Sunday, September 8, 2013

Time to switch from OLPC to tablet in Africa

In November 2010 I published a posting "One laptop per child...but what "laptop"?"explaining why it was important that schools in Africa that want to develop ICT awareness with their young students use the new mobile internet devices. 

As opposed to traditional PC, mobile internet devices are more appropriate for Africa both from a technical and from a usage purpose point of view. Technically, those device typically have a longer battery life time which is a major requirement in a continent where access to electricity is difficult. But more importantly, mobile device is the way population in emerging market will access information. In India, the number of people accessing internet via mobile device exceeded those using desktop PC in less than 4 years.

Source: Mary Keeler, Internet Trends, KPBC, 2012/ StatCounter Global Stats, 11/12

This is why I suggested that tablets would be better for kids to use in schools than PC if there is such a choice. At the time of my posting, the OLPC organization was showcasing the picture of a new tablet (OX-3) that they said would be available for $75. It as later proven that the picture was a montage and that the product was far from being released anytime soon. Eventually, OLPC canceled the new tablet

Well OLPC has now made that tablet available but only in the US in retail via Amazon, Target or Walmart for $149, twice the original target price. The same thing happened with their famous OLPC which end up selling for more than $200 while the initial target was $100.

OLPC XO Kid Tablet

The battery life time claimed is 6 hours, more than double the battery lifetime of the OLPC (see my posting on it: OLPC: from MIT lab to the reality on the ground). The new tablet however does not solve the problem of difficult access to electricity. I'm wondering what would it take to develop a solar tablet? Or a solar charger for tablets? Some have been announced but at prices that are unaffordable for developing countries.

A tablet interface is much more intuitive to use for kids than a PC mouse and keyboard. In the famous "A hole in the wall" experiment in India, educational researcher Sugata Mitra installed Internet connected PCs in a wall with a touch pad as interface in the middle of a remote village in India and was able to show that children were teaching themselves and able to use it without any external help.

Kids in India using "hole in the wall" Internet connected PC.

Probably inspired by that experiment, the OLPC organization tried a similar experiment in remote villages in Ethiopia simply dropping off tablet computers with preloaded programs and seeing what happens. Similar results were observed: "OLPC workers dropped off closed boxes containing the tablets, taped shut, with no instruction. “I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,” Negroponte said. “Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.”"

Tablets "engage the brain far better than traditional learning methods, in a way that's similar to the way it reacts during challenging video games". "Tablet software can cut high school learning from 4 years to 6 months" said Nolan Bushnell, the "father of modern video gaming", founder of Atari. This would address a major problem found in traditional education in Africa (see my last posting:Raising the Bar in Africa’s Higher Education Quality - The Impact on the ICT Industry and the Danger for Africa), i.e. the lack of stimulation of thinking and creativity. Also the mobility of the tablet makes it a better fit for access to digital books (similar to a Kindle device). This ultimately could help address the impossible cost and logistic challenge of school books distribution. This obviously assumes Internet access in the schools which is not he case in most of Africa. But optical networks are being deployed in many countries, particularly in East Africa. Rwanda has an extended 3,000 km optical network in place in a country not wider than 250km. But the last mile problem is not solved yet. But here again new solutions are about to emerge. Look at this Mawingu Indigo Telecom Rural Broadband Vision in Kenya linking tablets to broadband network in remote villages.

While I think that traditional PC will still make sense when it comes to creative processes requiring more input devices and power, the tablet touch interface seems to be most adapted for the first encounter of kids with ICT.

Thailand recently announced that it will supply 1.2 million tablets to schools. The tablets produced in China and Thailand will cost between $63  and $93. Similar project is taking place in Turkey.
The time to switch from OLPC to tablets is now and it is unfortunate that the new XO tablet is not available yet in developing countries. The OLPC device is a Netbook. Netbook is already an old paradigm, Netbook sales have been declining for the last couple of years, replaced by tablets.  However OLPC seems to continue pushing the sales of old OLPC (designed in 2007). Particularly here in Rwanda where they are even pushing for the building of an OLPC factory. It seems that they need to have their unsold stocks paid for by poor countries while they sell their tablets in the US where nobody would buy the old OLPC. It is unfortunate, to say it diplomatically!

Seeya later alligator...


Linda Deen said...

Is Raspberry Pi a better alternative to tablets?

"The Raspberry Pi is a credit-card sized computer that plugs into your TV and a keyboard. It’s a capable little PC which can be used for many of the things that your desktop PC does, like spreadsheets, word-processing and games. It also plays high-definition video". It is intended for "kids all over the world to learn programming".

The price ranges from $25-35 (2 different models) and would be affordable for African families who have the pre-requisite power supply and television set. It could also connect to a school Ethernet.

Furthermore, Raspberry Pi provides the facility of a computer which, as stated above, allows kids to learn programming. This could be very important considering that most of us consume Internet media without "writing" back to it. Yes, there is merit in everyone learning how to program so that we could interface more effectively online.

At the same time, young people, particularly in Africa, could learn how to innovate using Raspberry Pi provided they have access to computer languages and some best practices for writing code. Even if $50 mobile devices such as Smart Phones become available, they don't have the capacity for user programming. Tablets are still too expensive for young Africans and, as mentioned above, may not be available. Let's grow some Raspberries in Rwanda!

Linda Deen
Kigali, Rwanda

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