Laptops and Local Trains

When I first heard the news, I was reminded of chaiwalas on local trains who chant, “chaiiii, chaiiiii, chaiiiii” and sell just the right amount of delectable tea in earthen cups for a very sweet price. Has the day come? Will a new army of “laptopwalas” soon be chanting, “laptopppp, laptopppp, laptopppp,” on local trains and markets, especially given the recent media flurry that the Indian government is getting ready to launch a $10 laptop as part of its e-learning campaign?

Admittedly, the idea of laptops being sold on local trains is somewhat preposterous. Unfortunately, the amount being quoted through the media – $10 – seems equally as preposterous. First, some background, courtesy of the Guardian:

The computer, known as Sakshat, which translates as “before your eyes”, will be launched as part of a new Rs46bn “national mission for education.” This envisages a network of laptops from which students can access lectures, coursework and specialist help from anywhere in India, triggering a revolution in education. A number of publishers have reportedly agreed to upload portions of their textbooks on to the system

There are plenty of skeptics, however, including Atanu Dey:

So what’s wrong with a $10 laptop? What’s wrong is that it flies in the face of all reasonable expectations about the world. It is disconnected with reality. The reality is that Nicholas Negroponte’s OLPC project tried desperately to build a $100 laptop and despite having access to considerable talent and expertise, the best it could do was a machine that costs around $200. What this tells us is that hardware costs, though they have fallen dramatically over time, are still high enough that it is virtually impossible to produce a laptop for around $100. If it were possible, they would have done it.

Regardless of whether this innovation is as cost-effective as it claims to be, which is doubtful, it is still important to keep in mind that technology is simply a tool, not the ends itself. I can’t say emphasize this point enough – should the Indian government roll out a shiny, new, cost-effective laptop with Wi-Fi and 2 GB ram (which I highly doubt), I hope they also have plans to actually implement the technology effectively. Most difficult is not the “what,” but rather, the “how,” which is, in this case, unclear in both respects.

[Check our previous coverage on the topic: Prerna’s Op-Ed on the Logic of Laptops in Education, Story featuring affordable PC maker NComputing, OLPC’s entry into India]

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