Xbox for the developing world - part II

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UntitledI decided to follow up on an earlier posting that cast some doubts on the value of the XO laptop for students in developing countries. Two commentors pointed out that even if the XO laptop does not produce direct improvements in classroom learning, there still may be other kinds of benefits. Serena had this to say:

I personally believe that games–& interactive media–foster the 'soft' competency skills that contribute to learning development. The likes of Internet Relay Chat helped a generation of kids develop fast typing and response skills. Games that provide mental stimulation and can be scalable (to increase the level of challenge) similarly contribute to learning skills development.

I don't dispute this argument, but I also don't think it necessarily means that governments should be investing big bucks (or pesos) into these computers.

Let's take a closer look at the country where the very first pilot project of the XO Laptop took place: Uruguay. Uruguay initiated a pilot project with the XO laptop in the town of Villa Cardal (pictured) in which all students at the primary level received a computer. Researchers who visited the school during this pilot phase concluded that:

...the laptops so far had a very positive impact. Children are motivated to read and write more using the laptops, they are accessing information resources that are far beyond what was previously available to them, they are creating content for the world to see, and collaborating and learning from each other.

All of this was achieved despite the fact that the teachers received little training on how to use the computers and were told that they were "free to decide how to use the laptops in the classroom." This is all well and good, but I wonder how the picture looks if we take into consideration the trade-off represented by the money spent on these computers. Since the completion of the pilot program, the government of Uruguay has ordered 100,000 computers. The price was closer to $200 than the target of $100 set by the One Laptop Per Child association. What could that $200 buy in terms of students' education?

If we take a look at data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, we find that Uruguay has a relatively low salary level for teachers at public primary schools - about 63 percent of GDP per capita. (See table A3.9 on page 194). Perhaps the money would be better spent on improving teacher salaries, thereby attracting more qualified teachers? I admit that I don't have an answer for this question, but I would want a more substantive analysis of the pilot project than the one mentioned above.

I leave you with a quote from Pablo Flores, an Uruguayan researcher and academic, who is convinced of the worth of the project:

The same tool will be in the hands of both rich and poor in the country. Children, senior citizens, and the whole spectrum of society will be able to exchange mails, chats and favorite sites, in a Facebook-like manner.

Like never before, the most marginalized communities will have a powerful tool to make transactions and queries with public institutions. They may claim their rights from the government. If they are given the support, they may also use it for training, acquiring positions, and working remotely.

Update: My fellow blogger Giulio Quaggiotto has passed along an interesting article from Wharton Business School that deals with some of the questions raised in this post. Money quote from Gerald Faulhaber, a professor at Wharton:

In India, China and Africa, the issue is that the PC is not the relevant technology. The relevant technology is wireless technology -- cell phones. Cellular technology is far more ubiquitous than broadband or PC penetration. We are not going to see PCs there for a long time.


Ryan Hahn

Operations Officer

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