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

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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one place that has been distributing laptops to teachers based on price point alone, sporting technical specs that are out of date and with little attention on how these computers are actually meant to be used.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.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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