is what we did.” New pedagogy and different teaching methods are not as photogenic as a shiny new building or object. When you take a photograph of an effective teacher and a photo of one that could improve his or her skills, can you tell the difference? Further, achieving changes to learning and teaching in the classroom takes time and can be difficult to measure. Buying new objects gives a more immediate and visible “bang for the buck”. In addition, the possession of a computer signals one’s arrival into the digital age. What should be prized is not possession, but using the technology to address/solve a problem. Now that inexpensive computers are available, educators and politicians have one less excuse for why computers are not accessible to their educators and students. The hard work lies ahead – improving teaching and learning, providing professional development, obtaining/producing educational resources that align with the curriculum, dealing with cultural diversity, providing essential support and maintenance, and establishing quality assurance systems as well as criteria that can be used to judge the level of success. We also need to influence decision-makers to ensure that equipment acquisition is not their sole focus and that they ensure that the equipment is used to support goals of the educational system, the nation, and the society. It is frequently "old folk" who have no or limited experiences with technology who make the decisions that prevent children from using computers. In one school in Malaysia, I came across 15 computers in brand new unopened boxes. The boxes had been sitting in a locked closet for months. They were not used because the teacher who ordered them requested the computers two years prior. After a year of waiting for the computers to arrive, he left the school. When the computers finally arrived, there wasn't a teacher at the school who had computer skills. I suggested to the principal that some of the students (who I had been in the internet cafe down the street) could set up the computers and show teachers how to use them. The response was firm but polite, "Students don't teach teachers, after all they are just students". Also, if the computers were available to the students, they would steal them. Thus, the principal preferred to have the computers stay in unopened boxes in a locked room. The local principal was only part of the challenge. The administrators in the school system bear some responsibility for the results as they took too long to order the equipment and when it arrived at the school, the associated software was out of date. (The delay was caused by bureaucracy and the desire to make a bulk purchase. Note that it should not be assumed that all schools in Malaysia experienced this delay in ordering equipment.) Further, the administrators didn't check to see if the computers were being used. When in use, computers need to be repaired, but no funds were provided for replacement parts or know-how. Based on my experience in Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America, the scenario described above is repeated over and over. Whether funding for the technology is provided by a ministry of education or an external agency, the funding body should monitor the implementation and use of the technology over a period of time. Clear goals for the implementation are needed and should be monitored. From time to time, corrective action may need to be taken to ensure that the technology is being used effectively and funds for computer maintenance should be allocated when computers are purchased. With guidance, students can learn to use a computer and learn more quickly with the help of knowledgeable educators. But, if necessary, students can learn on their own or with the help of their friends. Given equipment (that is maintained) and well-designed software (that is related to their lives and/or imagination), children can learn. Based on my work in countries, such as Botswana, I have noticed that teachers and administrators may get in the way of students learning how to use computers to gain new knowledge and skills. Dr. Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall Project has provided some proof that students can learn to use computers with limited guidance. Preferably, however, skilled teachers should be available to assist in the learning process. Since the effort to produce inexpensive computers is well underway, perhaps we can now turn our collective resources, expertise, intelligence, and will to addressing the other issues surrounding the effective implementation of computers in the developing world. For example, we have already started to develop and distribute free educational or learning resources. A number of international organizations, such as the UNESCO Office in Bangkok and the Commonwealth of Learning in Vancouver, are providing professional development opportunities. They should be commended for their efforts. However, workshops offered by a number of well-meaning organizations tend to be of short duration and focus on Kirkpatrick's first and/or second level of evaluation (how participants have reacted to the training and what participants have learned from the training). Few organizations measure whether what was learned is being applied to the job and whether the application of training achieves measurable results. Minimal effort seems to be placed on developing a multiplier effect in which the first groups of trained instructors are required to teach others in the country. Yes, the expectation may be there, but little support is given to help these instructors to conduct further training and their follow-up activities are not monitored. All training should engage the educators and not only help them to use computers to obtain information and increase productivity, but also to promote critical thinking and creativity. More effort needs to be placed on determining how the implementation of technology can alter the cost structure of education. For example, for certain knowledge-related tasks, businesses have reduced travel costs and minimized the time an individual is away from his or her desk by using videoconferencing or interactive whiteboards accompanied by an audio channel. Thus, the impact on the companies’ productivity is minimized while the employees obtain new knowledge, and perhaps, new skills. Funds allocated for travel can be used elsewhere in the organization, perhaps to develop interactive online lessons. I am not advocating that developing countries use videoconferencing systems to replicate ineffective face-to-face instruction or use dedicated, high-bandwidth systems that will collect dust because they are too expensive to run. But I do wonder how technology can be used in developing countries to help educators re-allocate resources - what technology, under what conditions, to obtain what educational goal? For example, can computers or e-book readers eliminate the purchase of books? No doubt, supplying funds to provide clean water, improve sanitary conditions, provide mosquito nets, and enable land to support the growth of foodstuffs would help many. But, must we wait for everyone to have proper outdoor toilets before all can have indoor toilets or for everyone to have a bicycle before anyone can have a car? The same question applies to the implementation of computers. Note: For additional information on this topic, refer to: Recurring Issues Encountered by Distance Educators in Developing and Emerging Nations in The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, Vol 10, No 1 (2009), ISSN: 1492-3831 http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/608/1180 [note from Mike Trucano: This comment from Clayton R. Wright originally appeared in a slightly different format. It was very slightly modified by Clayton in a follow-up email and the result is re-posted here. I note this only for reasons of transparency; some sharp-eyed readers may spot the very small differences (e.g. a corrected spelling) and I do not want to give the impression that we are modifying user comments on the EduTech blog.]

