Education project seeks zero duty on laptops

The man behind the ‘One Laptop per Child’ project wants the government to remove import duties and other taxation on the computer aimed at reaching every child in the country.

“It doesn’t make sense to tax education, especially for young children,” says Nicholas Negroponte, the co-founder of Media Labs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who’s in India to promote the $200 laptop which was specially designed and manufactured for children in rural areas.

The machine is made by only one company, Quanta Computers, of Shanghai.

Negroponte said that more than 30 countries had bought over two million laptops for children and most of them did not tax the product. “I think the government should definitely reduce the taxes.” He met the prime minister and planning commission members to talk about how the product could help India achieve goal of universal education.

He said he had been disappointed with the response in India when the project was announced two years ago as a $100 to $150 laptop for children. Some even said that a laptop could be made for $10, thus disparaging the whole effort, he said.

“The inaccurate talk was disseminated by vested interests, including some which came from Microsoft and Intel,” Negroponte said, adding that this had some impact abroad as one of the allegations was that “our education theories were suspect.”

He said they did not adequately counter that because they were busy with the project. “But nothing’s suspect. We don’t do any education theory.” He said the project only made the keyboards and software for various languages and then gave it to local educators. “We don’t do any curriculum. That’s for the education authorities or others to do.” So far, software has been developed in 53 languages, including six Indian ones.

The project practices the philosphy of constructionist learning which says that individual learners construct mental models to understand the world around them.

He hoped that all the states would buy the laptop for the education of children. The latest state to place an order for 72,000 laptops is Manipur, with firm payment for 1,000 pieces. Other states, including Kerala, Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh have also placed orders for a total of about 200,000 laptops but payments have been negligible.

The laptop, known as the XO, has only open source software, and made with the concept that it would work in areas without electricity. It has a solar panel option, and a hand crank to operate it. It is waterproof and shockproof and has a screen which is both frontlit and backlit, clearly visible even in direct sunlight. It uses one watt of power for most common tasks and may use upto two or three more for the most complex ones. That means that a simple book-reading exercise on the laptop will make it run for 16 hours.

It has wireless technology called Mesh specially made by Media Labs for the project, through which all computers within a 150- metre range can talk to one another. Also, if one laptop is connected to the internet, others can connect through it. Each of them acts as a server.

Negroponte said that although the concept of the laptop had been in the making for a long time, it only became possible in 2004 when display screen prices fell sharply because of technology advances.

He said the open source software was more advanced than the commercially available ones. More than half the servers in the world use open source Linux. The US military uses it, since it gives greater control. Of course, this did not mean that Microsoft was not making a good product, he added.

He said that despite cheaper netbooks in the market, they were not really suitable for rural education. “They are fragile and consume too much power.”

“We are always trying to put a downward pressure on prices and upward pressure on quality since we do not have a profit model,” he said. The next project is a single- page tablet PC with demanding configuration and which is expected to cost around $75. The project has dropped the idea of making a double-page tablet.

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