The Digital Divide and Social Inclusion MARK WARSCHAUER
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
The most basic question is whether providing laptops or tablets for all children is viable in the poorest countries of the world. Assum- ing 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
132 Americas Quarterly SPRING 2012
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
How About the Others?
Few countries in the Americas are as poor as Haiti. Once we remove truly low-income coun- tries from the equation, a more complex ques- tion emerges: what is the value of individual student laptops or tablets in middle- and high-income countries that can afford them?
Here the answer depends on the nature of the intervention.
Simply passing out laptops is unlikely to have much
positive effect, since students’ use of laptops for learning
will depend on the kinds of technical and social support
they receive. In addition, since students who have greater
literacy skills, intellectual ability or social capital will
likely make better use of laptops for independent learning, a strategy of simply passing out laptops can exacerbate inequality rather than reduce it.
Sound educational reform initiatives that include access to technology as one of many elements have a better chance at success. To see why, it’s worth reviewing
OLPC’s record to date, focusing on two middle-income
(Peru and Uruguay) and one high-income (U. S.) country.
Since OLPC efforts in different countries are organized
independently of one another and take a variety of approaches, a look at several programs can shed light on
how implementation strategies may affect outcomes.