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 hence, access to a virtually limitless store of information, connectivity to the world and educational software. And for a technology optimist like Negroponte, the payoffs were obvious. 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.
To begin with, the premises and approach of OLPC program as articulated by Negroponte are fundamentally flawed. OLPC stipulates that laptops be owned by children over the age of six rather than by schools. Efforts to reform curricula and assessment are viewed by the program as too slow or expensive, and teacher training as of limited value due to teacher absenteeism and incompetence, so laptop implementation must proceed without them.
The program also believes that in the end, "the students will teach themselves on how to use the laptop. They'll teach one another, and we have confidence in the kids' ability to learn". The other flaw in this program is that the poorest countries targeted by OLPC cannot afford laptop computers for all their children and would be better off building schools, training teachers, developing curricula, providing books and subsidizing attendance.
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 of a laptop program for the countries targeted, flawed expectations about the effects of implementation, problems with the design of the XO, and the realities of student use.
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 preliminary evaluation carried out by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and an independent investigation both suggest that the program, though viewed positively by teachers and parents, 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, making charging--and subsequently using--the laptops nearly impossible. 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. Upcoming deployment will be to schools rather than to individual children, where newly established Technology Resource Centers will house twenty 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; one cannot use a generic screen or one from another laptop model. The keyboard membrane, meant to be spill-resistant, is so thin that normal usage results in the membrane around keys breaking and keys falling off. The touchpad mouse similarly degrades with time. Other problems include an easily breakable charger cable due to shoddy manufacturing, the placement of the cable on the side of the transformer rather than the back, and the lack of a standardized cable between the transformer and the power outlet
4) Realities of Student Use:
Studies to date indicate that XO laptops are, for the most part, little used 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 appears to diminish 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 targeted by OLPC, are not able to exploit the potential of the XO on their own, whether using it at school or at home.
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, as students avoided aspects of the XO that were confusing or problematic to them and thus engaged only in simple activities with which they were most comfortable. A national evaluation study in Uruguay pointed out the challenge of reaching the portion of children who excessively or exclusively use the XO as an entertainment device. In Birmingham, students after getting the XOs, spent substantially more time in online chat rooms. Our interviews and observations in Paraguay suggest that a minority of youth are making use of the XOs in creative and cognitively challenging ways, and a majority using them only for simpler forms of games and entertainment.
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.
This post was originally published by Pritam Kabe as ICTs in Education: The "One Laptop Per Child" Program - Right Intentions but Flawed Approach