The notion of transforming education through one-to-one computing is currently a hot topic across Africa. Initiatives are underway in various countries including Nigeria, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Ghana. But is one-to-one computing really possible for every child, and is it the most appropriate and cost effective use of resources? After a lively session at the recent ONLINE EDUCA conference in Berlin, David Hollow a founding director of Jigsaw Consult in England examines the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative in Ethiopia.
There are 33 million children out of school in sub-Saharan Africa. The number of children out of school has stopped decreasing, and it is now likely there will be more children out of school in 2015 than there are today. Such a situation clearly warrants radical action. We have a shared conviction that technology has a role to play in helping provide the education that is so urgently required. There are many initiatives, one-to-one computing amongst them, claiming to be the solution to educational challenges in Africa.
One notable example of one to one computing in education is that of OLPC in Ethiopia, where for the last three years a pilot scheme has been underway in five different schools with 5900 laptops. In Ethiopia 2.7 million children of primary school age are not in education. There is an average of 59 primary school pupils for every teacher, and educational resources such as textbooks are in incredibly short supply.
At the Royal Geographical Society in London in May 2011, I listened to a talk by Nicholas Negroponte, founder of OLPC, where he spoke about their pilot programme in Ethiopia. Having worked myself in the schools that he was using to illustrate how laptops are currently revolutionising education, I became curious.
Negroponte gave anecdotes that justified a specific course of action. He suggested that in Ethiopia most of the children given laptops learned not only how to use them but how to become programmers. He then went on to explain how the positive impact that the laptops had on education was inevitable, that the only valid question was that of whether the laptops could be afforded.
The idea that most children who had received laptops in Ethiopia could undertake sophisticated programming is a long way removed from the reality that I encountered. Whilst many children enjoyed playing on the laptops, there was limited, if any, integration into the classroom routine. Most teachers objected to the way the laptops were distracting the children, leading to some of them banning laptops from the classroom entirely.
My experience regarding OLPC in Ethiopia would suggest that the rhetoric does not match the reality. The aspiration for a laptop for every child and the transformation of education makes it tempting to ignore the lived experiences of students and teachers.
The harsh reality in Ethiopia is that finances for education are limited: What is spent on one initiative is, by implication, not spent on another initiative. So how do we decide how to quantify educational value? How do we decide if laptops are the most cost effective way to provide good quality education in Ethiopia?
If the One Laptop Per Child initiative were to have achieved its aim of ensuring that every primary school child in Ethiopia received a laptop, then the total basic cost (including distribution, training and maintenance) would have been approximately 2.4 billion USD. Estimating that the laptops might last five years, this equates to a subsequent annual follow on cost of 297 million USD (total cost of ownership of each laptop multiplied by 1/8th of national enrolment). In the first year, this would constitute 214% of the national primary education budget. Therefore, to provide a laptop for every child in primary school, it would be necessary to spend no money on teacher salaries, textbooks, electricity, infrastructure or any other educational resources for over two years.
In contrast, the price of a textbook in Ethiopia is 0.5 USD (c. 8 ETB). Textbooks are in short supply, and many children attending school cannot access any. Providing every primary school child in Ethiopia with a full set of textbooks would cost 38 million USD. Assuming that the books and laptops would have comparable durability, then providing every child in primary school with a textbook for every subject would require approximately 1.5% of the money required for every child to have a laptop.
This illustration should not necessarily lead us away from promoting one to one computing in Africa. But it should provoke us to consider carefully our approach in a context of limited financial resources and prioritise integration with pre-existing educational infrastructure. If education is the ultimate goal, then additional options should also be considered: One appropriate choice might be textbooks for every child; another appropriate choice might be laptops for every teacher!