More on squandered intellectual talent

This is an NY times story on higher education institutes in Africa(registration needed sadly). Now while the reality isn’t quite as bleak as the story makes it out to be there are a couple of central points that are very true. The main one is how little attention has been paid to expanding public higher education in Ghana.

When the country gained independence it had a population of roughly four million people. Now it has a population of almost six times that size. Half of which is below 25 years old. at the same time the Universities meant to house them have not grown to keep up with the exploding number of students coming out of an equally troubled secondary school system. Hence, the problem of an increasing number of students competing for dwindling resources.

Now, thankfully the last decade or so has also seen the quite a few private universities arrive to soak up some of this crowd(Ashesi probably being the best of them) but frankly its far from enough. Education at this level really does not appear to be enough of a priority to anyone with the ability to make real headway in fixing it.

This incidentally is one of the things about projects like the OLPC project and Intel’s classmate sit a little strangely with me. The truth is that the idea of needy African children is sexy. Everyone is willing to agree that little Kwaku and Ama need to learn how to read, write and solve maths problems. Not as many people are as interested in Ama at 25 looking to write a thesis in remote sensor networks or Kwaku’s dream of building a probe to explore the edges of the universe. Its not as sexy and doesn’t lend itself as well to a certain brand of paternalism that tends to characterize foreign aid to this part of the world.

sidenote: Speaking of Ashesi, looks like a couple of their students got scholarships to TEDGlobal in Tanzania. I was really hoping for one of those too. Ah well, I’ll have to settle for reading summaries.

I might have overreacted just a bit

An update on the whole Windows – OLPC business courtesy of planet OLPC

So its not quite that bad. Microsoft is working on their own with no real assistance from the OLPC people. That I can sort of live with. I am still bothered by their part in this entire process though.

Good news and bad news

The Good: Dell starts selling computers with Ubuntu installed  – You might actually get me to buy a Dell now. Maybe. I spent a few too many years repairing them to trust their build quality.

The Bad: The OLPC will cost $175 and run WindowsXP – *blinks, at a loss for words*

Am I the only person to who this sounds a bit backwards?

Oh, and as a bonus, a great critique of Microsoft’s new $3 Windows scam program

In which I talk about the OLPC project again

This post is actually supposed to be further down on my list of things to blog about, but then Greg’s blog pointed me at this critique by Jorge Aranda and I figured this might be a good time to talk about it.

Jorge makes a couple of great points about perceived shortcomings in the project which the OLPC developers seem to not be paying enough attention to. I’m going to piggyback off the ones I agree with to make a few observations as another science and technology geek who grew up in a developing country and currently works for a government agency there.

Now, first the standard disclaimer. I don’t dislike the OLPC project. I think its a valiant effort which involves some brilliant hardware and software hacking. I also think the idea of disruptive learning they are pushing has a lot of potential. I will be paying close attention to the rollout process and expect that some very valuable ideas will come out of its implementation. And I wish them the best. Hell, I even want one just because.

From my perspective though, it seems to me that the project has been making the mistake of focusing extensively on the process of building the device and creating the software it needs, but not enough on implementation issues that might show up after they deploy.

I also feel that they are running too quickly to the mass rollout phase of the project. I would have preferred a longer testing period to get a sense for what works with the kids in differing environments. I also wonder how many countries can afford space in their education budget for a million of them.

Back to Jorge’s critiques….

Its not a gift, its a textbook
Any one of those laptops is supposed to replace textbooks in mathematics, science, a bunch of languages(which will differ depending on which country and where in it we are talking about), history(specifics will also depend on country), geography etc…

I have to wonder to what degree they are working on the problem of free educational content localized for the countries that will get the laptops. The laptops won’t just be inspiring future computer scientists. They’ll also be inspiring the creation of new mathematicians, physicists, chemists,writers, historians, musicians………

Where is their content? To what degree is the project working either on its own or with other relevant projects to get the kids access to all this information. And localized too. If we have free books for instance, I want African kids to read African, Carribean, Asian, South American writers etc. with their Shakespeare. How possible is that? How much effort is going into this?

It will garner enemies:
Ghana is a fairly conservative country controlled by people who are scared of, among other things, losing their kids to foreign cultures. Machines they don’t understand which give kids their own network would definitely create issues. Localized content might help with that problem but general conservatism and resistance to change will create issues.

I can also foresee issues with teachers unions about kids getting these machines unless they are also given some kind of computer training and access to machines of their own, which will impose its own financial burden on educational systems that are broke to begin with.

The black market:
People seem to keep assuming that (a) only kids will want this and (b) there will never be need to steal one. If its as powerful as I keep hearing, people will still them regardless of how colorful you make them or how tiny you make them. And they’d probably get stolen anyway simply because they are worth a hundred dollars. Personally I can think of lots of things a tiny linux powered PC capable of mesh networking would be good for. And not all of them are legal.

The cost:
Any country that buys into the project is agreeing to devote at least $100 million to it. In Ghana our teachers recently went on strike because they are underpaid. Even in the capital city there are public schools which are woefully underfunded and can barely afford pencils. In the poorer regions it can be depressing. If we are short of funding to make basic facilities available to everyone, is going all the way to laptops not a bit of a stretch? I know its a question that leaves open room for all sorts of idiotic assumptions about Africa and the developing world, but its still valid. We are short of money for education. Partly because we are just broke and partly because IMO we have bad priorities. Either way it needs to be addressed.

Another thing. Why did the OLPC people ignore the adult market? I mean, I know Quanta is making its own play for that market using the same technologies and maybe that was always the plan, but computers are expensive and Ghana alone has tens of thousands of college students who would kill for a $300 – $400 laptop to work with. Plus for linux vendors, this is an easy way into a huge untapped market of smart kids in the developing world who may not yet have been locked in to any one way of doing things.

Anyway, the point here is simply that I would love to see the OLPC people address issues beyond the hardware and software they will be using. Now I’ve heard some of this stuff mentioned before. Not enough for my liking though. This really does come across as something with too narrow a focus.

Random OLPC related coolness

I tend to keep an eye on the One Laptop Per Child program because

  1. I think the technology behind it is several kinds of cool
  2. A large chunk of the software for it seems to be written in Python (also cool)
  3. Education in the developing world is kind of a pet obsession of mine and while I have misgivings about the project, I love the general idea behind it

One of these days I’ll talk more about it (notes into blog Basket) but for now

A picture of the OLPC in use in Nigeria courtesy of Planet Python (makes me smile)

The Koolou TinyPC, which apparently uses a lot of the same hardware. This seems like a very interesting replacement for AMD’s defunct Internet Communicator. For the record I want one. Actually, once I get into grad school this will probably be one of my gifts to me.

I should probably also mention the intention of the OLPC manufacturing company to come up with a slightly more expensive commercial version (sidenote: why is the story harping on developed countries? Do you know how many of those laptops I could sell in Ghana? If they are even halfway smart they’ll try to partner with universities and corporations in developing countries.)

And now a request: Does anyone have a recording or the slides from the Pycon OLPC talk or know where I can get them?