One laptop per child
Here's a moral tale which tells us how far we are from being a knowledge society - even though we're surrounded by ever smarter technologies.
For nearly two decades I've seen inspiring speeches urging every child to get a laptop. Sometimes the speeches were made by Prime Ministers, including a couple I worked for, and sometimes by corporate CEOs.
Then MIT's Nick Negroponte started the OLPC, was lauded in the technology media as a visionary. Every now and then great stories appear about children being given laptops and rapidly learning how to use them and teach themselves from the cornucopia of the web. So what's not to like? I confess to having been quite enthusiastic until two things happened. First, I got to know some people with close insider knowledge who had become very sceptical, even suspicious. Then I started to look at the evidence.
The big problem with the programme is money. There was a laudable goal of bringing down the cost of computers, but in many poor countries even a laptop for $100 is wholly unaffordable. Countries with per capita income of $300 will be lucky to have an education budget much more than $10 per child. The maths is pretty straightforward. Spending ten years' education budget on one piece of kit means no teachers, no schools, no anything else.
Economics teaches the concept of opportunity cost. But the advocates of OLPC have adamantly refused to acknowledge that there might be any opportunity cost involved. A reasonable response might be that even if it's not such a great idea for very poor countries it might work well in middle income countries, say around $5-8,000 a year per capita income. But here too the evidence is at best mixed. There is now a huge amount of evidence about IT in schools and education more generally - much of it is gathered in Nesta's recent overview, Decoding Learning.
John Hattie, probably the world's best compiler of evidence on education, shows that when it comes to equipment, one laptop for every two children seems to work better than one laptop per child. Here again though the proponents have consistently refused to engage. They don't offer alternative evidence, or show why the evidence might be irrelevant. Instead they respond with anecdotes and magazine articles.
This points to the motive. It's never easy to pin down anyone's motive, and the world of poverty alleviation has been full of mixed motives, from saintly altruists to big egos wanting the world to love them, and corporations wanting to sell stuff. I don't really care what motives are so long as what's done works. But when powerful people refuse to engage with evidence you have to question their motives and their moral compass.
A lot of people out there still think OLPC is a great idea. The marketing circuit still trundles on, appealing to gullible ministers and journalists. That's the symptom that we don't live in a knowledge society. If we did new ideas like this would be treated with enthusiasm, but they'd also be interrogated, analysed and judged. For now hype and vapourware are still winning out.
OLPC is yet another example of a widespread phenomenon - something that looks great when presented by an enthusiast, and is perfect for a TED talk or a magazine article, but doesn't look anything like as good when you ask a few basic questions. The problem is that the relative weight of essentially unreflective media has grown - i.e. offering answers but discouraging questions, strengthening people with good communications relative to those who actually get results. It'd be good if we could shift the balance.