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At $12 Per Student, How Can ICT4E in India Be Sustainable?

Atanu Dey

To illustrate the idea of sustainability in the context of using ICT for education I point to a recent news report related to the use of XO laptops in Manipur, a small state of about 2.4 million people in India. The Manipur state government recently announced that it will spend Rs 155 lakhs (around $300,000) in getting 1000 XO laptops for its school system. Those figures are from a news item dated Oct 6, 2009.

olpc cdma india
Is this really affordable for Manipur state?

Let’s put those numbers in perspective first. The total budget for the Manipur state school education is Rs 6,000 lakhs (around $12 million). That is, state expenditure on school education is $5 per capita for the budget year 2009-10.

Assuming that about 40 percent of the state population falls in the school-going age group, per student state spending on education is around $12 this year. These numbers are fairly representative for the various Indian states. Compare that to what the state is paying for each XO laptop: $300.

The news report says that “initiative is basically for effective education, teaching and self-learning by students.” Accepting for the moment that the initiative does indeed achieve its stated goals, it has to be admitted that at best it amounts to a small experiment – 1,000 students equipped with a laptop from an estimated student population of 1 million students.

That’s about 0.1percent of the whole student body. Even if the entire education budget were to be allocated to buying laptops – which is clearly impossible – only about 40,000 students (or 4 percent of the total) would get enhanced education. The rest of 96 percent will get no support at all.

Using laptops – even the low-priced $300 XO laptop – is clearly a non-starter for the Manipal state education system. The money for actually implementing the program on any appreciable scale simply does not exist. At best this initiative is an experiment which could indicate that it is possible for increased funding to improve educational outcomes – but that has never really been in doubt.

The Manipal story is instructive. I am not arguing that ICT for education is a meaningless concept in struggling economies. I believe that technology has a critical role to play in making education cheaper, effective and accessible for the poor. I also believe that the cost-benefit calculations will work out in favour of using technology. That test is the first test of sustainability – that over the relevant period, the benefits exceed the costs.

What they are attempting in Manipal would at best raise the peak performance of the education system but will do nothing to raise – and indeed it may even lower – the average level of the system. This is not sustainable in any sense of the word.

Another point to note from the Manipal case is that if the education budget could somehow be expanded from $12 million to say about $300 million, perhaps they could afford universal use of laptops. But $12 billion is the total annual allocation for India’s education – a population of 1.2 billion people, with about 500 million in the school-going age.

So the question is how to determine the sustainable and appropriate use of ICT in education. I think that the answer may lie in looking around in domains other than education.

If someone were to ask, “what is ‘sustainability’ in ICT for ‘X’ ?” where X can be anything from banking, retailing, manufacturing, agriculture, aviation, etc? Should ICT be used in X, and if so, to what extent is answered by those who are in the X business. Businesses that make the right choices subject to hard budget constraints survive. There is no controversy about which ICT tools to use and how much of the budget to allocate to them because the system eliminates wasters.

In a similar sense, if educational systems were held to a “survival in the marketplace” criterion, the system will soon enough figure out what ICT tools to use given the hard budget constraints. Sustainability of ICT use would be a natural consequence of the sustainability of the education system.



18 Responses to “At $12 Per Student, How Can ICT4E in India Be Sustainable?”

  1. This kind of 'business constraints' type thinking applied to education makes me pretty angry. Yes india is a country with a huge population and a very small budget per head for its students, but it is also a country that has committed large sums of money to becoming a nuclear power with a space program! What kind of "survival in the market place" budgeting was applied to those programs.

    I think it's defeatist to say that there is only X in the budget so we can only buy pencils this year. By investing in the use of technology in education we can attempt to prove that it can help to improve the potential of the under privileged and improve on their potential to contribute to the national economy and prosperity of their country. This is one way we can change the status quo and convince governments that they need to place greater priority in ICT in education and so invest more money in it. It's not that the money isn't there, it's about how governments choose to use it.

