There are kids who don’t go to school. Yet, they all can chant the English alphabets, and some can spell words. A group called ‘One Laptop Per Child’ made this possible and the man behind the technology Satish Jha promises this technology to hold and last long for the change to happen.
All the progress of mankind, the prosperity of affluent nations included, has not been able to help a couple of billion people have the education to understand the world we live in at a very basic level. How do we help children born now to become a part of human progress? Traditional approaches have not worked. Technologies have changed. And the developing nations follow centuries old educational practices, keeping a majority of people far behind.
The reasons are simple enough. The learning models are archaic and increasingly less relevant by the day. Computers may help. But computers that engage children could help better. However, using computers is expensive. If their cost could come to being affordable, if they could work on 1 watt of power, their battery could last the whole day, their programmes and applications could engage children to learn on their own as there are not enough trained teachers, if their computers could work under the sun as well as under shade, if teachers could learn with it as well as the students, if it could be rain proof, dust proof, work in sub zero temperatures just as well as in the hottest places on earth.
OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) laptops could do all that. They were almost unbreakable as well. In other words, designed to overcome the challenges of infrastructure, people, education models and what have you and all for $100 per student per year.
Satish Jha, Founder of OLPC Foundation comes from a village and a family as far from affluence as anyone may have experienced. “I was fortunate to be good at numbers, curious, not to take ‘no’ for an answer, explore and found myself in a city by the time I was 10 years old. I earned a scholarship in middle school and national scholarship after high school that helped me earn an MA in Economics from JNU,” shares Jha.
The story behind
The kids in most parts of our village wear filthy, ragged clothes. They sleep beside cows and sheep in huts made of sticks and mud. They don’t go to school. Yet they all can chant the English alphabets, and some can spell words.
The key to their success is tablet computers dropped off in various village by a group called One Laptop Per Child. The goal is to find out whether children using today’s new technology can teach themselves to read in places where no schools or teachers exist.
The apps encouraged them to click on colors green, red and yellow. "Awesome," one app said aloud. Sambit Bora, six-year-old, rearranged the letters HSROE into one of the many English animal names he knows. Then he spelled words on his own, tracing the English letters into his tablet.
“He just spelled the word ‘bird’!" exclaims Ankita Sharma, a researcher in Utkal University. “Seven months ago he didn’t know any English. That’s unbelievable. That’s a quantum leap forward. If we prove that kids can teach themselves how to read, and then read to learn, then the world is going to look at technology as a way to change the nation and most remote kids,” she says.
We will have proven you can actually reach these kids and change the way that they think and look at the world. And this is the promise that this technology hold, adds Sharma.
The goal of the project is to get kids to a stage called deep reading, where they can read to learn.
The journey to make OLPC real to the world was not so easy. Jha describes the bunch of opportunities he longed for. One of his friends Ami – daughter of Ela Bhatt, Founder, SEWA, landed him an opportunity to work with LC Jain; followed by IIPA, an institution where IAS officers come to learn a few subjects they had little interest in; followed by joining ASCI, Hyderabad where he was deputy of RK Pachauri and was picked up to head up the Research Bureau of the Financial Express.
“I was soon given an opportunity to found Jansatta, a Hindi national daily of the Indian Express, where I roped in Prabhash Joshi as my partner and boss and learned a great deal from. About this time I got selected as Hubert Humphrey Fellow to study International Affairs at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy combined with the Kennedy School of Government,” smiles Jha.
All that did not engage him enough. He was selected to become the Head of Research at Amnesty International and its Secretary General Ian Martin. “It was very encouraging,” mentions Jha. He was also selected to join EDHEC, with full scholarship, to complete an MBA. “That prepared me for a corporate journey and I found myself heading up the global information technology function for the pharmaceutical firm Hoffmann-La Roche,” adds Jha.
Thus, describing the last league of his journey Jha smiles and states, “I learnt most of management skills at Roche and transitioned as the Chairman of James Martin & Co, initially in New York, then combining it with New Delhi. It was in this phase that I co-founded Tarahaat.com, Digital Partners, Baramati Conference, The Meta Group India, among others, supported social entrepreneurs including Drishti.com and learnt how a better understanding of technologies and processes could help economic development. Founding OLPC India was a culmination of this journey.”
It was a hurdle race all the way. The education secretaries not willing to understand the challenges their company OLPC face, education ministers making choices for reasons other than good education, chief ministers agreeing with Jha but unable to carry the bureaucracy with them. Kapil Sibal, Former Minister of Communications and Information Technology who got obsessed with the idea of an impossibility of creating a $10 computer and wasting his opportunity to actually transform the nation, tendering process that simply cannot include a good idea beyond a lowest cost product and one may go on with an almost endless list.
Jha was even quite aware about the rural students and challenges with technology. His dream to educate every rural student and shape their personality had many hurdles. The nation needs to understand whether creating infrastructure to meet the aspirations of the affluent or investing in every child offers a better return on investment and meets the obligations of governance.
“In my opinion, while in 20 years, investments on infrastructure may offer 20 times in return, investing in education may offer a return of 100 times,” says Jha. Moreover, the responsibility should be taken by the government to nurture skilled, educated and well trained citizens. It’s hardly an either/or situation. “However, if we need to make a choice, investment in people, skill development aid, making them better citizens must take priority over all else,” adds Jha.
It’s often seen rural students in classrooms are found nervous because they’re in a new, crowded, very busy environment and they may be overwhelmed so they keep quiet. To overcome the challenge, OLPC organises various seminars and programmes to help rural students build up their inner strength. “Our aim is to produce and distribute low cost laptops and make every child to be technology friendly according to the future prospective,” proudly states Jha.
Globally, Uruguay and Rwanda are the best case studies of how OLPC can change the world. In India, 17 state governments out of 35, embraced the concept of OLPC and then the system came in the way of doing what it does best in making the wrong choices. “So instead of laptops that could help children, they started with what never works outside the cities,” says Jha.
Indian industrialists are too busy showing how many children they touched rather than ensuring every child they touched could grow up closer to their potential. “I try to add 50 to 100 students annually to the pool of those who could move closer to their potential given all the challenges. I do hope India’s education minister and secretary begin to think of rethinking education and transforming India’s future rather than gloating over their titles and doing more of the same,” mentions Jha.
“I have personally donated several hundred laptops, from my little savings, borrowings from my parents and my wife. I am grateful to some friends and various volunteers who came forward to support the project. I am also embarrassed that while a Nicaraguan banker personally supported 35,000 children with OLPC, some very visible Industrial houses of India took months and years to come forward with orders for 50 laptops each,” further adds Jha.