Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Digital Divide and Social Inclusion

Reading Time: 4 minutesWider access to computers in schools is no magic bullet.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

A child uses his XO computer in downtown Montevideo. To date, 570,000 XO computers have been given to public-school students in Uruguay. (Panta Astiazaran/AFP/Getty)

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In a world where technology has delivered changes unimaginable even 10 years ago, as well as created sharp divides, it’s only logical that many would see computer proficiency as a fundamental learning skill.

Today, quality education requires broad access to information and content, a medium for communication, and tools for analyzing data—all things that computers and the Internet provide as no other media have in history. And the ability to know and use these devices is a boon in itself, since even higher-paying jobs across sectors (from law and medicine to manufacturing and banking) become linked to the knowledge-based economy.

For these reasons, access to technology has come to be seen as the key to social inclusion, whether through educational reform that incorporates information technology, or as a tool for learning the skills of the modern economy.

But mere access does not guarantee learning, as anyone who has witnessed a child wasting hours playing games on a computer can testify. Instead, research has shown that beyond just having the hardware, what is important is the “social envelope” it comes in: the technical and social support provided to children as they learn. It may seem a simple concept—long held true in other areas of pedagogy—but it’s one that seems to have been forgotten when it comes to technology.

In 2005, Nicholas Negroponte, then head of the MIT Media Lab, put forth a bold, original idea: design a $100 laptop and get it into the hands of impoverished children around the world. Negroponte predicted that up to 150 million laptops would be distributed within four years, and that children would use these computers to teach both themselves and their parents.1

Unfortunately, the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative has struggled to reach its goals. After seven years of development, OLPC’s XO laptop—specially designed for the project—still costs nearly double the intended $100 price and has been plagued by technical problems in the field.2 Fewer than 2 million children are using the XOs.3 More than two-thirds of those are in two countries, Uruguay and Peru, each of which signed on to the project more than five years ago. The program’s cost, breakage rates of the laptops, and difficulties demonstrating measurable results have all dissuaded other countries from joining.

While OLPC has lost some steam, broader attempts to equip children with digital media continue. Other countries in the Americas, including Argentina, Venezuela and Brazil, have moved forward with plans to distribute large numbers of laptops, albeit using different hardware and approaches.

The technology has also changed. The more recent emergence of digital tablets has created renewed interest in “one device per child” programs in schools around the world, whether through using iPads in the United States or inexpensive Android devices in India and elsewhere. With funding from the semi-conductor firm Marvel, OLPC itself has shifted its efforts to develop a lower-cost tablet and may recapture its momentum with a new device.

The Difficult Trade-Offs for Low-Income Countries

The most basic question is whether providing laptops or tablets for all children is viable in the poorest countries of the world. Assuming a four-year lifespan, and based on the publicized price of $188 per laptop when purchased in bulk, hardware costs would total about $47 per child per year. When implemented at large scale, such as in Uruguay, with added costs for Internet access, spares, delivery, operating costs, and teacher training, the total comes to $100 per year.4

This investment per student, when multiplied by the number of students, exceeds the entire educational budget of many of the poorest countries. For example, Haiti’s national education budget in 2006 was about $83 million for its 2 million children, or roughly $41 per year per child.5

International donors (say, the World Bank or the U.S. Agency for International Development) would need to weigh such an investment against other more traditional aid programs. For example, according to the projections of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health in 2010 , a mere $8 per person per year over five years for basic health care expenses could save 11 million lives in Africa.6 An investment of roughly 50 cents per pupil per year in Kenya on de-worming medications was found to increase school participation by 14 percent.7

Building schools, hiring additional teachers, providing subsidies to mitigate costs of school attendance, and spending on textbooks have all been shown to improve educational outcomes in impoverished countries.8 Given the known social and educational benefits of less costly programs, and the largely untested benefits of individual laptop use, it is a tough sell to donor nations or organizations.

How About the Others…?


1.    Nicholas Negroponte, “The Hundred Dollar Laptop—Computing for Developing Nations,” lecture, American Technologists Conference, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Boston: September 2005). http://www.olpctalks.com/nicholas_negroponte/negroponte_mit_world.html. For more recent comments, see Nicholas Negroponte, “What Technology Wants vs. What People Want Panel,” speech, Techonomy Conference (Lake Tahoe, CA: August 6, 2010). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_9JoyyTSQQ8.
2.    For an in-depth review of the progress of the OLPC program, see Mark Warschauer and Morgan Ames, “Can One Laptop per Child Save the World’s Poor?,” Journal of International Affairs 64 (1) (2010): 61-76.
3.    The One Laptop per Child program lists all deployments around the world by country at http://laptop.org/map.  On March 23, 2012, the total of all these deployments listed was 1,855, 793. A Wiki page on the OLPC Website at http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Deployments also lists individual deployments.  On the same date, the total of of the deployments listed was 1,788,500.
4.    Christoph Derndorfer, “Plan Ceibal’s 4-year Cost Increases from  $276 to $400,” January 10, 2012. http://www.olpcnews.com/countries/uruguay/plan_ceibals_4_year_cost_increases_from_276_to_400.html.
5.    Lawrence Wolff, Education in Haiti: The Way Forward (Washington DC: Partnership for Educational Revitalization in the Americas, 2008). http://www.thedialogue.org/PublicationFiles/Education in Haiti – The Way Forward – FINAL – 9-15-08.pdf.
6.    Partnership for Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health Press Release, “PMNCH/Africa Public Health Alliance and 15% Campaign/Countdown to 2015: Small Investment Could Save 11 Million African Lives,” July 21, 2010. http://www.who.int/pmnch/media/membernews/2010/20100721_africanunion_pr/en/index.html.
7.    Michael Kremer and Edward Miguel, “Worms: Identifying Impacts on Education and Health in the Presence of Treatment Externalities,” Econometrica 72 (1) (2004): 159-217.
8.    See, e.g., Maurice Boissiere, “Determinants of Primary Education Outcomes in Developing Countries,” working paper, Operations Evaluation Department (Washington DC: The World Bank, 2004).

Tags: Digital Divide, Education, Nicholas Negroponte
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