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$15 Laptop and Projector: The best, most effective, and cheapest computer system for schools

By Wayan Vota on October 10, 2011


With much hoopla, India has announced that it has a $65 Android tablet it is willing to subsidize to $35 for students and teachers. This has reignited the debate around hardware price points for educational devices – be they $100 laptops or $35 tablets. Let us be very clear that hardware costs are a red herring in ICT4E.

That being said, price matters in the minds of many. So here I present you with the best, most effective, and cheapest computer system for educational systems in the developing world: a rugged laptop computer and energy-efficient projector.

Teacher-centric Computing

First let us dispel the notion that primary school students needs their own computer. This is a fallacy that every elementary school teacher will confirm. Young children can learn just as effectively through teacher-facilitated learning without excessive investments in one laptop or tablet per child. And that’s in the advanced economies where there could be the resources to pay for that many devices.

In the developing world, few if any country can seriously contemplate providing a learning device per student. Yet, providing a learning system per classroom can be feasible. A learning system that empowers the teacher with standardized lessons and content that support the official curriculum would not only help improve teacher competency it would also help create a baseline knowledge level across schools.

So rather than attempting a personal student learning device, we should be focusing on teacher-centric computing that can lift an entire classroom’s learning opportunities.

Teacher-empowering Hardware

Now how can we share standardized lessons and content across an entire classroom of squirming children? By using a energy-efficient projector to display the curriculum that is access via a rugged laptop and manipulated by the teacher.

The total hardware costs for a system like this is around $1,000 per classroom: $400 for a Classmate PC, $400 for a low-power projector, and $200 for the solar power to run it. Divide that $1,000 by an average class size of 65 students, and you have a $15 per child cost. You can even add in interesting software applications to create interactive whiteboards for a tiny incremental cost.

The one laptop and projector per teacher model has an added bonus. Because the teaching methodology using a laptop and projector isn’t much different than using a chalkboard, there is a smaller barrier for teachers to make the transition from analog to digital curriculum.

Technology Flexibility

The laptop and projector model does not preclude investments in computer labs or even one laptop per child interventions. Merely that this is the lowest cost per student entry point to bring computing technology in the classroom.

I personally believe it is also a great base to start with, in that it will expose teachers to the use of technology in the classroom in a way that is familiar to their current teaching style. This will allow for the flexibility to bring in computer labs, mobile labs, personal devices, and even more radical technology and teaching methodologies over time.

So rather than starting with a $35-60 dollar tablet for students, schools should begin their technology journey with a $15 laptop and project for the teacher.


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Written by
Wayan Vota is a digital development entrepreneur and the co-founder of ICTworks. He also co-founded ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, Technology Salon, JadedAid, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things.
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10 Comments to “$15 Laptop and Projector: The best, most effective, and cheapest computer system for schools”

  1. Giorgio Bellinzas says:

    This article has the merit of shifting the attention on a real cost/benefit analysis, rather than the debate about cost alone. Unfortunately, I am quite sure that the 35$ (or, as you correctly say, 65$) Indian tablet will result in a failure, because of its slowness, its limited possibility of use etc. In this regard, it is way better to spend 1000$ for a more effective product.

    However, you narrow your analysis on how to “learn with ICTs”, and not how to “learn the use of ICTs”. I agree that in primary schools, children don’t need a personal computer to learn geography, or history. What you don’t mention, is that the individual use of computers is valuable because you learn how to use this tool, you practice directly, you learn by doing. I don’t have to remember how, nowadays, ICT skills are necessary for young people to enter the job market, to search for opportunities or to create new ones from scratch. And I am sure that, when you are trained how to use a computer, if you can actually use it only once a week you are going to forgive everything and lose interest in it.

    This is the real rationale of giving a personal computer to every student: making them learn how to exploit ICTs at school but also in their everyday life.

    For this reason, I strongly believe that having a personal computer for each student is what we should aim at, eventually. In the meantime, we can also start with giving each class a pc and a projector, but this cannot be but a temporary solution.

  2. John Hawker says:

    Add a projector BAH

    Why do people keep thinking a PC is a PC?

    IPTV uses a PC hidden in a dumb Set Top Box (STB) but it doesn’t look like one – you use them in a 5 Star hotel to watch movies or if the boss doesn’t see the bill porn

    At http://www.sat-ed.com we used IPTV Video on Demand

    Using TV ($150 per classroom if bought new, usually all schools have
    them) so often free and IPTV STB ($50 per classroom) we gave teachers the
    ability to have a big screen IP Based device with loud sound, all the
    bells and whistle of PC’s, even better, no boot up time, faster on,
    higher definition, easier to navigate (Icons)

    The teacher clicks a icon, can stop pause rewind the video on demand.

    Heck you used this in 5 star Hotels to watch movies when bored.

    We built a low cost one and stuck it in the South of Thailand schools
    where teachers got shot and schools burnt to the ground.

    The server was about $1000, could serve 8+ classroom, was filled up
    continually by satellite, multicast so I had my own bandwidth, A few
    thousand $’s a month and I could fill 1000’s gigs of data, delete
    commands remote even though a one way system.

