A BusinessWeek article mentions that the MIT-spawned OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) project has finally penetrated India with a tie up with the mega-corporation Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group (ADAG). This is after several failed attempts by Nicholas Negroponte, godfather of OLPC, to establish a beachhead in India. Previous negative comments from the Indian political establishment about his efforts include:
In 2001 Information Technology Minister Arun Shourie dismissed his [Negroponte’s Media Lab] efforts as “pedagogically suspect” and wanted more accountability.
… in 2006, his project was again rebuffed by India’s then-Education Secretary, Sudeep Banerjee
“Our primary school children need reading and writing habits, not expensive laptops,” says Arun Kumar Rath, India’s Education Secretary.
After being ignored by previous and current ministers, Negroponte has realized the way to get around India is thru the Ambanis. A distinct departure from OLPC’s typical distribution model that relied on partnerships with governments, the move is a lesson in the reality of Indian politics.
The Ambanis are not purely altruistic in their approach. Like that other mega-corporation, Microsoft, Reliance realizes that more consumers using digital appliances today will most likely mean more customers to sell their services in the future. This is just an investment to building their future customer base.
On the part of OLPC, this is a very astute move. It addresses two issues that have dogged the startup. Firstly, it provides a partner with a vested interest that is closely aligned to its intent of getting as many laptops out there as possible. Secondly, it provides access to the logistical and distribution strengths of Reliance to help it scale up to the challenge of getting hundreds of thousands of laptops out to rural areas. This second weakness was very apparent in OLPC’s missteps as it was overwhelmed by orders around Xmas 2007 that resulted in month-long delays. Hopefully if OLPC can provide the laptops, Reliance can get them to the schools.
To add to the confusion, there are several comments to the BusinessWeek article that seem to infer that the Reliance/OLPC relationship is not a formal one but just the work of some interested individuals. Satish Jha (who was identified in the article as the ‘head of OLPC India) commented
“To the best of our understanding, Reliance has not even suggested that they are supporting the OLPC initiative in India. OLPC does not have any partnership with Reliance ADA either. Its is some interested folks working for Reliance who are supporting one project for OLPC in India.”
Regardless, there is always the argument that India needs better basic school infrastructure and teachers who actually attend schools to teach instead of new technology. If the OLPC laptops are truly targeted at the poor in rural schools and the lower middle class urban areas, then the bigger challenge is training teachers in those schools to use the laptops effectively. Teachers lack adequate training to support the existing curriculum. Adding a layer of technology – especially one that is most likely not readily found at home or at the nearest Internet café – will only make it harder to train them. In addition, the project needs to avoid falling in to the trap where hundreds of laptops wind up as a status symbol in the hands of more affluent students in urban schools.
Even as we speak, the OLPC folks in India are holding an OLPC India Day In addition to OLPC in India, there is news that other vendors and the government is also going after the low cost PC space. One hopes that in this technology race, that the needs of the poor student are not left unaddressed.
Click here, for an in-depth discussion thread on the OLPC project in India