Sunday, April 08, 2007

Negroponte: "levering the children"

Some people are upset by Nicholas Negroponte when he speaks about "levering the children" in connection to the OLPC Project. They are arguing that he is being too critical of mainstream teacher thinking in his openly stated approach of using the laptop to directly empower children. I've joined Sylvia Martinez in the comments of this thread of One Laptop Per Child News in support of Negroponte's levering the children approach.

Here are some long extracts from a Negroponte talk where he outlines his arguments in more detail. It's clear that OLPC is a well thought out radical approach to education, not just trying to mimic the deplorable dumbed down way in which we generally use computers in education in developed countries. This follows from the core principles of the project - child ownership, low aged, saturation, connection and free & open source.

Nicholas Negroponte:

Well, somebody introduced me recently as the "Good Bin Laden" and this has indeed sort of seemed to be the case because some people look at the $100 Laptop as a form of terrorism. It has terrorized the industry in many ways. I look at the problem in the following way.

You are not going to have peace in the world as long as you have poverty. And, the only way to eliminate poverty is education. If you focus on education, particularly primary education, along the way you are going to have other second-order effects like the environment, like lowering the cost of health education, lots of things. If you focus on education you can do a great deal more than if you look other places to solve the particular problem.

There are 1.2 billion children in the world. Fifty percent of them don't have electricity, 50% of them live in the rural parts of the world. The reason that's important is that when you live in a rural part of a poor nation, even though that poverty is a much better form of poverty than urban poverty which is the absolute worse, it's also so primitive that children will often have as a school a tree.

Or some of the teachers won't show up, or the teachers will have a 6th-Grade education at best. So, if you look at that and you say to yourself: "How do I fix that? How do I deal with that?" It is not by training teachers, it is not by building schools. In all due respect, it's not about curriculum or content.

It's about levering the children themselves. Children are extraordinary - we don't give children enough credit for what they can do. I mean, we all know when your cell phone breaks you give it to a 12 year old, when you don't know how to use your laptop you ask your kid. We all know that! And yet we sort of think that they have to, after the age of 6, stop learning by doing and learn by being told.

And, in the best of situations, a child in the developing world is in a classroom 2 1/2 hours a day, five days a week, which averages a lot less than 2 hours a day over the week. So, even if you make that experience better, you're only dealing with a small part of the problem. So what we did, we said to ourselves: "How can we actually leverage the child for a lot bigger part of the day, and do something particularly for the poor children in remote parts of the developing world?" And we set to do what we call the "$100 Laptop".

The reason we did that versus telecommunications, is that telecommunications is going in so many different ways, whether it's Wimax, WiFi, some of the new satellite concepts using 3G, etc. There are many things happening. And I can maybe move some deck chairs around, make a little effect, but that's happening. The laptop wasn't happening.

One of the reasons the laptop wasn't happening is that there is a phenomenon which I highly respect. I understand where it comes from. In full disclosure please note that I am a board member of Motorola, we do this at Motorola! And what is this? This is something that HP does. The natural tendency of electronics, we all know, is to drop in price roughly 100% every 18 months.

This is really its natural tendency, to do this. So, what do you do? You add features. You add features and you hope that you add features fast enough so that at least you keep it stable, maybe even raise the price a little. I don't belittle that phenomenon. That's a very natural phenomenon. Then, add to that phenomenon a second natural phenomenon that is a computer programmer writes a piece of software. What do they do? They want to make it better. How do they make it better? They add features! And they do this invariably.

Every new piece of software in my mind is distinctly worse than the predecessor. It's fatter, and it's got this and that. So, suddenly, the fat lady can't sing! It's like a very fat person who is using most of their muscles to move their fat. So, if you look at these two situations - trying to get laptops connected to kids in rural places and trying to get the price down, you have to rethink a laptop completely. This isn't a matter of just looking at component costs.

There are two ways of making an inexpensive device, as applies to a laptop. You take cheap labor, cheap design, cheap components, and make a cheap laptop. This is done all the time. If you travel in India and China you see cheap machines that are cheap in the pejorative sense as well as the literal sense. There's a second way to do it. The second way is very rarely done.

The second way is to take very large scale integration, take really cool and interesting design, and take a very advanced manufacturing process where you pour chemicals into one end of the factory and just spew out bipods at the other end, and then take very large numbers. The key is large numbers. What you can then do is to make something that actually isn't a low-cost laptop only it's actually a pretty advanced and interesting product.

So, that's what we set out to do as a nonprofit. Very important; we are a nonprofit organization. Steven and I last night at dinner even argued about this. Because being a nonprofit organization is very important I draw no salary. Somebody said to me when I started: "You must be profit-making, because you will be sustainable and get good people."

Rubbish! My COO earns $200,000 a year, which is not very high. I was looking for a CFO recently, how could I find a CFO that's really good for under $200,000 a year? So, I put out a job description at zero salary, and the queue for the job was endless! People who had such extraordinary careers and wanted to be the CFO of "One Laptop per Child".

So in fact, it's very sustainable at least to get it rolling. So, that's the quick story. It's launching in eight countries. There are a couple of corporations that have been quite outspokenly against it - I think that's a little silly. It's a little bit like arguing against the Red Cross because you don't use Johnson & Johnson Band-Aids, but that's OK. By being a nonprofit our moral purpose is year and I think that the heads of state around the world that are advocating this and are now part of it as a movement is really very, very important because it's different than going in.

