Can we afford to give every child in America a laptop?

at the TechLearning blog

A few back-of-the-envelope
here (estimating conservatively when in doubt)…

A. Number of students and teachers

public school students
public school teachers (full-time)
teachers and students

B. Cost per laptop (a regular laptop, not the OLPC laptop)

$1,993 average district cost per client computer per year [from the three One-to-One CoSN Total
Cost Per Ownership (TCO) Case Studies
1.5 (I’m adding 50% just to
err on the safe side)
$2,990 average district cost per client computer
per year (let’s call it $3,000)

C. Total cost to give every student and teacher a laptop

53.3 million teachers and students (see A above)
$3,000 average
district cost per client computer per year (see B above)
$159.9 billion
(let’s call it $160 billion)

D. Gross domestic product (GDP)

$13 trillion (United States GDP, overall)
(percentage of United States
GDP spent on K-12 education
$442 billion (amount
in United States spent on K-12 education)

E. Percentage of GDP

$160 billion (see C above)
$442 billion (see D above)

36% of the overall United States K-12 education expense to
give every teacher and student a regular laptop

$160 billion (see C above)
$13 trillion (see D above)

1.2% of the overall United States GDP to give every teacher
and student a regular laptop

Obviously this is very rough, but hopefully it’s also thought-provoking. It
is highly possible that my numbers are incorrect somewhere. If you think I left
something out or miscalculated, let me know. Also, of course, opportunities for
savings abound (e.g., open source software, bulk discounts, buying OLPC laptops
instead of regular ones) and those would have to be factored in as well.

So can we afford to give every child (and teacher) in America a laptop? You
tell me…

18 Responses to “Can we afford to give every child in America a laptop?”

  1. It seems a bit random to take that number as a percentage of the GDP, which measures the size of a country’s economy, not necessarily its wealth. Anyways, I have been reading your blog for some time now, and I really like it. Take a look at my blog at and if you like it, drop me a comment and let me know. If you want, I’ll add a link to you on my blog. Let me know. Thanks!

  2. An important extension of your question is “Can we afford to replace those laptops every two to three years?”.

    Like many districts, our was gung ho for many years to put new computers into the classrooms and laptops into the hands of teachers. However, the school board budgeted for them as if they were desks or buses, items which don’t become obsolete quite as fast as computers.

    They are also fail to include adequate funding for staff development and tech support. These items and the money for a regular upgrade cycle, would add a whole lot more to your bottom line.

    That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. But I’d be happy if our system would just sanction a BYOL (bring your own laptop) program for students. We have many schools where it could make a big difference for very little money.

  3. Tim, thanks for the comment. Your points about sustained funding and support are important. These numbers are meant to reflect a Total Cost of Ownership per year perspective as expressed through the CoSN / Gartner TCO tool. You can go to the CoSN web site to learn more about the tool and the underlying calculations.

    I wonder if schools would ever allow BYOL – there may be liability issues – I’ll have to think on that a bit…

  4. So, this type of modeling presumes that laptops are an add-on to existing costs to operate school systems. I wonder what off-sets or cost-savings might look like in this scenario?

  5. I’d love to see part of the cost of laptops off-set by replacing proprietary, hard copy textbooks with open source materials, edited by not only teachers but students and non-school related volunteers.

    Not only would a system like this save money but it could also produce school books that are more current and relevant. And with a laptop, every student could access the textbook from anywhere.

  6. I think this idea has value, but it was Tim’s comment that really sold me. As textbook adoption inevitably falls off schedule due to a variety of reasons, at some point, I think most students use an outdated textbook. Using open source materials allows a more rapid redevelopment as events change the world and can involve students and faculty in the change process. I think this could also help with facilitating more problem-based learning opportunities and interdisciplinary ideas as staff are given professional development and principal leadership.

  7. FYI, I posted a while back about free online multimedia textbooks:

  8. I’d love to see this $160 billion figure compared against other things the government spends money on. For instance, I just did a quick search and discovered that the annual cost in 2006 of the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq was about $116 billion. When you figure the laptop costs could be spread out over two to four years (the useful life of a laptop), it doesn’t sound like so much does it?

  9. We at OLPC News have done a few calculations around distribution of the OLPC XO and the numbers in other countries are not so pretty.