    Nik Peachey | Learning Technology Consultant, Writer, Trainer
    Teacher Development: http://nikpeachey.blogspot.com/
    On Twitter: http://twitter.com/NikPeachey

  2. I entirely agree with Nik Peachey's point that India's attempts at becoming a nuclear power with an ambitious space program is insane. They are trying to raise the peak and not concentrating on the raising the level. That sort of misguided thinking is also evident in the education sector, unfortunately. As I have been consistently saying, I am not against the use of technology in education. I am against using expensive solutions when there are more effective and efficient technology solutions. The fact is that budgetary allocations for education are inadequate for supporting fancy laptops for everyone. It's certainly lamentable and perhaps it is possible for greater support for education. Perhaps it is possible but not probable given the political process. So given the inadequate support by the government, it makes more sense to figure out ways to use to limited resources as efficiently as possible. In this short piece I am merely saying that perhaps one laptop per child is not warranted. The majority of mankind did manage to get to get educated without the use of laptops. That level of education is still achievable in India and it must be the policy goal. These silly attempts at providing laptops to a select few would be funny if not for the harm it does to those who are deprived of even basic education.

    • I couldn't agree more, Atanu.

      There is this crazy wave of techno-dreamers that computers will solve educational problems in poor nations, without ever attempting to explain how the miracle will take place in the absence of an educational infrastructure that begins with well-equipped school buildings.

      The best education systems in the world – you pick your favorite – are succeeding without the use of one-laptop-per-student programs. Logic would indicate that countries in need/want of improving their own system should try to emulate the methods of those who are ahead of the pack.

      • Irv

        If you take your pick of the best education systems in the world you would probably find that the students in those education systems already have and can afford their own laptops, so perhaps that is the system which developing countries are trying to emulate by providing them for people who can't afford to buy their own.

        • Sorry, Nik,

          that's just not true. In fact, it is very well known – with artlcles in the New York Times and elsewhere – that the idea of one-laptop-per-child has been repeatedly implemented and quickly abandoned everywhere it has been tried.

          The most recent and striking example is the Eastern Board in Quebec, Canada, with a large implementation (6500) since 2003. They are scaling back the project after every study reported no difference in student performance.

          Once again, the best schools in the world have done it without laptops. Computers and technology in general can be of great use in education; the problem is determining where the technology can bring actual benefit: a college student certainly can benefit from a laptop far more than a 2nd. grade student.

          • Think you have missed the point of what I'm saying. If you give laptops to kids who already have access to them then you are very unliely to see any great improvements.

            If you give access to those who don't then you may well see more of a difference. I think the issue of 1 per child is really neither here nor there though, it's a matter of access of any kind + of course the training to use them properly. I think in the case of – for want of a better word – developing countries a good start would be one per teacher and one per classroom, but just handing these things out without decent pedagogically focused training is just a waste of time and money ( and this is what has happened in with technology in developed as well as developing countries). It needs to be backed up by good training.

            The other thing that makes me angry about this debate is that how have the $100 laptops come to cost $300??? This is about 30% more than the cost of an iPod touch!

            Crazy.

            • "you may well see more of a difference"?

              Yeah, that'll convince legislatures to fund the use of computers in education.

              Like I've already written, computers have been used in education for over forty years. Somewhere in all that time there ought to be a brilliant success story or two don't you think?

            • "just handing these things out without decent pedagogically focused training is just a waste of time and money ( and this is what has happened in with technology in developed as well as developing countries). It needs to be backed up by good training."

              Well said. I might add that well-documented studies showing successful implementation methodologies are also necessary.

  3. Atanu, you're recapitulating the common organizational question of the utility of ICT – what's the most worthwhile use to which the technology can be put? To what purpose can the technology be put to best advance the aims of the organization?

    In the private sector the answer had better have some quantifiable results that clearly advance the aims of the organization attached or the project doesn't go forward. Less so in much of government and not at all in government primary education. Since there are no quantifiable results from the use of ICT in government primary education the only reason to pursue the use of ICT is to satisfy the demands of some constituency.

    In the U.S. that constituency is, to a small extent parents but to a much greater extent those that administer and oversee government education. From the point of view of that second constituency the success of ICT lies not in its ability to improve educational results or reduce the costs of education but to attract funding.

