The Case for Shared Computing

My elementary school’s computer lab probably had 50 computers, where we frequently played Oregon Trail and made flashy presentations in HyperStudio. My middle school had a lab of iMacs and rolling carts full of brand new iBooks. My high school had hundreds of PCs available for use in computer labs, classrooms, and even in the hallways. Needless to say, as I grew up, I always had individual access to computers and never needed to share.

In most of the world, this isn’t the norm.

Due to the fact that computers cost money, resource-constrained schools simply cannot afford to provide kids with access to one computer each. One approach to this issue is that of Nicholas Negroponte, which is to reduce the cost of computers to the point that One Laptop per Child is a feasible ideal.

Unfortunately, even if Negroponte achieves his goal of producing laptops at $100 each (they’re $200 today), maintenance expenses will bring the real cost of deploying these machines to over $250 per year. In India, where the government spends under $100 per student per year, deploying such technology is obviously an impossibility given these budget constraints.

Estimated Costs of OLPC

Another approach is to split a single computer for simultaneous use by multiple people. Microsoft Research India has done much work in this field, through projects such as MultiPoint and Split-Screen – these projects connect multiple input devices to a single computer and thus allow people to have individual access to the machine, allowing for shared computing.

I’m currently working on a project for the Computing for the Developing World capstone course at UW with three other friends to explore the use of shared computing via multiple numeric keypads in improving primary education. Called MultiMath, our software provides arithmetic drills to four students at once, allowing for shared computer use, individualized attention, and adaptive questioning in competitive and collaborative environments.

This week, we are in Bangalore, running preliminary field tests at government schools in the area. We’ve learned a lot, but I’ll save that for another post.


MultiMath will be presented as a demo at ICTD 2009 in Doha, Qatar.
Interested in similar projects at UW? Check out Change.