HP has shareholders, I have no shareholders. And I picked HP as a name, it could be IBM, anybody, they have shareholders. They have to look at children as a market. I look at children as a mission. It's very, very different. So, maybe Steve and I will go back and forth on this, but I think that the "One Laptop per Child's I'd like to leave with you as an impression

And, such a big group, I actually have a working, assembled model with me... Not model, sorry, I have the habit of calling it a model. It's not a model, this is really one that came off the assembly line, it's actually machine No. 5 - and it really works. Some people have said it's a crippled, small machine. Rubbish! This does something your machine can't do.

It's sunlight-readable, it uses so little power we can hand crank it, and it's a meshed network. When you set it up, even when it's off it's a little router, it's a little Cisco router type that's inside. So, a lot of the technology that is in here is really very, very sophisticated and the people who worked on it (I'll leave it here for people to play with afterwards) - the people who worked on it really did, quite frankly, an extraordinarily good job.

and later in the same talk:

The economics are really very simple. If you look at the $100, which in the beginning is going to be about $150 anyways, if you look at the $150, that's a big amount of money if you look at it as $150. If you amortize it over 5 years which the World Bank and the development banks are going to do, that's $30. $30 per year over five years, we know how to connect every child for $1 a month, unlimited 7/24 connection, so that's added another $12, that's $42. That's the start price and drops to $32 dollars in about 24 months.

Look at that $32 which is the end of 2008 price and what you have to compare it is, in your country they spend $1,700 per year per child in primary education. If you're spending $1,700, my God, $32 is meaningless, meaningless! Argentina is the richest or second richest country we're dealing with. Now, in Rwanda they spend $150 per child. Suddenly, the $32 is a big piece. But, the $32 is going to leverage, in this case, the kids to do something that wasn't doable before.

So, even though the economics as a percentage of what people are spending on education is a bigger percentage, it may have a bigger effect. One common question I get is why aren't we doing it in the United States? We're not doing it in the United States because the average is $8,000-$10,000 per year per child for primary school. When you're spending that kind of money it really doesn't matter, you know. Plus, you don't need the hand-winding; you don't a lot of the things. Do you start with older kids? No. You don't start with them.

Politicians always want to because those are the kids who are going to be first of all in the job market, and second of all perhaps voting for them in a pretty short period of time. To start with 6-year-olds is a very long-term investment. And it's not like building a tunnel or a highway which may take fiver or six years but you see a lot of construction going on; it kind of looks like you're doing something.

Education doesn't have a payoff as quickly. So, the reason you have to start with the very young children is that if you screw up primary education you spend all your time fixing it afterwards. And, most kids don't get to secondary education anyway. I've built five schools in Cambodia, primary schools, in the absolutely remotest parts of that country. The town that I first did it in which is where the first laptops went five years ago, very much an inspiration for the $100 Laptop, the average income is $47 a year in that town. This year I heard in September that twice as many students showed up for first grade.

That's what I call a success! Were they coming from other villages? No. What's happening? The 6-year-olds were telling the other 6- Year-olds: "You know, school is pretty cool. You might want to come." The parents started going to the school, looking at it, "What's happening?" And, suddenly, twice as many kids instead of being in the fields were in school. That sort of thing to me is so compelling, when I see that happening, that I think that the economics is really not the issue. A common, sort of the "everything else" part of your question, it happens a lot.

"Why would you give a kid a laptop when they're starving and they don't have primary medicine and, you know, they have health problems, and they don't have a roof, etc. etc.?" Look, when you're starving all that counts is food. If you're unhealthy all that counts is health. If somebody says: "Why give a child a laptop?" I quickly say: "Substitute for the world laptop for education' and you'll never say that sentence again." And, it's true.

So the question is: "Do you believe that this can be part of and an important piece of education?" If you don't, then don't do this! It isn't for you; it isn't for your country. If you believe it is, then it's not "versus" I mean, nobody sits around and says: "Should we do education or worry about food?" Not both. They're always done in parallel. The books argument, that's the easiest. Brazil, I know the number by heart, its $19 per year per child in primary and secondary school, that's almost $20 which is $100, amortized over five years.

The kid gets two books, maybe three books. Maybe there's a library and so on. But, you can just justify this on books, because only rich kids have the extra books like atlases and reference books, let alone all of the other pieces of literature that you'd want to have access to. If you're connected by Google or whatever to the internet you've basically got all books, most books. And the amount of people, the amount of goodwill... Paolo Coelho sent me a piece of e-mail two days ago and said: "I'm donating all my books." I thought, well, I hadn't even thought about that but if people want to donate their books and so on, we'll take their books.

So, I think we have a much better chance of providing them books in which the economic of books I call that the Trojan horse. We go to say Mr. Head of State or Mrs. Head of State. Think of interest as a book. Just books, just textbooks. In most states (the United States is not one of them), most states control the textbooks, use the textbook channel. The Federal channel in Brazil does the textbooks. You may think of that as a liability but we use it as a feature, distribute through that channel, and it's a Trojan horse approach.

It appears gently as a textbook and then at night the kids come out and use it as a laptop. That's the Trojan horse approach with sort of a book story as we've thought about it. So, books are an easy one, and the economics are not hard. These are not big numbers. They're big numbers if you take the population the Minister of Education in China has 220 million kids in primary and secondary schools. If you multiply 220 million times $100, that's a lot of money!

But, you look at what they're spending per child already, and take a small percentage of it; it's not a hard story.


rewobeirrac said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sylvia said...

Hi Bill,
Wayan (author of that original OLPC post you are responding to here) asked me to contribute something to their blog about how the experience of GenYES (student-led technology mentoring for teachers) might support some of the thinking about OLPC. I gave it a shot and he says he'll post it next week.

Thanks for the speech posted here and links, and hopefully my guest blog there will be well received. Or at least I won't get shot down too much!