    India enjoys the somewhat dubious advantage of being too poor to indulge the government education establishment to the same degree as is seen in the U.S.

    As you are probably aware ICT has been used endlessly in the U.S. public education system with, to the best of my ability to determine, no worthwhile results. I suspect India's more modest efforts will result in no better outcome since, at heart, the use of ICT is motivated by the same, unfocused certainty that all that technology has got to have some application to education as well as the availability of funding. Certainly no one involved with the Manipal program has sought out the successful uses of ICT in education since there aren't any.

    To get back to the seminal question then, what's the use to which ICT can be put that produces benefits sufficiently valuable to the organization to offset the costs?

    What results do supporters of the use of ICT in education expect ICT to produce? More learning? More rapid learning? Lower costs? Greater accessibility? Greater flexibility? Greater individualization? The answer ought to be reducible to an "elevator pitch" but isn't and is quite often not obvious at all.

  4. I am still surprised by $12 per student state spending on education. At that rock-bottom funding level, how can we add any ICT solution to the mix without a drastic increase in direct cash outlays? About all you could add would be a roadio program on a local radio station (if India would allow community radio) or maybe some sort of MP3 player for audio books.

    • This is a good suggestion and an indication of good idea of the real solution but our problem in developing countries is that politicians always do not get their priority right and the poor are the hardest hit.
      Education that will all know will help build our nations are always relegated to the background. The recent crisis in Nigerian Universities if you are following news from that country is a good example of misappropriation of funds.
      I hope the right people will come one day to help our countries

  5. Hi,
    I cannot agree more with the argument of Atanu.

    I reproduce a mail that I sent to Dr. Negroponte on the futility of OLPC’s sales strategy -

    ” During my discussions with government officials, we have discussed OLPC in detail as one of the most promising alternatives to traditional computer labs that are being set up by government. Despite officials’ good acceptance of the product ( specially the solar power and the ruggedness), the discussions end with the non-vaibility of the product due to its ‘absurd’ price. You will realize that the absurdity here refers not to the price of an individual XO compared to a traditional PC/Laptop but to the total outlay needed to fund the project. Let me explain. Under Indian Government’s EFA program, each district in India ( total 600 districts) has approx $200K per year to spend on innovative projects to improve the quality of education. Each district also on an average has 500K children in age 6-14. Assuming a price of $250K after taxes per XO, the total CapEx needed to equip each child in each district is $ 125M. Needless to point that even after assuming that the entire budget goes for XO, the budgetary allocation is just 1/625 of what is needed by your organization. That’s not all. There are other socio-cultural issues working against the concept of a child owning a laptop. For many, it is a superfluous extravagance like buying a individual sedan when a shared bus would have done the job.
    `
    In summary – Despite addressing the Electricity issue( among host of others) which is the biggest bottleneck in rural India, XO has little traction in Indian government due to two concerns –
    • high numbers  High Cost
    • Elitist positioning of a child owning a expensive laptop when many don’t get to eat two meals a day

    The question is, can these concerns be addressed without compromising on the strengths and pedagogy of XO ?

    I believe, there is a way. One needs to answer honestly whether laptop is the ‘means’ or “an end’? If the former then all one needs to do is– make little changes to the form of XO ( without compromising on its 1 watt consumption) and make it functional like a stationary PC. Then pitch it as the only Electricity-independent alternative to regular desktops being bought by government for schools. Looking at the electricity shortage in most schools, the governments will have no choice but to change its tender specifications to include 1 watt consumption as one of the requirement. Do you see my point?

    Even though the demand might be less at approx 10 XOs per school, look at the potential market size. The total number of government schools in India is close to 1.1 Mn. At 10 XOs per school, there are 11 Million XOs waiting to be sold with no competition at all. ”

    I invite your comments.

    Thanks

  6. I am of a strong opinion that technology alone can have the large scale impact that’s needed for a developing country like India. With paucity of good teachers and absolutely no mechanism to motivate good students to become teachers, you have to rely on technology enabled model. Technology enabled not necessarily means laptop enabled there are interesting technologies like radio, leapfrog type of learning aids (would require re-engineering to cut down the costs substantially) that can be made available within the acceptable price range.

