Tuesday, July 03, 2012

The One Laptop Per Child program shows that computers aren't enough

The Associated Press reports that Peru spent more than $200 million to purchase One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) XO computers for more than 800,000 public schoolchildren five years ago, but the project has been hampered by a variety of problems:
  • Poorly-prepared teachers and administrators who didn't understand the computers, let alone know how to teach with them. 
  • An almost universal lack of Internet access. 
  • Software bugs that didn't get fixed. 
  • Cultural disconnects. 
Sandro Marcone, who runs the OLPC program for the Peruvian government, said "In essence, what we did was deliver the computers without preparing the teachers." According to Marcone, the program may have made matters worse, rather than better, in the Peruvian education system. Oscar Becerra, who ran Peru's OLPC project prior to Marcone, said "We knew from the start that it wouldn't be possible to improve the teachers." Becerra cited a 2007 census of 180,000 Peruvian teachers that showed more than 90 percent lacked basic math skills while 60% couldn't read above sixth-grade level.

Even with all the problems, there have been some benefits: The Inter-American Development Bank, which wrote a negative report on the OLPC initiative based on a 15-month study of 319 small, rural Peruvian communities, nevertheless found that the computers accelerated students' "abstract reasoning, verbal fluency and speed in processing information" by about six months. A study conducted in Ethiopia by researchers from the University of Groningen that was published in the journal Computers and Education found similar improvements in abstract reasoning.

While the OLPC team clearly oversold some of the benefits of its computers, a large portion of the blame for the failure of the program in Peru has to be assigned to government officials. There are some important lessons from the OLPC experience:
  1. Teachers, librarians and administrators have to be trained in order for new technology to be used effectively. Kids can't be expected to "pick it all up on their own." 
  2. There has to be a infrastructure in place to support the new technology--networks, IT people, repair services and software developers. 
  3. More than ever, computers aren't useful without Internet connections. PCs and tablets are now largely windows onto the Internet, rather than self-contained devices. 
  4. Most importantly, computers aren't a panacea. They can't fix an educational system that's broken, nor can they make up for serious deficiencies in teachers or facilities, poor nutrition or a host of other problems. 

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