Thursday, November 30, 2006

Making Education Technology Affordable to the Third World

There is an important article in the New York Times about the creation of $150-dollar-laptops that are being produced for learning in places like Africa, South America (including Brazil), and parts of Asia. One of the key questions this project raises is, will computers themselves help children learn, or is it a sneeze in a hurricane if the education system is unequal? There is no clear answer to this. Not surprisingly, the major companies (Intel and Microsoft) are fiercely against this program, insisting that, in effect, laptops may be "inappropriate" for education in cultures in underdeveloped countries, an argument that implies racism and cultural superiority (our way is too good for their backward conditions). It should come as no surprise, though, that companies that overcharge the few elites in countries such as Brazil for their products are opposed to a less expensive model that can be marketed to far more people.

However, some of the criticisms and concerns some of the "experts" offer are valuable. For example, in the case of Brazil, I'm curious to see exactly who gets these computers in this program. Will it be the rural poor, or the children of rural elites? Will it go to the favelas and urban centers of poverty, or will it be distributed to middle- and upper-class private secondary schools? Will the computers be subject to theft and the creation of a black market that ultimately still does not help the children the computers are intended for? Will computers help children learn in education systems that are oftentimes understaffed and inexperienced, with texts and pedagogical methods that are sub-par?

These are real concerns that need to be faced. However, this doesn't mean the program should be given up before it even begins. Let's let Negroponte (not John) begin his program of distributing these computers, and see if the program does offer the benefits Negroponte expects. Brazil, in particular, desparately needs to see the leveling not just of the educational field (where only 38% of people finish high school, where in order to get into college you must go to an expensive private high school that more than half of the country can't afford, and where race and subtle economic-racial segregation still lead to gaps betwen whites and blacks, as well as rich and poor), but in the technological field, where computers, palm pilots, and software are prohibitively expensive (I myself paid 150 dollars here for an A/C adaptor that would have cost 30 dollars in the U.S.). Indeed, even software sometimes is so expensive that middle-class sectors buy pirated copies on the streets, available in broad daylight (a habit which Bill Gates demanded Brazil address a few years back, to which President Luis Inácio "Lula" da Silva responded, "Make the software affordable for third world citizens, and THEN we'll crack down on pirated material.")

So bravo, Negroponte, Ms. Jensen (the technician), and Project One Laptop Per Child. You face some real obstacles, but if you achieve half of what you hope to, you will have truly done something to help make education in the Third World more egalitarian and democratic.