Submitted by Barry Walsh, Justice Reform, Legal Vice Presidency on
It is good that you have highlighted the distinction between the cost of devices and the cost of using and gaining benefits from them in the context of educating children. Laptops and similar devices empower the user to interact with others in many ways. Not all of them are necessarily high priorities for education. Sending emails to one's teacher, for instance, may be convenient, but not necessarily better than attending class in person. Yet web emailing is a relatively cost free benefit of providing web-enabled laptops to children, at least for educational institutions. But providing managed purpose-designed online learning systems, on the other hand, can be very expensive to design and manage. So too is raw connectivity, although even in developing countries the cost of this is gradually falling. So the value intended to be provided may depend on what else an educational institution may intend to do, once the devices are distributed. As you suggest, few of the programs that aim to give devices to children seem to have much to say about how the devices will be used. A question that may be worthy of focusing on, however, is the potential of e-book devices to overcome the costs of providing school children with books to read, including school text books. The distribution of paper books to those in need in developing countries is one of the major challenges of many development programs - it is always expensive and is a recurring cost that does not diminish. Not only is it a problem for children, but also professionals, such as physicians, engineers and judges. On the the other hand, Kindles, Ipads, Nooks other e-book readers are the kind of devices that are already available at very low cost compared with laptops. And they are able to provide passive, rather than interactive access to books and other documents. I wonder if the distribution of e-book readers, with associated subsidisation of intellectual property rights of authors whose books are read via those devices, is not a better way of getting value out of "laptops for every child" programs in developing countries.

Hi Barry, A very good question! You make some very good points. fyi I did a quick post on this topic last December (Can eBooks replace printed books in Africa? http://blogs.worldbank.org/edutech/africa-ebook-experiment) and there will be a follow-up post this Friday at http://blogs.worldbank.org/edutech/ebooks-in-africa-2. -M

Submitted by Maryanne on
This is an interesting post that brings out information that organizations need to be aware about. Investing in technology is one factor, but creating a working plan to utilize these technologies are very necessary to the success of students, educators, and educational institutions. There must be a stated purpose for using the technology, there must be created goals, desired outcomes, and definitive objects that will support the desired accomplishments. This will illustrate that the technology is truly allowing a learning experience that is being desired and that students are learning.

Uruguay recently published a fairly detailed breakdown of Plan Ceibal - their 1:1 laptop and connectivity program. In their case the hardware (XO-1's) cost $188 and the TCO over 4 years (calculated after 4 years had passed, not just projections) was $400; making hardware roughly 45% of the total TCO. And this deployment was extensive: including costs of broadband connectivity to schools and residential areas, teacher training, digitization of existing materials, development of new digital materials, accessibility programs for disabled students, and repairs. One lesson from their data is that at very large scales, hardware costs matter much more -- are a larger fraction of total implementation for high-quality implementations -- than at medium scales. http://blog.laptop.org/2012/01/09/updated-tco-from-uruguay-400-over-4-years-incl-connectivity-security/ http://www.olpcnews.com/countries/uruguay/plan_ceibals_4_year_cost_increases_from_276_to_400.html

Thanks for the comment, SJ. These are indeed very interesting figures. One quick lesson I draw from this at a general level (I am not sure if it applies to Plan Ceibal) is that, where widespread use of technology use is meant to be truly transformational at a large scale within existing structures, many other costs may need to be incurred if the initiative is to be 'successful'. If that is the case, as large scale initiatives move from just educational technology initiatives to something more systemic, we may need to adjust the lens through which they are viewed, and the metrics against which they are measured. When things are done at a small scale, or even perhaps at a 'medium' scale, certain inefficiencies in the system are still bearable (for lack of a better term). Once you think and act at a very large scale within existing structures, you may need to address certain fundamental or core inefficiences to 'succeed', and this may cost more money. Whether this is what is happening in Uruguay or not, I don't know, but this would be worth exploring. (As the folks in Maine have found out, once you squeeze the tube forcefully enough in one place, you may be forced to clean up a mess somewhere else, even if the mess isn't really your 'fault', before you can get on with your business. Not the best analogy, perhaps, but you probably get my general point.) Calculating TCO is notoriously tricky; at various stages of implementation, costs that originally resided on the balance sheet of one initiative may rightly be seen to be better placed on the balance sheet of another initiative. That said, given how incomplete our understanding of cost issues with these sorts of initiatives is, it is great to see more transparency on these sorts of things. Where and how we assign costs is a largely theoretical exercise in the absence of any reliable data; it is great to see that some more data is emerging from the Uruguayan experience to help inform our understanding and challenge our assumptions about all of this stuff.

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