Who is to Blame for OLPC Peru's Failure? An OLPC Intern Viewpoint


Jeff Patzer, a 2010 OLPC intern in Peru, is publishing an amazing set of posts where he tries to explain why the OLPC Peru "Una Laptop Por Nino" is failing. His conclusions draw on his observations and experiences spanning twenty schools and countless interactions with the ministry and teachers over a period of approximately three months. And Jeff's overall impression?

One thing was for sure, the teachers were not going to get the help they needed from the [Peruvian Ministry of Education]. The ministry was only good for lip service. They were in Lima, talking about the things that were happening, rather than in the field making it happen. As a friend of mine said, they were busy practicing "mental masturbation".

Yes, its a stinging indictment of the One Laptop per Child Negropontism that "You Can Give Kids XO Laptops and Just Walk Away." Jeff has seemingly concluded (as did Christoph Derndorfer in "A Problematic Una Laptop Por Niño Program), that this drive-by implementation model has only one outcome: laptops are getting opened and turned on, but then kids and teachers are getting frustrated by hardware and software bugs, don't understand what to do, and promptly box them up to put back in the corner.

Below, I've highlighted passages from each of Jeff's post that should have you clicking through to read more.

Who's to Blame - Part 1

I had hoped that the interns over the summer would have been able to provide some context for the situation we might encounter. All I really knew was how to use the laptop and that they had worked in a town called Huaraz. [...]

Therefore, I had almost no idea of the actual work the interns were doing. We were assured that we would have all questions answered by the Ministry once in Peru. Essentially, the other interns Hope and Josh, and myself knew almost nothing about what we were getting ourselves into, but were excited for the opportunity.

Who's to Blame - Part 2

Due to our "training" over the summer, we were to only have one day of training at the ministry. Therefore upon our arrival at the ministry, we assumed that we would be trained in how to implement the laptops with the class. However, for the whole first half of the day we spent the time with two different ladies. They continually talked about how our job was to convince the teachers to use the laptops. [...]

The major positive part of our training was we were given a copy of the Peru software image, which is needed to flash the machines. Apparently flashing the machines is the only method of fixing any problems related to the software and any hardware problems should just be reported. [...]

Essentially the key points of our jobs would be to convince teachers to use the laptops and to be glorified laptop software flashers.

Who's to Blame - Part 3

As I began to visit schools, I slowly became more familiar with the laptop and its limitations. Most of the workshops the Ministry had suggested I discarded because they were cumbersome and unrealistic. The reality of most schools was they only had a basic knowledge of how to operate the laptops. Additionally, the mouse pads, besides having a terrible design, often became so dirty that they stopped functioning. The most disturbing fact we discovered though was the software image being used was over two years old. While this doesn't necessarily have to be a cause of problems, it is when the software never gets updated and bugs never get fixed. [...]

A majority of the programs have some serious issues that have not been fixed since their initial deployment. No follow-up is performed to solve problems. What is worse, is that many students and teachers cannot understand when problems occur and why they are occurring. They only understand that something is not working and get extremely frustrated. This usually causes them to abandon using the programs and also lose confidence in the laptop. To give one an idea of the severity of the issues, it took Hope, Josh, and me the course of a few months to discover a variety of errors and minor solutions to get the programs to function as intended.

Who's to Blame - Part 4

actually trying to convey the idea of modifier keys beyond the use of shift and the accent mark, is almost impossible. If you show them one letter and explain that this works for all keys on the keyboard, they will not understand. Some might say this is my fault for not being able to teach them, but really it is more than that.

Showing the kids one idea and trying to explain how to extrapolate this to other ideas, just doesn't work. It's just not how the kids are taught to learn. They are not encouraged to think outside the box (a phrase which translates but holds no meaning) and problem solve. The teaching method used by the teachers is call and response or copying things from the board. Kids do not work in groups or independently to exercise critical thinking, but rather will only repeat or copy what is given to them by the teacher.

Who's to Blame - Part 5

Peruvian teachers break down into two groups, those trying to get accredited and accepted as full-time teachers, they work on contracts that last a couple years, and those that are accredited and pretty much set with a job for as long as they want. Those who are contracted tend to be younger and more accepting of technology. The other ones tend to be older, 45 years plus, and have almost no experience with technology.

The younger ones tend to catch on very fast and grasp the concepts quite fast. Even if they did not know where to start, once shown they caught on fast. They were also incentivized to do better, because they wanted to get hired permanently. The unfortunate part is that these teachers really only make up about 10% of the teachers I encountered. The other group, the older ones, tended to be much more difficult to teach. Disregarding their lack of experience with technology, they also simply did not have basic training in certain topics. This consisted of not knowing basic geometry, mathematics, or other topics. The technology issue was simply compounded by the inadequate education.

The main idea here is that if the teachers were going to be able to use these laptops, they needed some serious training. The sad part is that there are tons of resources online, but most teachers do not know how to use the internet to access them. Most teachers do not even have email addresses, let alone the ability to search through google to find ideas on how to utilize the laptops. Internet access itself was non-existent in the villages, but they did have access to it in Huaraz. The opportunity was there, but the knowledge of how to take advantage of it was not.