    Server could cache “internet ” content as well.

    So when internet died, the school still could type http://www.blahbalh.com
    oer what ever white list the government wanted and get whatever was
    cached last.

    So still way under $400 per classroom

    IP Based video on Demand for a teacher, short compelling video clips
    that supported her not replaced her.

    Teachers are in FEAR often of PC’s so we hide the PC, Teachers love TV’s no idea their using A PC,

    PC’s take a long learning time

    Video on Demand training?

    I’ve had illiterate grandmothers in villages in remote areas of the world using it to navigate to pages (it’s icon not word based – our system) and then they pause, rewind play etc)

    In about

    30 seconds.

    John Hawker

  3. kariuki says:

    Smaller steps, less incremental resources, bigger marginal returns on investment. This shortens the timeline on attainment of ensure the tablet-per child holy grail of (and hopefully adequate time to determine whether that’s really what is needed)

  4. Worlali says:

    Giorgio! You have made some interesting observations but as you rightly pointed out, the ultimate aim of ICTs for/in Education is that students have ownership of computers and also are able to use them effectively for learning. The challenge in most developing however, is that resources for such projects and policies are very limited and investments in these should be aimed at improving education that will guarantee maximum impact with the limited resources allocated given the available alternatives. In my view this model is proposing a cost efficient way of complementing other approaches that have been tried over the years with mixed results especially in developing regions.

    It is also common knowledge that most developing region face major infrastructural and institutional challenges (eg. unreliable electricity supply, poor internet connections, local content for e-learning… just mentioning a few) so that if we propose ICTs for/in Education projects or policy we should factor these challenges and weigh options available rather than just having them being trumpeted around just for cheap politics or for whatever the reason maybe.

  5. Wayan Vota says:

    I would not say that the ultimate aim of ICTs for/in Education is that “students have ownership of computers.” The ultimate aim is to have a better educated student. To get there, students may need to use technology themselves effectively for learning, but this does not require personal ownership of any technology. For example, I didn’t own my own computer until I was in my mid-20’s and already a college graduate, but I was exploring BASIC on a college computer lab when I was still in middle school.

  6. The system you propose only works, if students after following their “teacher-centric” computing class, using “teacher-empowering” technology, can have a “student-centric” and “student-empowering” practice session on their own. Otherwise, who are we teaching?

  7. John Hawker says:


    Actually what we found instead of the normal Teacher led student listen by rote which is the sad norm in S E Asia was a dynamic of interaction with students questioning and interacting with each other and the teacher.

    The reason being had little to do with technology and materials but pure simple pyschology which we hadn’t planned on.

    Teachers in Thailand stand at the front and talk AT the class.

    One way system sadly.

    To make a remote control work, the teach had to walk into the class at least a few metres,

    They then often found a spare seat and sat down.

    This de-teacherfied them, humanized them

    It sounds silly but the first time it happened the school we trailed this on called us up to come out and watch as stiff and formal teaches relaxed and became human interactive teachers.

    A strange phenomena that was the best by product of what we did.

    The students then asked to be able to use the system at lunch and after school.

    In Thailand education can be broadcast locally, so the Headmistress applied and broadcast her own lessons based upon what we started.

    We humanized rigid teachers, and removed them for study time.

  8. Anonymous says:

    It is because you did not begin to learn in your childhood that you may have lost an opportunity to be be intuitively creative with computers. Using it to write blogs is very different from being creative in learning with computers. Of course everyone had an opportunity to learn what they could even before computers were created. That did not mean that they could not become scholars either. Just that the access was restricted, learning was available to those with greater motivation and not really everyone, may be 1 in a hundred or so.. Now we can have everyone learning th eway the best can with little additional cost

  9. Anonymous says:

    The basic fallacy is that the writer may not be an expert in how children learn. He seems to talk about technology without any clue about education.

    At the level of numbers, few classes at school will be as large as 65 students. A typical section in elementary school is 25 students or under. At middle school it may go to 30 and some specific classes may go beyond 30 at times. So 65 is not the number you start with.

    Then again, a class of whatever be the number in a village will unlikely have a classroom of that size, desks, electricity etc and one cannot run a projector without electricity and that takes care of 80% or the world’s rural schools.

    The remaining 20% rural schools may have intermittent power supply and that begs the question, what on earth did the writer mean by talking about $15 laptop any other than there were WMDs in Iraq?

    This is what happens when without the necessary foundation people try to plug the line for a product they really do not believe in but have to do so for a living.

    May be Vota is paid by Intel or else I cannot see anyone with any understanding of education challenges that OLPC addresses arguing the way this blog does!

  10. Wayan Vota says:

    Actually, at 60 children per class, I was being generous. You can see by the numbers and pictures of just one site survey that schools in Tanzania often have even more students than this per classroom – in excess of 100+ even. Just check out this Libobe Primary School classroom – http://ow.ly/77vBt or the Nyerere Primary School’s student distribution http://ow.ly/77vKY

    The $15 laptop/projector price also includes the solar power to run both. Its a real figure that we are using in a real deployment. When the costs of a single laptop and projector and their power needs are spread out over a large class size, the costs actually do work out.