Saturday, September 12, 2009

Is the OLPC dead?

The OLPC has been getting a lot of heat lately in the blogsphere.

First, Timothy Ogden (HT PSD Blog) argued that the effect of computers on education is abysmal (in developed countries at least), and that proven education boosters, like deworming, are much more cost effective ($4/year versus $200). I will argue below that neither of these means much.

Then UN Distpatch argued the dream is over, with too many cost overruns and poor delivery. The founder makes a reply here, arguing there are some positive stories coming out. He also notes that the $400 netbook did not exist before the OLPC.

This has a personal note for me. For my neices first birthday, I bought her an OLPC through Amazon. I paid $400 in total, one for her, one to be donated.

Yes, I know 1 is too young to have a laptop. It has saved my sister plenty of headache though as my neice no longer tries to sit on her lap while my sister's on the computer. Instead my neice just pretends to be her mother with a mostly indestructible chew and drool proof computer. It also means that my neice will know how to type as soon as she knows how to spell, and computer programs, including the Linux opperating system, will not seem mysterious to her.

In the developed world, this matters a lot. Teaching at two colleges in the US has left me baffeled at the lack of computer literacy amoung those that finished highschool. I wouldn't be surprised if 90% of people from 18 to 25 in this country did not have a working knowledge of Excel, and only basic word skills.

But does it matter in the developing world? Maybe. Computers are not a necessity, but they are very much sought after. I get orders to bring 2-3+ laptops every time I go to Uganda. People want to be connected to the world, and they are desperatly seeking to learn how to do just that. Internet cafes and training centers are all over northern Uganda now.

I don't know about OLPC specifically, but I think it's too early to call the dream of cheap computers to the developing world dead. The impact of computers on education is more than the literature cited by Ogden. The effect of computer training in a developing country means a lot more than it does in a developed country because there are no other options in poor places. The general equilibrium effects could be massive, and this could take a long time to see.

And just because a computer is more expensive than another option is a meaningless comparison if we don't know the individual effects. In any case, why think of it as an either/or problem? Given the lost cost of deworming, I would suggest bundling them together in places that need the medicine.