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Laptop hysteria

Laptop hysteria

A FEW days back, I read in the paper details about the chief minister of Punjab’s Rs9.45 billion e-youth initiative for 2016-17. The venture is meant to distribute laptops to select students in the province.

This intrigued me and I went to the programme’s website. It has two main sections — ‘overview’ and ‘eligibility criteria’. The ‘overview’ section says, “The motivation and enthusiasm behind this scheme is to help students rise above problems and hurdles they face in their path to gain knowledge and excel professionally.”

For this Rs9.45bn project I could find no details about why this programme makes economic sense or how the benefits outweigh the costs. The ‘overview’ section has four lines. That’s it. The total amount in costs is summarised in four lines. I am befuddled, and hurt as a citizen, that such a vast sum should have only four lines of explanation. Even the analysis of an architect for constructing a house consists of a few pages.

More serious analysis of such public policy proposals is required because the costs are high. There is money involved in procuring laptops. There is an administrative cost for all the public servants involved in this, not to mention the costs incurred in setting up distribution ceremonies across the province. Then there is the money spent on advertisements in expensive media.

A more detailed analysis would have considered alternatives. For example, why is sponsoring this project more important than, let’s say, upholding the Constitution (that mandates free and compulsory education for every child age from five to 16)? Or why not allocate resources to eliminate the rote memorisation culture in our public education, which shuns all critical thinking ability? It’s totally possible that allocating billions for laptops is better than all other available options but I, as a citizen, need to know why (and in detail).

Moreover, a more thorough and serious analysis of this project would be backed by empirical evidence and data. Research could have measured, by conducting experiments on small groups, whether doling out laptops actually helps students acquire better skills and find better jobs. Has it really helped student beneficiaries in previous years? How do students with laptops spend their time? Do students start making better use of their time when they have access to laptops?

This lack of focus on data and empirical evidence becomes evident when you try to gauge the expected utility of such a policy decision. Without any experience or evidence, you simply cannot assign probabilities to the success of an event. If we cannot assign probabilities, we cannot really measure the expected value of an investment.

But maybe it’s possible that this policy was created to cater to an existing demand; are students using computers and internet regularly to enhance their knowledge? This is not the case. Though the data isn’t comprehensive, Google Trends 2016 for Pakistan shows instead that most trending searches were related to sports, iPhones and a couple of TV programmes. Likewise, according to Alexa’s top websites in Pakistan, the majority of websites being accessed from Pakistan cannot be categorised as useful for students.

Nor does it seem that the current way of distributing laptops is a genuine attempt to create a thirst for knowledge. Had this been the case then those laptops would have been shipped off with a list of great books or packaged with basic computer programming tools.

A small manual, listing useful resources on the internet (eg, Khan Academy, Coursera, edX and Udacity), and how they could be used by a student to further his or her knowledge, would have been very helpful, though without continuous, proper guidance even a listing of these resources would be futile.

It also makes one wonder if distributing laptops is a universally accepted way to ensure that students gain knowledge? There is no denying that a laptop is a very useful device if used for the right purpose. However, we need to keep in mind that the life of a laptop, in the best-case scenario, doesn’t last more than a few years. Do you think any sincere teacher or a parent would buy something for his children that gives wisdom and knowledge just for a couple of years?

Do not great books, libraries, good teachers and institutions of learning last longer? Some universities and libraries around the world have been around for more than a couple of centuries. A very conservative analysis shows that just one library (the size of Boston Public Library) could reach 10 million people in just 10 years (including circulation, visitors and other programmes).

Such establishments would have also made inclusion of people of more social classes possible, and the positive impact would have been much greater. It would have served politicians better as well in the longer run.

The writer works in the technology sector.

Twitter: @wyounas

Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2017

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