    Also with only 16% of the allocated money actually reaching the needy, we need to also look at models where the end user/parent actually pays (the amount can be very very lesss, but volumes will make it up). There are private organisations that can adapt HLL type of rural business models and with parents paying the quality pressure will be on. I would propose a model of Affordable Quality Education For All, which is powered by technology.

  7. Mitakshara Kumari

    I think there are two threads of argument here. One is about the method of choosing appropriate technology solutions in Education initiatives – Atanu’s initial comment was perhaps simply whether the choice of XO laptops was a viable option given Manipur’s context, and that the method of choosing technology should be one that holds true on the Market’s touchstone. The second is a larger question about the real impact of ICTs in Education on learning levels, in developing as well as developed countries.
    The answer to the first part is clear- the choice of technology is an important aspect and instead of blindly adopting strategies that might have been successful elsewhere, governments and individual users need to clearly ascertain what are the most viable options for their specific context, keeping in mind both cost and effectiveness. We cannot pose the question of sustainability of ICT for Education as somehow reflected in the sustainability of the OLPC scheme. India has ample experiences to learn from in this context- the model of Public Call Offices (PCOs) in India was more viable than having individual telephone connections. While PC penetration in India remains abysmally low Cyber Cafés have mushroomed and provided a viable option for access to internet and computers. The sustainability of technology solutions might be determined through the market route or be based on the government’s priorities, since choosing any technology solution for government schools (poorly funded with very low fee levels) will not make any market sense and yet there is an imperative to provide access to ICTs to students of government schools. Be that as it may, there are many models in between pure play market based solutions and entirely government subsidized initiatives. The idea is to innovatively finance the optimum technology solution using government resources, private resources as well as public private partnerships.
    The second is a more difficult question to tackle. It is pointed out quite often that there is no clear evidence that proves that technology applications in Education result in improved learning levels, better and more rapid learning etc. Yet quite apart from the lack of hard ‘evidence’ and a comforting cushion of data, the reality is that we live in an age where access to technology quite often might determine our life chances and our very ability to succeed in the current system. If not based on evidence then based on aspirations it is clear that access to computers and internet signifies a better learning environment with greater opportunities. It is telling that in a Survey being undertaken by my organization, PwC, on behalf of InfoDev on the use of ICTs for Education in India and South Asia- at the Policy level- almost all the developing countries in the South Asian region articulate the need for empowering their citizens with knowledge of ICTs so as to enable them to succeed in the emerging ‘knowledge’ society. To achieve this goal they work backwards to introducing ICTs in schools with a dual purpose- one to provide know how in ICT per se and the other to use ICTs to improve the teaching learning experience. This Survey is the third in a series of similar studies undertaken for the African and Caribbean region. http://www.infodev.org/en/Topic.4.html
    Therefore, I do not agree with the line of thinking that a certain minimum level of education can be achieved without computers and technology, simply because in the past of human history that is how it was done. This line of thinking presupposes ‘development’ as a set trajectory: a series of steps countries and societies must necessarily take to reach an end state. The fact is that all societies and countries can only respond to all the stimuli, and marshal all the resources in their environment and determine the best way to reach a certain shared understanding of what it means to be ‘developed’. Developing countries struggling with unequal social and economic systems cannot afford to ignore the necessity of providing equal opportunity for access to technology, otherwise these same inequalities will be perpetuated indefinitely and developing countries will forever be playing catch up with the so called developed countries! The use of technology in some grassroots initiatives in India has proven that even if technology is cost intensive to begin with, in the long run it has benefits that precisely answer chronic problems specific to our developing country context- namely lack of transparency, leakage of funds, improper targeting of beneficiaries. In the specific case of education it might address- lack of trained teachers, lack of availability of high quality books, low student motivation to attend school etc. Of course all the caveats apply- namely pure technology driven initiatives do not succeed- pedagogical innovations are required, there needs to be a mindset change about the possibility offered by technology in education and extensive capacity building for potential users and facilitators in the system is required.

