I have been following up on the story on the free laptops for standard one students that has captivated Kenyans every which way since our current President promised this ‘cookie’ during the campaign times.
I have also been rather concerned that this project, while noble, might not have been well thought out by the ‘thinker’s’ behind the manifesto and maybe before we squander Ksh 70bn, we ought to ask some hard questions, but also, and more importantly, provide a better way that this could work.
First a bit of history here, I started my own journey in computing by having access to a computer from when I was in primary school, in my dad’s office, and getting my own when I was in Campus, more than 20 years ago. I can honestly say that my early exposure to computers set me off on a journey to software, which is what I do on a day-day basis today.
However, having said that, I have also seen the nature of computers change from being mostly used for productive work to being consumers of information; be it from catching up on news, linking up with friends over social media and, playing games etc
Moore’s law has also had the unintended consequence of making anything from a smartphone up, a veritable computer, and, considering that smartphones & tablets have outsold traditional computers for the first time in history, you could say that most computers are currently being used for social purposes.
Another associated problem is that computers have also become so user-friendly,that most people view the devices as “functional magic,” and have no idea what’s inside of the “black box.” and don’t want to find out. The days when we would open up the boxes to figure out why the computer was not booting, or ripping out our sound cards to put one with proper stereo in them are long gone. Kids don’t know anymore, or care to know how the little computer the hold on their hands works, as long as it play the latest version of Angry Birds.
From what I gather in news and internet social circles, the GoK is looking at supplying laptops at around Ksh 30k each to the 6 year olds. This gets you the lowest of the traditional laptosp which has barely enough resources to be used on a day-day basis. How do I know this? We had been commissioned to rollout an eTicketing system last year, and we practically cleared the market off the netbooks at the time when we purchased 150 netbooks for about 30K each, which is what our budget could allow.
I subsequently bought one of those laptops to use as my sole laptop, due to their long battery life and I can say that they are indeed pretty fine if you are going to be primarily using the browser; to check on mails, check with friends on Facebook, Twitter etc, but don’t think of firing up word processors and excel sheets before the little poor thing starts crawling down to a halt
Now, Anyone who has seen programs built to help teach kids will know that they are the most graphically intensive applications you are likely to build, and these require processing power, which our little Netbooks wouldn’t have much of. If you are in campus and want to research a paper, yes, they are fine, but kids wouldn’t be reading 100 page academic papers, they learn best by interacting with what they are seeing.
So if the the major reason the government is buying these laptops is for kids to learn about computers, install programs that help them learn the sciences etc, then the question I ask is whether these little Netbooks will be suitable for such purposes.
Also, If you are going to learn programming or configuring computers, a Netbook is about the worst choice you can make. First off they are pretty locked down; you can’t really do much poking around, and they also happen to be non-upgradeable and if you happen to open up one, your warranty goes down the road. And guess what, every 6 year old I know will want to open up their laptop. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to assume that 20% of these laptops will need replacing on a yearly basis and I hope that some technocrat has put this into our annual budget as this cost will be huge.
In addition, when it comes to installing programs that kids will use for either learning to program or learning other study related stuff, the ‘cost’ that the installed OS (Windows) puts on these Netbooks means they can barely ran most of the programs that would need to be installed. Which means that you’ll require lots of patience from our 6 year olds who are yet to learn that patience is bitter, but its fruit sweet.
I am also worried about how the laptops will be used for education purposes only. Thing is, Kenya as a country has its larger population living on less than a dollar per day. Yet it is this same population that we would like to have a number of laptops, each costing 30K sitting around. The chance that these laptops will be sold into the secondary market to be used by those slightly well off and at very low prices is very real. If this program is going to work, the laptops supplied would need to be configured in such a way that they are only usable when used in an education setting. At least this way, their circulation will be guaranteed to be around schools.
Finally, our Ministry Of Education does not really have a good track record in deploying similar solutions to schools. A couple of years back, there was a computerization project which intended to equip at least a single school in every constituency with computers and software at a cost of a couple of million shillings each. This project ended up a cropper. I however, do not see as if any lessons were learnt from that episode apart from how to make mega bucks from such projects.
Incidentally, Kenya is not the first country to be faced with these same issues. Not too long ago, a couple of engineers in the UK, were faced with the exact same problem of pushing computers to kids in their schools. They here had to be a better way to make computers that were fun, encouraged kids to poke around, had good programs for teaching and could be used for early programming lessons and more importantly were affordable.
Welcome to the credit-card sized $35 dollar computer, Raspberry Pi, that has taken the UK by storm and has sold more than 1.2 million devices worldwide.
If you think that its not a real computer, I ask you to have a look at this and ask yourself wouldn’t it be cool if our science congress competitions were done using solutions based on Raspberry Pi’s at $35 dollars a pop?
That is what Kenya needs for our 6 year olds, but, considering that there is not much mega-bucks to be made when you are selling a computer at $35 as compared to $400, as is the current projected cost, will the powers that be take it up?