Can One Laptop (or One Kindle) Per Child Boost Literacy and Learning?
7.9.12 | Five years into an ambitious technology experiment, education experts and government officials are debating whether the more than $200 million spent to distribute laptops to 800,000 school children in Peru has been worth the cost.
Frank Bajak—a former Associated Press technology editor who now heads up Andean news coverage for the AP—describes the program, which was implemented as part of the One Laptop Per Child initiative that aims to improve learning in poor regions of the world via distribution of rugged, low-cost computers.
There are 6 million elementary school children in Peru. Children in rural schools, especially those where one teacher oversees multiple grades, were given laptop priority. Poverty, limited or no internet access, and technical problems that can vex the most sophisticated of users led to a number of complications and failures:
Some parents, mistakenly believing themselves the laptops’ owners, tried to sell the machines, [Education Ministry official Oscar] Becerra said.
About a quarter didn’t want the computers coming home, fearing theft, the development bank researchers found. Meanwhile, two in five children didn’t take their computers home because their school wouldn’t let them.
Some schools didn’t have enough electricity to power the machines.
And then there was Internet. Less than 1 percent of the schools studied had it.
[Software engineer Jeff] Patzer blogged about the frustration he witnessed when children and teachers struggled with the laptops’ old, buggy software and, not understanding how to update to improved versions, “promptly boxed them up and put them back in the corner.”
Another key issue was the lack of teacher preparedness. Not only did teachers lack instruction on how to incorporate laptops into classroom lessons, but many had no computer experience.
“In essence, what we did was deliver the computers without preparing the teachers,” Sandro Marcone, the Peruvian education official who now runs the program, told the AP.
Students also lacked basic computer training. During Bajak’s visit to a school, some children asked for assistance with computer fundamentals, such as how to increase font size.
The Inter-American Development Bank released a report earlier this year based on data collected from 319 primary schools in rural Peru. The report found “no evidence [...] of effects on enrollment and test scores in Math and Language. Some positive effects are found, however, in general cognitive skills as measured by Raven’s Progressive Matrices, a verbal fluency test and a Coding test.”
The researchers also discussed whether stricter adherence to the OLPC principles could have produced better academic outcomes:
In the setting analyzed there were two important departures from the principles promoted by the OLPC Foundation: a substantial portion of students could not take their laptops to their homes, and Internet access was practically non-existent. Regarding the first issue, under the extreme assumption that all effects are caused by using the laptop at home, we can estimate the expected effects when all children take their laptops home, scaling-up the reduced-form estimates by the fraction of students who currently regularly take their laptops home (40 percent). The estimated effect on average academic achievement yields a coefficient of 0.01 standard deviations with an associated standard error of 0.14. Though power is substantially reduced, the results suggest a low chance of substantial positive effects. Regarding the effects of the Internet, the absence of variation in this resource in the school study sample prevents us from assessing its potential impacts. However, the small existing literature does not seem particularly promising.
Eugenio Severin, one of the study’s co-authors, told Bajak: “The magical thinking that mere technology is enough to spur change, to improve learning, is what this study categorically disproves.”
Read the full story for more on what worked and what didn’t work in Peru, and outcomes at schools in other countries where the OLPC program has been implemented.
Plus: E-Reader Revolution? The Wall Street Journal last month looked at alternative digital efforts to increase literacy and boost learning in impoverished regions. A 2-year-old San Francisco-based nonprofit called Worldreader, for example, has so far distributed 1,100 Kindles and 180,000 e-books to schools in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda.
One of the most valuable lessons is the importance of relevant material. At the Humble Primary School in Mukono, Uganda, the school’s library consisted mostly of donated U.S. books. “The first books we got were mainly about the U.S., with kids playing in ice—which our pupils would not understand,” says Ester Nabwire, the school’s head teacher. “With the Kindles, there are African authors, African names which are exciting the kids.”
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