  8. Mitakshara Kumari

    I think there are two threads of argument here. One is about the method of choosing appropriate technology solutions in Education initiatives – Atanu’s initial comment was perhaps simply whether the choice of XO laptops was a viable option given Manipur’s context, and that the method of choosing technology should be one that holds true on the Market’s touchstone. The second is a larger question about the real impact of ICTs in Education on learning levels, in developing as well as developed countries.

    The answer to the first part is clear- the choice of technology is an important aspect and instead of blindly adopting strategies that might have been successful elsewhere, governments and individual users need to clearly ascertain what are the most viable options for their specific context, keeping in mind both cost and effectiveness. We cannot pose the question of sustainability of ICT for Education as somehow reflected in the sustainability of the OLPC scheme. India has ample experiences to learn from in this context- the model of Public Call Offices (PCOs) in India was more viable than having individual telephone connections. While PC penetration in India remains abysmally low Cyber Cafés have mushroomed and provided a viable option for access to internet and computers. The sustainability of technology solutions might be determined through the market route or be based on the government’s priorities, since choosing any technology solution for government schools (poorly funded with very low fee levels) will not make any market sense and yet there is an imperative to provide access to ICTs to students of government schools. Be that as it may, there are many models in between pure play market based solutions and entirely government subsidized initiatives. The idea is to innovatively finance the optimum technology solution using government resources, private resources as well as public private partnerships.

    The second is a more difficult question to tackle. It is pointed out quite often that there is no clear evidence that proves that technology applications in Education result in improved learning levels, better and more rapid learning etc. Yet quite apart from the lack of hard ‘evidence’ and a comforting cushion of data, the reality is that we live in an age where access to technology quite often might determine our life chances and our very ability to succeed in the current system. If not based on evidence then based on aspirations it is clear that access to computers and internet signifies a better learning environment with greater opportunities. It is telling that in a Survey being undertaken by my organization, PwC, on behalf of InfoDev on the use of ICTs for Education in India and South Asia- at the Policy level- almost all the developing countries in the South Asian region articulate the need for empowering their citizens with knowledge of ICTs so as to enable them to succeed in the emerging ‘knowledge’ society. To achieve this goal they work backwards to introducing ICTs in schools with a dual purpose- one to provide know how in ICT per se and the other to use ICTs to improve the teaching learning experience. This Survey is the third in a series of similar studies undertaken for the African and Caribbean region. http://www.infodev.org/en/Topic.4.html

    Therefore, I do not agree with the line of thinking that a certain minimum level of education can be achieved without computers and technology, simply because in the past of human history that is how it was done. This line of thinking presupposes ‘development’ as a set trajectory: a series of steps countries and societies must necessarily take to reach an end state. The fact is that all societies and countries can only respond to all the stimuli, and marshal all the resources in their environment and determine the best way to reach a certain shared understanding of what it means to be ‘developed’. Developing countries struggling with unequal social and economic systems cannot afford to ignore the necessity of providing equal opportunity for access to technology, otherwise these same inequalities will be perpetuated indefinitely and developing countries will forever be playing catch up with the so called developed countries! The use of technology in some grassroots initiatives in India has proven that even if technology is cost intensive to begin with, in the long run it has benefits that precisely answer chronic problems specific to our developing country context- namely lack of transparency, leakage of funds, improper targeting of beneficiaries. In the specific case of education it might address- lack of trained teachers, lack of availability of high quality books, low student motivation to attend school etc. Of course all the caveats apply- namely pure technology driven initiatives do not succeed- pedagogical innovations are required, there needs to be a mindset change about the possibility offered by technology in education and extensive capacity building for potential users and facilitators in the system is required.

  9. Hey Atanu,

    Good to see you comment on this. We did a piece on this through out group at Berkeley (though not as well read as yours!):

    http://itidjournal.org/itid/article/view/325

    Hope all else is fine, cheers – Joyojeet

  10. A portable media player, a projector and loudspeakers cost about $300. If batteries need to be recharged with solar panels or a hand crank, add $100.
    That's $8 per student for one year.
    These devices should last 5 years, so about $1.60 per student per year
    Add a $125 camcorder for each school and some video production training and you have a cheap solution.

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