    Nigeria, one of the richest African countries would have to spend 73% of its entire national government income (not GDP) on just hardware to equip kids, and 13% per year to equip future generations.

  10. Hmm, recently, I had the computer tech guy in my class, and he asked about what kind of home access my students had. I asked students to raise there hands if:

    1. They had a computer at home (2/3rds)
    2. That computer was operating (1/2)
    3. They had internet access with a working computer (1/4-1/3)

    In addition, my students come from large families, so they have to fight for access to the lone family computer.

    So there are three issues. Each kid needs their own computer (which OLPC would solve).

    There needs to be a plan for repair and maintenance (Doug Noon once suggested they should be built to a Fisher Price standard, I’d suggest Tonka). Others have brought up this point, and you seem to have had it in mind, good planning.

    Last, it’s not just enough to give them computers if they don’t have good internet hookup. I noticed that Karl Fisch’s Class of 2020 movie has wireless broadband as ubiquitous in the future. Now wireless/broadband access is treated as a utility (gas/electric/cable tv) instead of like broadcast airwaves (free and license to use is handed out by government). Worth a thought or two I think. Love the discussion.

  11. Alice, I concur. You can see some previous posts of mine on this issue:

  12. Scott,

    Just FYI – my school/district will have BYOL starting in August. They’ll be able to use our wireless network for access to the Internet (filtered), but they won’t have access to our full network (servers, printers).

    We have decent wireless coverage throughout our building, but I’m sure this will help us find the dead spots. And, of course, decent coverage for one or two computers at a time won’t be the same if we get 10 or 20 or more, but it’s a start. We added an extra access point by our three wireless classrooms this year and that helped a ton compared to the “adequate” coverage we supposedly had in place (30-36 computers in use in each classroom).

    It will be interesting to see how many students start bringing them. I get asked fairly often, but I don’t know how that will translate into students actually bringing them. Once the word gets out, that might influence a few decisions about presents come the middle to end of December . . .

    The other issue, of course, is individual classroom teacher’s policies, that will be even more interesting!

  13. I find it ironic that I work in a wireless equiped building, but the principal laptop has no wireless card. I know that our district has a higly restrictive network access policy. As I have posted elsewhere, I would like to see a widening of access made available everywhere and an expansion of open-source text materials. Nearby Aurora, IL is working to make a city-wide WiFi network available soon.

  14. By comparing the number to the annual GDP, you are making the assumption that everyone will require a new computer every year? That seems excessive. Drop it to every three years and you’re down to $50 billion.

    And estimating nearly $3K per laptop? I don’t know what sort of support, training, administrative overhead is going into that, but it seems excessive. Cut it in half and now you’re at $25 billion. Can it be cut more?

  15. Holly Kragthorpe-Shirley Reply June 29, 2007 at 1:14 pm

    Did you see that the U.S.’s broadband penetration is lower than Estonia’s?

    I also wonder…can we afford to teach computer literacy skills to every child in America?

  16. Richard Pineger (UK) Reply May 19, 2008 at 4:46 am

    Why not the OLPC project XO laptop? If the laptop in your calculation did only cost $195 (with one to a developing nation) then the US programme becomes more affordable. Once adopted nationally, other free software would quickly be adapted to XO and shared between students. The kids and teachers can edit the source code and make it work how they want – they can use a more standard windowing interface for the older kids if the Sugar interface is too basic. The end result of a project like would be that the next generation of kids would start demanding computer software more similar to the XO – which is a good thing. And, with access to the source code, there would be a great deal more capable and computer literate individuals in the US – that can only be good for business. Finally, for those US schools who want standard laptops or bigger screens, the XO software is able to run on other hardware anyway. For me, there is no downside.

  17. A Laptop for Every Student?

    Does every student need a laptop?
    Would classrooms be more relevant if every student had a laptop?
    Would trading in paints, brushes, glue, scissors , sporting equipment and even musical instruments, for laptops make classrooms more (or less) releva…

  18. I’m not sure if you guys brought this up but school costs every year for things like notebooks, backpacks, pencils, binders, paper, etc. are pretty expensive. My family has 3 kids in school right now and we spend atleast 300$ for school supplies, laptops dont go obsolete in one year, especially for what we would use it for, taking notes. even if you replaced the laptops every 3 years it wouldnt cost as much as school supplies every year depending if you buy the right laptop for your needs. I feel like a BYOL policy would be very affordable.

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