Who's to Blame - Part 6

After all this I hope that it has become clear, that there isn't just one problem, but a series of problems. OLPC built a laptop that doesn't work well and has many problems. The Peruvian ministry of education has software that is too buggy and an infrastructure not built to support the deployment. Teachers do not have the training and sadly, the ability to change their situation.

So how do you make the deployment work with what is already there?

First, fix the software and hardware bugs. [...] Second, train the teachers and follow-up. [...] Third, stop making excuses and do the hard work.

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Bernie Innocenti around 2:00 in this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-pBOmGPeeQ put things in prospective on how deployments go through troubles and maturation.
Of course everybody else knows how to do things better and faster (though unfortunately never had the chance to prove it), but hopefully Peruvians will learn too.

Peru is not going through the usual troubles. It has serious structural issues that are well beyond normal. This is yet another report detailing that.

It's pretty obvious that the blame lies squarely on the Peruvian government's shoulders: they are the ones who decided to spend their citizen's money on Negroponte's sad techno-chimera.

Ironically, Mr Patzer, an intern himself, is just one of the many clueless souls who entertain the possibility that Negroponte had a chance of success in Peru or Uruguay - the only two corrupt little banana republics embracing the edu-scam. It doesn't take a 3-month trip to Peru to know that failure is the only possible outcome when you mix government corruption with Negroponte's blatant lies and occasional delusion.

All this would be rather funny if not for the fact that the crime is being perpetrated on the most vulnerable people: the world's poor.

"Showing the kids one idea and trying to explain how to extrapolate this to other ideas, just doesn't work. It's just not how the kids are taught to learn... The teaching method used by the teachers is call and response or copying things from the board. Kids do not work in groups or independently to exercise critical thinking, but rather will only repeat or copy what is given to them by the teacher."

Interesting, a little, to observe that the laptops might actually be obstacles to getting the kids to learn and think differently. Gotta learn the tool, gotta use the tool, gotta use the tool to learn. One could just ask groups of kids to go outside and find something unfamiliar and then come back and talk about it.

@mephisto: Is Plan Ceibal a scam too?

Edmond Gullible asks:

"@mephisto: Is Plan Ceibal a scam too?"


Short answer: YES.

Definition of "scam": to swindle (someone) by means of a trick


The Scammer: Negroponte.

The Swindled: Poor kids / banana republics (he hasn't fooled a single developed nation. why?).

The Trick: pretending that you can hand the laptops, walk away and kids will get an education by pure miracle.

Hm, what about if we drop Peru, OLPC and Negroponte for a moment (no,.. not you Irv/me/Mephisto) and look at some _data_ closer to (the US) home:
It is really fascinating and shutters several myths that are going around...

It shocks me that OLPC Peru laptops are still running an early build of Sugar and haven't been updated to take advantage of the advances and bug fixes now available.

And to compound an already struggling project, we send an arrogant and insensitive person to "tell them how to do it right"

With an attitude like the one that screams out through the post, I am sure there was zero value in sending the author to Peru.

Totally agree with you.

Uruguay a corrupt banana republic? Where do you live?? In hell?

They might be wrong but they are not neither corrupt nor ignorant

hope you remain in hell for a while @ Mephisto

Ian is SO close to getting it right!

What Ian says was exactly the way this was supposed to be, as per OLPC's design, if maybe not official intention. I never used such strong words as his, but I can trust Ian to do what's necessary. "Arrogant and insensitive", well, it still sounds like too harsh (and Ian has considered /me/ harsh, so I guess we are game), but words sort of fit, maybe not for Jeff, but for the circumstances.

These volunteers were sent without being connected to the community. OLPC didn't answer repeated requests to help them get better involved, connected or prepared... Decisions made for them, were, well, appeared A&I, coming from parts of the towers of 1CC and other closed circles of experts. Actually it takes a lot of sticky-to-itiveness from folks like Jeff, Beth and a very few others to try at least to report on things and at least contribute to the community so we don't need make the same mistakes. I guess that many others, wisely, have decided to just consider this a one-liner in their resumes.

Most of them had their project fade away into nothingness anyway, a vacuum such that their locations don't make it that much beyond what OLPC News has reported on the Internship programs, or OLPCorps http://www.olpcnews.com/people/olpcorps/ Google reports 21,700 mentions of OLPCorps. All but 800 of those happened over a year ago...

Was Jeff unprepared? I guess no worse than *everybody else*. Actually, it is among the most credentialed that we see a lot of A&I. What I am most afraid of is silence, like this: http://wiki.laptop.org/go/User:Paulcommons . I'd rather have people share, and well, do their best to "make it right", and then risk making Ian upset. They're my kind, been there.

It sounds to me like any perceived/actual shortcomings in OLPC deployment projects should be categorized by root cause and developed into a larger "lessons learned" document with actionable recommendations to correct. No system is plug-n-play, especially an "educational systems collective" that relies upon technical support and process support from OLPC, and then Government and/or corporate support on top of that. Many organizations track OLPC deployment with lessons learned produced, but I believe OLPC needs to publish a comprehensive annual report that is mandatory reading for all volunteers and deployment team members. I'm new to the volunteer structure, but I have yet to see a document like what I'm envisioning.