Laptops-in-schools debate turns messy
A scheme to give one million low-cost laptops to Nigerian schoolchildren has stalled because some policymakers say the money would be better spent on other educational projects, while government officials and private computer companies have actively worked to undermine the project, its manager told IRIN.
“The programme has had to face a series of difficulties,” said Tomi Davies, manager of a US-based organisation, One Laptop per Child, which has designed a cheap laptop, known as the XO. “It has had a lot of misinformation and negative press,” he said.
The laptop is designed to withstand harsh conditions such as rain and dust. It has a screen that can be read under intense sunlight. Its battery lasts for 12 hours and can be recharged with the use of a solar panel or a pull cord.
The laptop went on sale for around $100, under a marketing strategy of selling large numbers “directly to ministries of education, which can distribute them like textbooks,” according to a statement by the organisation.
In 2006 Nigeria's government ordered one million XO laptops, becoming the first in the world to make such a large order, but since then Nigeria has had an election and the new government in power says it is reassessing the deal.
Education ministry reassesses
Nigeria’s new education minister, Igwe Aja-Nawachuku, told the BBC recently that he found the project questionable given the absence of basic equipment in many Nigerian schools. “What is the sense of introducing one laptop per child when they don't have seats to sit down and learn, when they don't have uniforms to go to school in, when they don't have facilities?"
So far only 300 laptops have been delivered to children at one school in Galadima, a village in the outskirts of the capital Abuja.
Teachers there told IRIN that computers have had a poisitive impact on the students. “Nice classrooms are important - and indeed the [school] environment here is not the best - but what is more important is the knowledge that we can bring to children,” one teacher, Olugbile Oluyinka, said.
Students at Galadima were also enamoured. “I love my laptop,” Grace Ogwo, a 12-year-old, told IRIN. Another student, Cythia Ounoha, proudly showed IRIN a design for her dream house which she made on the computer.
For Davies, the One Laptop per Child’s project manager, computers are the key to transforming developing countries like Nigeria. “The world is not going to wait for Nigeria. Screen-based interaction is going to be a prerequisite for literacy in the future and if we don’t start now there’ll be a digital gulf,” he said.
Davies said there are other reasons his project is faltering. The multinational computer company Intel has been selling a new type of cheap laptop in Nigeria called the Classmate below cost in order to drive competitors out of market, he said.
Intel has denied such accusations. “We’re not trying to drive [the One Laptop per Child’s project] out of business,” Intel chairman Craig Barrett told the BBC last May. “There are lots of opportunities for us to work together.”
Intel and One Laptop per Child have had hot and cold relations for the past two years. In 2006 they talked of collaboration but tensions mounted in December because of increased competition over prices.
The price of Intel’s Classmate is around $300 in some parts of the world but the company recently dropped its price in Nigeria.
At the same time, the original price of XO laptops rose from US$100 to $188 because of the price of raw materials, Davies said.
One Laptop per Child is now trying to market its laptops to education departments of Nigeria's state governments, rather than the federal government. “Six states have already given us their commitment [to buy 250,000 laptops in 2008],” Davies said, but he added that the state governments have not yet secured the necessary funds.