Open Learning Exchange Nepal (OLE Nepal) in cooperation with Nepal's national Department of Education, launched a pilot-program to integrate OLPC XO laptops in regular school classes at two rural sites in April 2008.
OLE Nepal is one of the first organisations to do this kind of laptop deployment, and so it comes across a lot of problems for which there's just no guiding light that you can just follow. How do you make suitable educational software? How does the hardware hold out under these conditions? How do you prepare teachers that themselves often don't have any experience with computers?
So it would be very interesting to see from an independent source how the predictions and the decisions based on them have worked out in reality. A few months after the launch, Mr. Uttam Sharma, a doctoral student at at the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota, conducted an evaluation of the project so far.
First some facts, to get outsiders up to speed with the scope and goals of the project and the evaluation. At the moment 135 laptops have been distributed amongst grades two and six of the public primary schools of Bishwamitra and Bashuki, both on the outskirts of the Kathmandu valley.
The Danish IT Society generously provided the laptops for the schools. OLE Nepal provided teacher training, technical support, Internet connectivity, and in-house developed open-source educational software which follows the Nepali curriculum. Uttam Sharma collected his research material for the evaluation from mid June 2008 to mid August 2008. Amongst others he surveyed teachers, students, family members from 20 different households and relevant OLE Nepal personnel.
Excited about OLPC, 6 months in
To prepare the teachers that would use the laptops in the classroom, OLE Nepal set up a two-legged course to train them; which varied widely in scope. As mentioned before, a number of teachers had never even touched a laptop previously, so the training also included basic skills like using the mouse.
Other sessions were focused on for example integrating the laptops with the standard course material. All through those days the teachers were very enthusiastic and pushed the sessions well past their allotted time and into the night.
Just before the start of the pilot, the teachers from both schools, 21 in total, spent 10 days together to get acquainted with the laptop. When the teachers gave their thoughts about the training, a few points stood out on both the postive and the negative side. The things they liked: The way the program encouraged learning from your colleagues rather than simply from the instructor. The sessions about how to make lesson plans. The training supplied them with an opportunity to learn from new colleagues.
On the minus side, the teachers were in agreement that "a lot of time was spent on going over theoretical parts, which negatively affected the time spent on practical aspect", when using the laptop.
The other leg concentrated on in-school training. So a training which focussed more on how to use the XO in the classroom. Reading the evaluation, one gets the impression that the teachers appreciated not only the computer-related topics, but also very much teaching tips in general. When the teachers were asked what they found usefull, they mentioned encouraging the habit of incorporating lesson plans in their teaching, effective time management and how to present teaching material in the classroom.
Teaching in Practice
When evaluating the usefulness of the computers in the classroom the teachers seemed to be quite positive. "All (relevant) teachers feel that their lectures are now more organized and that it is easier to teach students new concepts." Also the "laptop based instructions have made it easier to give students more practice exercises. In addition, they also feel that the use of laptop based instructions has made the classes more interactive."
It's not all good though. "Many teachers feel that the noise level has substantially increased. This has to do with the fact that students have difficulty controlling their exitement." They have also trouble managing time, because they are not used to integrating laptop use in classrooms. And the teachers feel that the amount of effort that they have to put into their classes has icreased. The extra time spent ranges from making lesson plans to more practical issues, like the management of the laptops in the classroom.
As for the digital content supplied by OLE Nepal, the teachers were happy with the grade 2 content, but found that the grade 6 activities were often either to easy or to difficult. Also the amount of supplied content was to little to satisfy demand. And they would like to see the material being sequenced according to the chapters in the book.
From the students point of view, "more than 95% of grade 6 students find learning using laptops easier. As to why it is easier, the most common response was that you can do the exercise or activities as many times as you want. The second most common one was that these activities were very enjoyable to learn from. The students also appreciated the fact that you could do these activities at ones own pace."
Ease of Use and Laptop Care
Almost all teachers (16 out of 17) find the laptop and its layout easy to use. They think it is very intuitive and also feel that the students should not have much difficulty.
The biggest problem teachers, students and family members cited, was a hardware problem: The so-called 'jumpy cursor problem', which lets the cursor jump at random points on the screen when moved, so the computer is difficult to control. The "four-finger-salute", hitting a special combination of keys to reset the touchpad, helped somewhat but not consistently. More than a third of the teachers noted problems regarding sound: "Since earphones are not available, difficulties arise for students and teachers when using sound related activities. They largely ask students to listen to the sound from the teacher's laptop."
As for care-taking, the students and their family seem to be very keen on protecting the laptop: "At home the students keep the laptop away from fire and water. Those who have a closet at home keep the laptop there when not in use. The students securely keep the laptop in the bag. The family members are aware that the laptop should be stored securely." As a result, very few laptops are brought in for repair, and none so far have been reported stolen or lost.
In it's conclusion the evaluation is positive: "The head teachers in both the schools consider the pilot program as very effective and see great promise in reducing the disparity between private and public schools." and "With this student-centered approach, students are interacting with each other more often. It has made students more curious and they are eager to learn new things. It has also helped in developing co-operative spirit as students are willing to help each other learn new technology."
Note: For more detailed review of Nepal's OLPC evaluation, please see Rabi Karmacharya's article here.
About the Author: Ties Stuij, originally from the Netherlands, volunteers for OLE Nepal in Kathmandu as a software developer. He wrote earlier for OLPC News about the E-Paath open-source learning activities he works on. Rabi Karmacharya, Dr. Saurav Dev Bhatta, and Bryan Berry contributed to this article.