If We Don't Kill Them First With Baby FormulaNicholas Negroponte, director of MIT’s Media Lab, author of Being Digital, and founder of the One Laptop Per Child non-profit, has announced that the $100 laptop is becoming a reality. The $100 laptop is aimed for widespread distribution among the children of developing nations to facilitate learning and bring internet access to the global poor.
It’s difficult to challenge the concept of educating poor children, but I wonder if the project isn’t, at least partially, misguided. One of the questions we must ask ourselves about any new technological advance is “what problem does it solve?”
Advocates are already exclaiming that cheap laptops for poor children in say, Sudan, will change the way children learn about the world. However, it is not access to information that is the serious problem in global education. It’s the number of children who don’t get an education in the first place. According to the World Bank, 115 million children around the world don’t even go to school because they have to work to help support their families. Two-thirds of these, by the way, are girls. This doesn’t include the many students who drop out of school before they can read, write, or count.
The internet revolution has made information fetishists of us. But the distribution of information is meaningless – worse than worthless even – where political and economic circumstances prevent children from having access even to rudimentary educational facilities. Moreover, there is no compelling evidence that computers offer new paradigms for early education. Additionally, no study has been made as to what recipient response will be like: will families with children who get the units seek to sell them for desperately needed cash despite the supposedly theft-safe design? Or will a child’s sudden access to information change family dynamics in socially undesirable ways?
I’m not denying that some children might benefit from the $100 laptop, as will the manufacturers who win the contract for it, and the banks that loan a nation the money to purchase the required million-or-so units it takes to get the cost-benefit of production. But, just because we have a technological advance doesn’t mean that its implementation makes sense. One Laptop Per Child requires a significant investment on the part of a developing nation, sophisticated distribution networks, and the utilization of scarce resources, all for a tool that costs as much as it would to sustain a citizen of a developing nation for about six months. In the United States this would be a 15 or 20 thousand dollar laptop.
We must always consider the usefulness of a technology in light of specific problems. Access to more and more information does not make better students. Even in developed nations, where basic childhood education may be nearly universal, computers have not made children learn, think, or gain critical and analytical skill sets. In countries where children rarely even go to school, a technological answer might just be the hubris of Western science.