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One Laptop Per Child And India

Satish Jha

Every fourth child in the world lives in India. That makes India's children a larger demographic group than that of China. The way these children grow up, learn and get skilled will determine our future as a planet.
However, quality of the next generation of India's work force to be integrated with the global needs has come into question. Much of the quality gap in skills building is often attributed to the foundation of our education system where rote learning still continues to be the order of the day. Moreover, our children still learn on the slates and paper when much of the learning globally has become screen based.
There are 2.5 million Indians living in the US who earn about a quarter of what India as a nation produces. It has only 600,000 villages. If each of us adopts a village or a family adopts one, we can re-draw the future of a nation. Then again, the US is the most philanthropic of all nations. Building on that can change a whole nation and eventually our planet.
Successes at riding the wave of information technology revolution have created hope for many in India.For a part of our population, life, work, aspirations, present and future have changed considerably. But for a majority of some 20+ million children who enter the primary education, learning is still about chalk and slate if they are lucky.
Not all learning comes from teaching. Considerable amount of learning takes place from experimentation, interaction, playing and collaborating. In fact, for the first 5 or 6 years of our lives, that is how we learn everything. Suddenly we go to school and are told to more or less learn everything by being told, by a teacher or a book. While it has its importance, this conventional way of imparting education encourages "parroting" rather than applying their minds.

The societies far ahead on the income scale have realized the importance of education that empowers the young minds to develop their active interest in the world around them and to engage with powerful ideas. Tools for writing, composing, simulating, expressing, constructing, designing, modeling, imagining, creating, critiquing, debugging, and collaborating enable children to become positive.
This is possible if screen-based education through computers or laptops is given a big push. By using computers, students can work at their own pace. Rather than 25 individuals working separately on one activity, "screen" with networking allows collaborative completion of work. Computer software can mix text, pictures, sound, and motion to provide a variety of options for learners. Students can build on their own understanding by using computers as resource tools, as work stations for individual learning, or as communication channels to share their ideas with other learners. And, by uncovering students' individual understandings, teachers can determine the influence of students' prior knowledge and further their education through new experience. 

In short, introducing technology into the learning environment can encourage cooperative learning and student collaboration. Here, the learning is based on constructionism, that is, the learning happens by doing things together. Classroom activities are so structured that computers encourage collaboration built on learners' desire to communicate and share their understanding. Beyond the classroom, computer networking allows students to communicate and collaborate with content experts and with fellow students around the globe. Communication tools like e-mail, bulletin boards, and chat groups allow teachers to exchange lesson plans and teaching strategies and create a professional community. It does not substitute for a school, but augments it, if nothing else, by virtue of being available to the child all days of the week and hours of the day.

But then, an obvious question as to whether the screen-education can be afforded in a country like India which has poor resources and infrastructure stares us in the face. How many schools can afford a laptop per child? However, such questions are based on misapprehensions. As has been demonstrated in several countries, with a cooperative government, enlightened civil society and responsible and conscious business-leaders, the goals can be achieved in India as well, thanks to grand innovations in the IT sector by technology creators across the globe.

There are now laptops that have been specially devised by keeping the Indian conditions in mind. They consume just 1 watt of power, have screens that are visible in sunlight, can be dropped by a child without damage, are resistant to water spilled on keyboards, have a dual boot system with Windows XP preloaded and MS Office access and have several programmes that are open source based that kids typically enjoy and have been localized for various regions of India. What is most significant, these laptops cost less than Rs. 10,000, mostly due to its design. The cost can be halved if demand scales up to the size of India's children that enter primary school every year and lowered further with scale and technological improvements. Given that it comes with Microsoft Windows and office pre-loaded alone can more than justify the laptop as almost free. Its gains are in the variety of open source applications that come with it, along with Wikipedia that can be pre-loaded for no cost. By putting the curriculum on the server that can work with mesh networking, it can bring down the cost of study material to virtually zero.In any case, with the full corps of teachers, administrators and ministry people education in India rarely drops below Rs 6000 per child per year. A Rs 10,000 laptop, viewed over a lifetime of five years and financed accordingly, will cost about Rs 2000 per year. Telecommunications can be estimated at about Rs 100 per year if bandwidth is low and with high latency. The question is, for a nation with over Rs 30,000 per capita income, is investing Rs 2000 or so per child in our future unaffordable?

While India debates, the Indian diaspora can act, positively and decisively. The 600,000 families of teh diaspora can adopt a village each and that can go a long way in changing the future of a whole nation that comprises every fourth child in teh world. Thereby we can change the future of the planet.

In the month of December, OLPC has established a new program, offering a $101 discount per laptop to those willing to support 100 children with its laptop in India. That is a saving of $10,100 or almost a third below the sales price.
It will be great if you would like to be part of this movement in any which way you choose. If your priorities do not take you on that path, may be you can spread the word to those who may just be waiting for such an opportunity to come their way. The good news is that anything you do to share the thought will go a long way in promoting the cause

(Satish Jha can be reached at 301.841.7422. )

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