The one-laptop-per-child (OLPC) seems like it must be a good idea: create a cheap (under $100) laptop for children in poor countries. With access to computers, children could take control of their education and…well, good things anyway.
However, things have not gone well and the OLPC has laid off over half their staff and appears to be in a death spiral. It turns out that it is the Toyota Prius of education, better at making rich westerners feel good than having any actual impact.
I think there are three problems. Firstly, in most of the world people access the net through their phone and not through a PC. It is similar to the way Iridium failed because, despite its technical brilliance, everyone already had a mobile phone by the time Iridium was available. By the time OLPC was available everyone already had a mobile phone. Obviously not everyone, but if they were going to get something that was it.
Second, there is absolutely no evidence that computers in education improve educational standards (nor, by the way, small class sizes, nor universal pre-school education: both are good for employees in education though so I’m sure we’ll get lots more of both). There is even a certain amount of evidence that they have the opposite effect by adding a distraction for teachers. For basic education (the three Rs of Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic) computers can’t do much except perhaps for drills and apparently not in a way that helps. For more advanced stuff, they don’t do a lot except allow access to the richness of the net, and for that computers don’t have a lot of advantage over phones.
Thirdly, if you are going to spend money on kids’ education in really poor countries, what do you think the most important thing you could spend some money on would be? It turns out that anti-worming pills is probably the answer. Nearly 2 billion people (1/3 of the world) suffer from intestinal worms and they are a major reason that kids have high absentee rates: they are sick a lot. Spending 50c per child increases school attendance by 25%. Bed nets wouldnt go amiss either in the malarial zones ($10 each).
So an OLPC computer (which actually costs $200) could increase attendance of 400 children by 25%. Now that’s an increase in education. As is so often the case, the glitzy solution is much less useful than something comparatively boring. It’s like that number that $20B is all that it would take to give everyone in the world clean drinking water. So little…why arent we doing it?