ICTs in Education: The “One Laptop Per Child” Program – Right Intentions but Flawed Approach

In 2005, Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of MIT’s Media Labs, announced the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) program at the World Economic Forum. The concept was simple and appealing: Innovate a $100 laptop and distribute it to children in the developing world.

No one can argue the power of getting kids access to computers/internet, and as a result, connectivity to the world and huge resource of information. But as the OLPC program has found out over the years, there is more to the success of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) in Education, than just handing out computers to kids, and expect it to works its magic on its own.

For starters, the premises and approach of the OLPC program are fundamentally flawed. The OLPC philosophy is that the laptops should be owned by children over the age of six rather than by schools; the efforts to reform curricula and assessment are too slow or expensive; and that teacher training is of limited value due to teacher absenteeism and incompetence. And hence, they believe that the laptop implementation must proceed without the teachers. The program also believes that in the end, the students will teach one another, and learn from each other. The other OLPC program flaw is that the poorest countries targeted by this program, would be better off building schools, training teachers, developing curricula, providing books and subsidizing attendance, rather than handing laptops to their school kids.

Some OLPC Statistics:

– When OLPC was launched in 2005, it predicted the initial distribution of 100 to 150 million laptops by 2008 to targeted developing countries. As of August 2010, about 1.5 million OLPC laptops (XOs) had actually been delivered or ordered. More than 80 percent of these have gone to countries categorized by the World Bank as high or upper-middle income.

– Only two countries have implemented nationwide use of XOs in primary schools: Uruguay and the small Pacific Island nation of Nieu (with a total school-age population of 500).

– In Peru, after a first phase in which some 290,000 children in rural schools were given laptops, the program will reportedly be extended to the rest of the country on a per-school rather than per-child basis.

– In Rwanda, where only 7 percent of homes have electricity, the government has joined the OLPC program as a way to spur development, but has only purchased or had donated enough computers for fewer than 5 percent of primary school children in the country, and only a fraction of those have been distributed.

– The U.S. government bought 8,080 XOs for donation to Iraq but they never reached children’s hands; half were auctioned off to a businessman in Basra for $10.88 each and half are unaccounted for.

The Main Issues with the OLPC program:

There are 4 main reasons why the OLPC program has not been doing as well as it had expected or hoped for: the affordability, flawed expectations about the effects of implementation, problems with the design of the XO, and the realities of student use.

1) Affordability:

Though the initial goal was to sell the XO laptop for $100 or less, the sales price per laptop in a bulk order is about $188. The cost of implementing an XO program, including the purchase of laptops and other infrastructure, as well as development expenses, has been estimated at about $75 per student per year. Even a less expensive national program would be difficult to afford in a country such as Rwanda, which currently spends a total of about $109 per pupil per year on primary education.

2) Flawed Expectations:

In 2007, the Government of Peru ordered 290,000 OLPC laptops to be used individually by children in rural one-room  schools, and ordered another 230,000 to 260,000 for future distribution. A study carried out by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and an independent investigation both suggest that the program, is mired in infrastructure difficulties -a number of the country’s rural schools still lack electricity access and those that do have electricity access sometimes have only one outlet in the principal’s office. Most schools lack Internet access, further limiting how the laptops can be used. According to the IDB evaluation, only 10.5 percent of teachers receive technical support and 7 percent receive pedagogical support for use of the laptops. Even when training was offered, teachers in one-room schools were often unable to leave their school to attend the training and were unwilling to travel to receive unpaid training during their vacation time. Some 43% of students do not bring their laptops home, mostly because teachers or parents forbid it out of fear they will be held responsible if anything happens. Facing these problems, Peru appears to be moving away from the laptop per child model, moving towards “laptops in schools” form of deployment – Technology Resource Centers with 20 Internet-connected XO laptops, a multimedia projector and a screen.

3) XO Design Issues:

The XO laptops have performed poorly in the field due to hardware/software issues, and has proven problematic for maintenance. Its screen was the first of its kind, but it is also expensive—$65 in Paraguay or $85 on Amazon.com, difficult to replace and proprietary. The keyboard membrane, is very thin and results in the membrane around keys breaking and keys falling off, after normal use. The touchpad mouse similarly degrades with time. There are also problems with the accessories like the charger cable.

4) Realities of Student Use:

Studies  to  date  indicate  that XO laptops are used very little in schools. In Uruguay, only  21.5% of teachers report using XOs in class on a daily or near daily basis for individual student work and 25% report using them less than once a week. In Peru, usage diminished substantially within the first few months: 68.9% of teachers in Peru who have had the XOs for less than two months reported using them three or more times a week, but only 40 percent of teachers who had the XOs for more than two months reported that level of use. Studies in Haiti, Uruguay, the United States and Paraguay suggest that many children, especially the most marginalized students, are not able to exploit the potential of the XO on their own. An IDB study of a pilot project in Haiti noted that a large number of participating students reported experiencing a ceiling effect on learning with XOs – students were engaged in only the simple activities with which they were most comfortable, and avoided the difficult/confusing ones. According to a national evaluation study in Uruguay, a portion of children used the XO excessively as an entertainment device. In Birmingham, students after getting the XOs, spent substantially more time in online chat rooms. Study in Paraguay suggest that although a minority of youth are making use of the XOs in creative ways, a majority are using them only for games and entertainment.

Conclusions:

The OLPC program has the correct intentions, but a flawed philosophy and approach. Just deploying technology and expecting to work its magic is not the way to go. For the diffusion of the technology, it is crucial that we adopt to the local practices and constraints. Social and political structures also play a crucial part in the diffusion process, and one cannot ignore that. ICTs have an important role to play, and can be a catalyst in improving the access and quality of education around the globe. But it is NOT the “silver bullet” that will solve all educational issues. It has to be used as a complement to, and in conjunction with the political, social and economic structures of society, and one has to realize that other critical factors of the educational system need to be fixed before ICTs can work their magic.

Bibliography:

Warschauer, Mark, and Morgan Ames. Can One Laptop Per Child Save the World’s Poor. Journal of International Affairs, Fall 2010. Web.

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About pritamkabe

Originally from Bombay, India. Relocated to the United States in 1997 for attending graduate school at The University of Texas. Completed my Masters in Electrical Engineering in 1999 and then worked in the Hi-Tech industry for the next 11 years in Austin, Texas. I have a passion for travelling, meeting new people, and experiencing new cultures...and i've been very fortunate to have gotten the opportunity to travel quite a bit. Sports and food are my other big passions in life. Some life-changing experiences in my life a years ago changed my perspective of life, after which, just have an engineering job was not meaningful to me anymore. Hence i quit my engineering career, and I'm now motivated to give back to society and make a positive impact in some way. To get started on that journey, i went back in graduate school, and recently graduated as a "Mid-Career Fellow in Foreign Service", from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, at Georgetown University, Washington DC. Currently in New Delhi, India, on a research fellowship, to learn about the educational issues in India, and brainstorm my ideas about technological interventions for resolving those issues.
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