Classmate vs. XO, Part II . . .

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In part one of this piece, we spoke a bit about the differences between Intel and OLPC, both in their organizational attitudes and their machines.

However, such differences dwindle down to trivialities compared to the real issue: How much bang will developing countries get for their buck with any laptop?

And the real answer to that doesn’t like in a laptop’s tech specs, but in a nation’s educational spending, its general cultural attitude about education, and simple human nature.

The greatest danger of these laptops is that they’ll be sold as a quick fix, as a sexy substitute for more conventional educational investment.

Politicians, in any country, like making sexy expenditures. They get much more credit for building a new highway than fixing the potholes in the current ones.

Mr. Negroponte certainly hasn’t dissuaded anybody from thinking that way when he makes comments on 60 Minutes
like “If they don’t go to school, this is school in a box” (and I’m sure the Intel folks have said much the same more privately).

Let’s face it, the countries being targeted by OLPC and Intel aren’t exactly known for their educational systems. Well, that’s not true, they’re known for having bad ones:

Just to give you an idea, here’s some recent, succinct appraisals/news stories about a few of them:




International efforts to improve education

These are not problems that can be solved by a laptop, but the danger is that the laptop will be sold as the quick easy fix to a very big problem.

Understand that for many of these countries, this isn’t a matter of better teachers, facilities and a laptop, but better teachers, facilities or a laptop. Money spent on laptops is money not spent for other educational purposes, and there’s not much money in these countries for education.

If you hear some of the evangelists, you’d think that all we have to do to turn a poor country around is to carpetbomb them with laptops, and suddenly millions of technical Tarzans will spring up and turn the country into a paradise, just like that.

Let’s consider this with an example closer to home. Most of those reading this either have children going through school, or are going through/recently have gone through schooling yourself.

Let’s say the educational system you/your children were/are attending said one day, “You know, we really suck at education, and waste a lot of taxpayer money sucking at it. From now on, we’re just going to give all our students above the fourth grade really good laptops and some good educational software, and some technical/educational backup, and bring them in a couple days a year to test them. That will save taxpayers a lot of money, and that will let us cut local taxes a lot.”

What do you think would happen?

There’s no doubt there would be a small percentage of highly driven, motivated students who would thrive in such an environment, and they’d be better off with a laptop than going to school.

But what about the other 97% or so? Would most of that 97% be better or worse off? Outside of those with a very involved, concerned parent, most children would be worse off if left to their own devices. Children usually need some outside discipline, guidance, and yes, compulsion to do things they don’t necessarily want to do.

It would be one thing if laptops had a proven track record in basic education, but they don’t.

Some would say that the educational system needs a complete redesign to accommodate laptop learning, and that you just can’t throw laptops at the problem, but isn’t that just what is being suggested here?


It’s not just a matter of putting computers out there, you have to keep them out there. Many Western aid projects have floundered after the grant money ran out because, for one reason or another, the project was not sustainable, and then abandoned.

To put it mildly, the OLPC people aren’t too interested in this. Their expressed attitude seems to be, “We designed it so it won’t break, and the kids will love them so much that they won’t break it, and if one happens to break, the kids will be able to fix it. If they can’t fix it because we have no plan to provide spare parts, the country should buy some extras so they can be cannibalized for spare parts, or, hey, it’s only $175, just throw it away and buy a new one.”

I’m sure you want to see this for yourselves, so look here and here and finally, an attempt by an adult to fix one.

No doubt Intel would have a much better plan, but obviously it would cost a good deal of money, raising the effective cost of the unit.

Other Factors and Conclusion

We could talk about a lot of other things, corruption, available software in the native language, copyright, but in the end, they’re niggling details.

The core issue, which applies just as much to Intel as the XO, is that the student population of the Third World is not a billion plus people needing just a laptop to release their inner geekness, and any mass field experimentation is likely to help a few, but hurt a lot more.

If people are so hellbent on proving that laptops will bring on the New Age, let them try for a few years in advanced countries with substantial educational budgets where the expenditure won’t cripple the school system, and when/if they can prove solid benefits, then we can move on.

Until they prove their point, this strikes me as using Third World kids as educational guinea pigs paying a price they can’t really afford for either Intel profits or geek glory, and I find both equally unethical.

The irony of all this is that this isn’t just a matter of Intel vs. OLPC. The OEMs actually building these machines plan to offer versions of both the Intel and OLPC boxes (no doubt beefed up a bit) themselves, so odds are you’ll be able to buy one from them fairly shortly.

In all honesty, I don’t think there’s going to be too many takers, after the first rush. Both these boxes are decidedly inferior to even the cheapest notebooks being offered today.

Mainstream notebooks (or smaller) boxes are bound to get cheaper anyway in a few years with Intel’s Silverthorne (and no doubt an AMD equivalent), at which point either the Classmate or X0 is going to look pretty prematurely aged.


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